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The VSGA Remembers Mr. Del Snyder, PGA

The VSGA joins the Virginia golf community in mourning the death of PGA member Del Snyder, the longtime ambassador of golf at the Golden Horseshoe Golf Club in Williamsburg, who died on Jan. 8 at the age of 80.

Mr. Snyder grew up with a simple upbringing, but the results of his life’s labors were anything but ordinary.

A native of Bath County, tucked away in the Virginia mountains, Mr. Snyder learned the value of respect and hard work – cornerstones of his life today – by listening to his favorite teacher, taking long walks home following football games and by developing in golf.

“Daring adventure are a staple of Virginia history” the message of The Legend of the Golden Horseshoe retells.

Mr. Snyder lived that idea to the hilt. After high school, he tried carpentry, and then worked at a gas station in Washington, D.C. A contractor for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sent him to Iceland to work on an installation that was part of the DEW (Defense Early Warning) Line, an early Cold War air defense system. At age 23, he returned to Virginia, and his beloved golf, working at West Virginia’s Greenbrier Hotel as an assistant to the legendary Sam Snead before becoming head professional at the Golden Horseshoe Golf Club in 1976.

These many lessons, learned from Mr. Snead, remained with him as he continued to repair the games of the thousands of golfers – 30-handicappers, presidents, CEOs, state senators, even Austria royalty – who have flocked to the Golden Horseshoe to get a morsel of his wisdom. During that time, Mr. Snyder’s name became synonymous with golf excellence in Colonial Williamsburg.

Mr. Snyder, who became a member of the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) in 1966, has never reserved his time for the rich and famous; hundreds of average golfers progressed in the game thanks to his straightforward and visual approach to teaching.

One of the mid-Atlantic region’s most well-respected instructors, Mr. Snyder was been honored by GOLF Magazine among the ‘top teachers’ in the country for 2005-06. He has participated in numerous pro-am tournaments and charity events and at age 50 won the 1984 MAPGA Section Championship. In 1999, he was recognized by the Middle Atlantic Section of the PGA of America as its Teacher of the Year. Golf Digest also singled out Mr. Snyder as one of the top golf instructors in the country.

Mr. Snyder celebrated his 30th anniversary at the Golden Horseshoe in April 2006. The club’s longtime ambassador of golf, he often recounted stories from his encounters with Mr. Snead and shared his seemingly endless knowledge of golf as his gift to the game. 

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The following conversation with Mr. Snyder appeared in the July/August 2006 edition of Virginia Golfer, the official publication of the Virginia State Golf Association.

VG: What’s your memory of your encounters with Sam Snead?
Snyder: I went to work for him in the ’50s at The Greenbrier, worked there for about two and a half months and went overseas for two years before coming back. When I went to work for him, it was in the September, October and November time frame – Sam was playing the tour then so I did not see much of him. During one of our initial encounters though, Sam asked me to go out and play golf with him at the Old White Course. There were four of us, and the back tee was closed, so we played further up. Well, when it came my turn to hit, I was so nervous I could barely draw the club back. Cold topped it, but I still made 4 and so did Sam.

After that, I was never nervous playing with Sam. I shot 74 or 75 that day. Sam shot 66. I remember that the person who would caddie for Sam would keep his score and post it on a board on the locker room. His average was 65-point something. If you didn’t have par or birdie on each hole, you knew that you were going to lose, because Sam didn’t make bogeys. If you were partners with Sam, you knew you were going to win 99 percent of the time.

Sometimes at The Greenbrier, Sam would give the people he was getting ready to play with a couple of baskets of balls and tell them to go warm up before they went out to the course. They’d say, ‘Aren’t you coming?’ He’d say, ‘Nah, you don’t need to warm up a Cadillac’ [laughs]. He’d hit a couple of pitching wedge shots, maybe a driver and it was, ‘Are you all ready to go?’

VG: What did Mr. Snead tell you about teaching?
Snyder: One of the best things he told me was to teach the player how to use their hands in the golf swing. That was the secret to learning how to play golf, because the only thing touching the handle of the club is your hands. If you can’t use your hands, he would tell me, it’s almost like being tied up with a rope. He also emphasized that if you can learn how to chip and pitch balls, you can learn how far a ball will travel with hardly no swing at all.

