PGA Professional Markel remembered as 'ambassador for golf'

By Mike McGovern
Published on

READING, Pa. -- Dave Rupp graduated from Lehigh University on a Sunday in 1973 and showed up for work the next day at the Berkshire Country Club, where he'd been hired as an assistant pro.

While first days on the job tend to be chaotic, nerve wracking and overwhelming, Rupp's turned out to be memorable.

"I got the best advice on my first day," he said. "Kill 'em with kindness."

Warren Bottke came to the Berkshire in 1977 after several years at Brookside Country Club in Pottstown. His job as an assistant pro was a step up: a larger membership in a bigger city with more of an opportunity to teach.

Bottke got similar advice: "Be nice. No matter what, it's important to be nice."

You've got to admit, those things sound like they were created by Hallmark: trite, hokey and obvious.

Until you consider the source: John Markel lived his life and did his job by never wavering from those values and ideals he stressed to others. He didn't just talk about killing 'em with kindness and being nice; he embodied those characteristics, demonstrating them on a daily basis -- to his assistants, to club members and even to a then-young reporter, who benefited from his wealth of knowledge and enjoyed his sense of humor.

Markel, the longtime head pro at the Berkshire CC and a legend in Berks County golf, passed away Feb. 1 at the age of 94. There's no one who knew him, be it a dear friend or a casual acquaintance, who isn't saddened by the loss.

"I liken him to (former Boston Red Sox great) Charlie Wagner," said Rupp, who succeeded Markel as Berkshire head pro in the mid-'80s and has owned Pagoda Golf Area in Sinking Spring since 1993. "He's the greatest guy you'd ever want to meet."

Markel was a real gentleman, universally liked and admired. He was genuine, down to earth and easygoing, blessed with a smile and a sense of optimism that was infectious. He seemed to be one of those guys who never had a bad day.

"John was a real ambassador for golf," Bottke said. "He was a great teacher; he treated people with the utmost dignity and the highest respect. When he'd shake hands with people and look them in the eye, they felt like they were the most important person in (John's) life at that moment. Those are things I still live by today."

And things he continues to pass on to others.

Bottke, based at the Abacoa Golf Club in Jupiter, Fla., is one of the game's most renowned instructors. He has been named one of Florida's top teachers by Golf Digest 14 times since 2001, as well as South Florida's PGA Professional of the Year in 2015. He was the recipient of the PGA of America's Horton Smith Award in 2005 for "outstanding and continuing contributions to PGA education" and in 1989 became the youngest to achieve Master Professional status, a rigorous six-year program that is the PGA's highest membership classification.

"I teach a lot of young apprentices through the PGA education program, and people ask me all the time, 'Where did you get your interpersonal skills?' " Bottke said. "Well, I learned a lot of that from John; he taught me quite a few things about teaching the game."

The difference between teaching the game, then and now, is on par with the difference between Atari and PlayStation 4, "Pong" and "Grand Theft Auto."

About the only technology at Markel's disposal was his keenly trained eye. He abided by Ben Hogan's mantra that the secret to a sound golf swing was "in the dirt," which meant his tips were often based on the divot left behind.

These days, a TrackMan 3D dual radar launch monitor instantly can determine spin rate, launch angle, carry, ball speed, club speed, dynamic loft, attack angle, club path and face angle -- each aspect of the swing represented by a different number.

"So you can get all wild with the numbers," Bottke said, "but you can't just focus on technology at the expense of your relationship with the student. You need that one-on-one (connection)."

Bottke's prides himself on providing it, which is another way he's keeping Markel's legacy alive.

"John was like an old-school doctor (as an instructor)," Bottke said. "He was like the doctor who made house calls. He treated every member like one of his patients, and he had a great bedside manner, if you know what I mean."

Markel literally grew up at the Berkshire. His father, Harry, became an assistant pro in 1922, when John was 1.

In 1931, Harry moved up to head pro, where he remained until retiring in 1968. John, who had been an assistant pro since 1964, took over for his dad.

Working for John Markel was like taking a master class.

As Rupp said at the time of Markel's retirement in 1986: "There were always a couple of ways to do things, but John's way was the right way. There was no better experience you could have to prepare for your own job."

And even though Markel was the boss, he was also a team player, never asking his assistants to do anything he wouldn't, and that included sweeping the pro shop floor, hauling bags out of car trunks or cleaning toilets.

"He didn't teach you by telling you what to do," Rupp said. "He taught you by example, by doing things."

Although Markel was an accomplished player (see box) and a fierce competitor, you'd never know it, given his relaxed, carefree demeanor.

"He liked to compete he had the best short game around," Rupp said. "But he was humble his humility. He never chased fame or recognition."

But he earned it, nonetheless.

"He was a father figure to me, certainly," Rupp said. "My career, my success is all related to him.

"There just weren't too many people around like John Markel."

No one who knew him would disagree.

This article was written by Mike McGovern from Reading Eagle, Pa. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.