By Mike De Felice
Special to Kitsap Daily News
PORT ORCHARD — Lush fairways, rolling greens, colorful azaleas and the world’s top golfers are all part of the Masters, the year’s most prestigious golf tournament being held this weekend in Augusta. Someone sure to be tuned into the championship will be Port Orchard’s 84-year-old Bobbie Stewart.
Bobbie Stewart? South Kitsap’s favorite small business owner, visible community member and South Kitsap civic booster?
For those who don’t know the affable Stewart well, she will be eagerly awaiting the premier golfing competition for good reason.
The unassuming owner of the Olde Central Antique Mall on Bay Street has had quite an impressive relationship with golf. For those who don’t know, she was a member of the teaching division of the Ladies Professional Golf Association, or LPGA, in her younger days.
In her heyday, Stewart was one of the country’s top golf instructors, helping kids and adults to improve their swing and card more pars and birdies. Her teaching skills also helped her pick up some distinguished national awards.
Stewart’s professional teaching career spanned from 1975 to 2002. During that time, she was named LPGA Professional of the Year in 1985 and was twice selected as LPGA’s Teacher of the Year. A tile bearing her name is displayed at the Golf Hall of Fame in commemoration of her devotion to the sport.
As a professional instructor, she did not play in tournaments but, over the years, she was able to watch some now-famous players during their formative years.
At the start of Stewart’s career in the mid-1970s when golf was largely viewed as a men’s sport, the fledgling LPGA had nowhere near the notoriety it has today.
“Women were just beginning to get into golf,” she said. “I wasn’t trying to make a stand. I was not a women’s libber but women did have to prove themselves more.
“I was a single mother with kids trying to be successful.”
Stewart picked up golf as a youngster while playing on the high school team. Later while attending classes at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, she was instrumental in getting the college involved in golf tournament competition.
“I helped organize a girl’s golf team. After the team was formed, the school asked me to be the coach,” she said.
Once she became the team’s coach, Stewart had to find a course that would let the players practice and play for free. She convinced Singing Hills Country Club in El Cajon, California, a high-end resort and golf complex featuring three 18-hole courses, to accept the team.
Over time, the head professional at Singing Hills watched how Stewart worked with her players and came away impressed. He asked Stewart to join his staff. She was put in charge of the golf shop, coordinating the purchase of clubs and clothing, and became the starter.
“It was a good spot for me. I was an easy talker and an organized person who could coordinate players teeing off at the three golf courses,” she said.
Stewart, who had an outstanding swing and shot in the low 80s, soon began giving lessons to children and women.
“I loved working with kids. They actually listen to you. Adults think too much,” she smiled.
It did not take long for her teaching skills to catch the attention of the male club members.
“At the beginning, the men thought I could only teach their wives,” she said. However, when husbands saw how quickly their wives improved after receiving lessons from Stewart, men began coming to her for instruction.
In addition to working at the golf facility, she took on the job of coaching the San Diego State University women’s golf team. Her Aztecs competed against UCLA, Stanford, Arizona State and other schools that had been known for attracting top players.
Stewart’s ability to teach was so impressive, the Singing Hills men’s club decided to help Stewart earn her professional teaching credentials. To acquire these required her to fly to Pinehurst, North Carolina, a golf mecca, to undergo a test.
“I was poor and raising four kids on my own,” she recalled. “The men’s club decided to pass the hat and collected $1,000 for me to go. I didn’t even have luggage. The men’s club did this on their own as a gift. They took care of me.”
The final step to becoming a certified LPGA teaching pro required Stewart to give a lesson in front of a panel of female professional instructors to someone who had never touched a club.
“They took a person off the street and I had to teach him. He turned out to have the perfect swing. So, it was hard to teach him because he was a natural. [Panel members] sat back and kind of grinned. I had to find something to help him. But I knew golf, so it was fine.”
After conducting a successful lesson, the panel awarded her a “Masters Card” that qualified her to be an LPGA teaching professional — for life.
Over her years at Singing Hills, Stewart was fortunate enough to see some famous up-and-coming golfers play the game.
She remembers seeing 8-year-old Tiger Woods play with his father.
“I was impressed that he was small and had a great golf swing.” Stewart also saw Phil Mickelson compete in a junior amateur tournament.
Stewart enjoyed a 27-year career in the sport before she decided to put away her clubs.
“I had put four kids through college and decided I wanted to retire,” she said.
Of course, that retirement did not last long. She became involved in philanthropic work at a local children’s hospital and opened up an antique shop in San Diego. That business experience would later help her when she moved to Port Orchard. In 2006, she took over the Olde Central Antique Mall, which she has operated ever since.
The only evidence in the antique store of her remarkable golf career is a wooden plaque that hangs near the front door. The plaque on display is a replica of the original one that was destroyed in a fire years ago. The Port Orchard Chamber of Commerce arranged to remake the award and presented it to her at a chamber gala.
While her irons and woods have long since been stored away, Stewart very much remains connected to the sport.
“I watch every tournament there is — men’s and women’s. I don’t miss a single one. I know every player,” she boasted.
Stewart is impressed at how far today’s professionals can hit the ball down the fairway.
“It’s pretty unreal. The equipment is state of the art. It makes sense that in 30 years it would improve.”
This Sunday afternoon when the final round of the Masters tournament is played, it is no surprise that Stewart will be glued to her television to see who wins the tournament and is awarded the traditional green jacket.
And who might need a little help with their backswing.