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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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An appreciation for greatness: Remembering Spokane golf legend Al Mengert

Spokane golfer Al Mengert, who also played football at Gonzaga Prep, tied for ninth at the 1958 Masters Tournament.  (Spokesman-Review archive)
Spokane golfer Al Mengert, who also played football at Gonzaga Prep, tied for ninth at the 1958 Masters Tournament. (Spokesman-Review archive)
By Thomas Mengert For The Spokesman-Review

Alfred John Mengert harbored a lifelong appreciation for greatness wherever he found it.

He enjoyed words and knew their value. He held in esteem classic eloquence and balance whether in the Western art he collected or in the poise and accuracy that makes a great golf shot contribute to a winning score in tournament play. He was fond of quoting from the final address of General Douglas McArthur to the graduating class at West Point in 1962, the famous “shadows are lengthening” speech.

My father’s own days lengthened to the very day before what would have been his 92nd birthday when he left us to rejoin his beautiful wife Donna, formerly Donna Jacobsen, in heaven, a reunion that he had long anticipated and that his Catholic faith had given him the strength to embrace. After a short illness, he fought his way back through rehabilitation to return home for three days coinciding with the Feast of Easter. It was to be his final victory.

My father had known many victories in his life and the price exacted through practice and dedication to attain them. His career in golf has been celebrated and was in many ways unparalleled in its variety and the diverse areas of his accomplishments: tournament play, both national (27 majors) and regional, golf club design, hosting major championships at Oakland Hills, and finally founding Legend Trail Golf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he was to spend his retirement years. Each of these arenas added to the corona of achievement that will keep my father’s name alive and his memory fresh, particularly in his hometown of Spokane, where it all began.

He first played in the Spokane City Championship at the age of 12 in 1941. Seven years later at the age of 19 he won his first Spokane City title in 1948. He went on the following year on to complete a string of city victories that continued in 1949 and 1950.

My parents were teen sweethearts who lived right across the street from each other only a few blocks up the hill from Downriver Golf Course where my dad learned to play from his father, Otto Mengert, himself once the Spokane city champion. By the time Dad graduated from Gonzaga Prep to go to Stanford, he had already won two national junior golf titles.

The Korean War intervened in 1951, and he entered the Air Force and was stationed in Great Falls, Montana. While serving there he was invited to play in what was to be his first of eight invitations to the Masters in Augusta, an experience that he was later able to celebrate in a recently published golf memoir.

By 1952 Al Mengert was named the top amateur golfer in America, and he turned pro the same year after winning the Pacific Northwest Open and the Mexican Amateur Title. It was an honor for a young man from the Northwest to take his first pro job at the famous Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, New York, under Claude Harmon. After this short apprenticeship as a home professional, he took a job as head pro at Echo Lake Country Club in New Jersey. Dad soon made a name for himself there by winning the New Jersey State Open in 1957, 1958 and 1960. He also won the New Jersey PGA, the Metropolitan Open and the Arizona Open in 1960. His achievements in the New York metro area led to an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Where this string of Eastern victories might have led is open to speculation, but since life was always more than a string of titles the lure of the West was perhaps the better choice (it certainly made our lives as a family more exciting). After New Jersey, Dad moved his young family to Arizona where he took a winter job at Moon Valley Country Club in Phoenix and a summer job at the venerable Old Warson Country Club in St. Louis, Missouri.

The life of the golf professional often includes a certain degree of mobility and our family embraced travel and new experiences. A trip to play in Northern California and his first sight of Lake Tahoe brought us to the El Dorado Royal Country Club at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, a short distance from Sacramento in the fabled Gold Rush country, the gateway to Nevada and the Comstock Lode. Our circumnavigation of the country finally brought us back to Washington state in 1965 when we moved to Lake Steilacoom with Dad as head pro at the Tacoma Golf and Country Club, one of the oldest clubs in America.

Dad’s stature as a competitor soon reached new heights. He was the winner of the Washington State Open in 1963, 1964, and 1965 . He also won the Northern California PGA Championship and the British Columbia Open in 1965. Returning to Spokane in the summer, Dad won the tournament title in the Lilac City in 1963 and 1966. He also won the Northwest Open in 1966 and led in the first round of the 1966 U.S. Open that was held at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. Dad went on to win the Pacific Northwest PGA Championship in 1968 and 1969 and the Washington State Open for the fourth time in 1971.

