In his youth Bob Toski was accustomed to hiking two miles of railroad track to caddy in Northampton, Mass. Today, as a renowned teaching pro, author, custom club entrepreneur, and Japanese TV celebrity, he is a walking golf conglomerate.
What those familiar with his teaching fame may not know or remember is that Toski was the pro tour's leading money winner with nearly $66,000 in 1954. Those were the days, he'll tell you, when many players slept ''three cots to a room.''
Since taking an early retirement from competition, he's spent countless hours on ''maniac hill,'' or the practice tee, teaching others how to play. The end result, as he describes it, has been the transfer of a lot of golfers from a state of distress to one of grace.
He's had success tutoring every stripe of player, from novice to tournament professional. Two of his star pupils - those who achieved the most given what they started with - are tour stars Judy Rankin and Tom Kite.
Not long ago this writer caught up to the dean of the Golf Digest instructional schools at the Middleton (Mass.) Golf Course, one of a number of courses that custom-fit Toski clubs. It was a cold winter day, and Toski, who now lives in Boca Raton, Fla., began the mid-morning interview in a quiet, sun-drenched corner of the clubhouse. At first his answers were almost inaudible, but as he warmed to the task, the volume increased and the delivery became more impassioned.
Toski explains that he can be a difficult and demanding teacher, who's not beyond verbally dressing down a pupil. ''I have to be tough to make people realize what the game is all about,'' he says. ''Many are called, but few are chosen. It's really a survival of your inner self to overcome the mental and physical problems that stand in the way of success. It's a test of your own character.''
And character, he's observed, is not always consistent. The same person who shows admirable patience in working out a million-dollar business deal can exhibit a complete lack of the same in golf.
Most people want to see quick and radical results.Toski considers it his job to set them straight, to establish from the beginning that golf never has been, and never will be a push-button sport; that you have to ''regress to progress.''
Very few students, he adds, ''progress as fast as they think they will, and very few of them want to persevere because the motiva-tional factor is one of simply pride, not money. That's what a student has to understand. He wants to walk around the clubhouse saying, 'Hey, folks, remember I was a 36 (handicap) and now I'm a 10. How much desire and time and effort does he want to put into being a 10?''
Not as much as required, judging by the stories Toski hears from golfers whose lesson-improved shots suddenly desert them.''I lost it'' they come crying to their mentor. ''You didn't lose it,'' he replies. ''You didn't keep it. It's not going to be that consistent. There wasn't any law written that said you're supposed to keep (what you've learned) four days.''
Since golf is a game of feel, Toski says individuals making slow progress shouldn't consider this a putdown of their intellect. As he tells his students, ''It's not that you're dumb. It's your muscles that are dumb. They must be trained.
''It's the same way in learning to play the piano. Just because you know the keys doesn't mean you can play like Paderewski. Only after lots of practice does one start running his hands smoothly up and down the keyboard. It takes feeling, a sense of rhythm, a sense of timing, and the same's true in golf.''
The idea of brute strength must be discarded and replaced with what Toski, a long-hitting 120 pounder, calls ''effortless power,'' which is generated through dexterity, flexibility, and timing.
''Power in golf is speed,'' he concludes. Unfortunately he finds mismatched clubs lead to much uncontrolled speed. Most golfers, he finds, swing clubs that are too heavy and too long. Toski compares the experience to that of driving a two-ton truck at 70 m.p.h. At that speed, a person would feel a lot more comfortable behind the wheel of a Porsche.
Seeing so many golfers using clubs unsuited to their games encouraged Toski to enter the very specialized custom club business. Even most fine clubs, he explains, are mass produced for the average golfer, then placed on the rack like an expensive suit. The club, like the suit, may need tailoring, which is why the Bob Toski Corporation takes 18 measurements in fitting clubs for the right lie, length, flex, weight, grip size, etc.
Toski says the custom clubs can help, but adds that's there's still no substitute for intelligent, supervised instruction. And even with all the new-fangled electronic equipment being used to analyze the swing, a good teacher is indispensable. ''No machine will ever take my place,'' he emphasizes. ''Machines and computers can be an aid, but they can't teach you to feel the golf swing. I can.''
Which is why he's such a popular instructor, and not just in this country, but also overseas. The Japanese, who love his philosophic bent, especially take to him and his series of televised golf lessons.