LUMBERTON — Phil Wallace had to pull out his calculator.
The 67-year-old Lumberton native was trying to figure out the number of golfers he’s worked with over his 43 years as a PGA golf professional.
“It’s over 10,000 golfers,” said Wallace, who currently works as the head professional at River Bend YMCA Golf Course just outside of Shelby.
“It’s unreal. And it’s probably more than that.”
With each number, there’s a name. It’s impossible for Wallace to remember all of them, but the East Carolina alum never grows tired of adding to the list.
It’s that element of helping young people grow on and off the golf course that continues to drive Wallace, who will be inducted into the Cleveland County Sports Hall of Fame at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ sports banquet on May 9 at Shelby City Park.
“I’m absolutely honored and a little surprised,” he said. “Pleased for all of the team members and people that have been around me that have helped youth golf — that’s where I’ve put my emphasis through the years.
“It’s fun to help the young people not only become better golfers, but hopefully learn life skills along the way.”
It’s a journey that started in Robeson County at Pinecrest Country Club in Lumberton.
Love at first sight
From the time he was a 13-year-old youngster, Phil Wallace knew his life and golf would forever be entwined.
“I fell in love with golf when I first started playing at (age) 13 at Pinecrest,” he said. “My dad used to tell people I went to the golf course when I was 13 and never came back. I was hooked and it was love at first sight.”
After more than 50 years of playing golf, Wallace still thinks about his start and the people who inspired him to continue learning about the game.
Among them are Nicky McKeithan, the late Horace Stacy, the club professional at the time, Cy Williams, and Leonard Thompson, who has played in more than 1,000 professional golf tournaments and won six times.
McKeithan, who played college football at Duke University and was drafted to play in the NFL, took up golf late, but quickly became the best amateur player for many years in Robeson County.
“I just wanted to be at the golf course playing, trying to learn all I could,” Wallace said. “Nicky McKeithan was kind of the role model we watched at the golf course. … Leonard Thompson was the best player in the area and Horace Stacy had a big part in supporting youth golf. I knew that was what I wanted to do early on.”
Williams, who spent 47 years as the head pro and superintendent at Pinecrest, also inspired Wallace to follow golf’s path.
“If I needed golf balls or anything, (Williams) always made sure you had it and he would, sometimes, give you what I call tough love,” Wallace said with a laugh.
“But he supported us. The club saw to it that the junior golfers could play. It was nothing to play 54 holes a day back then. And we walked them all.”
Being a pro
As a PGA head golf professional, Phil Wallace has several duties that include dealing with superintendents, running the business side with operating a golf shop, giving golf lessons and learning about the latest trends in golf equipment and brands.
Wallace’s journey as a head pro started at Fairmont Golf Club, formerly known as Flag Tree, in the early 1970s. He spent a total of nine years working in Robeson County — spending seven of those in the mid-1990s through early 2000s — before working in South Carolina and spending 25 years in Shelby.
And there’s no question about what he enjoys most about his job. It’s the part of his job that doesn’t feel like a job at all — teaching young golfers.
“I really think they keep me young,” he said. “They’ve helped me more than I’ve helped them. I enjoy just watching young people work on their game and their school work. Etiquette being a big part of the game, we have those expectations for the kids.
“I enjoy watching people improve. It’s never like a job when I’m working with a young person, watching them enjoy it and trying to help shape their lives. The game naturally teaches life skills. It’s just part of who I am.”
Throughout his years as a teacher and observer, Wallace has crossed paths with numerous golfers who went on to have successful careers on the golf course and beyond.
He’s found a common trait in all of those people.
“The people I’ve worked with, they got their success because they worked at it,” he said. “If a person wants to be successful at competitive golf, work overtime. If you don’t put in extra time, you probably won’t get the extra lift forward.”
When reflecting on some of the golfers he’s helped — or simply watched — during his journey, Wallace said a few immediately come to mind.
Tee Burton, a former All-American at North Carolina who is in his 17th season as the golf coach at Gardner-Webb University, is one of those names.
“I get to see him on a daily basis,” Wallace said.
For Burton, who started playing golf at River Bend when he was 7 years old, it was Wallace’s accessibility that helped set him apart as a teacher.
“If you needed help you knew where to find it,” Burton said. “(Phil) certainly helped us all with golf and with growing up. That’s the great thing about golf, it teaches you other things. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing without him.
“He treats everybody the same and everybody that listens to him gets better. To be honest with you, growing up, I’m not sure I ever went to the golf course when he wasn’t there. That’s what he enjoyed doing, where he wanted to be.”
Another name that comes to mind is William McGirt, a Fairmont native who is currently in his seventh season on the PGA Tour. Though he never had the chance to teach McGirt, Wallace said it was “inspiring” to watch a hard-working golfer from Robeson County grind his way to earning a spot on the Tour.
“I was not his teacher, but I was there to have a pair of eyes on him at times,” Wallace said. “It has nothing to do with me, but having the opportunity to watch William, I knew he had something special. … He always had a look of determination.
“Having the opportunity to watch someone like him and grow up and watch someone like Leonard Thompson — those are some people that have inspired me.”
Not done yet
Wallace has accomplished a lot during his time as a PGA professional, but even as he prepares for his induction into the Cleveland County Sports Hall of Fame, he’s adamant about continuing to help the game of golf grow.
It starts with The First Tee of Cleveland County, whose mission is to impact the lives of young people by providing educational programs that build character, instill life-enhancing values and promote healthy living choices through the game of golf.
The Life Skills experience within the program includes instruction in the classroom and on the course that focuses on instilling the program’s nine core values — honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy and judgment.
“I want to see it in every elementary school here and every area I can,” Wallace said. “It’s in more schools than people realize. That’s something that I want to continue to support.”
Wallace also wants courses across the nation to become more accessible for junior golfers.
“Golf courses should find time to allow young people to play with no or low fees and create it where clubs are available,” he said. “I believe access to the golf course is the No. 1 thing that will help young people want to play the game.
“If a child comes out and learns to handle themselves on the golf course, work on their short game and putting for 30 minutes, we give them a free bag of range balls. We give them access. We want to encourage other golf courses to make the course available for young people so they can fall in love with the game.”
And as he looks back on his journey, Wallace can only smile as he thinks about the kids along the way and the support from his family throughout the years.
“My family has absolutely been a big part of what I’ve done. I can’t thank my son, Phillip, and my wife, Kathy, enough for the support,” he said.
“I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I’ve never worked with a child and felt like it was work. It’s an honor giving others an opportunity to love the game.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.