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Gaither forged winners through tough love

Some call him stubborn. Others say he is headstrong and uncompromising.

Larry Gaither may at times admit to all of those traits, but to the man whose Hardaway High School golf teams captured eight state championships, they are not flaws; they are ingredients coaches of young men need to convert individual players into winning teams.

Gaither, 64, spent 35 of his 37 years at Hardaway coaching golf. He ended his career tied with Glynn Academy coach Herman Hudson of Brunswick for the most state championships. Along the way, his teams also won 23 regional championships, seven Hardaway Invitational Tournaments, three Southern Cross victories and four Marietta Invitationals.

His peers say he impacted high school golf more than anyone else in the state, which is why the Georgia High School Hall of Fame this year will induct him into its ranks.

But first, his local admirers will have their opportunity to praise him. Saturday at 7 p.m., the Chattahoochee Valley Sports Hall of Fame honors Gaither as a 2009 inductee onto its roster of greats who significantly have contributed to area sports.

Gaither, a graduate of Columbus High and the University of Georgia, didn’t start out as a golf coach in 1970. He initially was a baseball coach at Hardaway, a post he held for two years — and might not have left at all if it hadn’t been for a junior high teacher whose son was about to move up to Hardaway.

“The Hardaway golf coach was leaving, and I was at the golf course one day when Col. Oscar Burford, who was teaching at Richards Junior High, saw me,” Gaither recalled. “He said his son played on the golf coach at Hardaway who played golf.

“He said, ‘How ’bout you being the golf coach next year?’ Well, he was a pretty strongwilled personality who didn’t take no for an answer, so he called (Hardaway principal) Dewey Renfroe and told him he had found a golf coach.”Developed program

Gaither went to Charlie Harper, teaching pro at Columbus Country Club, and Columbus College golf coach Nelson Ross, receiving tips from each on how to approach his new task. He wanted to be certain he would have a program that not only got young athletes involved in a competitive high school program but prepared those with sufficient talent for golf at a collegiate level.

The first thing he noticed was the lack of consistently strong competition to push his players. In 1973, teams played three-way matches consisting of nine holes played after school hours. The season ended with a regional tournament played on Callaway Gardens’ Mountain View course.

“We had a little above-average season but had gotten beat up pretty good by Baker High School, where the Anton brothers — Gary and Tom — played so well,” Gaither said.

But the regional tournament got the Antons off their home course at Fort Benning. Gaither’s team, led by Wade Burford, took the trophy Baker had so monopolized. His first year at the reins brought Hardaway the regional championship.

“That made it easy, enjoyable,” he said. “Players started seeing that they could compete with anybody in town, or in the state.

“We developed a program that we felt would prepare us to be state contenders, not just regional. We built a schedule that kept us motivated, well structured, and the players had to buy into that.

“They had to give up a lot of their free time. They had to give up junior-senior proms to go out of town to golf tournaments. They had to give up spring break. They had to practice because we had tournaments to play in.”

Ricky Smallridge, who was on Hardaway’s 1975 and 1977 state championship teams before becoming an All-America and All-SEC golfer at Auburn University, said Gaither was definitely a disciplinarian and a very competitive individual.

“He had his beliefs, and he stuck by what he thought was right. He wasn’t wishy-washy … and he didn’t compromise,” Smallridge said. “We didn’t just go to these tournaments and matches just to show up. We were of the mind-set that we wanted to win.”

Sought challenges

By seeking out larger tournaments with more teams and better golfers, Gaither made successes mean more, and winning — while an important goal — wasn’t what it was all about.

“He gave us an opportunity to see how good we were,” said Smallridge, now a golf pro at the Auburn University Club. “We could have sat here in Columbus and won our local matches, but I don’t think we would ever have known how good we were without going to these other state tournaments and events.”

Smallridge also recalls that he wasn’t a very able golfer as a Hardaway freshman, but Gaither gave him an opportunity to be a part of the team, to learn and to develop. In fact, he never teed it up in the 1975 state championship. Gaither allowed him and others to travel with the players who would compete for the title, with Smallridge caddying for one of his teammates.

“It meant a lot to me just to go to that first state tournament and be a caddie, to feel like being part of the team,” Smallridge said. “That just made me want to play in it even more.”

Smallridge dedicated himself to getting better and better, and Gaither helped make it possible, he said.

“He gave me a chance to be part of that team, although in all rights, I wasn’t deserving of it based on golfing ability,” Smallridge said. “He took a chance. He didn’t turn his back on me, and that’s one thing I appreciate the most.”

Created tournament

Part of building a competitive program, Gaither said, was playing in competitive events against the best teams available. One of those in the early 1970s was the Marietta Invitational, to which Marietta High School coach Lester Williams invited the Hardaway team in 1976.

