Tribute to a cantankerous, tap-dancing LA golf guru

For the past 50 years, thousands and thousands of Angelenos learned life lessons from a cantankerous, tap-dancing golf guru who was as charming with his brilliant wit as he was unsparing with his blunt critiques.

Ed Coleman died of old age in a Santa Monica hospital room Saturday night much the way he led his life--without notice or fanfare or a family member at his side. He was unworthy of an obit in the Los Angeles Times. He was 92.

ed-coleman-kids.jpgEd is believed to be the only instructor in the history of the Professional Golfers' Association of America to have given more than 100,000 lessons. He began his teaching career in 1949 on Long Island and, since 1965, gave as many as ten lessons a day, six days a week at Rancho Park Golf Club, one of the busiest public courses in the nation.

And he had the scars to back up his longevity--dark divots on his face from skin cancer after six-plus decades of standing in the sun and an occasional leg wound from being struck by an errant shot.

"There have been times when I thought I was a dead man," Ed told sports columnist Bill Plaschke for a 1996 profile.

His students included athletes from Jesse Owens to Jerry West along with attorneys, actors, directors and agents, among them comedian Jeff Garlin of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and Mark Ordesky, executive producer of the "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

Ordesky produced a documentary entitled "A Charmed Life? The Ed Coleman Story." In the film, Coleman recounts how he met President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a child and dated golf legend Helen Hicks for a decade.

"She never came after me with a golf club," Ed cracked, referring to the 2009 assault on Tiger Woods by his then-wife. Long before Woods went into a career tailspin, Ed made no secret of his contempt for what he saw as Tiger's intellectual dishonesty, on-course tantrums and self-centered attitude.

A D-Day survivor, Ed quirkily celebrated his birthday each year on a day of infamy--December 7--even though he was born in May.

He once played nine holes with Babe Ruth. His favorite sport was tennis. He took up tap dancing relatively late in life as a challenging form of exercise.

"I tap dance because I needed to have something that I could do better as I got older. It sure wasn't golf," he told Plaschke.

Ed showed up at my 50th birthday bash in a yellow Tour de France jersey worn by Lance Armstrong--a cherished gift from a French soldier who became a close friend after they trained together before the Normandy invasion.

Ed lived alone in a sparsely furnished, one-bedroom Westside apartment. He never married or had children, but leaves behind a legion of admirers who for years paid $25 for a half-hour lesson that often veered far away from the mechanics of striking a dimpled white ball.

A search of his apartment this week turned up dozens of letters from appreciative former students thanking him for the lessons he taught them about etiquette, commitment and companionship.

It was not unusual for former students to show up unannounced at Ed's teaching stall at Rancho 30 years after their last lesson. Being a pupil of Ed's meant receiving--as well as enduring--unsolicited commentary on subjects ranging from military strategy to the art of dance.

"Ed taught me how to swing a golf club in the way his revered mentor, Ernest Jones, taught him," said Dave Baram, co-founder of a private equity fund who took approximately 250 lessons with Ed. "But more importantly, Ed gave me 25 years of life lessons in integrity, honesty, friendship and maintaining a healthy cynicism about all those who claim they know more than you do."

Many who were tutored by Ed in their youth brought their own children to him a generation later.

Three years ago, Beverly Hills attorney Neil Sheff introduced his teen-aged son to the same instructor who taught him golf and so much more. Ed and Max Sheff soon developed a pact: Ed would provide free instruction so long as Max got good grades in high school and committed to regular lessons. They began seeing one another every day as Max adopted the role of the great-grandson Ed never had.

"He has been a living history book for me, from golf history to American history; from the time he met President Roosevelt to fighting on D-Day," Max wrote in a school essay discovered in Ed's apartment. "Ed has taught me how to play the game of golf but more importantly how to treat others."

Westwood attorney Peter Steinman fondly recalled striking what he thought was a particularly good shot during one lesson with Ed.

"Even a blind squirrel can find an acorn," Ed grumbled.

Steinman replied, "So, I'm hitting the ball like a blind squirrel?"

"No, you're not that good," Ed deadpanned.

Every day around lunchtime, Ed could be found at the same table on the second floor above the Farmers Market at Third and Fairfax, where he consumed every article in the Los Angeles Times over coffee. His spot became a frequent gathering place for friends and visitors from out of town.

I first met Ed in the fall of 2000 shortly after returning to Los Angeles from a decade-long assignment as a Washington correspondent for the Times. During our initial lessons at Rancho, we talked more about Ed's favorite subject--the infallibility of the human species--than my crooked golf swing.

"We kill one another. We rob banks. We cheat. We lie," Ed told me. "If you can rise above that and be a decent person, then you have achieved something."

