His Aim is True: Ron Stelter

An Exclusive Interview with a Living Legend and 10-Time Saginaw District Champion

Posted In: Sports, Local Sports,   From Issue 792   By: Robert E Martin

19th June, 2014     0

Ron Stelter possesses all the attributes of a true champion: ability, confidence, humility, and wisdom that work together in equal measure to define not only a successful athlete; but a successful human being.

Ron was a standout basketball player on the 1950 state finalist team at SS Peter & Paul High School. He played collegiate golf at the University of Detroit and was named Captain in his senior year. He won the famed Fisher Championship at the University of Detroit in 1953-54 and captured the Junior League Chamber of Commerce Golf Title twice.

From 1952-57 Ron won the Saginaw Country Club Championship five times and captured `10 Saginaw District golf titles throughout the expanse of his golfing career.  He has totaled 74 career victories, including 44 best-ball tournament titles.  Ron coached Douglas MacArthur High School to two state golf titles and one runner-up finish and was longtime Athletic Director at both Douglas MacArthur and Heritage High Schools and is one of the top athletic officials in the state in both football and basketball.

With a record number of 10 championships, Ron Stelter is indeed the ‘face of the District’. And for this special 60th Anniversary of the Saginaw District Golf Tournament, we are pleased to present this in-depth and thoughtful interview that takes aim a broad array of terrain.

Review: When did you first start developing an interest in the game of golf?

Stelter: I started caddying at the age of 10 at The Saginaw Country Club and back then every golfer took a caddy. I saw now these golfers were having fun and the game looked like fun, but I didn’t start playing until the age of 13. They would let caddies play on Mondays for free and a group of us would play every Monday and we developed an interest that way. Later on we’d take our bikes and ride to Rolling Green, which was out in country back in those days; and we would play there once of twice a week.

Initially I didn’t have an affinity for the game right away. I can’t tell you exactly what got me going, but I would say mainly it was watching these older golfers play back when I was caddying. I hit a few balls and liked it and then bought a partial set of clubs and then I moved to a full set of clubs and the rest is history.

Review: When you look back at your legacy and career of golfing what to your mind is the most challenging component involved with the game?

Stelter: I would say the most challenging component is the ever-changing levels of performance you have. One day you might be playing well, the next day not so good – there is such a fine line between hitting the ball the way you want to hit it and not hitting it so good. Every golfer goes through streaks. You might play well for a week or two and then play poorly. One day you might be putting good, but then your irons fall off. It’s often a challenge to put a finger on what is wrong with your game. If one little thing is off you can be in trouble because golf is a precise game and you have to work at it and practice it a lot.

Review: What do you feel is your strongest attribute as a golfer?

Stelter: I’m a positive thinker. The glass is always half full for me. I was always able to drive the ball very well; and most of the time I’ve been a good irons player; but my putting was not real good when I was young. I became a better putter and developed a better stroke when I got into college.  I was not putting well in college and Tom Watrous was on our golf team at college. His father Al Watrous was the Pro at Oakland Hills and he saw that I was struggling with my putting. Tom got a wooden shafted putter out of his bag and told me to try it out and I started putting with that and took a liking to it right away. I was using that putter for 50 years, even with the new technological advances. It had the right feel. The last 8 to 10 years I’ve moved to one of the more technologically crafted putters, but I always loved that wooden shafted putter.

Putting is half the game, but it’s a confidence thing. You have to believe you can make a putt before you make the stroke. Every shot you make you have to believe you can make. If you go into golf with any doubts you’re in trouble.

Review: Are there any shots that you’ve taken that stand out in your mind?

Stelter: Well, I’ve had five Hole-in-Ones: two at Maple Hill, two at Bay City Country Club, one at the Saginaw Country Club and the one that stands out in mind was at the Saginaw Country Club because it was on hole #13 and I won a car with that shot at the Invitational Tournament.

The one shot that stands out for me right now was when I was playing in the Saginaw District on the 18th hole and hit my second shot into a bunker. The ball was buried and I was able to get it out; but I’m 40-50 feet from the hole and then I made the putt to win the tournament. That’s luck, but also very exciting. It’s one of those kinds of things you don’t expect and when you make the shot it’s a joyous moment. 