Williams told Gaither the state needed more such tournaments and not just in the Atlanta area, if high school golfers were going to develop to their full potential.

“He said, ‘Now, Hoss, you go down to Columbus and get a tournament down there, and I’ll get some of the better teams from Cobb County and we’ll come down and play in your tournament,’ ” Gaither recalled.

With support from the Bull Creek Golf Authority and pro Hugh Royer Jr., Gaither and Hardaway administrators and volunteers launched the Hardaway Invitational. It began with eight to 10 schools from Georgia playing 36 holes in a oneday event.

“It was such a hit that the next year our phone started ringing off the hook, and, before you knew it, we had 20, then 30 teams,” Gaither said. “Today, we have 48 schools, with teams coming from Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina and throughout Georgia.”

It became a more competitive tournament than the state championship, with many soon-to-be professional golfers testing their mettle at the Hardaway Invitational, including Davis Love III, Bob Tway, Bill Bergen and Vicki Goetze-Ackerman.

Tested players

Preparing for such tournaments meant more than just hitting balls on the range the days before the event began. For Gaither’s teams, it meant competing for a playing spot, and that meant playing your best in sometimes testing conditions.

Brandon Bridges, who played for Hardaway from 1990-93, recalls one pre-tournament test in 1993 that required team members to play 36 holes on the last practice day.

“We all wanted to go to a concert that night, so, after playing 18, we said, ‘Forget this,’” Bridges said.

With Gaither not present at the time, the players took off for home to get ready for the concert.

But one freshman player was still at Bull Creek when Gaither drove up. He asked where all the other players were. And the freshman told him they had left after 18 holes.

“About the time I got home, I got a phone call from Coach Gaither,” Bridges said. “He said, ‘If you don’t get back out here, you’ll never play another round for me.’ ”

Bridges said the whole team sped back to the course, where they finished playing, then sat and listened to the coach for another hour or more.

“It was long enough to make sure we were not going to the concert,” Bridges said, laughing.

“I just tried to coach the golf team the way Sammy Howard coached football, or Jimmy Lee coached basketball, or Grant Scott coached football,” Gaither said. “I felt if their winning ways were good enough for their sports, it was something golf needed to try to instill in its players: The team is first, and the individual is second.

“Growing up, golf had always been an individual sport, but this was going to be a team effort, and that was the way we were going to do it. I just wouldn’t deviate from it. I believed in those principles, and I wasn’t going to let people change my mind.”

Respected by peers

Believing in that program and in each other is what built those teams into champions, Gaither said.

Butch Jones was the Jordan High School baseball coach when he was asked to take on coaching his school’s golf team, a task about which he knew little. After taking a series of golf lessons that might allow him to impart some fundamentals to his future players, he turned to Gaither for advice on how to coach the sport.

“He sat down and showed me how he goes about it, what to look for and what to expect from these young players,” Jones said.

Over the years, as he watched Gaither and his teams, Jones said he came to admire how he got so much out of his players.

“He stayed on his kids to do the best they could. A lot of coaches in this state have the utmost respect for Larry Gaither,” Jones said.

Gaither said many programs in the state had great golfers, and in competitions, those superlative players could be counted on to lead their schools’ teams, but Hardaway’s program emphasized the team.

“We could always find a way to win, and I think we were able to accomplish that because our players believed in the program and believed in each other,” Gaither said. “They didn’t play for second place; they played for first place.”

With the quality of golfers always involved in the Hardaway program and Gaither’s emphasis on the team concept, individual golfers had to continue to improve to play in the competitions, Bridges said.

“You were kind of forced to get better, whether you wanted to or not,” Bridges said. “He was pretty serious about it.”

But now, Gaither is serious about teaching his next golf team — his one grandson and four granddaughters.

“That’s my golf team now,” he said.

Gaither, whose teams included girls long before Georgia schools fielded separate girls golf teams, said he is proud to have counted among his teams’ numbers such outstanding talent as: Jenny Holder, later a standout at Troy University; Terri Norris, who went on to excel at the University of Alabama-Birmingham and is now a teaching pro; and Angela Jerman, who was a member of the University of Georgia national championship team and is now a professional on the LPGA tour.

He also is proud to have started the Georgia High School Golf Coaches Association, of which he was president for several years.

Also among his successes is a plan allowing two schools from each region to advance to the state tournament, instead of only the regional victor, and working for a change to allow six players on a team, instead of only four or five.

“It’s been a great run for me,” Gaither said. “I’ve been associated with a lot of young men who played for me, parents who made it easy for me, administrators and faculty who gave their support.

“They could have shut you down in a heartbeat, but they were there for us,” he said.