A stickler for detail with a memory like an iMac, Ed was an ombudsman's worst nightmare. As a teenager, he wrote letters pointing out mistakes to the sports editor of the New York World-Telegram. As an octogenarian, he cursed the laziness of gifted writers who got facts wrong--and was determined to set them and the record straight.

"I can't take it anymore!" he would tell me again and again. "There is a mistake virtually every day in every column. People don't know that so much of what they read is wrong."

The late Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist Jim Murray and the great New Yorker writer Herbert Walker Wind were among noteworthy subjects of Ed's vitriol. Another was Frank Deford, the iconic sportswriter.

Deford's exaggerations and distortions in his NPR essays and Sports Illustrated articles became a staple of our golf lessons. Ed was obsessed that such a talented, distinguished and (in his view) arrogant journalist could commit so many blatant errors.

In an effort to call Ed's bluff (and shut him up), I handed him a six-inch stack of printouts of Deford articles with a challenge: See how many factual errors you can find. Within a few days, Ed returned the printouts with handwritten notes scrawled in pencil detailing dozens of inaccuracies.

Every one of Ed's corrections checked out. That did it. Ed and I agreed to a quest that would lead me to interview Deford in his New Jersey home. Our journey was detailed in a Jan. 11, 2004 cover story I wrote for the (now defunct) LA Times Sunday magazine.

The article infuriated Deford, his loyal readers and his editors at SI. And it pleased Ed to no end.

Ed claimed he was born with a caul--a membrane covering the face that occurs once in every 80,000 births. Those born with a caul--among them Freud, Liberace and Napoleon--are said to be destined to a charmed life.

He was raised in Neponsit, Queens, a small affluent community that, Ed liked to point out, would later produce Bernie Madoff.

Rather than be drafted, Ed enrolled in the U.S. Army during World War II. The experience of riding a tank that landed at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944 with so much death and destruction around him left an indelible mark.

"After D-Day, everything in my life has been a breeze," he was fond of saying.

An accomplished sprinter, Ed failed in repeated attempts to qualify for U.S. Olympic teams in the 1940s.

"I can tell you what the back of Jesse Owens looked like better than anyone who ever lived, including his mother," Ed said in the "Charmed Life?" documentary.

Ed became a professional golfer in 1949 under the tutelage of Scottish professional Duncan Barr. But he wasn't good enough to play on the PGA Tour.

ed-coleman-vert.jpgSeveral years ago, I visited Ed in a hospital following the first of multiple heart failures. Woozy and laying flat on his back, Ed recalled how he had spotted his name on a wall chart as he was being wheeled into the ER.

"I finally made it to the top of the leaderboard," he whispered.

Ed said he knew "teaching was for me" after meeting and befriending the legendary Ernest Jones.

Jones was a professional golfer from England who lost his right leg below the knee from an exploding hand grenade in World War I. Within months, Jones was shooting par scores again despite standing on one leg.

"How could this be?" Ed often asked his students. "He didn't have a back foot. He discovered that, if he swung the club perfectly, it created balance."

Jones began teaching his simple concept in an instruction manual called "Swing the Clubhead," which he passed on to Ed.

When Jones died in 1965, Ed relocated to Los Angeles fulltime to teach at Rancho Park. Asked to sum up his teaching style, Ed returned to the basics:

"There is only one absolute," he would say. "You must hit the ball."

You never heard Ed repeat the clich├ęs uttered by most professionals when analyzing a golf swing: Keep your head down. Straighten your left arm. Turn your shoulders. Transfer your weight.

"The swing is a thing of feel, and you have to learn it," Ed would say.

For years, I pestered Ed to give me a playing lesson at Rancho when his basic instructions were not translating to the course. He finally agreed to do so, but strictly on his terms.

Ed arranged to pick me up outside the LAT downtown newsroom one weekday afternoon and drove us to Santa Anita Golf Course. We played nine holes together. He carried a fairway wood, a wedge and a putter. I marveled throughout at the sweet tempo of his swing. We then drove to Philippe, Ed's favorite downtown restaurant, for soup and a sandwich.

After dinner, Ed dropped me off next to my vehicle on the third floor of the Times' parking garage. Before leaving, Ed pulled out a boom box and pair of white shoes from the trunk of his sedan and started tap dancing on the concrete floor. The clickety-clack of his tap steps and the jazz music echoed throughout the parking structure.

I stood there with a big grin while thinking to myself, "What other old man in his late 80s does this?"

Only the Incredible Mr. Ed.

Glenn Forbes Bunting is president of G.F. Bunting + Co.. He took a buyout from the LA Times in 2007.

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