By MICHAEL GRAFF
The new head teaching pro at Jimmy Mac’s Golf Range in Winston-Salem can barely hold a golf club some days. Standing on the practice mat, he dangles a sand wedge in his left hand, trying to just get a feel. It was only last month, he says, that he took a swing and lost his grip during his follow-through, flinging the club and hitting himself in the head. He laughs when he tells the story.
Nothing’s ever been all that easy for Britt Tuttle. But nothing’s ever gotten him all that down, either. Last year, just before he turned 50, doctors discovered a benign tumor in his neck. It was the third time in his life he had been diagnosed with cancer. A surgery to remove the tumor damaged nerves in his left arm. After a lifetime of playing golf, including two appearances in PGA events, Tuttle couldn’t even hold a putter. But there’s one thing no tumor has ever seemed to be able to strip him of – his desire to improve.
So, after his final lesson of the day, Tuttle finds his grip on the sand wedge – the only club he can hit thus far – and lines up a ball on the mat. “I’ve been able to get up to about 60 yards with this,” he says. “Let’s see how it is today.”
Sixty yards. That’s all. That’s the goal today. And Tuttle, who was the first player to tee off at the 1990 U.S. Open, starts another backswing and comes forward.
There’s very little that might stop Tuttle from smiling. In 1982, when he was diagnosed Hodgkin’s Disease at 22 years old, the optimistic Tuttle promised his oncologist that he’d put the doctor’s name on his golf bag when he made it to the PGA Tour. In 2009, after he developed melanoma on his leg and had it removed, he started pointing his finger to people and saying, in his light, instructor’s tone, “Make sure you wear sunscreen.”
Last year really could have gotten to him, though. First, in the spring, he had the tumor removed from his neck and woke up without feeling in his left arm. Then, doctors at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center removed nerves from other places in his body and replaced the damaged ones. Then, in the summer, he lost his job as the head professional and general manager at Salem Glen Golf and Country Club in Clemmons.
But he never lost perspective.
“I was at physical therapy, and there was a guy there who didn’t have any fingers,” Tuttle says. “I thought, ‘At least I can grip a club.’ ”
So he kept gripping and swinging. He started working out at the YMCA in King, where he lives, and progress continued. Then, Jimmy McMullen Jr., a PGA professional and the owner of Jimmy Mac’s, called looking for a PGA teaching professional to take over the teaching side of the golf range.
“I care about golf, and I love being around golf and telling stories,” Tuttle says, sitting in a chair in his office, with three tubes of sunscreen resting on the windowsill behind him. “I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. I worked with a guy one time who asked me, ‘Do you have to be in such a good mood all the time?’ I guess it’s because I’m always smiling and joking.”
Tuttle’s outlook probably starts with his father, but there’s also a little Lee Trevino, a little Larry Ziegler, a little Hale Irwin, and even some Roger Maris in his personality makeup.
It was his dad who, in the late 1960s, took him down the road from their home in Rockingham County to the Greater Greensboro Open. There, the young Tuttle spotted Trevino walking around the course with an unstoppable grin. “I guess I just liked people who were smiling and having fun, no matter what,” he says.
Tuttle knew he wanted to be a golfer then, and he never wanted to settle for anything else. When he defeated Hodgkin’s, he came back a stronger golfer. He started playing on mini-tours near Pinehurst. Looking for a roommate to split rent with him, Tuttle approached another young golfer named Kevin Maris. Tuttle and Maris were about the same age, both born about a year before Maris’s father, Roger, hit 61 home runs for the Yankees in 1961. Over the next few years, Tuttle and Kevin Maris became close friends, and Tuttle spent a winter living with the Maris family in Florida while trying to hone his golf game.
He got better. And in 1990, Tuttle earned a spot in the U.S. Open at Medinah. He missed the cut in the tournament but had a few memorable experiences: He was the first player to tee off on Thursday to open the tournament; and he played a practice round with Irwin, who wound up winning the event.
Tuttle had a similarly gratifying week in 1992 when he qualified for the Doral Ryder Open. He started the first round with three straight birdies but missed the cut again. That he never made it to the weekend in either of his brushes in top-tier golf doesn’t bother Tuttle a bit.
“It was sure nice to be there,” he says.
Tuttle got married in 1993, to a nurse from Wake Baptist, in the chapel at the hospital. And he kept golfing for money. He spent nine years at Country Club Golf Center in Lewisville, while playing in PGA Carolinas Section events. He left there in 2006 for Salem Glen, where he started as a teaching pro, before moving up to head professional, before he found his latest tumor, before his position at the course was cut, and before he could hit a sand wedge 60 yards again.
“As long as I was still breathing,” he says, “I was going to keep going.”
A year ago, he couldn’t hold the club. Six months ago, he couldn’t chip. A month ago, he had the case of the club flying out of his hand and hitting him in the head.
“Things happen to me that don’t happen to normal people,” Tuttle says, laughing as he stands on the practice mat.
In all those years he was on the cusp of becoming a PGA Tour professional, Tuttle says he could hit a sand wedge about 110 yards. But that’s not the goal today. The goal today is 60.
And just before nightfall at Jimmy Mac’s Golf Range in Winston-Salem, the new teaching pro, who has beaten cancer three times, follows through on another swing. The ball carries 75 yards.
“See that? That’s what I’m saying,” he says. “Every day, it gets a little better.”