Thursday, May 5, 2016

In this undated photograph, George Thomas (right) is seen giving a golf lesson. Thomas, a respected local teaching golf pro, passed away Saturday. (Ryan Conrad)

Local golf pro George Thomas passed away 12/1/2012. (Ryan Conrad)

Undated file photograph of local golf pro George Thomas. (UnKnown)

Truth Photo By Steve Krah New hobby: George Thomas, the 83-year-old former pro at Elcona Country Club and golf coach at Notre Dame, is planning to do something he has done little of in 43 years of living on East Lake in Elkhart ó fishing. July 17, 2008. (AP)

George Thomas Former golf pro for Elcona Country Club and head coach for golf at Notre Dame. (AP)
Thomas used golf to form lifelong friendships

Posted on Dec. 4, 2012 at 12:00 a.m. | Updated on Dec. 4, 2012 at 5:32 a.m.

George Thomas may have been an only child.

But he had some good friends that were just like brothers.

Some friends he made while he was a high school and college athlete, others while serving the U.S. during World War II and still others in his 47 years as a golf professional.

Thomas, who had been a standout football player at Michigan City Elston High School and Purdue University, served as head golf pro at Elcona Country Club in Elkhart for 28 years after beginning his career at Long Beach Country Club in Michigan City, where he gave lessons to then-University of Notre Dame football coach Frank Leahy.

Decades later, Thomas spent 13 seasons as head golf coach at Notre Dame.

Among the “brothers” to the man who died Saturday at 87 were former Fighting Irish football coaches Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz.

“George and I were very close,” said Parseghian Monday from his winter home in Florida.

Parseghian befriended Thomas soon after coming to coach at ND in 1964.

“I remember walking into the Elcona pro shop and we just hit it off,” said Parseghian. “He was Lebanese and I was Armenian. I told him he could have the rug concession.”

The relationship continued right up until the present day when the two men were known to speak on the phone two or three times per week.

“Just two weeks ago, he had a driver bring him to the house (in Granger) and we watched football together,” said Parseghian. “We had a lot of common interests.”

When Holtz went to work under the Golden Dome, he became one of Thomas’ golf pupils — he made his first hole-in-one at Elcona while with Thomas — and played many a round and swapped many a story while teaming up with Ara to play George and his guest.

“When you spend that much time with someone, you get to know them,” said Holtz Monday from his Florida home. “I felt blessed to be his friend for 25 years. He was a great teacher, great family man and a great person. I cannot say enough good things about him.

“That community lost one great human being. I lost a true friend.”

Thomas also shared a bond for some 40 years with Ken “Hawk” Harrelson, the former major league baseball player and pro golfer. Harrelson, the Chicago White Sox broadcaster and Granger resident, made it a point to come see Thomas as his health was declining and he moved into assisted living.

Thomas was a standout player who took part in the U.S. Open when he was the focus of a Sports Illustrated story (A Nobody At The Open, June 13, 1966) and won a myriad of golf matches.

The PGA Master Professional, who was a devotee of the teachings of Ben Hogan and Harvey Penick, also had an impact on a great many golfers and people who made their living around the game.

The Smith family of Rochester has long been members at Elcona and boys Chris and Todd played junior golf with David and Joe Thomas. Chris went on to the PGA Tour and Todd to the head pro and part ownership of Rock Hollow Golf Club in Peru.

“Our family had great memories at Elcona and in Elkhart with the Thomas family,” said Todd Smith. “Mr. Thomas was very instrumental for the Smith family in the passion we have for golf. He was a great man and a great mentor and we’re going to miss him very much.”

Smith said George had that knack of making everyone feel welcome and important.

“He always had time for everybody,” said Smith. “It was a true gift that he had. He made you feel like a million bucks. Whether you could hit the ball 300 yards or 30 yards, he treated you like you were Jack Nicklaus.”

But Thomas was also a straight shooter and hard worker.

Tom Zimmerman was course superintendent at Elcona for 38 years, including all 28 of the Thomas era. Doug Booth was an assistant for Thomas in 1974-75.

Both Zimmerman and Booth got a chance to see the drive of Thomas - and not just with a club in his hand.

“George was always upfront,” said Zimmerman. “He didn’t hold any emotions back. What you saw is what you got. He expected the best out of people. If you can make it with George, you are going to make it in the business. He was tough.”

A fierce competitor on the course — “he would refuse to lose” — Thomas was just as competitive as a businessman.

“Sometimes he would call me in the middle of the night with ways to make Elcona better,” said Zimmerman. “He was a great team player and he was a leader.”

Booth, who is now head pro/part owner at Deer Track Golf Club in Auburn, likened his first few months of working for Thomas to playing basketball for Bob Knight.

“I got thrown out of practice everyday,” said Booth. “He was really hard on me. But George became like a father to me. I would never have done the things in golf in my life without the guy.

“We were in the service business and we put those people first. With each passing day, I had that much more respect for him. He was a special, special guy.”

John Fischer first met Thomas when competing against him back in the late 1980’s when Fischer was head pro at Four Lakes Country Club in Adamsville, Mich.

Fischer considered it a very classy move to come out and personally congratulate him when he was named to his current position as head pro at Christiana Creek Country Club in Elkhart.

“I have nothing but great things to say about him,” said Fischer.