Former PGA player can’t get enough of high school hoops

COLUMBUS – Jerry McGee grabbed a basketball from the rack at Value City Arena and asked, “Can I shoot it?”

After getting unofficial approval, he took two dribbles and shot a 10-foot baseline jumper that rattled in.

“I’m done; retiring with a perfect record”

This happened between games at this weekend’s state basketball tournament. The arena was empty.

Had the place been filled, it probably wouldn’t have mattered much. McGee is used to playing in front of tons of people.

Just not basketball.

The 70-year-old McGee was one of the best golfers in the world in the 1970s. The New Lexington native played 16 years on the PGA Tour and a dozen more on the Champions Tour.

These days, however, basketball is his addiction. McGee, who currently lives in East Palestine, is a fixture at sectional, district and regional games for area teams. And, come each March, he travels to Columbus for the state tournament.

“A lot of coaches in the Youngstown area say I watch more games than they do,” McGee said. “I’ve always loved basketball.”

Truth be told, baseball was his first love growing up. Golf came about as a very fortunate coincidence. After his parents divorced, his mother married a club pro at a nine-hole course in New Lexington. That was his introduction to the sport.

“I won a couple of junior tournaments,” he said. “Not because I was really that good but because not too many kids played.

“When I was 14, some friends of mine took me to Firestone to watch the tournament, it was the Rubber City Open at that time. And from that day on I wanted to play professional golf.”

College coaches took notice of his play at New Lexington High School and he got dozens of scholarship offers before deciding to stay close to home and play at Ohio State.

“I went there and didn’t stay long,” McGee said. “It seemed like Ohio State was bigger than the county I was from.”

After leaving OSU, McGee became an assistant pro in Danville, Pa. He set a couple of course records there, was able to get a sponsor, and went to qualifying school in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

At that time, 16 players qualified for the tour after an eight-round tournament.

“I had the 16th spot locked up,” recalled McGee of his first year at Q school. “Jim Colbert had to par the last hole to tie me.

“He hit a driver and a wood to the front of the green (on the 440-yard, par-4), probably 55 to 60 feet from the hole up on a two-tier green. I know that he’s not going to two-putt so I know that I’ve got the spot.

“I was right. He didn’t two-putt. He made it! I missed by a shot and thought the world had come to an end because I didn’t think the sponsor would stay with me.”

Luckily for McGee, he did. The following year he easily made the tour.

McGee won four tournaments in his career. His best finish at a major was a tie for fifth at the 1972 Masters. He finished four shots behind winner Jack Nicklaus (2-under par) who was the only player to break par.

McGee won $6,200 for that fifth-place finish. By comparison, fifth place in last year’s Masters earned $352,000.

Was he born too early?

“I used to give my parents heck for that all the time,” McGee said. “I won two tournaments in 1979, finished 15th on the money list, and I won $167,000. That’s eighth place (in a single tournament) today.”

Remember that short jumper? That shouldn’t come as a surprise. McGee had a reputation as having one of the best short games on tour. At one time he held the record for going 378 holes without a three-putt.

“All that tells you is that I didn’t hit many greens,” McGee said with a laugh.

When asked what his favorite golf event is, he didn’t hesitate.

“There is no tournament like Augusta,” McGee said. “I always said The Masters was No. 1 and the next best tournament was like fourth or fifth. There’s just absolutely nothing like it. It’s almost like you’re walking … with the ghosts of the greats of the past.

“The beauty of it; the flowers … every flower you can imagine. The up and down of the golf course, the average fan can’t believe it. TV doesn’t do it justice. The 10th hole is straight down and the 18th hole is straight up.”

McGee’s love for sports was inherited by his children, Mike and Michelle. According to McGee, the two combined for 23 high-school letters.

Having been around sports his whole life, McGee was asked where the annual state basketball tournament fit in.

“The Masters week is No. 1 and this is No. 2,” McGee said, actually shedding a tear when speaking of it. “I just love the atmosphere. A lot of times after the games I’ll watch the team that is broken hearted, that missed, and then watch the other team when they’re going nuts receiving all their accolades. There’s so much emotion.”

He often comes off as a cantankerous man who speaks his mind and doesn’t care who agrees with him. But, as evidenced by his heartfelt sentiments regarding the state tournament, he is also quite sensitive. That was clearly evident when he spoke of Jill, his wife of 49 years.

“She’s a beautiful lady,” he said. “She’ll be 65 and she looks like she’s 40. She changed my entire life. When I left the house, I didn’t have to worry about anything. When I’d leave, she’d be the coach. She’d be the mom. She’d be the dad. She’d be the psychologist. She’d be everything; and she gave me the freedom to go hone my game and play against the best in the world.”

Jill stood by his side in 1999 when he was diagnosed with throat cancer due to smoking. It was touch and go for a while but he made it through. Despite that scare, McGee still smokes today.

“I quit five times last week,” he joked.

Not surprisingly both of his kids chose career paths which kept them close to sports. Michelle is the head of suite sales for the New York Jets. Mike runs all the businesses of Annika Sorenstam, arguably the best woman golfer in history. Mike is also married to Sorenstam.

So how does McGee feel about possibly being the second-best golfer in the family?

“I’ve had friends of mine bust me. ‘Have you ever played with her? You think you can beat her? I’d say if she ever beat me I’d throw my clubs in the lake. My friend said, ‘Have you picked out a lake yet?’

“I challenged her three and a half years ago. We were down in Florida and I told my buddies I challenged her. I told her I’d play for anything she wanted to play for, on whatever course she wanted to play, and from whatever tees she wanted to play from. She turned me down. She was afraid of me. Then we stuck around two more days and watched the birth of my granddaughter. She was well over nine months pregnant.”

McGee is a story teller. And he has plenty of them from his years on tour. One of his favorites was from The Masters when he was paired up with Tommy Bolt in his first year at that event.

“We get to the 13th hole, which is the dogleg par-5,” McGee said. “Tommy’s wife had been sick the entire week and he didn’t get to play a practice round. Tommy had a horrible temper. He was probably known for his temper as much as anything else.

“He hit a perfect drive around the corner. There was this old caddie there that always caddied at The Masters. He asked his caddie, the guy’s name was Moses, ‘What do I have up there?’ Moses says, ‘I don’t know Mr. Bolt, but Mr. Snead hit him a 4-wood up there’.

“Tommy pulls out the 4-wood. He hits this gorgeous looking shot and all you could see was the ball coming down on the flag. Then, splash, right in the creek. He says to Moses, after a few cuss words, ‘Where did Mr. Snead hit it?’ Moses says, ‘Mr. Snead hit it in the water too’. I went up the right side of the fairway and I was dying. I couldn’t laugh hard enough.”

McGee has no regrets in looking back at his life. He knows most people would have traded places with him in a heartbeat.

“I was so lucky,” he said. “I’ve gone to places, met people, that I would never had the opportunity to without the game of golf.”