Bill Bassler lived life around golf, and the game is all the richer for it


April 19, 2005|By John W. Stewart

IT'S THE WAY Bill Bassler would have wanted it.

His passing 12 days ago went virtually unnoticed except by the local golf community in general and his extended family at Rolling Road Golf Club in particular. Although that's the way he lived his life for 77 years - no fuss, no fanfare - he deserved to go out with more recognition.

As it was, he slipped quietly away, with the sounds of the opening round of the Masters tournament in his ear. Death was attributed to septic shock.

Bill Bassler was associated with Rolling Road for nearly 60 years, going back to the 1940s, when he accepted a job as an assistant professional under the guidance of his oldest brother, Charlie. Bill had been offered baseball contracts with Cleveland and Detroit, but when Charlie asked about bonus money and Bill didn't know, the pro suggested his brother come work for him, "play golf, and have a good life," and he certainly did.

The Basslers are one of the old-time families in Catonsville, and the last three generations were, and are, a tight-knit group. The youngest of five children, Bill was 7 when his father died at age 49, and he was pretty much raised by Charlie, probably the biggest influence on his life. Now in his 80s, Charlie is the sole survivor of the five.

Bill succeeded Charlie as Rolling Road's head professional in 1959 and held the position for 22 years. He was then named director of golf, and son Billy succeeded him as head professional, a position he still holds today.

Bill Sr. loved his family, including sons Billy and David, but also was one who extended this love to his work. He enjoyed being at the club, interacting with the members, presenting a gruff shell over a cream puff center, and some of the members will tell you one did not feel accepted until Bill had yelled at him or her. And, oh, the stories.

Ask him what he liked about the job and he'd reflect on the club's annual Middle Atlantic PGA pro-am. Or the MAPGA match play championship that used to be held at the club, and there were the annual Maryland State Golf Association's team matches, an event Rolling Road has won five times.

Last year was an especially thrilling one for Bill, as he watched Rolling Road win that fifth title and his grandson, Matt, became the youngest men's club champion at 18. "That was the crowning glory," father Billy Jr. said.

As a player, Bill's most notable accomplishments were winning the MAPGA assistants' championship in 1955 and beating a stellar field in the 1963 Salisbury Open. He wasn't a long hitter, but he drove it straight and was a deadly putter. Although he loved to play the game, Bill, an "old-school guy," was the consummate club pro - providing service to the members, particularly delighting in their successes and extending a hand to visitors as the perfect host.

Bill liked having the area's best pros and amateurs play his golf course. They'd look at the scorecard of slightly more than 6,000 yards, figure they were going to tear it up, then walk off humbled, shaking their heads. It seemed fitting that when one of Rolling Road's longtime champions, Joan Winchester, was honored for her accomplishments in golf last week, a speaker used words from Aristotle. They applied to Bill, too.

"Excellence is an art won ...

"We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly.

"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act but a habit."

For years, almost to the end, Bill had lunch every day, usually with the same group, at a corner table in the club grill. That's when the stories flowed, riveting the audience. As it was, there were only two speakers, a club member who provided the light touch with some recollections and stories, and a clerical friend of Bill's who took care of the spiritual thoughts.

After the service, two lines of RRGC women, each holding a flagstick from the course, flanked the sidewalk. At the cemetery, two lines of men made an archway of irons for the gathering to pass under. Later, back at the club, members provided the final tribute, lining up with clubs and balls for a 21-gun salute, similar to the one PGA Tour pros held for the late Payne Stewart. Bill would have been embarrassed, but he'd have loved it.

A club member provided a fitting finale when he said he was concerned because he didn't know where Bill was, because the pro always had maintained that Rolling Road was heaven.

John W. Stewart, a retired Sun sportswriter, has covered golf in Baltimore for more than 40 years.

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