Dug from the Dirt: The Ballard of Rancho Park’s Steven Vilts
Some of his students call him “Mr. Golf.” Or the “Golf Whisperer.” Or the “Golf Savant.”
Why? Because Steven Vilts, club professional and longtime instructor at Rancho Park GC in Los Angeles, has a knack for finding a tiny flaw in your swing and helping fix it, sometimes with immediate and impressive results.
“He once corrected my swing just by listening to it over the cell phone — and he wasn’t even at the driving range!” recalled Dan Wenke, who describes himself as one of Vilts’ students, friends and a consultant who helps with his business issues. “He’s kind of like Clint Eastwood in the movie “Trouble with the Curve.”
Like the aging baseball scout played by Eastwood in that sports flick, Vilts also is in the latter stages of his career, though he is anything but slowing down. He’s 73 and has been working out of Rancho Park for 40-plus years, continuously except for a couple of brief sabbaticals.
Vilts isn’t sure how many thousands of lessons he’s conducted — only that he’s given “more lessons than anyone on Planet Earth” during the past four decades — since longtime Rancho Park head professional Ron Weiner hired him in 1982 to join the teaching staff.
Because of all of those lessons, routinely working 10- and 11-hour shifts six and sometimes seven days a week, Vilts believes GOLF Magazine took notice and named him one of the “Top 100 Teachers in America” one year.
What’s remarkable about that, and about Vilts’ life story, is that he is a self-taught player, saying his family didn’t have enough money for him to take lessons while he was growing up. Born in Lafayette, La., he moved with his mother to Texas when he was young and remained there through high school.
How did he learn to play golf without lessons?
“I dug it out of the dirt,” he said.
That’s what Ben Hogan, the late, great Texan, used to say: “The secret of golf is in the dirt.” Which is to say, practice, practice, practice.
Vilts has worked hard to get where he is, to overcome what he did, especially as one of the few longtime Black golf instructors in the country. (Fewer than one percent of the estimated 29,000 PGA-certified club professionals in the country are Black, according to Golf Digest.) There are even fewer published African Black, as is Vilts, author of “The Tri-System Golf Swing.”
“Aside from being an excellent golf instructor, I admire, respect and appreciate the road that Steve had to take to get where he is,” said Patrick Harris, another Vilts student and close friend. “The golf profession has not always had the welcome mat out for people of color. In spite of this, Steve has made a successful career in teaching golf at one of Los Angeles’s most prestigious public courses, despite being from a generation — born in the ’50s and from the South — that did not always have equal education opportunities and the benefit of being able to play on a level playing field.”
When Vilts left Texas after high school, he came to the West Coast and attended LA City College, where he played on the golf team as his interest in golf intensified. He briefly worked at Wilshire CC before a friend at Griffith Park, a public facility, took him to Rancho and introduced him to Weiner.
Thus began a long and distinguished career at historic Rancho Park GC, where Arnold Palmer won three LA Opens, where Jack Nicklaus made his PGA Tour debut and where Vilts wants to end his teaching career. That last wish is no longer a given.
Vilts left Rancho in 2000 to try to qualify for the 50-and older PGA Senior Tour in Florida, but that did not work out, so he returned to Los Angeles.
“When I came back, I went into the [Rancho Park golf] office,” but I was told, “‘You left. You can’t teach here anymore’ But I didn’t say a word.”
He let others, his loyal students and friends, speak on his behalf, and he ultimately was allowed to resume teaching at Rancho.
That’s where he’s been ever since — until this past January, when he was told, again, that there was no teaching spot for him until he became PGA-certified.
There was an uproar, from his students and friends, Wenke and others writing letters of support and threatening to get the ALCU and NAACP involved if Vilts wasn’t allowed to resume teaching.
Again, Vilts got his spot on the driving range back, but only temporarily. He has been given until the end of December to become PGA-certified, which essentially requires passing certain tests.
Rick Reinschmidt, golf manager for the City of Los Angeles Rec & Parks Golf Division, issued a statement when asked about Vilts’s situation and whether the PGA certification is a new requirement or a longstanding policy.
“In order to give instruction at an LA City Golf Course, a Right of Entry (ROE) permit is required,” Reinschmidt said in the statement to FORE Magazine. “Only a limited amount is available at each facility. And ROEs are not guaranteed each year. We do require being an Associate, Apprentice or Member in good standing in the PGA of America or LPGA.
“This has been a requirement for many years. Some instructors that worked for previous private concessionaires were ‘grandfathered’ in to continue teaching via ROE permit, but that extension will expire at the end of this year.”
Vilts merely says he’s “working on” getting PGA-certified. And he repeats several times that he is “blessed” to be able to do what he has done for so long and blessed to have been able to work with so many young and talented golfers over the years. And he says he loves Rancho.
Giving lessons is Vilts’ passion, his profession, his livelihood and his raison d’etre.
The Golf Whisperer just wants to keep teaching.