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47 Years of Golf Lessons Turn a Guy Tap-Happy

May 26, 1996|BILL PLASCHKE

Still looking for a Memorial Day weekend hot spot? We've found one. This black Masonite slab in the middle of Ed Coleman's shag-carpeted living room.

First, some background. Throughout the country, Monday's holiday marks the symbolic beginning of The Time When Dumb People Play Golf.

For the next four months, thousands of innocents will visit quiet, green places in hopes of summer fun, only to endure five consecutive hours of public humiliation. Then some of them play the back nine.

Suddenly, with local tournaments and family functions at hand, many are in need of expert advice on stances, swings, and how to avoid losing little pencils.

Which, to the man who taught much of this city how to play, means only one thing.

Tap dancing.

After giving as many as 10 golf lessons a day to some of the worst hackers on Byron Nelson's green earth, Ed Coleman unwinds by tap dancing.

He retires to his tiny Westside apartment where he lives alone with the three couches, a card table and no television set since Milton Berle. He laces up shiny white shoes, turns on Dick Hyman, and bangs across the Masonite for as long as an hour.

He does it all with amazing smoothness for a red-faced guy somewhere in his 70s, he won't say where.

"I tap dance because I needed to have something that I could do better as I got older," he said. "It sure wasn't golf."

And Ed Coleman knows golf. For parts of 47 years, and steadily since 1965, he has been a PGA teaching pro at Rancho Park Golf Club in Los Angeles.

It's among the busiest public courses in the country. Considering Coleman usually winds up with players whose first question is, "Why can't we just throw it?", he has been one of its busiest instructors.

The way Coleman figures it, this summer he will give his 90,000th lesson.

"There have been times," Coleman said, "when I thought I was a dead man."

Coleman has been hit with drives, not that unusual, except when considering he was standing parallel to the driver.

Coleman has had animated discussions with an elderly high school principal, also not unusual, except when considering the woman was swinging a golf club at the time.

Then there was the day he walked off a course at the 12th hole. At the time, his foursome had been playing for six hours.

But Ed Coleman said he has also experienced this:

"A very pretty woman, to whom I had given many lessons, once ran to the edge of the fence along the practice tees. She shouted to me, 'Hey, I just broke 80! Come over here! I want to kiss you!'

"I said to her, 'What would you want to do if you had broken par?' "

Coleman has broken par on many occasions in his pro career. What he has never done is broken through.

More than 20 times, he has tried to qualify for the U.S. Open. He has never come within a stroke of making it. Nor has he ever come close to qualifying for the regular PGA Tour.

"Sure it's disappointing," Coleman said. "There's about 20,000 club pros out there, and not one of them start out wanting to give 10 lessons a day. All of them wanted to be Ben Hogan. I was no different."

Ed Coleman's biggest wishes were never granted. Lucky for us.

In working with everyone from Jesse Owens to 100 children at once, Coleman has been a teacher who has emphasized more than mechanics. In half-hour sessions that have added up to a lifetime of influence, he has taught golfers less about the grip and more about the game.

His students don't throw clubs. Or curse. Or improve their lies. Or lie about their improvements. Or they are no longer his students.

"This is still a gentlemen's game," Coleman said. "That much has not changed."

Two things have prepared Coleman for this job, which pays him only a percentage of the $25-a-lesson fee charged by the city.

He was an original student of famed teacher Ernest Jones, considered one of the game's greatest professors. And he was on a tank that landed at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944.

"After D-day, everything in my life has been a breeze," he said.

He has played under the moonlight, helping a student who shot better at night than during the day.

He has taught students whose clubs are so old and broken, "I get a tetanus shot before the lesson," he said.

Ten reputed Mafia members playing 100 yards behind him once lined up and teed off in unison when they thought his students were playing too slowly--"If any of them topped the ball, we would have been killed," he said.

But one student once surprised him by filling his date book with a first-class ticket to Europe. Another student showed up 38 years after his lessons just to say thank you.

It has been 47 splendid years, so worth the pain that Ed Coleman, who wants to give his 100,000th lesson before retiring in five years, says, "Teaching golf is wonderful."

Well, almost wonderful.

His favorite sport?

"That would be tennis," he said.

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