A Swinging Success

Without the help of his family, the Vineyard golf community, and other advisers, Tony Grillo might never have capitalized on his own drive to win. Now with two state junior championships in the bag, the Islander begins a new chapter at Harvard.

When Antonio “Tony” Grillo was three years old, he and his mother, Kate, were at Farm Neck Golf Club in Oak Bluffs picking up his father, Joe. As it happened, President Clinton and his entourage were on hand. Seeing the adorable little shaver, who had white-blond hair and was missing a front tooth, a Secret Service agent envisioned a perfect photo op with the chief executive.

“Do you know who that was?” someone asked Tony after he posed with Clinton.

In complete innocence, the youngster replied, “A really good golfer!”

“He’d be really pleased if you thought that,” a Clinton assistant said.

If any Vineyard kid was born to be a really good golfer, it’s Tony Grillo. Indeed, you might say that eighteen-year-old Tony is at the top of his game when we meet in mid-June. Winner of the last two state junior championships, owner of a better-than-scratch-plus-two handicap, he has just graduated as class salutatorian (second highest academic ranking) from Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, won the math leadership prize, and celebrated his acceptance to a little red schoolhouse called Harvard. Even his flaws are endearing. Arriving at a Model U.N. Conference at Yale, Tony realized he didn’t have the right clothes for dinner and had to rush off to the Salvation Army for shoes, and borrow a blazer.

Who could ask for more?

With his tousled brown hair peaking out of a Farm Neck cap, Tony beams while enjoying lunch on Farm Neck’s restaurant patio with his father, Joe, who himself has an eight handicap and has done well at Farm Neck tournaments. They are preternaturally close, as only a father-son team that routinely spends five hours a day on the golf course can be. Kate says that golf has kept them together beyond the time when a father and son naturally separate. Tony knows that any time he’s down, his father can buck him up.

At five foot six or seven (he’s not sure which) and 125 pounds, Tony looks like somebody’s kid brother, and in fact his older brother, Joe Jr., a graphic designer, has just graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design.

Is it unusual for someone from an isolated place with only a few golf courses to make such an outsized splash?

Tony, all but gagging on his chicken Caesar wrap, and Joe, looking up from his Cobb salad, can hardly get the words out fast enough. The Vineyard is nothing if not a help-out place, they say. Where else would citizens, unbidden, donate $950,000 for college scholarships? Where else would a private organization like the Edgartown Golf Club reward Tony for his performance and personality with occasional jobs, and up until age twenty-five, free play. And where else but at his home course, Farm Neck, could he get help from so many crack teaching pros like Don Costello, Kyle Fiore, and Alasdair Watt?

“Farm Neck is very supportive of junior golfers,” says Tony’s mother, an assistant teacher in language arts at the Tisbury School, “and the young golfers are so polite and friendly. I was at Cronig’s [Market in Tisbury] the other day, and Luke Pisano [one of Tony’s high school teammates] made a point of coming over and talking to me.”

Many young golfers get golfed out from constant play, practice, and lessons. At one point during a tutelage that saw Tony win five tournaments as a fourteen-year-old, Alasdair Watt, a native of Scotland who lost in the finals of the 1987 Scottish Amateur to Colin Montgomerie, gave him some simple yet critical advice: “Take a day off.” At times Tony will practice, ride his bike through Farm Neck to meet friends at the beach, and then return for more practice. Sometimes after tournaments his friendly rival Max Campion, who lives in Falmouth, has been known to take Tony back to the Island on his boat.

“We are so lucky on the Vineyard,” Kate says.

Tony’s greatest blessing is his parents. “The three things we’ve tried to teach our kids are honesty, respect for others, and respect for yourself,” says Joe.

These are nice qualities, but how do they apply to golf? Simple. The game is overwhelmingly one of self-control. As Yogi Berra might have said, golf is 90 percent mental, and the other half is physical.