My father had now achieved the stature to return east to become director of golf at the prestigious Oakland Hills Country Club in Birmingham, Michigan, where he remained until retiring to Arizona. During his tenure at Oakland Hills he hosted the PGA, U.S. Open, and U.S. Senior Open.

In the years following his retirement Dad started his own golf wedge company and founded Legend Trail Golf Club in Scottsdale, managing every aspect of its construction, even lending his personal logo to the club and naming the parkway leading to the course.

Legend Trail was the partial realization of a long-held plan that my father had entertained for a course to be called Famous Fairways that would have replicated, as far as possible, the top eighteen golf holes in the world. Truly creative spirits dream in advance of what is possible to achieve in a single life. Turning from sport to collecting Western art brought a new dimension into my parents’ lives.

Dad always enjoyed the term, “Classic.” It represented for him the best, most elegant and representative example of something worthy of esteem. He enjoyed the prospect of picking out from what was already excellent in any collection the best of the very best. He applied this principle in selecting paintings for his collection of Western art and above all else in his attitude to his chosen profession, the game of golf that teaches patience and determination. To these traits Dad added a deeply religious attitude to life that he once embodied in a collection of sayings he desired to include in a book entitled, “This Business of Life.” Even in his last years, he had projects in mind that filled his life with enthusiasm and purpose.

One of these was an instructional book to be entitled, “The Right Way to Play Golf.” Distilled out of his many years of observation and reflection on the best swings of the greatest players in the game, my father felt that the key to good golf was to free up the right side of the body and to use the full power generated in the upper body to achieve the maximum distance and accuracy. In order to achieve this, he recommended a simple baseball style grip and he envisioned an exercise club that would be simple and useful to all players as they honed their own perfect swing.

His demise prevented the realization of these dreams. However, he was able to publish a retrospective of his career in a short volume recounting his first Masters experience, when as a young soldier he took an adventurous trip across the country and back to compete with the greatest golfers in America. He hoped that his account would inspire young players to fulfill their most ardent dreams and to recall the names of former icons of the game like Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen, Walter Hagan and Sam Snead.

The other preoccupations of my father during his last years were his devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary of Fatima and his devotion to the Holy Cross, both as seen through the lens of his Catholic faith. His last years were a continual ascent along the path to the crucifixion. I thought about these things as I walked along a golden beach on the Oregon Coast after he left us. It was that time of day when the light on the waves for as far as one can see creates an ocean of silver from the gray-green waters. The wind coming in made it hard to walk back home, and I thought how easy it is to walk south with the wind, but to return against a stern northerly is another matter. I was bent forward looking down at the golden sands at my feet thinking of Dad’s final days. I thought about how hard my father had worked in his last weeks to return to his familiar home and what a triumph that homecoming had been for him, like when he saluted the cheering crowd with a raised putter at the amphitheater of the 18th green at the Olympic Club in San Francisco in 1966, the day he led the U.S. Open.

On the final day of his life, he took his last steps along that road that leads to eternity. The image of his walker will always recall for us the last steps that he took on earth as he abandoned it for the freedom that he once knew when he used to stride confidently down the fairways or crossed a green setting record after record in his career. The shackles of the years must have seemed at that final moment to fall away. The bright water of his swimming pool that day may have recalled his baptism into eternal life. The God who has assured us that He makes all things new must have greeted him warmly as he left behind all that he had known and loved on earth to reach what he had long desired and had now found: a home with God in a place where every tear will be dried, every sorrow be put to rest, and all questions answered. This was the classic legacy that he left his friends and family. People used to always say to me, “Oh, your dad is Al Mengert; what a great guy!” Even on short acquaintance, these people were able to discern what we who loved him had always known.

About the author: Thomas Mengert is the oldest of the four children of Al and Donna Mengert. Their parents called them the four tees, Thomas, Terry, Tana, and Trayce. He is the author of 15 books, including the seven volumes of “The Confessions of Sherlock Holmes,” a philosophical retelling of the Sherlock Holmes saga available on Amazon.

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