The Happy Valley/Larry Gannon roster of low-handicap players is seemingly endless. A quick glance at the men’s and women’s club championship boards tells the story. In the 75th anniversary year, three names stand out above all others: Mike Cole, Bob Small and Tara Johnson.
Mike Cole had long established his competitive legacy with seven club championships, the most recent in 2001. But what set Cole apart from every other Valley/Gannon player was his accomplishment in 2004, when he became the first Lynner to reach the final of the Massachusetts Amateur at Taconic. “Everything fell into place and I gave (winner Frank) Vana the best I had, but he deserved to win (5 and 4),) said Cole, at 49 one of the oldest finalists in tournament history. Cole played terrific golf to reach the final. He played the last 27 holes of the 36-hole on-site qualifier in even par to finish 21st among the 32 who made it to match play. The first person the East Lynner ever met at the Valley was, of course, L.G. himself. “Larry was kind and supportive to everyone,” Cole said. “He took all us kids under his wing and nurtured us into the game.” Mike is the son of George Cole, the noted Gannon member and park commissioner. As grateful as he is for his continued high level of play, Cole is equally grateful for the improvements he’s seen over the years at Gannon. “It makes us all proud,” he said. “That and the fact we’ve had the same pro and superintendent for more than 30 years. Those people and the property have been an important part of the Cole family, from my dad, to me and now my two sons.” Cole and clubmate Darren Bolton did Gannon proud at the 2005 Massachusetts Amateur at Essex County Club in Manchester. Bolton placed third with 142, Cole shared 22nd place with 148, in the on-site qualifying for match play, and both won their opening round matches before falling in the round of 16.
Bob Small has won the men’s championship a record 15 times. “I didn’t like golf at first,” Small said. “But once I understood it, I got into it pretty good.” He caddied when 11, then began competing under the tutelage of Bill Markham, who also drove him to tournament sites. The Lynn English graduate qualified for his first State Amateur when he was 20 and pulled off one of the great comeback victories in the event’s history. Small trailed Peter Teravainen, who would later become an international tour player, 6 down after nine holes, but rallied and won the match on the 21st hole. He lost his second round match. “I learned that day never to quit,” Small said. He never has. He has played in six Amateurs and reached match play four times. “Gannon is a second home,” added Small. “A great place with great people and no better pro anywhere than Mike Foster. We have all kinds of fun on the course and we help each other off the course. It’s been a special place for my wife and son, too, and we have Steve Murphy to thank for that.” The roster of club champs is a “Who’s Who?” of North Shore golf: Ross Coon, Mike Beatrice, Don and Dave Brothers, Gerry Driscoll, Brian Hamilton, Ron Lavoie, Rich Tortolini, Tom Fabrizio and, with 34 years between victories, Mike Nygren.
Mike Beatrice, a three-time club champ who just turned 86 and is retired from the game, will never forget the grand times on and off the course. “I loved the course, the people, the pro-ams with Larry Gannon, taking on my brother once in a while, people like Bill Fabrizio, Tony Nicademi and Gus Rossi, the 11 o’clock group on Saturday with Fran Hannaway, George Regan, John Regan, Art Sullivan, and Ross Coon.”
Tom Fabrizio, Bill’s son, is another caddy-turned-club champ who benefited as a kid “because everyone reached out to everyone else,” as he said. “That pertained to life as well as golf. If someone had troubles, there were always members to lend a hand.” The former St. Mary’s High golf coach, a member currently of the Gannon bar and restaurant staff, served as president of the Inner Club from 1990-1997. “A little work and a lot of fun,” Fabrizio. “Everyone’s friendly; everyone is felt to be an insider.” Tom comes from great golf genes. His dad, Bill, is a 13-handicap who at age 86 birdied the fifth and sixth holes on consecutive weeks. The year Tom beat Steve Calvani for the title, 3 and 2, Fabrizio defeated Steve Rayback on the 20th hole and Dave Brothers on the 22nd. It doesn’t hurt his game that he lives a mere 50 yards from the first tee.
Tara Johnson is the queen of Gannon ladies golf, based on 13 club titles the last 15 years, the last six in a row and seven straight starting in 1989. As a member of one of the most prominent Valley/Gannon golfing families, Tara need take no backseat to any relative, including famous uncle Tippy, nor to any women player in club annals. An elementary school teacher in the city, Tara is a third generation Johnson member that featured grandfather Lorne, dad Wayne, mom Judy and uncles Tippy and Bruce. “Lots of good influence there,” said Tara, who first swung a club when she was 5. “My parents played so it was easy for me to play. My father has always been my teacher and he’s brought me along well. It’s also been great working in the pro shop all these years for Mike Foster. I’ve tried taking my game seriously, working hard at it, but also having fun.” She remembers fondly her days as a kids, joining friends Chris DiGangi, Kim and Tamy Roy and sister Kelly, placing their golf bags across their handle bars and heading for Gannon. A 10-handicap, Johnson has always had a strong tee game but admittedly struggles with her putter. “I’d like to play better outside the Larry Gannon, but if I don’t, I’m still happy, ’cause there’s no place like Gannon.”
Senior Member Reflections
Random observations and reflections from four of Larry Gannon GC’s most veteran – and respected – members.
George Cole (Associated with Larry Gannon for 67 years)
Tom Newhall (Associated with Larry Gannon 47 years)
- We had a couple close calls involving takeovers. George Page at Colonial sought a lease from the city. My father was on the park commission at the time and helped get the idea rejected. In the early 1970s John Yovicsin, the Harvard football coach, visited Larry Gannon while representing the MDC. They wanted a North Shore course to balance their Ponkapoag course in Canton.