VG: What did he tell you about your own golf swing?
Snyder: He told me that from 100 yards in, I was one of the best wedge players he had ever seen. A few years before he died, he said I needed to get the ball higher in the air. When we played, we hit more knock-down shots; the ball would hit the green and stop. Now, the greens are much harder, so you need more flight on the ball. Here I am, 70 years old and he’s telling me I need to get the ball higher in the air [laughs]. He also told me to putt like I’m chasing the ball to the hole.

We grew up on some pretty slow greens, and you pop-putted like Billy Casper. I think it was the year Casper won his first Open when Hogan said to him, ‘If you couldn’t putt, you’d be selling hot dogs on the corner of the street trying to make a living’ or something like that. I think Casper’s response was, ‘That’s part of the game isn’t it?’        

VG: What’s your most oft-repeated tip?
Snyder: 
Learning to strike the ball and use your hands is the best tip you can give anyone. There’s a way to show it to people, too. If you have a hammer and wanted to drive a nail into the wall, how do you strike the nail? It’s bang, bang. It’s the same repeated movement time after time. Now, take a club and do the same thing using your hands and arms. Your body is the hub of the golf swing; your hands and arms are the spokes in the wheel. The body swings the arms.    

VG: How did the Horseshoe opportunity materialize?
Snyder: I came down on a Friday afternoon and they took me around through all the facilities. Talked to Mr. Nicholas DiMeglio for probably an hour or so and got all the tours. The next day he asked me, ‘Would you like to play golf?’ Whether I was hired or not, I had heard a lot about the golf course, brought my clubs and hoped to have the opportunity to play. I shot 66 that day at the Gold Course without ever having seen the course. That was my interview. I went back toHot Springs, played golf for two straight weeks and then got the phone call. They wanted me to come to work the next day. I came down two weeks later and have been here ever since.

VG: You’ve played with some other dignitaries over the years?|
Snyder: Sure. I played with Gerald Ford when he was president and was trying to get re-elected, but it didn’t happen. Spiro Agnew. Vice President [Dan] Quayle. He’s been here several times. I beat Quayle out of five or six dollars and he autographed it for me. I put it away somewhere and lost it [laughs]. He shot 76 or 77 that day, but he brought a really good amateur he played with in college. He shot 71 on this golf course and had never seen it before. Sen. [John] Warner’s been here as well.

VG: You were a part of the Defense Early Warning Line. What did you do?
Snyder: I was in materials control, mainly in the warehousing and supply division. I worked for a contractor inIceland and was up there for eight years. After high school, I was full of adventure and wanted to travel. A relative of mine worked for the government and had a lot of good contacts with contractors throughout the world. We kept track of equipment, tools, everything that had to deal with on the job stuff. I have a lot of good memories because it all had to do with seeing other parts of the world, not justHot Springs,Va.

I spent six weeks working for the head engineer on one of the sites. Every morning at one of the job sites you could drive up right through the clouds, because it was 1,400 feet above sea level. The sun was shining – it was absolutely beautiful. One day there was an iceberg out in the Atlantic Oceanand you could see the polar bears jump into the water, get something to eat and get back on the iceberg. I played over there a little bit, too, though it was tough because I didn’t speak the language. I was playing in a tournament once and there was no out of bounds marked. One day, I hit it left over by a drainage ditch and they said it was out of bounds. So I teed it up again and hit it the opposite direction over by a parallel fairway. Out of bounds again. I went out, got my two balls and went home [laughs]. I didn’t play any more tournaments there. It was a long way fromHot Springs.

VG: Did you have any aspirations to play one of the tours?
Snyder: I played in one of the tournaments at The Greenbrier on what they are now calling the Champions Tour, finished even par and tied for 14th in the first tournament I played like that. But I had two daughters and had to support them so they could have a life. When I first came here to the Golden Horseshoe, a lady with a lot of money wanted to sponsor me on the regular tour, but I wanted to make a living for my kids and if I didn’t make it out there, I couldn’t do it. That’s a lot of pressure.

VG: You have the choice between Hogan, Nicklaus and Tiger. Who’s the best ball-striker?
Snyder: Hogan. He knew more about the physical striking of the golf ball than any man that was ever alive. That’s why he was so consistent and solid. He’d drive the ball into the fairway on a par 4 or a par 5 and you would hear about him being in the same divot the next day. You don’t find many that good. He knew what the ball was going to do every time he struck it, even from different lies.

VG: Did Mr. Snead ever mention Hogan?
Snyder: Yeah. They had great respect for one another.  

