First, we lost golf icon Billy Casper 19 months ago. Then, Sept. 25, Arnold Palmer left his army. Now, Don Collett, a Jordan High School graduate who created the Golf Hall of Fame when it was located in Pinehurst, North Carolina, has joined them.
Collett, 90, died Oct. 25 and funeral services are planned Thursday in San Diego.
Collett never established the résumé of Casper or Palmer, but he knew them well and in his realm, he had a lofty place. While in the Navy as a teen, Collett became best friends with other men of the Navy, Casper and Gene Littler. They golfed themselves into the sunset of their lives.
Both Casper and Littler made it to the Hall of Fame. Collett , who created the Hall, was instrumental in introducing Casper to the LDS faith, a conversion that changed his life while both were living in San Diego. Collett was a lifetime member of the PGA of America and outstanding player, teacher, author and course developer.
Collett was a uniquely gifted athlete with the heart of an ambassador, just like his close friend Billy. They were San Diegans to the core.
In my life, I had the honor of golfing with both men. Collett first, then Casper. They were made of the same ilk. They were positive, upbeat, kind, friendly and respectful men who saw their roles as a great responsibility. They were from our country’s Greatest Generation, both veterans of World War II and the Korean conflict.
If you’re in San Diego and go to Coronado Island, you’ll see a beautiful golf course by the bay. Collett became its first head professional. It became a playground for Navy bigwigs, admirals and commanders.
The San Diego Union recalls a story of the first Coronado Golf Club customer, World War II hero Rear Adm. Max Leslie, buying a $14 monthly ticket. One day an angry Leslie came to Collett ticked off because people were picnicking on the 17th fairway that was next to the ocean bay.
“Admiral Leslie came stormin’ into the clubhouse and he was really upset,” Collett recalled in 2007.
Collett could do nothing to placate Leslie because Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon were shooting a scene on the beach for “Some Like it Hot.”
“They only played 16 holes,” Collett said with a laugh.
Remember Torrey Pines, a U.S. Open venue in San Diego? When it opened in June 1957, the first honorary foursome included Collett, and major winners Casper, Littler, Paul Runyan, Ralph Guldhal and Olin Dutra.
When Collett designed and oversaw construction of the Hall of Fame at Pinehurst, his initial inductees included Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Gene Sarazen and Patty Berg.
Collett was a player. He qualified for three majors. He had great hands and was one of the best chippers I’ve ever seen.
One of his sons, Rod, was my best friend, a colleague in the newspaper business who worked at the Deseret News then the Daily Herald in Provo. We both began our Daily Herald careers in the spring of 1978. A fellow sportswriter, Rod got me hooked on golf and we were fishing buddies until he passed in 2000.
Don married his high school sweetheart Verla, who survives him and lives in San Diego. She was the perfect golf wife for Don and his games and projects.
This is a time to salute one of our departed, a former resident of Sandy and Orem, a child of a remarkable part of our American heritage. They don’t make guys like this anymore and we are losing these veterans every single day.
May Don rest in peace.
I envision Don and Billy finding a friendly round somewhere, somehow.