- We had a close call with losing some or all of the course when John Volpe, the former governor, was U.S. Secretary of Transportation under Nixon. There was a chance I-95 was coming through Lynn and Saugus and we might lose a couple holes or the whole course, but the State said it would build us a new course. Well, we didn’t want a new course. We wanted what we already had. Governor Frank Sargent changed the course of the project and we were spared.
- On another occasion, we had a chance to build a second 18. The city had learned from HUD that Lynn was in line for a $6 million award under certain circumstances that would permit a second 18, horse stables, nature trails, downhill skiing in the winter. But Mayor George Phillips wouldn’t sign the grant because of certain stipulations, and Lowell got it instead.
- The Gannon Building Association is one of the best things that ever happened to the course and clubhouse, and Larry Gannon, Mike Foster and Steve Murphy make three more.
- It’s been a thrill to come to Larry Gannon for nearly 70 years, first as a caddy.
- We’ve always tried to keep the prices at the club fair so the costs wouldn’t be out of reach of the working man and woman.
- We had a stretch of years when we had a ski tow going up the 10th fairway and a skimobile patrol to keep an eye on the kids using sleds and toboggans.
- I’ll never forget the day we hired Steve Murphy. We had 11 applicants, including Paul Miller (now at Nashawtuc) and Doug Johnson. Murphy was blunt. He said we didn’t know, as park commissioners, what we were doing with the course.
- I remember Larry Gannon saying on his death bed, “Hire Mike Foster to succeed him.” We would’ve hired Mike even if Larry hadn’t asked us.
- Larry always called himself a city worker like everyone else; modesty personified.
- Larry never got the credit he was due, but naming the course after him was a good start.
- The Building Association did wonders with their renovations. They spend $1M and it’s been worth every nickel.
- It was a privilege to serve on the park commission (1969-82) and I’m proud that my son, Mike is on the board now.
- I had to walk two miles to meet Larry Gannon at Sunday morning at 6 o’clock mass or I wouldn’t get a ride to the course so I could caddy. We had 45 caddies and they all got out weekends.
- Illness prevented me from playing football and baseball, so I turned to golf. Talk about a blessing in disguise.
- As a kid in the summer, we crowded on the first tee weekdays at 10 a.m.
- If you were lucky, you might get to play five holes with Larry on Sunday evenings. That’s how I met my wife, Ann Snell. We were both in that Sunday night group hoping to play a few holes with Larry. We had 31 great years before she passed away in 2000.
- The Newhall-Gaffey Memorial each year raises thousands for Mass. General and the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and honors my wife and Tom Gaffey’s daughter, Shelli. They died within days of each other.
- I’ve always said that if all of the members here hit the lottery tomorrow, ever few would leave for another club. This club grows on you. Everyone get along with everyone. The older folks love helping the juniors and the kids get along with us old folks great. We take up collections for good causes involving our members all the time.
- There’s a spirit of family here whether you’re a single or a family with five kids playing.
- Steve Murphy has saved the golf course from a time when it went nearly bone dry because the irrigation system didn’t work. He upgraded the course and fixed the irrigation system. He could probably get a job at most any club in New England but he’s fallen into our “family trap, too”.
- Larry Gannon GC is the most important institution I’ve ever been connected to.
Tom Gaffey (Associated with Larry Gannon for 25 years)
Bill Rogers (The oldest regular player, at 85 associated with the course for 70 years)
- I remember the days we had to apply for one- or two-day alcoholic licenses. We’d get the OK, then go out and buy the stock we needed. The Gannon Building Association saw to the end of that and it’s made life easier and more enjoyable for everybody coming to Larry Gannon.
- We held our first double-shotgun member-guest tournaments when I was president, a good sign of progress.
- The best thing about Gannon? We’re all ordinary people. If you think you’re better than us, come on up to Gannon and you’ll be certain to be brought down a peg or two, and you’ll be better off for it.
- The Building Association is a fine example of the good that comes from volunteerism. The members are good, honest, progressive people who serve to benefit the majority.
- We couldn’t have better partners running the place than Mike Foster and Steve Murphy.
- When I started playing here in 1935, while growing up in Saugus, it was not called Happy Valley. That came later, maybe 1938 or 1939. (Editor’s Note: Originally, it was called Lynn Woods Municipal Golf Links – Happy Valley, later shortened to Happy Valley.)
- I had grand times playing with guys like Normie Dodge, Harry Maravelias and Bob Kelley. I play these days with Freddie Brown, Walter Newhall, Doug Raleigh and Pat DiGiulio.
- We all hated the dirt tee mats we used years ago. The ground was so hard you couldn’t use a tee.
- I first tired playing golf at Lynn Woods with my brother, Westby’s, set; got so angry with myself on the 15th hole I broke my brother’s 3-wood.
- These days I try to play four times a week, two 18s and two 9s. I could have shot my age the other day (Mid-June) if I hadn’t four-putted the last hole.
- We have a great course in 2005 because of the Building Association, Mike Foster and Steve Murphy. They’ve been a great team working for all of us who love the game and the place called Larry Gannon. We always get a great value for our dollar here.
- I truly appreciate how far the course’s conditions have improved over the years. I worked on the grounds crew for Paul Johnson at Ferncroft many years ago when (Happy Valley’s own) Paul Barkhouse was the head pro.