A series of letters from a longtime mentor made all the difference in Dottie Pepper’s storied golf career.
Family members certainly played a role in getting Pepper hooked on the game, but it was the late George Pulver Sr., who helped shape her career. Pulver was the longtime Head Professional at both McGregor Links and Saratoga Golf & Polo. He also designed the Brookhaven Golf Club and nine holes at Saratoga Spa.
When Pepper was a teen, Pulver helped her hone her skills and character on the course. The two became pen pals and sent approximately 100 letters to one another before Pulver’s death in 1986.
Pepper pays tribute to Pulver in “Letters to a Future Champion: My Time with Mr. Pulver,” a book that includes their letters and chronicles their mentor-student relationship.
Pepper, a Saratoga Springs resident, is a 17-time winner on the LPGA Tour. Since retiring from competitive golf in 2004, the 57-year-old has become the lead walking reporter for CBS Sports’ golf coverage of the PGA Tour, Masters and PGA Championship.
All of that comes back to Pulver.
“The things that I learned in that six and a half years working with him set the stage for my entire playing career as a professional and into what I do now in broadcasting,” Pepper said.
Ahead of a book signing set for Sunday at the Open Door Bookstore, The Gazette spoke with Pepper about how she got to know Pulver and the process of writing and publishing the book.
Q: Can you take me back and tell me about how you got into the sport?
A: It was family. Primarily my paternal grandmother was a golfer. When my dad left the game of baseball, he like, so many others, turned to golf for recreation and competition. So I was at the very porous age of around 8 years old and I loved hanging out with both of them.
I didn’t have to be on a team. I could do it by myself or I could do it with other people and I loved it right from the very beginning.
Q: Did your grandmother or your father first teach you how to play?
A: Neither. My grandmother got me a series of five lessons from a journeyman professional that used to come through this area during the summer. He did a little bit of teaching, he did a lot of playing the ponies. But he gave lessons at the old Murphy’s driving range in Saratoga.
She bought me a starter set of junior golf clubs from Walton sporting goods here in Saratoga and in a series of five lessons so that I had some sort of a command of the fundamentals of the game before I would go to a golf course. I started, as I hope so many people continue to do, over at the Par 29 in Saratoga. It’s a short course that’s not super-intimidating [and has a] welcoming atmosphere. My first golf was played there.
Q: How did you first meet George Pulver?
A: We met where I played golf at Brookhaven with my grandmother. She bought me a junior membership and it was $100 for the whole season for kids to play golf.
I met him and his wife Martha through playing up there. He was the golf course designer, and while he was retired, he was still really involved in their agronomy and any golf course fixes or changes that were made.
Shortly thereafter, my dad opened a driving range in Wilton called Duffers Den and Mr. Pulver and his wife and their family would come up and they would hit golf balls. I just watched him do his thing, helping his family and helping other people. So that was how we got more into the teaching and mentorship part of our relationship.
Q: How did the letters begin?
A: I wrote to him and Martha asking for help finding tournaments to play in locally and regionally because I wasn’t able to get my hands on entries. That just started a flow of back and forth that went through that winter of ’79-’80 and then, throughout the next summer, I had a couple of good tournaments that he wrote to offer congratulations and little things to maybe think about, but we didn’t become teacher-student until the spring of ‘81. The letters went from early in ‘80, all the way through his death in ‘86.
Q: How many letters did you send back and forth over the years?
A: It was just about 100. I kept them all and when COVID lockdowns started in March of ‘20, and I started going through those letters, I had time to write a book that I never had before.
In April of ‘20, I opened up a previously forbidden file. [Mr. Pulver] didn’t want me reading about how other teachers taught and golf mechanics but he was endlessly curious about things like that. After he passed, I was given a portion of his golf library and it had a lot of things that he had cut out and saved. I thought, ‘Well, I guess it’s okay to open this now. It’s been 30-some years and I’m not playing golf at a competitive level anymore. Let’s see what he thought was important about golf.’
I found exactly what I thought I was going to find and started putting them in chronological order, but what I also found was every letter that I wrote to him. It was all in that same folder.
Q: Were you back in Saratoga when you started working on it?
A: Yes, in my basement. We updated the router situation so I could write and research. I spent a lot of time there. Then, when I went back on the road in June with CBS when things started to open up a little bit and sports television came back on, I took it with me.
Q: What was it like to go back through those letters that you had written and put yourself in that mindset again?
A: Some of them were really happy memories, others were not. There were certainly a few tears shed. It was really introspective to be able to go back 40 years.
Q: Were there any challenges in writing and publishing it?
A: To this day, the designer, the editor and myself have not sat in the same room. I learned about Zoom and how to edit online and I was taken step by step through the whole process by the editor from Mission Point Press.
The challenges were also, how do I decide what weight paper we use? Are we going to go black and white? All of those elements had to be navigated and then getting a domestic printer because I didn’t want to have books printed in Mexico [or] in China. I wanted them to support the American economy. I also didn’t want to wait in the queue for boats that were getting stuck waiting to be offloaded.
We went through the first printing and sold through it very quickly and had to go to a second printing. That’s when the Delta variant hit. So we were backlogged with trying to get through the printer in southwestern Missouri, which [was] really hard hit with that particular variant.
There were lots of complications through the whole process that we just had to go step by step and be patient about it. And [there were] no in-person book signings. it’s really hard to launch a book when you can’t do book signings.
Q: In terms of responses from readers what have you heard so far?
A: I’ve had people blame me that they got nothing done for two days while they read it, which was great.
I think the thing that resonates most is that people have been reminded [of] mentors in their life and they’ve rekindled relationships that maybe went a little stagnant or [with] people [who] moved away. They’ve gotten in touch with people that were important to them and then given the book to maybe a kid that they’re mentoring now.
I’ve had a couple of college programs use it as a basis for teaching golf course management. It’s been really a cool thing to see how it’s impacted people differently.
Q: Anything else you want people to understand before they dive into the book?
A: It’s [about] the power of a mentor and mentee relationship, no matter what the age difference may be. But also that we have a charitable partner in Saratoga Warhorse and 10% of every sale goes directly to them for their veterans’ programming. It’s using off-track courses through equine therapy, and it’s free for any returning member of our military.
Pepper will sign copies of “Letters to a Future Champion” at the Open Door Bookstore in Schenectady on Sunday from noon to 1:30 p.m. For more information visit dottiepepper.net and opendoor-bookstore.com.