Wetzel about more than golf

There's a remarkable gentleman living and working in our town, a long-time master builder of golf clubs. I had the real pleasure to visit recently with Bob Wetzel of Sierra Tahoe Golf.

Wetzel, born in Portland, Ore., was adopted by the Wetzel family and raised in Yreka, Calif., along with a brother and sister. His granddad and family were lumber people who worked in mills and in the Oregon woods.

For more than 50 years, the family cut persimmon wood and brought train loads to Cottage Grove to dry, then cut it into 9-by-6-by-6 inch blocks to make golf club heads during the winter. It was there that Bob Wetzel learned a skill that would serve him over the years.

The Wetzels sold the heads to companies around the world - 4,800 sets every three months. He explained that persimmon was used for 1-6 woods, and laminated maple for higher woods because it was stronger. Laminated maple was cured by sound waves and would not shrink away from the sole plate like persimmon did.

The family had a three-floor barn, which was full of hay in the winter, and there was a huge woodwork shop. And they used to have dances on the upper floor. Bob recalled how the men were all good with their hands; some early family members built ships in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and one worked on the original church in Virginia City, which was built only with wood pegs - no nails!

Bob spoke of Aloyius Wetzel, who was a timberman in Oregon and Washington. When he sold his holdings, it became Weyerhaeuser Lumber Company.

Bob remembers when Mt. Shasta was called "Sisson" and Yreka was "Thompson's Dry Diggings." "Yreka," he said, means "big white mountain."

Zane Grey wrote two books about Louis Wetzel, way back when Ohio was a territory. And Bob's cousin Jerry was a ski coach at the University of Nevada, Reno, and started the junior ski program in Nevada. Bob was a jumper on the Olympic Ski Team, but World War II and the Korean War came along, and he didn't get to compete.

Bob was discharged from the Marine Corps in 1946, went to college in California for two years, then was called back into the reserve. He was assigned embassy duty in Havana, Cuba, of which he said he "had a really tough job, but somebody had to do it."

He picked up crews every day, guided them through customs, took a courier to the embassy, exchanged pouches - all when "most guys were freezing their fannies in Korea."

Bob came to Carson City in October, 1948. His mother and stepfather had moved here a couple of years earlier and owned the Carson Smoke Shop and pool hall. They handled and delivered the Nevada State Journal, which cost $1.75 a month because it had the Sunday paper, and the Reno Evening Gazette, $1.50 a month because there was no Sunday paper.

The only other place in town to get the paper was Kitzmeyer Drug, which sold 15 copies because the ladies in those days did not want to go into the pool hall. Bob's folks had their own slot route in the old Minden Inn and in Virginia City and the old Centerville. And they liked to go to Reno to play the slots.

Bob owned the lease on the Arlington Bar for a while on Carson Street. He remembers the neighbors: the museum and old mint, the Capital Bar, Duk In Cafe, Rexall Drug, and others. He said he would open the bar early and sweep and stay till 1-2 a.m., and maybe make $12-$15.

This was in the days before the Mills Park golf course, and he used to play at Washoe Muni, the only golf course in Reno at the time. He would play with Corner Bar bartender Tuffy Buchanan, Senator Johnson and "Tex," the owner of the Duk In.

"I never had the game to be a pro," he says. "I got to the last rung of the U.S. Open once to qualify as an amateur, and won with a score of 67 at Crane Creek in Boise - that was the top of the line for me. But I really started playing a lot when Mills Park opened, and became a good solid four handicap."

Bob went to Jackpot for a while, did some teaching, and most of all, he had the first three hole-in-ones on that course - two on No. 4 and one on No. 7.

Every Monday, Bob and some buddies went somewhere to play in a ProAm. He moved on to become assistant golf professional at Glenbook for eight years (did you know that's the oldest golf course in Nevada?) He has a map showing the current nine holes as the middle nine; it was to be a 27-hole course, but WWII interrupted those plans. He recalls that the Chinese cooks lived upstairs over the horses in the old barn, which is now gone.

Then, for many years he had shops in Las Vegas and a business interest in Aurora Golf in Riverside and Corona (he still has an interest in Riverside), during which time he was making persimmon and laminated maple clubs. He built clubs for numerous celebrities, including Jackie Gleason, who played with nothing but woods.

When he left Las Vegas to return to Carson City, Bob was going to retire, but instead opened a small shop for his son downtown on Telegraph. However, the shop was too small, became surrounded by parking meters, his son had moved on, and his own interest had piqued again - so he relocated to his present location on Hot Springs Road.

Today, in addition to staying busy making and repairing metal woods and irons for individuals, he also supplies more than 350 companies with logos on golf clubs and bags, including Coca Cola, NAPA Auto Parts, Pepsi Cola and Kiwanis, to name but a few. He can put a logo in the cavity of the iron with as many as seven different colors.

He recently was listed in "Who's Who Executives in America," and that opened new doors for him and wife, Laura Lee. Wetzel designed, is having manufactured and is distributing the "tiger claw shoe," which is now available at northern Nevada Raley's stores and in Sacramento. You may have seen them on local kids, or on Bob himself.

Recently he was approached by a gentleman in Las Vegas while wearing them who just had to have some in size 16. Turns out he was from Cincinnati. Get it? Home of the Bengals.

Two of the three styles available have been approved for golf; Justin Leonard has a pair and Glenn Campbell came into the shop and bought five pairs. Bob believes the next shoe coming in, which is being manufactured by a company in Las Vegas, may be the next big thing in athletic shoes.

Wetzel also has in stock a new club grip that he consulted on; it's made of a strong material that won't absorb moisture, is durable, and its soft resin interior makes for a better feel in the hands.

Wetzel is a multi-talented and generous man. He makes clubs and donates them to individuals, hospitals, churches and many worthy causes. For his Yreka High School 100th anniversary recently, he made a set of clubs, donated them for a raffle, and more than 4,000 tickets were sold.

This is indeed one interesting gentleman. He owns a club and a spoon (the "Georgia Peach"), which is equivalent to a three wood. The club was made by MacGregor in 1926. And he has an original of the Saturday Evening Post dated Sept. 11, 1926. On the cover is a picture of Ty Cobb with a golf club on which the hickory shaft is engraved "Tyrus the Greatest," and Ty's signature.

This is the only cover not painted by Norman Rockwell; it was done by Lawrence Toney and is the only cover of the magazine he ever did.

Wetzel has a vast knowledge of golf clubs, past and present, and plans to continue putting it to use. His wife Laura, a retired Bank of America manager, works closely with him in the shop. Hmmmm ... there's that word - retired; but it obviously won't apply to these two for a long time.

"I only wish all this had come along 40 years ago," he said. "But we're having a lot of fun."

This man has a fascinating past - it would be possible to write about him in installments! If you'd like to visit with Wetzel, you can reach him at 882-7909.

Dottie Kelley is a regular contributor to the Golf Links Page.

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