Tony learned at an early age how to control the mental part. “I hit a bad shot and yelled ‘Jesus!’” he says, “and my dad flipped out. It wasn’t the word as much as losing my composure. It’s one thing to be mad, another to be mad and show it.”

“You can’t let your anger show,” says Joe, who runs his construction company, Tashmoo Restoration, when he isn’t golfing. “Keep it to yourself. Otherwise you distract yourself and the people playing with you.”

Turning to his father with obvious appreciation, Tony adds, “I’m one of the calmest kids on the course. I’ve reached a point where I can miss a two-foot putt and laugh at myself.” Indeed, Tony is so relaxed in competition that he will speak to his caddy about almost anything but golf.

The joke was that the Grillos never needed a baby sitter, because Tony learned the game around age five and was always at Farm Neck, where administrators let him play when he was about as tall as his clubs. Tony’s first playing partner was his father, who caddied for him in July at the 2008 Massachusetts Amateur in Marion, where he reached the quarterfinals of the 144-player event and lost on the eighteenth hole, but he was also allowed to play with others from the start. “I’d be out there every day, probably annoying people,” he says.

To the contrary. “He’d come out as a single, and you could see people at first thinking, ‘Oh, no, we’ve got to play with this kid,’” Watt says. “By the end, they’d be complimenting him as a gentleman and a golfer.”

Every time you say, “Tony Grillo is a great golfer,” people reply, “He’s a great kid.”

“He was playing with me and my wife, Edwina,” says Al Badger, a resident of Oak Bluffs and Farm Neck employee who collects and recycles balls at the driving range. “‘Mr. Badger, do you mind if I say something?’ he said. ‘Think about teeing the ball a little higher.’ We did, and it made all the difference.”

The Grillos live in a modern New England farmhouse Joe built in a Tisbury meadow, where toddler Tony hit ball after ball. One evening the Grillo adults were having cocktails at their neighbors’ house when one of the hosts said, “We have a present for Tony.” It was a bag of balls Tony had hit onto their property.

Tony swears he first played in the Farm Neck junior tournament at age eight and lost his match in a playoff hole. Joe thinks Tony didn’t compete until the sixth or seventh grade. The club only has records of winners and runners-up. Everyone agrees, though, he was soon too good for the event. Always smaller than his peers, Tony couldn’t reach many greens and compensated by mastering chipping and putting. Now that he hits 250 to 260 yards off the tee (still well short of his opponents, he maintains), he can reach the greens, where he cleans up with his superior short game.

The word most often used to describe his shot making is consistency. If his woods aren’t working, his irons are; if his irons aren’t working, he saves strokes with chips; if his chips go awry, he pars with his putting. “I’ll come in with a bad round, and it’s a 76,” he says, “but the next day I’ll shoot a 68.”

Tony’s sweet, petite girlfriend Hannah Frank, about to be a freshman studying international business at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., says the secret to his success may be something that goes beyond practice, expertise, or study. “When we met at the Model U.N. trip to Yale, he showed me his college essay, which he also used in his graduation speech,” says Hannah, who was attending Connecticut’s Suffield Academy at the time. “He wrote that he was such a perfectionist he sometimes thought too much and lost confidence. He decided that it was best to trust his instincts.”

Tony remembers the day he dedicated himself exclusively to golf. “I love basketball, but I wasn’t going to make the NBA,” he says. “When we were taking the bus to Farm Neck my freshman year, a classmate named Mike O’Donoghue said, ‘You have something special. Why don’t you go for it?’”

Committing yourself to a sport in twenty-first-century America requires competing all year, lifting weights, viewing videotapes, staying abreast of the latest technology, and practice, practice, practice. “Good players avoid reading tips in Golf Digest,” Joe points out. “Hands-on is what counts. And there’s a lot you can do over the winter, like working on your swing without hitting a ball and working on your technique on the course. People spend too much time watching where the ball goes on the practice range.”