VG: How did you come to the game?
Snyder: I started caddieing when I was 8 years old at the Cascades. There were three of us, we lived about 3 miles from the Cascades and we walked up by the waterfalls every day to caddie. Occasionally, you could catch a ride from some of the people that worked at the hotel, and if you got finished caddieing by 5 p.m., you could catch a ride back home or ride a train that ran fromHot Springs toCovington. It cost a dime and they’d let us off about a mile away from the house, near the Lower Cascades.

I played football for four years in high school, even though my parents objected. One of the things they did to discourage us was, for example, after a game inStaunton, there were no rides home and you’d probably have to walk 10 miles toHot Springsand you’d rarely see a car. But it didn’t draw us away. Football was a lot of fun, but rough. I had a wonderful coach who coached football, basketball and baseball at what was thenValleyHigh School. I didn’t want to leave high school because of him – he was so good to all of the kids.

I’m still fond of those Cascades waterfalls. Have you seen them? A bunch of us went up one year for a pro-am and the morning of the tournament, my group was asking if we should go practice. I said, ‘We’re not practicing today. We’re going to walk up through the Cascades waterfalls before the tournament starts.’ I said, ‘This is about as close to heaven on earth as you guys ever going to get.’ It’s gorgeous. When I used to go up and caddie, there would be mist from the waterfalls, the sun would shine right through the trees and it was like seeing a rainbow every day. There are not many places you can see that over the course of a casual stroll. But I love it here [at the Golden Horseshoe]. I don’t think I’d ever leave. 

VG: Is teaching an art or a science?
Snyder: I think it’s an art. I had a sixth grade teacher where you could hear a pin drop when she spoke. There was no conversation, no cutting up in the classroom. When she left the room, it was the same way. They paid her that much respect and I adored her. She demanded your respect and you gave it to her. It translates today. If you’re a good teacher in golf, a lot of people respect you, learn from you, they come back and send other people, too.

I also think that giving people something they can relate to, like the hammer and nail analogy, helps you teach. I tell people the backswing is like backing a car out of the driveway and the forward swing is like driving it on the interstate. It’s visual – you don’t rip the automobile backward when you are driving, so you don’t rip the club back, either. The worst mistake a teacher can make is only having one set way to teach. There are no two swings alike – look at Palmer’s finish. Try to teach someone that and they’re never going to play golf.    

VG: What’s the teaching industry like these days?
Snyder: It’s good. When I started teaching, I think it was $3 per half-hour and Sam got half of it. Then it went to $6. Before I left The Greenbrier, the rate was up to $12. Now, I give 40-45 minute or one-hour lessons. If you’re giving someone a lesson and they are not doing well after 30 minutes, I don’t think it’s right to cut them off and say, ‘That’s all.’ That doesn’t gel with me.

VG: Ever seen anything particularly hilarious on the driving range like someone trying to emulate an unusual position that the guy at the driving range down the street told them about?
Snyder: I’ve often told students that if they ever wanted to entertain a bunch of golfers at a party, take a video camera to the driving range. You can show the video on the wall at the cocktail party and it will entertain everybody. But they all have to be golfers; if they’re not all golfers, they won’t have any fun with it. Hands going one way, knees going another – it’s something.

VG: What’s your opinion of men giving golf lessons to their spouse?
Snyder: They should never do that, because it not only makes their wife nervous, but it also upsets them. They like to do that, though [laughs]. Husbands should leave the teaching of golf to whatever golf instructor they trust to be helpful to their wife, and vice versa.

VG: What do you think of golfers seeing sports psychologists?
Snyder: I’ve never seen one, but I have an idea that it might be a pretty good thing. In one of the last books written about Sam’s life, it basically talks about how many more tournaments Sam thought he could have won if he had someone to talk to like [sports psychologist] Bob Rotella.

VG: PGA professionals don’t have any set hours. How did you make it all these years?
Snyder: I guess it’s just dedication. You go to work before daylight and go home after dark a lot of nights. That’s why a lot of golf professionals don’t have a successful marriage. If I didn’t love the game, I would have gone into a different profession where you go to work at 8 a.m., get off at 5 p.m. and have an hour for lunch. Golf professionals eat lunch on the run or standing up somewhere. If you are at a club with 500 or 1,000 members, that’s how many bosses you have, other than the one you are directly working for.

Copyright Virginia Golfer, 2006All rights reserved.