The first hole-in-one is exciting and the other are also exciting, but not like the first one. I thought my partner at the time, Joe Bommarito, was going to have a heart attack.

Review: You’re a ten-time District Champion so let’s talk about the District. In terms of tournaments that are out there, what is it about the Saginaw District that you feel distinguishes it the most, apart from the fact that it determines the best amateur golfer in the county?

Stelter: Number one is that it’s an individual tournament that is made up of the best golfers in the county. Many of us are good friends but on the course we become very competitive. There is camaraderie involved and its fun to compete with the best players in the county. We play different courses each year, but when the District started out it was 36 holes played at The Saginaw Country Club all on one day for many years. Then it developed into two courses with 18-holes at each one; and then it changed to 54-holes at one course over three days, which is where we’re at now.

 Review: You’ve excelled at golf throughout your life and one of the nice things about the game is that its kind of age-neutral and you can get good golfers regardless of age. Do you feel your game is as good as it was when you were younger, discounting issues like strength?

Stelter: No, I played much better when I was younger. I know more about the game today than ever in my life. When I started out we’d use clubs off the rack and everything was steel shafted and you didn’t have a lot to work with in terms of technology.  I enjoy playing and get to play with my son a lot, which makes a big difference; but golf evolves in terms of ability. You have more strength as a younger player and hit the ball further; but you gain more experience with age and how to manage the course and your game a little better. But as you age, your ability wanes. You don’t hit the ball as far.

We never had lessons when we were young and I always did everything by feel. I didn’t have a lesson until my 50s and picked up a lot of bad habits, but worked them out on my own on the practice range. I’ve always been a ‘feel’ player anyway. If something didn’t feel right I would make adjustments until I got the right feel. Is that good or bad? I don’t know. Feel has a lot to do with your golf swing, but nowadays there is so much available to golfers to help them improve their game. People today have a distinct advantage in that regard.

Review: Looking back on your District wins are there any that stand out in your mind?

Stelter: Probably the first one that I won and then the last one. The first one is exciting because it’s the first one. The last one I had not been playing well and it was a really windy day with difficult conditions. For some reason I showed up that weekend and was able to play really well, but was very inconsistent. When I got into my late 40s and early 50s my game became more inconsistent, which is probably normal for everybody. But that last District win was memorable because I was not playing well and on a very difficult day I played quite well.

Review: What do you feel is the most challenging course in Saginaw County?

Stelter: Probably Apple Mountain and The Fortress. But interestingly enough, Saginaw Country Club is also challenging. If you don’t hit the ball straight over there you’re in deep trouble. Early on Saginaw Country Club had a lot more trees than it does now and it was almost like playing in a bowling alley. If you could hit the ball straight you got big scores, because it’s not a real long course. But you can get some high numbers if you don’t have it in play. People underestimate the Saginaw Country Club because it’s so short, but it’s also difficult and is always in really good shape. The Sawmill is also a good golf course and has some really good holes out there and is a good test for a golfer as well.

Review: Have you played many golf courses around the world?

Stelter: Oh yes. I visited Scotland and Ireland and played all the good ones like St. Andrews, Muirfield and Carnoustie.  It was an awesome experience and is not even close to American golf. The weather was really good and some days we played 36 holes. I went with my brother, my son and my son-in-law and we had the most wonderful time. I played good at some of the courses and lousy at others, but I played well at St. Andrews. The big difference is with the ground, which is harder and you have a lot of run-up shots. Plus the greens are mammoth. They are huge and four times the size of some of our greens. Anybody how ever had a chance that is in love with golf needs to go over there. 

I also played Pine Valley, which is ranked the number one golf course in the world and is phenomenal and very difficult. I played two days there.

Review: Did you ever entertain thoughts of turning Pro?

Stelter: Not really. I had an opportunity back when I was in my 20s and had some people willing to put up some money. I had just graduated from college, had signed a contract, and had our first baby, Mike. At that time I didn’t feel it was the right thing to do and that was the best decision I ever made. As they say, keep your day job; which in my case was teaching. I never regretted that decision. It would have been fun, but I’ve had so many rewarding experiences in education and coaching over the years that I couldn’t have had a better life. I’ve had a very fulfilled life. Back then with a young baby and a wife, I didn’t want to be away that much. The right opportunity for me was to be in education and it was the right decision.

