MODESTO — Henry Solario is addicted to all things golf.
The satisfying click of a well-struck 5-iron. The moment when one of his students finally makes solid contact. Decades-old memories of his days as a caddie and scratch player at Modesto Municipal.
Solario, 81, shows his golf credentials with his leathery dark skin, born of years walking the local fairways. As a 19-year-old, he finished 3-3-3 and shot 6-under-par 66 at Del Rio Country Club. Today, his teaching skills and homespun personality have inspired thousands of senior-citizen students and golfers of all ages at McHenry Golf Center, where he gives lessons and spins stories collected on the golf scene for nearly 70 years.
In 2010, the lifelong Modestan was inducted to the Modesto High Hall of Fame. From selling cars to hitting it long and straight, Solario remains a civic treasure and a walking time capsule of local golf.
Q: Where do you find your most enjoyment as a golf instructor?
A: I enjoy teaching seniors and juniors, but my enjoyment is when I see people hit the ball well, I tell them, "You can take it to the bank." I've done my job. As long as you can hit one ball straight, you can play golf. That's what keeps me going. I teach basic skills. You think Arnold Palmer read the golf magazines about swinging the club? No. He says, "Swing whatever you got. Swing your swing."
Q: At one time, you taught a few visually challenged golfers. How did that work out?
A: The only problem I had is that I had only three, and I couldn't get people to pick them up and take them to me. When I had them out on the range, I just lined them up and told them to swing. That worked for one of them, Evelyn Burris, who was a good golfer, but it was harder for the others who had not played golf before. I would line up the putter on the green for them and let 'em swing. I played with a blind guy once at Muni and he shot a 42 for nine holes. He had a grandson who would line him up. He would walk on the green and read the putts with his feet!
Q: What was more satisfying to you, playing a great round or giving a great lesson?
A: Giving a great lesson. I was a scratch player, but I enjoy more what I'm doing right now. Helping people to have fun with the game is the best reward. I like to see people laugh and enjoy the game.
Q: Your introduction to the game was tinged with fate. It was almost like golf was your destiny.
A: When I was 12, I was riding my new Schwinn bicycle to a friend's house and we were going to compare our balsa-wood airplanes. I was riding on the road to the left of Muni's No. 9 (today, No. 6), and a golf ball dented one of my spokes. The guy who hit my bike was Morley Theaker, who was the second president at Del Rio. He gave me a dime and then asked me, "Would you like to caddie for me?" I made $1.60 that day, and my younger brothers Ruben and Rudy and our friend Henry Rios became caddies the next day. We could make $1 a loop, but we would double-bag, so that's $2 a loop, with sometimes a tip. During those days, I could take a quarter and go to the Strand Theater and buy a Coke and some popcorn and still have 4 cents left over. What I always wonder is what really got me into golf the ball that hit my bike, or my balsa-wood airplane.
Q: What is the most important quality in building a good swing?
A: Tempo. A nice and easy swing and keeping your balance. To do this, you have to have a good grip. Without a good grip, you can't hit the ball good.
Q: Seniors can't swing the way they used to when they were more limber. How do they adapt in their later years?
A: I tell them not to swing hard. That can throw your timing off. I also tell them to hit the ball with your right hand (for right-handers). The left hand is the guide, and you hit the ball with your right hand. Home-run hitters get their power with their right hand. Ferris Fain (a two-time American League batting champion with the Philadelphia Athletics during the 1940s) believed that. I went to the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles for two weeks with Joe Zakarian (former Del Rio head pro) for a golf clinic. Fain was there. He said, "I get it from my left hand (he was a lefty). If I use my right hand too much, all I'm going to get is a little Texas leaguer over second base."
Q: You attended that great exhibition match that Ben Hogan played in not long after Del Rio opened. Any memories?
A: On No. 7 (of today's Oak course), Hogan asked his caddie LeRoy Silva, "What's the yardage?" LeRoy said, "It's a 3-iron," and Hogan said, "Son, I didn't ask you what iron. I asked for the yardage." He shot 69. But back then when we caddied, we knew after a few holes how far our guys hit the ball, so we would just give them the right club. If we were at about 100 yards, we would say, "A smooth 9-iron or an easy 8." There were no yardage numbers on the sprinklers at that time. We might have a marker or a tree for 150 yards away.
Q: Would it be fair to call the caddies hustlers when they played?
A: We were all hustlers. There was a guy named Oakdale Andy and he would love to putt against us for nickels. To this day, I always think he let us beat him because he always paid us in quarters. We had a lot of fun at Muni and at Del Rio, too. We didn't play for a lot of money, but I remember one time when we got to No. 6 at Muni (today, it's the par-3 third), and the loser on that hole had to buy the Cokes at the store across the street. The can openers hung from a tree near the green. I lost, but I had only 15 cents in my pocket, and they cost a nickel apiece, so I had to get the cans and go thirsty. From that day forward, I always make sure I have enough money in my pocket to cover the bet! One of the guys that day was Freddie Bumgardner (for whom Del Rio's annual junior tournament is named).
Q: What are your thoughts about Muni and its future?
A: The First Tee is doing a great job out there. I'm on the committee now. They're thinking about building a new clubhouse at Muni. The course is in good shape. They just need to regrade the tees. I hope they never close Muni. It's a tough course. Are you kidding me? When we played it years ago, there were more traps out there. The old No. 1 (today's No. 7) was 30 yards farther, but they moved the green forward to make room for the ballpark (the remodeled Thurman Field next door). At old No. 7 (today, the par-4 fourth), I used to hit driver and 7-iron or 8-iron. Today, it's driver-hybrid and I hope to reach the green!
Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2302. Follow Ron via Twitter, @modbeesports.