Swingman: Remembering Manuel de la Torre

Manuel de la Torre was a quiet legend who fled his native Spain, then devoted his life to teaching golf in Milwaukee.

Manuel de la Torre (right) at the 1942 NCAA tournament. Photo courtesy of Northwestern Athletics.
Manuel de la Torre (right) at the 1942 NCAA
tournament. Photo courtesy of Northwestern Athletics.
It was three decades ago, a summer day in the mid-1980s, when Sherri Steinhauer first met Manuel de la Torre. Steinhauer, a Madison native, was just beginning a professional golf career that would include eight LPGA Tour titles, including two major championships. She was fast improving and needed an elite instructor.

“Who do you suggest?” Steinhauer asked her then-teacher, Allan Mitchell.

“Manuel de la Torre,” Mitchell replied.

De la Torre, the longtime head professional at Milwaukee Country Club (MCC), was already a legend in Wisconsin golf, revered nationally by passionate followers of the game for his deceptively simple swing philosophy. He was the PGA of America’s first Teacher of the Year when the award was inaugurated in 1986, and an early inductee into the prestigious World Golf Teachers Hall of Fame.

De la Torre – who died in April, at 94 – agreed to see Steinhauer. After carefully observing her swing, he asked, “How long do you want to play golf?”

“Why, all my life,” Steinhauer said.

“Not with that swing,” de la Torre said. Steinhauer had a pronounced “reverse C” in her through swing, a likely trigger for future back problems.

When the lesson was over, Steinhauer said, “How much do I owe you?”

De la Torre said, “You’re a professional?”

“Yes, I am.”

“You owe me nothing.”

In 1994, when Steinhauer, a touring pro and still de la Torre’s student, won the Sprint Championship in Daytona Beach, she called her instructor and asked if he had seen it on TV. He had. Even before congratulating her, de la Torre pointed out something in her swing that needed work.

“That was Manuel,” she says. Proud, principled, encouraging – a man who devoted his life to the golf swing.

I grew up around golf and introduced my son, Quinn, to the game as soon as he could walk. Quinn became an accomplished junior golfer, and eventually worked a summer as a golf shop intern at MCC, spending
many memorable hours with Manuel de la Torre. I had wanted to meet de la Torre since, as a boy in the late 1960s, I read about him in George Plimpton’s classic golf book, The Bogey Man. My interest remained throughout my four decades as a journalist and grew stronger once my son interned at his golf course and found him to be a marvelous man and great character. In late March of this year, reading a new book about another famed golf instructor, Harvey Penick, finally lit a fire under me to interview him. I called Skip Simonds, who replaced de la Torre as head pro at MCC in 1996, when Manuel assumed emeritus status: Might an interview be possible? De la Torre turned 94 last October, and I knew a 2014 stroke had slowed him.

Simonds said he had seen Manuel – who was living in a Milwaukee-area retirement home – a few days earlier, and he’d slipped considerably. He gave me a phone number. Next I sent a note to Steinhauer, wondering if she knew how her friend was doing.

Sherri wrote back: “He’s happy to talk, but only if it’s over the phone. Please don’t wait too long. I love this man so much.” The number Sherri provided was the same number Simonds had given me. I called it several times in the next few days, letting it ring a dozen times. No one picked up.

I even drove to the retirement home where de la Torre was living. Though he wasn’t answering the phone, I thought there was an outside chance he might be having a good day, and be able to talk. Instead, I was told he had been hospitalized.

I was kicking myself. Why had I waited so long? I take pride in recognizing a good story. De la Torre’s is extraordinary.

It began in Spain, where his father, Angel de la Torre, was a golf pro at a club outside Madrid. Angel won tournaments, set course records and taught the Spanish royal family. He gave his son a set of wooden clubs when Manuel was 14 months old.

While playing a tournament in England, Angel met the man who changed his life, and eventually Manuel’s life, too. Ernest Jones was a golf pro with a splendidly simple theory of the game that he called “swing the clubhead.” Angel embraced it, and passed it to his son.

Angel was visiting Jones in the U.S. at the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. He sent for his family – Manuel was 15 – and they joined him, though not before some close calls. Manuel told Sports Illustrated that he and his younger brother had just missed a bus in Madrid. Moments later, the bus was machine-gunned, killing all passengers.

Angel taught at Jones’ club on Long Island, and Manuel attended Northwestern University, playing golf (he finished second in the 1942 NCAA tournament) and earning a degree in business administration.

Manuel de la Torre as a child in Spain. Photo courtesy of Lynn de la Torre.
Manuel de la Torre as a child in Spain. Photo courtesy of Lynn de la Torre.

De la Torre became head pro at MCC in 1951. “He heard about the position and applied,” says Lynn de la Torre, Manuel’s daughter, who was born the year her father took the MCC job. Prior to MCC, Manuel served as his father’s assistant at Lake Shore Country Club in Glencoe, Ill.

He didn’t talk much about the past, Lynn says. She loved being Manuel’s daughter and recalls how he taught her to swim and play pingpong. She remembers the family trip to Arizona when he bought her a red cowgirl hat and a ride on a Shetland pony. He also taught her golf. Like countless others, Lynn memorized one of her dad’s signatures phrases: “Brush the grass.”

But vacations were family time – no golf allowed – and de la Torre’s devotion to family also could be seen in his marriage to Lynn’s mom, Joan, for 54 years prior to Joan’s death in 2002.

De la Torre played some PGA Tour events and came close to winning a few times. His true gift was teaching, putting his own imprint on the Jones method and giving thousands of lessons – charging far less than his reputation warranted – to amateurs as well as some top professionals, including Masters champion Tommy Aaron.

Should he have been more famous? De la Torre didn’t think so. He told Sports Illustrated he didn’t feel unappreciated. How could he? He loved helping people, and they loved him back.

My son Quinn today is an assistant general manager at Charlotte (N.C.) Country Club. He interned at MCC in the summer of 2011. De la Torre was 89 then, but came to the club nearly every day. Quinn eventually worked up the nerve to ask de la Torre if he’d watch him swing the club. On the appointed day – the lesson was at 8 a.m. – it was cool and windy. When Quinn got to the range, a few minutes after 8, de la Torre was already there, hitting balls with the club he usually held while giving lessons.

“You’re late,” he said.

Quinn will remember that lesson always. De la Torre worked with him on swing tempo, on pretending the ball wasn’t even there, and on swinging the clubhead at the target.

A few weeks later, Tommy Aaron, the 1973 Masters champion, came to MCC for a lesson. Aaron was 74 years old that summer, still trying to improve, still seeing Manuel every year for lessons. Quinn asked de la Torre if he could watch. “He talked with Tommy Aaron about the same things he’d worked on with me,” Quinn says.

After hearing of Manuel’s passing, I called Sherri Steinhauer. She had known her mentor was failing, but still, the finality was hard. Her first teacher, Allan Mitchell, had died in December.

She was thinking about Manuel, how he always asked questions, which helped a student find her own way. Steinhauer recalled how she would see de la Torre in Florida, where he wintered, every year for a preseason tune-up. She saw him a final time in Milwaukee, in fall 2015. She took him out for lunch. “I got him laughing,” Sherri said. “He was a serious man, but I loved his laugh.”

She paused, collecting her thoughts. “He was an utmost gentleman.”

‘Swingman’ appears in the July issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
Find the July issue on newsstands beginning June 27, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.
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Doug Moe is a Madison-based writer and former longtime columnist for Wisconsin State Journal and The Capital Times.