Golf arguably demands the most intense focus of all major sports. “You almost never have a home game, and there’s a tremendous commitment of resources and time on the part of the family,” says Stephen “Foon” Feinstein of Providence, a longtime organizer of junior events including the U.S. Challenge Cup and Future Collegiate World Tournament; he advised the Grillos which tournaments would give Tony a national ranking and the best exposure to college coaches.

At one time or another, Tony has been the top-ranked junior in Massachusetts, among the top five in New England, and in the top fifty of his graduating class nationally. Inevitably, the Grillos hopped on the boat in search of the best practice facility nearby, and they found the Harmon Golf and Fitness Club in Rockland. This wonderland has a driving range with a grass tee 160 yards wide and a heated, covered area that allows golfers to practice in snow and rain. There’s a wedge range, putting greens, chipping areas, a bunker “complex,” a nine-hole course, and a nine-hole short-game course. Oh, we’re just getting started. In addition to the usual elliptical machines and treadmills, the five-thousand-square-foot fitness center has golf-specific training gear to improve strength and flexibility.

When he visited Rockland, Tony shanked his first three shots before the club’s director of golf, Tom Cavicchi, corrected him with a counter-intuitive instruction. (Many golfers think they shank because they’re standing too close to the ball, so they move back. In fact, a golfer shanks when he brings his hands down in a different arc than he takes them back. Cavicchi told Tony to keep his hands close to his body going back and coming down.) He continued working with Tony, giving him video lessons and using a “launch monitor” that measures the distance, spin, and launch angle of shots. Cavicchi knows Tony’s game so well that when Tony calls him up to describe a problem he’s having, Cavicchi can often correct it over the phone. “We’re always adjusting, based on setup, swing, and equipment,” Cavicchi says. “He has a good, balanced, efficient swing.”

You can see why many young golfers eat, drink, and dream the game. And that can be a problem. “Lots of players let their academics slide,” Feinstein says. “Tony is the exception.” One can imagine him buried in schoolbooks and building up his grades and his 2,100 (out of a possible 2,400) SAT score while flying to places like Virginia, Iowa, Florida, and Missouri for tournaments. Two years ago, he finished among the leaders in an event at the PGA National course in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, took an 8 p.m. flight to Boston, and teed off at 8 the next morning en route to the Massachusetts junior title.

Halfway through his sophomore year in high school, Tony sent letters to some fifty colleges. “Schools I liked or mascots I liked: the Hokies!” he says. He eventually based his decision on intangibles as well as academics. “I liked the friendly nature of the Harvard team, the coach [Jim Burke], the chance to play at The Country Club in Brookline as our home course.”

Though he calls Tony a “long longshot” to make the pro tour, Burke admits his accuracy, short game, and course control remind him of Jeff Sluman, who this June won the Bank of America Championship at Nashawtuc Country Club in Concord. “Tony needs to carry the ball farther,” says Burke, a one-time defenseman for the University of Maine hockey team. “It’s not just overall strength, but his golf motion. He still has a way to go in improving his swing.”

No matter how well they prepare, virtually all golfers face an uncertain future. The skills are so refined that it takes a quantum leap to advance from one form of competition to another: club play to junior competition; junior preeminence to state amateurs and opens; from there to college; college to mini-pro events, and finally to the pro tour. Unless your name is Tiger, you’d better hit the books and prepare for alternate employment just in case.

Does Tony’s commitment to the New England winter and rigorous academics of Harvard – he’s thinking of majoring in economics – signal that he’s pessimistic about a pro career? “Absolutely false,” he says. “It’s the best school in the country, and I’ll have a chance to play right away. At the end of four years, I’ll assess where I am and what I can do. Some guys are not doing big things, but still traveling around and playing in tournaments. Whatever happens, it won’t be the end of my world.”

With that, Tony bags half of his chicken Caesar wrap and asks his father what time it is. Any minute now, this well-rounded young man is scheduled to start a shift at his summer job as a Farm Neck bag boy.