The Billings Outpost

Golf pro weighs next step

By MARTIN MULL - For The Outpost

HUNTLEY – David Doherty’s passion is, and always will be, the same: golf. Since 1981, or perhaps a bit before, but definitely since his idol, Tom Watson, pushed the Bear, Jack Nicklaus, aside and first ruled the golf world.

As Doherty moves through into his 58th year on earth, 26th year as a PGA pro, and 13th as the head pro at Pryor Creek Golf Club in Huntley, he finds himself pondering some these days. OK, what now, what’s next?

The Senior Tour in professional golf begins at age 50. Most consider the 50s middle age, but lurking around the corner is real-life senior citizenship.

Pryor Creek’s been good for Doherty. Likewise the other way.

Working for, and alongside, owner Joe Link and Pryor Creek course designer Johnny Walker, Doherty helped build the 36-hole Pryor Creek facility into one of the busiest and best-run golf clubs in Montana. Only two venues in the state have a 36-hole layout. Pryor is one, and Doherty’s been right in the middle of its ever-increasing expansion.

More rounds are played at Pryor Creek than any other Billings-area golf club. Over the years, the club increased membership, access to free golf instruction, and weekly golfing events, both fun and competitive. Kids and women frequent the fairways more. The senior association’s numbers are tops among clubs in the Yellowstone Valley. More cart paths are being repaved, shiny black and barren spots laid with irrigation pipes. This, during a year when May’s flooding wiped out Nos. 3 and 4 on Elmer’s tract. Oh, and the trees on Johnny Walker’s course push beautifully skyward.

Much has happened since 1998, when Doherty came aboard as the head pro, taking the full-time reins from Walker, who decided life might be a little nicer semi-retired.

Link says it’s unfortunate his father, the founder of the club, didn’t live long enough to see blossoming success at Pryor Creek. It pains the hands-on son. Elmer Link died in 1997.

Doherty agrees, saying Pryor Creek’s quality vastly improved due to the contributions of all staff and maintenance personnel, not just himself. But Link said much credit has to go to Doherty. The Billings native hazily remembers the old nine-hole course sitting somewhere atop the Heights in Billings, near the present day Lake Hills Golf Club. It was his first exposure to the game he would develop a passion for.

“I remember my Dad (Ray) playing at the old Hilltop Golf Club, which was out near Lake Hills,” said Doherty, mentioning that some of the older golfers in the area may still remember it. “I was a small child, 4, maybe 5 years old, when he would take me out. Later, when I would play Lake Hills he’d show me where the course was. Some of the grounds are still out there.”

Doherty said his father, while never a low handicapper, enjoyed the game and still does, playing over at Laurel Golf Club. Doherty and his brother Mike grew up playing Laurel. Ray said it was the best babysitter any parent could ask for – the local golf course.

Doherty competed at Billings West High School. He was a good player, the second or third man, shooting in the high 70s, but nothing exceptional at that time. His greatest prep success was winning the Hardin Invitational his senior year.

His parents couldn’t afford to send the B-plus high schooler to college. Doherty worked at the Western Paper Co. for a few years. His dad was a printer and Doherty liked commercial art. But he wanted a golf life and he knew it.

Dick Koch, then the Laurel pro, called George Winn to see if an assistant was needed over at Hilands Golf Club. The Hilands pro took on Doherty. He remembers the day like it was yesterday - April 1, 1981. The 26-year-old consumed the game. Both for the paycheck and play.

“I read all the books, the magazines and watched all of the tapes of the famous golf instructors at that time,” said Doherty. “Jim Flick, John Jacobs and Bob Toski. And being over at Hilands, I was able to spend more time practicing. I would hit drives off the first tee box, at least 100 each night, because of that tight, narrow first fairway they have over there. And worked on my short game, all the time. That’s how I really improved as a golfer.

“Tom Watson was my favorite player. I liked him because he was about my size and had that great short game.”

