Feuding fun is par for the course in partnership

Heather Rousseau/The Herald
Before entering high school, Tyler Gray, left, received advice and mentorship from Tully Sakel, a friend of the family. There’s a gap in age of nearly 40 years between the two, but after playing alongside Sakel and his friends, Gray budded into one of the area’s top players and a University of Evansville recruit. Thursday, Gray will join the teams from Jasper and Heritage Hills in the regional at Champions Pointe Golf Club in Henryville.

Herald Sports Writer

There’s no way the kid shows up.

Tully Sakel remembers thinking that to himself as he rolled into Huntingburg Country Club for his 6 a.m. tee time some four years ago. He’d been asked at a wedding by his buddy Tony Gray if his son could join Tully and his pals for their customary predawn rounds sometime. Tony’s son, who was set to enter high school that fall, was showing interest in the sport. Tony knew that Tully, who’d been swinging a club since the age of 5, would be perfect for the budding youngster to learn from.

But there was no chance the kid would show. It was way too early. And why, Sakel wondered, would he want to play golf with a bunch of old guys?

“But there he was the next day, waiting for us at the course,” Sakel recalled. “And I said, ‘I’ll be darned.’”

To be honest, Tyler Gray was surprised he made it himself.

Mornings weren’t his thing. Still aren’t, Sakel pointed out earlier this week as Gray stumbled into the Sultan’s Run clubhouse a few minutes after Tully had arrived.

“He didn’t look very good either,” Sakel said, recounting that first morning round. “Like now, his hair isn’t combed.”

“I did comb my hair this morning,” Gray rebutted, reinforcing his ’do with a pat of his hand.

“Well, it doesn’t look like it,” Sakel retorted.

In the last four years, the two have shared too many rounds on the golf course to count and just as many wisecracks in the clubhouse, judging by their back-and-forth banter. Age by darned. Sakel, 58, and Gray, 19, who will join Jasper and Heritage Hills’ squads as an individual competitor at Thursday’s regional at Champions Pointe Golf Club in Henryville, began playing together for simple reasons, with no thought to the generational gap.

“It was just a chance to play, besides by myself, because if I would play during the day at Huntingburg, I’d always be by myself. No one would want to give up their game and let some 13-year-old middle schooler play with them,” Gray said. “It gave me a chance to play with people and learn some stuff, instead of just being out there by myself, hacking away.”

Although, Gray didn’t exactly soak up Sakel’s counsel at first. Gray still had a baseball-bat grip on his clubs, “grabbing it like this,” Sakel recalled, fiercely holding an imaginary club in front of him with a loco look on his face. “And I’m thinking, ‘Man, he’s got to change that.’ And still the next day, he’s over there again (with the same grip). So I figured I might as well keep my mouth shut.”

Each day, Gray kept showing up, as Sakel played weekday mornings with his friends Al Mihajlovits, Dan Bell and Rich Welp. Smacking one off the first tee in the morning darkness proved a bit challenging, Gray remembered. “You just hit it and hoped to find it.”

By hole No. 2 or 3, the sun would be up. By 9 o’clock, the crew wrapped up their round.

That winter of his freshman year, Gray got good. He took some lessons and built a practice “net” with a tarp in the family’s garage which he used to work on his swing “a lot,” Gray said. “Until I broke it. Put a ball through the (tarp). Then hit a hole in the house.

“I hit it well.”

The pulverized 3-wood shot ended up shattering some empty glass bottles on a shelf as well. Once spring rolled around, Gray was making noise on the course, too.

His freshman year, Gray shot Southridge’s low score in 16 of its 17 matches. Through his four years in team competitions, he fired the Raiders’ low round in 56 of 65 matches. Last June, he made his first appearance at the state finals, sizzling with a second-day 72 to finish 31st overall.

The first summer the two paired up on the links, Gray got by mainly on athletic ability, Sakel said, “so he could still hit the golf ball.”

“Still out-drove you,” Gray reminded his comrade.

Welllll, no, not those first couple years,” Sakel clarified.

“First couple years?” Gray questioned before laughing.

“Well, first year, maybe,” Sakel revised with a grin. “But then, all the sudden, my day was over. … He kept getting better and better.”

Sakel recognized the potential early on, and made sure others did, too.

When Jim Hamilton, the University of Evansville’s golf coach and one of Sakel’s former instructors (Tully also received lessons from Jim’s father, Bob, winner of the 1944 PGA Championship), came to Sultan’s a couple years back asking Sakel to help him recruit a local talent, Sakel decided to redirect Hamilton’s aim. Tully knew the player Hamilton was eying already had his mind made up on a different school, “but there’s a kid coming up that will be just as good,” Sakel told Hamilton. “And he said, ‘Who’s that?’ And I said, ‘Tyler Gray.’”

From then on, the Purple Aces’ coach kept the then Raider sophomore on his radar. Last November, Gray signed to play for Hamilton’s squad in college.

Yet Sakel’s part in Gray’s path goes well beyond simply nudging a coach to take a look at him. Tully and his wife, Karen, have taken Gray to a few golf tournaments in which he’s competed. A couple summers ago, Tully even caddied for Tyler in a 36-hole U.S. Junior Amateur qualifier in Bowling Green, Ky. Neither has fond memories of that day’s sweltering mid-90s heat.

During those rounds, like he often does, Sakel schooled Gray on staying within himself. “I was always the one to go for everything,” Gray said. “I’ve toned that back now.”

Sakel encourages Gray to enact a smart, conservative plan of action. Sakel didn’t agree with Gray trying to hit his shot out of shallow water on No. 2 at last Friday’s sectional. Gray still contended, “I would have done it again.”

But Sakel has more ammunition. He called to mind Southridge’s match against Jasper a week early. On No. 7, a par-4, Gray went for the green off the tee.

“You were leaning up against the tree on the left with your (second shot),” Sakel ribbed.

“I got a bad bounce,” explained Gray, who bogeyed the hole. “I hit this far from the green, and it kicked hard left.”

“Where did you end up?”

Gray paused, then conceded.

“Against the tree.”

At sectional, with Sakel observing from a distance, Gray rode a safer fairway shot to par on the seventh hole.

The duo has since swapped the morning rounds at Huntingburg for weekend matches at Sultan’s. And when they play from the tips, the Raider senior gives Tully some strokes to compensate for the distance disparity.

How many strokes? Here they go again.

“We negotiate,” said Sakel, who wrapped up the back nine 2-under on Sunday and just missed a putt to tie Gray (with the handicap).

“I don’t know how much negotiating there is,” Gray questioned, chuckling. “It’s, ‘I’m taking nine shots today.’”

“It’s how many I need!” Tully petitioned.

The rounds, and the razzing, are sure to continue.

Contact Joe Jasinski

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