MANATEE -- The biggest celebrities of the day, including Bob Hope, Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle, Perry Como, Johnny Carson, Joey Bishop, Vic Damone, Carol Burnett and Morey Amsterdam, all came to Bradenton in the 1970s to hang with Phil Galvano.
"Golf coach to the stars," they called him.
He was a celebrity himself -- one of them.
"My dad was the first celebrity golf pro -- in fact, he invented it," says state Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton. The elder Galvano lived in Manatee County from 1969 to 1981, when he owned and operated the executive golf course called Santa Rosa on Cortez Road.
Manatee County's two-day 18th annual Phil Galvano Classic Golf Tournament begins Thursday with a private outing at Long Boat Key Club followed by a huge tournament Friday with 36 teams competing at Legacy Golf Club in Lakewood Ranch.
Hundreds will play in Phil Galvano's honor, all of them contributing registration fees toward a cause he would have relished: the Manatee Education Foundation.
Few of those golfers know who Phil Galvano really was, why he was named by Golf Digest as one of 18 people who had the greatest influence on the game, how he became friends with so many well-known figures or why last year's $289,000 raised for teacher grants and programs would have delighted him, Bill Galvano said.
Years have passed since Phil Galvano died from cancer in 1996.
But his family's memories are still vivid as they recall his life.
"It's nice to remind everyone once every few years who he was," Bill Galvano said. "He was really an incredible story."
An immigrant family
Phil Galvano was born in 1915 into a Sicilian immigrant family in New York. He was a teenager during the Great Depression and he became homeless, his son said.
"It was a challenging time and people couldn't find work," Galvano said. "Sometimes he would cover himself with a newspaper for warmth. In fact, later in life, when he had become a success, he still covered himself with a newspaper. I would say, 'Dad, let me get you a blanket.' But he said, 'No, I'm comfortable this way.' I think he was remembering those days."
His father's stories of life on the streets were the kernel that later created The Bill Galvano One Stop Center for the needy in Bradenton.
Phil Galvano took any job to survive. He worked in an umbrella factory. He worked in restaurants. If he had a little money, he would go into a shelter where he could get a cream soda, soda cracker and a cot for a nickel.
He started caddying on Staten Island to earn a living.
"They would do two loops a day, 18 in the morning and 18 in the afternoon and carry a bag on each shoulder," Bill Galvano said.
In the early 1940s, Phil Galvano began to play golf himself, reading all he could about it and practicing. He honed his craft. He set scoring records on some New York courses. He decided to become a club pro.
"Dad went to several clubs in the Catskills and they turned him away," Bill Galvano said. "They told him he looked like a dance teacher, not a golf pro. He had black hair and a moustache."
Phil Galvano had a friend in J.P. Morgan's niece and he told her his dream: Because country clubs didn't seem to want him, he would open his own indoor golf studio in New York.
"She let him borrow $2,000 to secure a location," Bill Galvano said. "They hung a canvas on a wall and you would hit golf balls into the canvas. We're talking mid-1940s, right after the war.
"Picture it," he added. "You have a guy teaching golf in the city, hitting golf balls into canvas, trying to make a living out of it. You have existing clubs discriminating against him. They were looking for something different."
His big break
One day, Bob Hope's agent happened into Galvano's Golf Academy on 42nd Street. After several lessons, the agent, as the story goes, told Galvano, "You are my secret weapon."
Galvano replied, "I'm starving here. You can't keep me a secret."
The agent sent Hope into the studio. Galvano improved Hope's game and, from there, Galvano started to draw attention.
Phil Galvano had a magic with clients, his family says. He knew instinctively how to help each golfer improve.
"My dad used to say, 'There is not a perfect swing. There is only a perfect swing for you,'" Bill Galvano said. "He would teach people within their physical capabilities. He would often make comparisons between martial arts or the fine art to get his points across."
In they came to the Galvano Golf Academy, including Carson, Damone, Burnett, Bishop.
Frank Sinatra became Galvano's friend. Amsterdam and Bishop became like family.
TV came calling.
"Phil had the first golf show ever on TV," said his wife, Betty Galvano, who now lives in Fort Myers but attends the memorial tournament every year.
By the 1960s, Phil Galvano was a golf guru whose cutting edge wisdom had been poured into two successful books, "Secrets of the Perfect Golf Swing" and "Secrets of Putting and Chipping," both published by Prentice Hall.
"Golf Digest named him one of the 18 people who had the greatest influences on golf for his teachings on the way to move your wrist when you putt," Bill Galvano said.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote a letter to a friend recommending one of Galvano's book, which the president read while recuperating from a heart attack.
"We recently found the actual letter on eBay and Bill bought it," Betty Galvano said.
Phil and Betty, who was a Vogue model, married in 1957 and had, in this order, Phil, Elizabeth, Bill, Richard, Peter and Mary. All are professional golfers except for Bill, who always wanted to be an attorney.
For their honeymoon in 1957, a friend, Bill Mote, who would later donate the funds for Mote Marine Laboratory, recommended Phil and Betty should go to Anna Maria Island.
That created a lifelong love for Manatee County and the Galvanos moved to the island in 1969, later buying a house at 1606 Palma Sola Drive where stars such as Amsterdam, who was known to the Galvano kids as "Uncle Morey," would come to visit.
The Santa Rosa golf course, named for Phil Galvano's mother, Rose, is now closed and has become the Timber Creek community between 59th and 66th on the south side of Cortez Road.
"My husband loved everybody," Betty Galvano said. "He just loved people. He wanted to help them. But he loved children more than anything. And he never stopped learning. There wasn't a night I didn't see him reading something. He would love that his tournament raises money for children and teachers and learning."
Bill Galvano has accomplished a lot in his life, reaching his dream of becoming a lawyer and state senator. But not much, he says, can top the memories Galvano has of his dad.
He remembers Como looking forward to Betty Galvano's meatballs, made "Como-style," baked rather than pan fried, in brown sauce with onions rather than marinara.
He remembers the time Amsterdam, who played Buddy Sorrell on "The Dick Van Dyke Show" from 1961 to 1966, visited him at Palma Sola Elementary School.
He remembers the shock from patrons when Phil Galvano brought his buddy, Willie Mosconi, one of the world's greatest pocket billiards player, into Council's Bradenton Recreation Parlor in downtown Bradenton.
"My dad was a larger-than-life character," Galvano said. "I wish you could have known him."
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter @RichardDymond.