NWGMA Co-Founder Bob Spiwak Passes
NWGMA Co-Founder Bob Spiwak Passes
by Jeff Shelley
Long-time Northwest golf writer Bob Spiwak passed away January 18 at his home in Mazama, Wash. He was 85. Bob is survived by his wife, Gloria, daughters Vikki and Whitney, and son Scott.
He was also one of my best friends.
In addition to becoming a prolific writer about golf and abounding other matters, Bob was a truly humorous character, as evidenced by this part of his bio: “I took up golf in 1953 as a respite from the rigors of selling bibles door-to-door in North Dakota. My most treasured golf antiquity was a nod I got from former President Gerald Ford at the 1990 Golf Summit.”
After moving West from his New Jersey birthplace – with a brief stop in the Flickertail State to sell bibles – Bob became a Snohomish County deputy sheriff. He later moved from the hustle and bustle of the Seattle area to rural north-central Washington. There, he followed his diverse muses, writing and publishing hundreds of witty stories and becoming a well-known photographer.
Scott Spiwak related to me that one of his Dad’s favorite stories was when Ernie Els yelled at him during the Fred Couples Invitational. As the media director of the two-day tournament, I heard about this confrontation – which I blew off as “That’s Bob!” Among other duties, my job involved giving out press and photo credentials. Bob was the only media member to get both.
Bob raised Ernie’s ire by walking into a fairway to get a prime picture just as Els was about to hit. It’s not surprising that the then-young South African would have a short fuse as, the day before the Couples’ event, he was embroiled in the final round of the 1995 PGA Championship at Riviera (where the ragged putting surfaces were infamously painted green). The third-round leader, Els finished two strokes behind champion Steve Elkington of Australia. Both players boarded a charter flight to Seattle on Sunday night for Freddie’s party, with “Elk” appearing quite hungover.
Bob was published so many times that, if the family endeavors to wade through his work, it’ll have quite the task. Among his expansive portfolio were pieces for two of my books, The Northwest Golfer’s Almanac (“A Refresher Course on Golf Etiquette”) and Golf Courses of the Pacific Northwest – 3rd Edition (“The Charms of North-Central Washington”).
He was a contributing editor at Cybergolf.com, and penned pieces for Back Nine, Pacific Northwest Golfer and national golf magazines, including Golf Course News and Golfweek. Bob also edited and published the Goat Wall Street Journal, a satiric spoof named after a crag near his 4-plus-acre homestead. For decades, he penned Off the Wall articles and columns for the local Methow Valley News and Methow Grist. For another tribute about Bob’s literary role in the greater Winthrop area, visit https://methowvalleynews.com/2020/01/22/farewell-to-the-sage-of-west-boesel/.
One night in 1995, over some liquid refreshments and a roaring campfire at his property, Bob and I – both regular members of the Golf Writers Association of America and disillusioned with its East Coast bias – co-founded the Northwest Golf Media Association. Bob was truly surprised when he became the first recipient of our organization’s Local Legends award.
Bob’s love of golf was embodied by the nine-hole par-3 course he designed and built beside his house. Motorists along Highway 20 could see the golf flagsticks he’d planted among the trees. The ultra-private and almost mythical place, Whispering Rattlesnakes Golf & Flubbers Club, was meticulously tended and played by Bob, family and friends.
The sporty track featured tiny bent-grass greens, miniscule bunkers, several water hazards, tree-impinging (and occasionally mown) “fairways,” holes ranging from 30 to 110 yards, and all manner of wildlife. One night before a tournament, my wife and I were sleeping in the “pro’s cottage,” a pickup camper. At about 3:00 a.m. we were awakened by some ominous rustling and grunting outside. The following morning, we found evidence that a black bear had stopped by the course. Bob soon put a sign into what the visitor left behind. It read: “Bear poop, free drop.”
The place had a tiny clubhouse, which contained scorecards and many golf-related knick-knacks. It was where Bob built golf clubs, often giving his handiwork away to anyone willing to try them out. He also fashioned a memorable Rube Goldberg-esque ball washer. Measuring over five feet tall and stretching 10 feet wide, it was constructed of white PVC pipe. A golfer dropped his soiled sphere into the top orifice, then listened intently as it rolled back and forth for 30 seconds or so before being deposited into a bucket of water.
The only things that were not small about the course was the ball washer and Bob’s outsized influence on everything about it. When Bob got older and the golf turf became too onerous to maintain – including pushing around a 200-pound, walk-behind Toro greens mower, he let it go fallow, changing the name to Whispering Rattlesnakes Arboretum and Sculpture Garden.
The Spiwaks hosted several annual tournaments, whose proceeds variously benefited a Montessori school, the library and the Susan Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. Upwards of 60 people would participate in these, with a potluck and awards ceremony afterwards comically emceed by Bob.
They also held an event called the “Parker Smith Semi-Memorial,” named after an editor of a national golf magazine that Bob wrote for. Smith once fell off a second-floor patio and landed on a concrete slab below, with Bob a witness. Smith survived the fall with only a broken arm. But Bob thought Parker was capable of doing it again and, if so, he planned to scratch off the “Semi” and use the trophy for future tournaments. A fine player, Parker would fly out to the Methow Valley from his South Carolina home every year – accompanied by a different, beautiful girlfriend each time – to be sure he won his tournament.
The head pro at Whispering Rattlesnakes was Wiffi Smith, winner of the 1954 U.S. Girls’ Junior and 1956 British Ladies Amateur. After earning eight titles on the LPGA Tour, she retired due to injury and launched a new career as a highly regarded instructor for several pro players. Wiffi’s 18-hole score of 3-under 51 ensures she’s the perpetual course-record holder at Whispering Rattlesnakes.
Bob’s club had two founding members, Bob Elliott (of Bob and Ray comedy fame) and CBS News’ Charles Kuralt. When Spiwak explained the request in his letter postmarked Mazama, Wash., Elliott heartily agreed to accept the honor. Kuralt initially thought Bob was a stalker, but eventually relented after receiving several of Bob’s sincere epistles.
Bob, I and our respective families stayed close during our 30-plus years of friendship. Like soul brothers do. He always had a different pseudonym in his email closings to me, including “Booby Jones” and my favorite, “Bunkerputter Bob” (which stemmed from a real golf moment).
Bob Spiwak was one-of-a-kind, an American original. He will be sorely missed by all who knew and loved him. And there are many of us.