Sometimes, Larry Dornisch cannot believe his good fortune.
Now 70 years old, he has been the head golf professional at Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio, since 1996. Before that, Dornisch worked for some of the best clubs in America, from Philadelphia Cricket Club and Sawgrass Country Club to Lost Tree Club in North Palm Beach, Florida.
“I have loved everything about my job as a golf professional,” he said. “The lifestyle. The wonderful people. Being outside. The challenge of becoming a better player myself. The challenge of helping others improve their games. The merchandising. Playing with members and guests. And making everyone feel welcome.”
Dornisch especially liked the role he played each spring as the host professional of the Memorial Tournament, which his longtime friend and boss Jack Nicklaus has staged at Muirfield Village since 1976. And Dornisch took particular pleasure in this year’s event, even if there were no spectators on the golf course – and no people for him to meet, greet and make happy.
“I was sitting in my office on Saturday when I heard Jim Nantz and Jack talking on television about me,” Dornisch explained. “Jim is also a good friend, and together they said I was receiving the Bill Strausbaugh Award.”
That’s a major in Dornisch’s world, given by the PGA of America each year to the person who has distinguished himself or herself for mentoring young professionals. And bestowing it on Dornisch was a no-brainer when one considers that more than 30 of his old charges have gone on to become head professionals, directors of golf or general managers at clubs in the United States. As a rule, the honor is announced at the PGA’s annual meeting, which is held in the fall. But the pandemic prompted the PGA along with Nantz and Nicklaus to break protocol by breaking the news during the Memorial. In addition to giving Dornisch a good surprise, it put a shine on an already impressive career that goes back to caddying in his youth at Cobbs Creek Golf Club in Philadelphia.
It also serves as a reminder of just how far Dornisch has come.
Raised in Upper Darby Township, just outside the City of Brotherly Love, Dornisch grew up in a neighborhood of row houses. His father toiled as a machinist for the Budd Company, a metal fabricator that made rail cars and automobile components. And his mother took jobs as a clerical worker as she also raised her children.
“I had two brothers and a sister, and they were older than me by a lot,” Dornisch said. “My father fought in World War II, and I came along in 1950. I was the baby to save the marriage. But that didn’t work, and my parents ended up divorcing.
“The war changed a lot of people. It changed a lot of families, mine included.”
“I once caddied in a foursome that included Charlie Sifford. Another time, I was with a group that had Joe Louis, the boxer. And the guys fleeced him pretty good."
As a child, Dornisch often sought refuge at Cobbs Creek. The municipal facility, located in nearby Fairmount Park, boasted two courses – one of which was built by Hugh Wilson, the designer of the iconic East Course at nearby Merion Golf Club. “The place became a real escape for me,” he said. “I caddied there. I wandered along the streams looking for golf balls I later sold to players. I found ways to sneak onto the courses to play a few holes at dusk, staying mostly on the ones that ran along the road, so I could take off if any of the park guards saw me.”
In those days, Cobb’s Creek was a gathering spot for some of the best African-American golfers in the country, a rare facility that truly welcomed people of color. World Golf Hall of Famer Charlie Sifford was a fixture there, once he moved to Philadelphia from Charlotte, North Carolina, and began working in the shipping department of a local Nabisco facility. So were local players like Bill Bishop and Howard Wheeler.
“I once caddied in a foursome that included Charlie Sifford,” Dornisch said. “Another time, I was with a group that had Joe Louis, the boxer. And the guys fleeced him pretty good. They gambled a lot at Cobbs Creek. They loved golf and had a lot of fun with the game.”
During high school, Dornisch worked summers at Paxon Hollow Golf Club, mostly caddying and cleaning carts. After graduating, he spent one last season there before taking a job in the mail department of Rohm and Haas, an industrial chemical concern. “College was not an option,” Dornisch said. “Nobody in my neighborhood even thought of doing anything but going to work after high school.”
Then in spring 1968, Dornisch accepted an offer from Philadelphia Cricket Club to be an assistant to Bob Ross. “I didn’t realize at the time that you could make a living in golf like that,” he said. “But I liked the idea of being around people, and being around the game. I was also pretty convinced that I did not want to work in the mail department at Rohm and Haas anymore.”
The Vietnam War was raging when Dornisch started at Cricket Club, and like many young men of that era, he began thinking of how he might avoid combat. A club member was an admiral in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and he encouraged Dornisch to enlist in that branch of the service. So, that is what he did, in fall 1968. Two years later, Dornisch went on active duty.
“First, I was stationed at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, and I played some golf during that time for the base team,” he said. “Then, I was sent to Antigua, in the Caribbean, where I worked as a security guard and also as a barber. It was pretty good duty. I lived off base, got to drive around in an MG Midget and was on duty mostly nights, which gave me all day to have some fun.”
In 1972, he returned to the States, and to his old job at the Cricket Club. In the years after that Dornisch held a number of positions as a PGA club professional. He helped Ross open Sawgrass Country Club in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, in 1973, and served as an assistant there for several years. Then, in 1977, Dornisch assumed his first head position, at Sunnybrook Golf Club in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania. Nine years later, he began running the golf program at Lost Tree in Florida. Eventually, he also took a summer job at the toney and very much under-the-radar Tarratine Club of Dark Harbor in Islesboro, Maine.
Lost Tree was the home club back then for Nicklaus, and that is where he and Dornisch became friends. In fact, they developed such a strong relationship that Dornisch asked the Golden Bear to be a reference when he applied in 1996 to succeed his mentor Ross as the head pro at the Baltusrol Golf Club in New Jersey.
“But that same year, Jim Gerring, who had been the head professional at Muirfield Village since its opening, decided to retire,” said Dornisch, whose wife, Carol, is an avid equestrian and the mother of their two grown sons, Andrew and Peter. “So, Jack approached me about taking the Muirfield job instead of going to Baltusrol.”
That’s what Dornisch ended up doing, and 24 years later, he still holds that position – and still marvels at all the game has given him through the years.
He is a very lucky guy at that.