Al Mundle can’t count the golf lessons he’s conducted, or the number of people he’s taught since he became a full-time golf professional in 1957.
In the end, those statistics won’t matter anyway, because Mundle’s career as a teacher of golf won’t be measured in the number of lessons he taught, but in how he taught them.
If you had a lesson with Mundle, you’ll always remember him, and not just for his ability to reduce a complex endeavor, the golf swing, into its simplest elements, but for his humility, decency, enthusiasm and relentless optimism.
His pending retirement this spring will leave a void in the local golf community, where his influence has extended beyond RiverRidge Golf Course, his home base since 1993, and yet no golfer will question his decision.
At 76, Mundle wants more time to play the game that he loves.
“It hasn’t been easy,” Mundle said of the choice to retire. “I still get excited when I’m teaching. I thoroughly enjoy it. I think one of the things that keeps me going is that I know I can still learn about teaching, and I still get a kick out of trying to find out more things about it, as far as teaching the mental part, course management, that sort of thing.”
In fact, Mundle said the pull of teaching remains so strong — and his loyalty to his clients is equally so — that to make sure he retires and stays that way, he and his wife, Ann, are moving to Walla Walla, Wash.
“I know if I stay here, I will have a hard time not teaching,” he said.
Over the past 53 years, Mundle has built a strong reputation throughout the Northwest. He is arguably the dean of Oregon teaching pros, and during his career was named teacher of the year five times in the Professional Golfers Association’s five-state Pacific Northwest Section. He also was named the section’s golf professional of the year twice and was inducted into the section’s hall of fame in 1989.
His career did not start auspiciously; the first lesson he taught, for $5 while working at Laurelwood Golf Course between graduating from Oregon in 1954 and entering the Army, went so badly that Mundle offered to pay the two students for their time.
His career as a golf professional began in earnest in 1957 at Riverside Golf and Country Club in Portland, and he combined management duties with teaching through many of the years after that. Along the way, he worked at Overlake Golf and Country Club in Bellevue, Wash., at the Eugene Country Club, and at Bear Creek Country Club in Woodinville, Wash.
Mundle’s most prominent pupil was current PGA Tour golfer Jeff Quinney, the former South Eugene High School star who won the U.S. Amateur title in 2000 and, because of that, played the following year in the Masters and the British Open. Mundle vividly remembers those tournaments; the graciousness of golfing great Arnold Palmer, who played a practice round with Quinney at the Masters, and simply being on the practice range there.
“One day, (Jack) Nicklaus was right behind him, and Palmer was the next one over, and Vijay Singh was on our right,” Mundle said. “I told Jeff, ‘if I’m looking the other way, please don’t take it that I’m not interested in how you do.’”
From the mid-1990s until 2006, Mundle served as an assistant men’s golf coach at Oregon, working with then-head coach Steve Nosler; he still works privately with a couple of UO golfers, including junior Erica Omlid, the former Thurston state champion whose perspective might best capture the essence of Al Mundle.
“It will be going on two years,” she said, “since the spring of my freshman year. I’d never really seen a professional, but my dad and my grandpa have known the Mundles for a really long time. So my dad said ‘why don’t you give him a call? I’m sure he’ll be willing to take you on.’
“At that point, I had a lot of work to do, so it was a pretty big phone call. I remember being so nervous to call. Just because it was Al Mundle; if anybody in the community has been around golf, they know that name.”
Omlid made the call. “He’s patient,” she said. “Patient and positive. I don’t know how many times I’ve called him in the evening for little pieces of encouragement. He always knows what to say, and he’s taught me basically that what you’re going to put into golf is what you’re going to get out of it. It’s hard work.”
From her experience with Mundle, Omlid will take many memories. Chipping contests together. (“It’s such a nice, easy swing and he hits it out there so well still,” she said. “You’re not old until you let yourself get old, and he just keeps on going.”) The way Mundle shared stories of his golfing struggles. The day last year, coincidentally on her birthday, when he changed her grip, from the baseball grip she’d been using.
“I always say that his birthday present to me was changing my grip,” she said.
The lessons went beyond that. “I don’t think he’s ever said a bad word about anybody,” Omlid said. “He’s a true gentleman. He teaches you how to treat people. … I’m just grateful the game of golf has allowed Al to come into my life. I can’t imagine how many people he’s touched. I’m just one story. He deserves the best.”
As he finishes up at RiverRidge, Mundle isn’t taking on new clients, but he’s completing any ongoing series of lessons with clients, and will attempt to work with former clients who wish a final session before he leaves at the end of April.
Mundle said his relationship with RiverRidge owners Ric and Debbie Jeffries has been special, and he’s profoundly grateful for his 17 years there, but those feelings have clearly been shared both ways.
On April 17, RiverRidge will stage a farewell for Mundle on the grass practice tee from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Debbie Jeffries said the public is invited for some final golf tips from Mundle.
(As a retirement gift, Jeffries said, patrons are invited to bring a bottle of wine, to help the Mundles start their retirement wine cellar.)
In Walla Walla — Ann’s family has roots there — Mundle will join the country club and confine his lesson-giving to local junior clinics, to which he’ll donate his time, and perhaps to discussion sessions on teaching with area pros.
Beyond that, Mundle simply wants time to play golf.
“I’m just like anybody else,” he said. “I want to improve my game. I’m going to have some time to practice, and then go out and tee it up. I really haven’t taken the time to do that.”
(Mundle still plays well enough, Jeffries said, that he’s shot his age just about every year for the last decade.)
For Mundle, the lure of the game has been life-long.
“It’s the fact that you can’t be perfect,” he said. “It’s always a challenge to improve, and it’s also a challenge on your own mental approach to life and golf. It’s so much like life, because not everything works the way you want it to work, and you learn how to compete and be a good sport, and if you lose you accept it but strive harder to improve yourself.
“I think that’s what really draws a lot of people to golf, that it is always a challenge to your own mental capacities.”