Maybe it was six months of playing the game left-handed. Or maybe it was that summer at the Harbour Town Golf Links bag drop, where he was coaxed from his shell by a dose of adult responsibility. Or perhaps it was inheriting the most God-awful golf program in the ACC.
Whatever it was, Puggy Blackmon learned to improvise.
Blackmon found fertile soil for his active imagination growing up in the small Lowcountry town of Ridgeland and at the scruffy, nine-hole golf course its townsfolk built nearly 50 years ago.
“It was a great, great place to grow up,” said Blackmon, who was recently inducted into the Georgia Tech Sports Hall of Fame, on the strength of a 12-year tenure that produced four ACC coach-of-the-year awards and PGA Tour players David Duval, Stewart Cink, Briny Baird and Charlie Rymer.
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“I’m grateful for this honor,” said Blackmon, who now is the director of golf at the University of South Carolina, “but a lot of this is a result of a lot of hard work by a lot of other people.”
Many of those people — including his parents, W.D. and Doris Blackmon, who live in Okatie’s Chechessee community — are scattered throughout Jasper and Beaufort counties. And although Blackmon has not lived in Ridgeland in more than 30 years, he is as familiar to the folks at the Sergeant Jasper Golf Club as he is to the worn grip on a trusty putter.
“Puggy’s going into some hall of fame,” Sergeant Jasper general manager Jerry Walker says into the discolored, cordless phone that serves the clubhouse on Country Club Drive.
“Got a reporter here who’s doing a story on him, and he might want to talk to you,” he says before handing over the receiver.
On the line is Fred “Doc” Ducey, a Ridgeland veterinarian and founding member of “The Sarge,” as members call the club. Before Sergeant Jasper opened in 1960, the nearest course was 30 miles away, in Hampton County.
“There just wasn’t much to do in Ridgeland back then, and 30 miles was a long way to drive,” Ducey said.
So a group of avid golfers decided to build a course for themselves.Blackmon and Ducey’s older son, Tommy, who lived few houses apart, spent much of their spare time at the Sarge, dodging water moccasins as they wallowed in the club’s ponds and ditches in search of golf balls. On Saturdays, they caddied for the adults — $1 per round.
When Blackmon and Tommy Ducey weren’t carrying clubs, they were swinging them. W.D. Blackmon is left-handed, and Puggy taught himself to play with a set of his father’s old clubs. His first right-handed clubs originally were a Christmas present from W.D. to Doris that Puggy commandeered.
With no club pro to teach him, Blackmon learned by emulating the swings of Sergeant Jasper’s best players. He gravitated toward low-handicapper Gary Tate.
A golf swing was the first of three life-altering gifts Tate gave to Blackmon. The second was a trip to Augusta National to see his first Masters. The third was the hand of his daughter, Gail.
Nearly 40 years and three children later, the couple is still married.
LEARNING THE ROPES
Blackmon was born in Beaufort in 1950, and the family moved to Ridgeland when Puggy was about 2, after W.D., then a line foreman for S.C. Electric and Gas, was transferred.
“He’s always been a dreamer,” said Blackmon’s younger brother, Randy, who served three terms as Jasper County’s sheriff and now is chief of the Columbia Metro Airport Police. “He’s not unusual or weird, but he has always thought outside the box.”
So what did it matter if Blackmon came from a course that didn’t have a driving range ... or if he wasn’t exactly sure what a driving range was until Ridgeland faced McCracken High School in a match at Sea Pines’ old Marsh Course?
If Blackmon didn’t know all the ways of the golf world back then, he and his teammates at least knew how to play their home course.
The 1968 Class B state championship tournament was held at the Sarge, and Blackmon and Ducey helped Ridgeland finish ahead of its nearest competitor, Cardinal Newman, by 43 strokes, at the time a state record for margin of victory, according to S.C. High School League records.
After high school, Blackmon spent — or misspent, as he recalls — one year as a student and golfer at Baptist College, now Charleston Southern. The following summer, he played a round at the Sarge with Ducey, who convinced him to transfer and join him at Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, Tenn.
The Eagles were getting their golf program started, and Blackmon said he was the team’s first scholarship player. In some respects, he was the school’s first coach, too.
“The coach was a non-golfer,” Blackmon said. “I did a lot of the recruiting and drove the bus sometimes and things like that.”