Review: For people just starting out with golf or individuals that have been golfing for a long time, if you were to offer 3 tips or pointers that people should think of when examining their game, what would they be?

Stelter: First I’d recommend learning how to set up your golf swing and set the shot up so everything is square. Find the right grip and then just take a natural swing and develop whatever swing you have for you. Everybody has a different swing and there is no one swing that fits everybody. There are a number of things you need to do, but how you get there is individual for each player. Some guys have a god-awful swing, but their hitting area is perfect. It really doesn’t matter how you get it there, but you must set up square and need to work on your short game, which means putting and chipping. That’s where you save all your strokes.

If you don’t have a good short game you can’t score, regardless of how well you hit the ball. Also, you should never practice any shot you wouldn’t be willing to use on the golf course. Some guys try a high slice, for example, but never use it. What you practice is what you should use. And finally you need a positive outlook. You can’t be any good unless you think you’re good, which doesn’t mean you are cocky; but you have to believe in yourself and be confident in your ability, which is true with all things in life.

How you approach golf mentally is as important as the physical component.

Review: Do you still practice a lot?

Stelter: A little bit. Every time I go out to play I never play without warming up. I’m always tinkering with my swing, trying to get a better feel and to hit the ball better. Golfers are never satisfied and always trying to do things to hit the ball better. When I was younger I did that a lot and I still do that. We practice a lot.  Practice is important and the short game is critical. When you get into a trouble shot, you have to be able to trust your ability. Of all the things in golf that help you hit a good shot the number one element is trust: you must trust in your swing that you can hit that shot. If you don’t have the trust that you can hit it, you won’t be able to hit the shot. It goes back to confidence.

Review: What are your thoughts about the current crop of golfers out there battling in this year’s District tournament. Are there any golfers people should watch?

Stelter: Matt Pumford and Al Pumford are both good players. Matt has a lot of ability and is probably the best player in our county. He won the last two District tournaments and could win many more. Both are great people. There’s some younger kids coming up, too; and in terms of the ‘Old Guard’ I would say Danny Hughes, Terry Franz and my son Mike Stelter will always be a threat and still can play very well.

Unfortunately, we don’t have as much interest among our youth that we had back when I was coaching. For the longest time a lot of kids were playing at private clubs like Saginaw Country Club, Rolling Green, Bridgeport because their parents belonged to these clubs and they developed an interest in golf. They’d be out there all day long, which is the best place for a kid to be – on the golf course – because you don’t need to worry about them there.

Even when I was coaching in the 70s and 80s, most of my kids belonged to a private club. But nowadays with the number of activities available to kids, I think the interest has waned and isn’t there like it used to be because there’s more things to do. Consequently, we don’t have the number of really good young players coming up that we once had. Hopefully that will change. There are a lot of good programs out there.

I am worried about the future of golf from the standpoint that a lot of clubs are having trouble financially, with memberships dwindling and kids not playing as much. This takes away from the number of kids coming into the District. For the longest time we had a lot of players, but this year we only had 54 trying to qualify and there was a time we had over 100 trying to qualify.

The highpoint was probably the 1970s-80s. Golf takes a lot of time, which is its one detriment. You’re gone from the house for a long time and if you’re married your wife has to be a Saint if you play a lot of golf. But at the same time, you can turn that into a positive and lay as a family. That’s the great thing about golf – if you’re a 72-shot player you can have as much fun playing with a 95-shot player – and can enjoy the game with any level of player.  If you make the game a family outing then it becomes a positive, which is easier said than done because often a wife can’t get away, or you can’t make it to the course with the entire family.

But golf has been very good to me. I’ve met a lot of nice people through golf and I treasure those memories as much as anything. But in conclusion, I would say the main thing is to be humble. If I can give any advice to people It’s the importance of being humble in everything you do. You don’t need to brag about things that you do and don’t need to try and beat your own drum. 

If you’re good at what you do, people will know it.

Editor’s Note: Although Ron Stelter will not be playing in The Saginaw District Invitational this year, he is going to hit the ceremonial first shot of the new Legends Division just before 8:00 AM on Friday, June 20th.


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