Author, coach and record-holding golfer Walter Armstrong III sustained a decade-long career in the Professional Golfer’s Association (PGA) in the 1970s and ’80s, eventually earning a lifetime membership to the PGA Tour. Armstrong posted a rookie scoring record of 280 at his first Master’s Tournament in 1973.
After his playing career ended, Armstrong began work as a golf instructor, youth golf pioneer and an author of several golf books, including: In His Grip, The Mulligan, Practicing the Presence of Jesus and Finishing The Course.
I spoke to Wally upon his visit to Boone, N.C., for a youth golf clinic at Mount Vernon Baptist Church. We talked about his time on the PGA Tour, his walk with God, his love of the game and his passion to inspire that love in youngsters all over the world.
Wally Armstrong was on the cover of Golf in 1993. He is known for using common, fun props in teaching the basics to aspiring golfers.
Q: How did you come to the game of golf?
A: I grew up in Indiana – in the cornfields – looking for golf balls to make a few bucks on this little nine-hole course. I started caddying for the club champion; he took me under his wing and really gave me a flavor for the game of golf.
I just love the competition side of it, and he took me to the golf tournaments. I started playing high school golf and won the state championship my senior year. I had a golf professional friend Ellis who told me, “If you really want to excel in golf you need to go to the Southeastern Conference.” I looked at several colleges, and the University of Florida offered me a scholarship. I was pretty good, but I decided that I wanted to be a coach, so I got my graduate degree in health and human performance.
Q:Did you go through the tough PGA Tour School in an attempt to turn pro?
A: I made three attempts at the old Tour School, where they had 2,000 guys trying out for 24 spots. I finally qualified my third year. I was able to stay on the PGA Tour and play in over 340 tournaments in my career including all the majors, playing with arguably the best players of all time – vintage ‘70s champions: Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Johnny Miller and Gary Player – lot of hall-of-famers.
Q: You had a once in a lifetime experience early in your life. What was it like caddying for the great Gary Player?
A: It was really kind of a freaky thing. God really set it up. I caddied for him in three tournaments. Unfortunately in the third tournament, Gary had a contract with a banana company, and I forgot to take the bananas out of his bag. They stayed in there for over a week and I ruined all of his rain gear and gloves – and that was the end of my caddie career.
Q: What happened after the banana incident with Gary Player?
A: Earlier in the week when I was caddying for Gary in New Orleans, he said, “Wally if you really want to make a difference for Jesus Christ in many lives, then you should be playing on the PGA Tour and not caddying.”
Well, when I returned to Indiana there was a brand new golf bag full of irons, woods, gloves and golf balls that Gary had sent me. Ten years later I was playing a practice round with Seve Ballesteros and Gary Player at the Master’s Tournament.
I know that God gave me a game to sustain that type of competition.
Q: What kind of Christian presence among PGA players was available back then on the tour?
A: I was fortunate to be a part of starting a PGA Tour chapel service.
Wally Armstrong demonstrates his golfing technique to some children in Boone, N.C.
A couple of us started going, and a number of players trusted Christ: Larry Mize, Bernhardt Langer and Scott Simpson. We just had a tremendous group of men and women.
Q: Who was the golfer that was an inspiration for you as your game developed?
A: Arnold Palmer was the king, especially growing up in Indiana. In the early ’60s it was Nicklaus, Player and Palmer, but Palmer was the peoples’ favorite. I just loved watching him play the game.
You said something when you spoke [at Mount Vernon] … that you saw Arnold Palmer’s final Masters appearance. You floored the audience when you said you spotted Jesus in the flesh at the Masters.
Well, yes, that was very interesting. I had driven up early that morning to Augusta, Ga., from Orlando to follow Arnold Palmer. I ran into a friend of mine, Jim, and we were following Arnold.
He asked me to come up after the round to the clubhouse and meet his granddaughter.
So I came around and there was Jim, Rachel and a large group of people surrounding Ben Crenshaw and this tall spectator – real handsome guy – with a hat, khaki pants and golf shoes.
The people were all pointing at the spectator. I said, “I don’t know who that is Jim.” He said, “You evidently didn’t see ‘The Passion of Christ.’ That’s the actor who played Jesus; that’s Jim Caviezel.”
The people that could see his face, knew he was Jesus, but they couldn’t remember his name, so they said, “Look there’s Jesus talking to Ben Crenshaw over there.”
The whole thing about it, Roman, is that he didn’t have sandals or a beard; he was like everybody else, a golfer. That was just an amazing picture to me. It was a picture about how I learned to follow Christ as my Savior and my friend.
He was like a fellow golfer, and it does say in the scripture He’s like our brother, our advocate.
Q: Are you excited by the youth movement toward golf today on the PGA Tour and at local golf clubhouses and facilities?
A: There really is a big movement toward youth golf today. At the club level you have team competition that is really sweeping the country: chip putt and drive. But these are already golfers; my heart is to reach young people and expose them to the game of golf, those that are not playing.
I want these young people to be exposed to it like I was and “catch the bug.” The only way to do that is to get out where the kids are. We’ve got to use existing avenues to do that.
I have had the privilege of inventing the national school golf program. It’s called “Starting New at Golf” (SNAG). About 16 years ago I came up with this game that can be played anywhere, with small Velcro targets and elastic golf clubs, and it’s safe.
About 5.5 million kids in schools have learned through this system. It’s also a life skills program, a real blessing all over the world.
We can take the game wherever the kids are and that’s what I’m working on now, especially getting the game of golf in churches. A lot of those kids had never touched a golf club or played the game of golf. They had a chance to learn about the love of the game and about golf, and meeting Jesus through it.
For more information, go to wallyarmstronggolf.com. Follow him on Twitter @wallyarmstrong.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Roman Gabriel is an evangelist and motivational speaker. Hear his Sold Out Sports Talk Radio program on American Family Radio in 200 cities nationally or streaming live at afr.net. Visit his website: soldouttv.com; Facebook: Roman Gabriel III; connect on Twitter: @romangabriel3rd. Contact at (910) 431-6483 or email: [email protected].)