As a senior, Blackmon won a regional championship that qualified him for the nationals. He chose not to play, however, so he could take his first job, as an assistant professional at Fripp Island’s Ocean Course in 1973.
He was hired by Paul Bergen, a former pro from Hilton Head Island’s Shipyard Plantation. Blackmon said they inherited a club with more bills than grass and brought it back from the brink of bankruptcy. Flush with success, Blackmon and Bergen departed for the newly opened Sandestin Beach Resort in Destin, Fla. — which they promptly drove into bankruptcy, Blackmon said.
Failure didn’t diminish Blackmon’s interest in golf management, but he decided if he was going to be serious about it, his business degree from Carson-Newman wouldn’t suffice. So he enrolled in Clemson, where he earned a master’s in land economics and did a two-year, state-funded study on time-share properties on Hilton Head Island.
Then came stints with a golf investment firm and several resort companies. He also got involved in junior golf while in Jacksonville, Fla., which led to his selection as the coach of the 1981 U.S. Junior World Cup team. Competing in Ireland, Blackmon led future PGA Tour players Billy Andrade and Sam Randolph to victory, and with the Junior World Cup slated for its U.S. debut the next year in Atlanta, Blackmon was asked to serve on an organizing committee that included several Georgia Tech alumni.
“That fall (of 1982), Georgia Tech had finished dead last in every single tournament,” Blackmon said. “And a group of these people I had met through the World Cup approached me about taking over the team that spring.”
Blackmon accepted with little idea what he was getting himself into — the Yellow Jackets were a miserable team with miserable facilities.
But that didn’t stop Blackmon from walking into a fraternity house where most of his new golfers lived and declaring their goal would be to win the ACC title.
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YELLOW JACKETS RISE
That spring, Georgia Tech met Blackmon’s goal.
No, the Yellow Jackets didn’t win an ACC title. Rather, they met a more modest goal Blackmon set after coming to his senses — with a scrappy final-round performance, Tech edged Maryland to finish next-from-last in the conference tournament.
Misery had plenty of company in Georgia Tech’s athletics department in the early 1980s, but the golf team’s modest success in Blackmon’s first spring was part of the turnaround under athletics director Homer Rice, who had brought in young Bobby Cremins to coach the basketball team a year earlier.
Blackmon discovered a flair for fundraising and started the booster club that still supports the Yellow Jackets’ golf program, according to the school’s Web site. He raised money to improve the school’s golf facilities and to fund Tech’s self-perpetuating golf scholarship endowment.
Blackmon also proved adept at out-recruiting powerful conference foes, such as Wake Forest and North Carolina.
One of Blackmon’s first prized recruits was 1983 AJGA Rolex player of the year Bill McDonald of Dalton, Ga. Blackmon arrived at McDonald’s home course for a recruiting visit in a helicopter, then whisked the boy away for a tour of Atlanta. Rice met them at the landing area to present McDonald with a letter from Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, and Blackmon took McDonald for a ride in the “Ramblin’ Wreck,” the school’s gold 1930 Model A Ford Sport Coupe.
“We followed the rule book, but I think after that recruiting weekend, they added a few pages to the rule book,” Blackmon said with a laugh.
The over-the-top effort helped Blackmon wrestle away McDonald from Oklahoma State, North Carolina and Georgia.
“Looking back on it, I think Puggy might have enjoyed politics more than I did,” said his brother, Randy. “He was a great pitchman.”
Other top-shelf golfers, such as Duval, Rymer and two-time Verizon Heritage champion Cink, followed. So did success. After a fifth-place finish in the 1985 ACC tournament, which netted Blackmon his first conference coach-of-the-year award, the Yellow Jackets finished first in 1986.
ONE GOAL REMAINS
Blackmon left Georgia Tech for USC in 1995 and served as the men’s coach until this past year, when he became director of golf for the men’s and women’s programs. His successor with the men’s team was McDonald, the recruit he had wooed by helicopter two decades earlier.
Blackmon talks regularly with Cink and is Duval’s swing coach.
At age 57, he conceded he no longer has the energy the Gamecocks need from their coach to win a national championship, one of the few goals Blackmon has not fulfilled. That’s why he handed the reins of the men’s program to McDonald, leaving himself to raise money and find a place for a new, on-campus practice facility.
“I’m having a blast. I probably haven’t had any more fun in my life,” Blackmon said. “Pretty good for a old boy from Ridgeland, I guess.”
Jeff Kidd is editor of the Beaufort Gazette