MY VERO: Sal Spallone finds new passion in teaching golf

Sal Spallone

Even before he won the 1995 state high school golf championship while playing for St. Edward’s, Sal Spallone had no doubt he someday would play on the PGA Tour.

“I was so cocky as a kid, it wasn’t just my dream,” Spallone was saying last week from his Eagle Trace home in Vero Beach. “That was how my life was going to be.”

That was, he believed, his destiny.

So after graduating from Texas Christian University, where he captained the Horned Frogs for three years, Spallone promptly turned pro in 2001 and began what he expected to be a steady climb toward the golf world’s upper crust.

He played the mini-tours, including the Hooters and Canadian circuits. He played overseas. He even spent three years (2007, 2009, 2010) on what was then the Nationwide Tour — now the Web.com Tour — golf’s version of Triple-A baseball.

And each year, he’d go to the PGA Tour’s Qualifying School and try to play his way into the big leagues.

Once, in 2005, he qualified for the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. He also qualfied for three other PGA Tour events, including two Honda Classics.

“I chased it for a long time,” Spallone said. “It wasn’t easy to give it up.”

But after taking one last shot in September — after getting married in Switzerland in August, he went to Germany to compete in the European Tour’s Q-School, only to fall short again — Spallone finally decided enough was enough.

He was 35 years old. He had traveled the globe for 13 years, trying to scratch out a living in the game he had played since he was 6. He was frustrated by his inability to produce his best golf when it mattered most.

“In golf, a lot has to do with timing, with when you play well,” said Spallone, who went to Q-School 12 times and reached the finals twice. “You can play well most of the year, be just a little off your game on the wrong week and that’s it. You’ve got to wait for next year.

“Golf has been great to me,” he added. “I wouldn’t trade those 13 years for anything. I met my wife because of golf. But I was getting frustrated with the sport. So when Tatiana and I were engaged, I told her I’d give it one more shot and, if it didn’t work out, I’d try something else.”

Something else in golf, a passion he shares with his wife, who also played professionally. Something close to home, where everyone knows his name. Something that not only would pay the bills but also could open up a second career in the game he loves.

He decided to teach.

Relying on a website, his local connections and a few ads, Spallone began giving lessons at Vero Beach’s Sandridge Golf Club in October. He started with two students. He now has nearly 80.

“It’s growing steadily,” said Spallone, who operates as an independent contractor. “Being raised in Vero Beach’s golfing community certainly helps, and Sandridge has a terrific facility. And my clients seem to be happy with what they’re learning.”

According to his website (www.verogolfpro.com), Spallone’s rates for private lessons are $50 for 30 minutes, $75 for one hour and $150 for two hours. A one-hour group lesson costs $150 (three players, $50 apiece).

The 30-minute lessons are only for younger juniors, he said, “because sometimes it’s hard to keep their attention for a full hour.”

Spallone also offers one-hour lesson packages: three sessions for $202.50 (10 percent off); six sessions for $360 (20 percent off); and nine sessions for $472.50 (30 percent).

“I work with a lot of juniors, but I have a wide variety of clients,” he said. “My client base ranges from ages 8 to 90, and I’ve worked with people who have never been on a golf course before to high-level juniors, even some mini-tour guys.”

He also has worked with a couple of prominent golf-playing, former world-class tennis pros with local ties — lvan Lendl, who lives at Windsor, and Mardy Fish, who grew up in Vero Beach.

Lendl, who won eight Grand Slam singles titles in tennis, is an accomplished amateur golfer. Fish, who reached the top 10 in the ATP World Tour rankings before heart problems took him off the courts, is pursuing a second career as a professional golfer.

“I’ve given Ivan some short-game lessons, and Mardy and I have talked on the phone quite a bit,” Spallone said. “I give lessons to Mardy’s mother and father, and I was going to work with him when he came back for his foundation’s fundraiser earlier this year, but he was unable to make the trip.

“Growing up here, Mardy and I have known each other a long time,” he added. “He’s trying to start a new life in golf and I know what it’s like to be out there, so we talk and I give him some tips.”

They are tips not every teaching pro can provide.

“I’ve played at the highest levels, so I feel I have a lot to offer beyond the swing and how to hit a golf ball,” Spallone said, adding, “My goal now is to be the best teacher I can be. I want to be the best teacher in the area. Every night, I think about how I can make this bigger and better.”

One possibility, he said, is to partner with his wife, who teaches at Orchid Island.

“We’ve thought about joining forces at some point in the future,” he said. “There are so many avenues in teaching now. You can make a good living doing it. But, for me, what’s really satisfying is helping others have success and enjoy the game. I’m really happy right now.”

So he has no regrets?

He’s not disappointed that he never realized his dream of playing full-time on the PGA Tour, contending in major championships, winning The Masters?

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t,” Spallone said. “But I’m OK with it. I don’t waste energy on what could’ve been. … Do I think, if I prepared for it, that I could go out on the PGA Tour and contend? Absolutely.

“Does this mean I’m never going to go to Tour School again? I can’t say that. I swing the golf club every day. I still play a lot. But, right now, my passion is teaching. Things are good.”

Things aren’t what he thought they’d be, back when he was one of Florida’s top junior golfers and a state high school champion, seemingly on his way to the PGA Tour.

But it wasn’t because he didn’t try, didn’t put in the time, didn’t chase his dream.

Maybe it was merely bad timing. Maybe, as good as he was, he simply wasn’t good enough. Maybe his dream wasn’t his destiny.

And maybe this is.

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