Doherty says to become a PGA professional one has to sign cards totaling 150 or below during a two-round qualifier – a breeze for the hungry aspiring pro. By 1985, he fulfilled a dream and became an A-1 club professional – no greater status, except being a touring pro.

Winn moved on in 1986 and Doherty became the Hilands head pro, holding the position until 1990. He did a lot of teaching and also won the Yellowstone PGA Chapter club professional tournament in 1987. He says it was the highlight victory thus far in his pro career.

He spent a spell as the teaching pro at Pryor Creek from 1990-1992, his first exposure working with his mentor, Walker. From 1993-1998, he was the head pro at Legion Town and Country Club in Thermopolis, Wyo., dabbling some in ownership, before returning to Pryor Creek.

Walker and Doherty believe the fundamentals of the golf swing begins with a high center of gravity pivot point address that the triangle of the arms and shoulder line rotate around in perfect balance. There’s meticulous importance in the setup with the sternum, elbow alignment, hands – even kneecaps, and a “locked up” grip.

Doherty’s fervent about all phases of golf. Instruction, perhaps, the most. He uses rapid-fire verbal repetitions to hopefully clear the clutter, in what Doherty says is the golf student’s misguided and, therefore, fogged pathway to the efficient ball pass.

Nothing harsh, but for sure rock-hard direct. Those on the range either sneak close to hear his message, or scatter like a cat when the vacuum fires up for Johnny Walker’s warmer ways.

Point is, while their message is similar, the styles, well, not so. Instructors, like golfers, have different deliveries to help straight line the ball toward that spherical destination.

“Ninety-nine point nine percent of a good golf swing is the setup,” said Doherty. “If you have the proper setup that we teach, you will have a good golf swing. Outside in slice swing, hook, it doesn’t matter. The setup will cure all.”

He’d like to find a way to package and market all parts of the Walker/Doherty knowhow. With the Internet, Doherty feels the possibilities are limitless; the kindling has to spark, is all.

In 2010, he created a series of 8- to 12-minute instructional videos available for view on the Pryor Creek Golf Club website. Doherty notes on tape that if Tiger Woods could find time to view the videos perhaps the golf megastar would spend less time seeking to buff his upper body and more time eliminating the low center of gravity setup that Doherty feels has hunched, or rounded down, Woods’ golf swing to mediocrity.

Actually he spent a couple of weeks working with current PGA touring pro Kevin Streelman a few years ago in Southern California.

Streelman then was an obscure pro playing on the minor league Hooters tour. Now Streelman pitches golf products on national television and has finished as high as 25th on the PGA Tour money list.

Did Doherty help? Who knows, DDPro (Doherty’s moniker) says. But Streelman didn’t forget Doherty and the Pryor Creek boys. He recently sent the club signed flagsticks of each of the four 2011 majors he competed in this past year. The four flags can be seen inside the clubhouse.

“That would be something I would really like to do,” said Doherty. “Being able to work with a touring professional, any of them, because I think with what Johnny (Walker) and I teach, we could really do some good for someone.”

How probable, as the pro moves into his sixth decade? Doherty recognizes the opportunities are tough to come by. Golf Montana is an outpost, especially prairie Billings. He wonders about playing competitively on the highest level – the Senior PGA Tour. The passion burns; with it come dreams.

“In 2007, I qualified for the PGA senior national club championship held down in Florida, the only time I qualified from the sectionals, because I had time then to prepare,” said Doherty, noting members kicked in to help with expenses. “But I missed the cut after two rounds. What I realized is there are a lot of great golfers all over this country. And to be really good, you have to find the time to really practice and to compete a lot. But who knows, I may try.”

Tom Watson, his favorite, made it. And Watson’s about the same weight and height – 5 feet 9ish and 170-180 pounds. Like Doherty, not long, but a straight driver of the golf ball. Still with a good short game.

And in 2009, Watson, then 59, almost won the Open (British) Championship.

Those who follow the game never thought that was a real possibility. Just a few perhaps, including Pryor’s pro.


Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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