JAY DEMPSEY PHOTO | Tom McGunnigle, front and center, with some of his students.
Some of you out there, probably mostly baby-boomers, may remember the television show from the mid 1970s starring Lee Majors, “The Six Million Dollar Man.” Majors played a former astronaut, Steve Austin, who was injured in an accident and had to have many parts of his body replaced or repaired. Austin, with his newly reconstructed bionic body, went from adventure to adventure in the weekly series.
Well folks, I have discovered the North Fork’s very own bionic man. Our guy is 66 years old, lives in Peconic and has worked at many trades during his life. He has jumped horses at Madison Square Garden, been a race-car driver, farmer, welder, school bus driver and sports coach.
Our Six Million Dollar Man (probably around 30 million of today’s devalued dollars) had hip problems as a child and was on crutches. He was involved in an accident in 1976 where he lost his leg (it was reattached), lost part of his thumb, broke his ribs and fractured his shoulder. He had a blood disorder and had to have his spleen removed. He has had six “minor” surgeries, as he calls them, having his knees, hips and shoulder replaced.
And just who is our bionic man? If you’ve ever taken a golf lesson through the Southold Town Recreation Department, he is the smiling guy with the infectious laugh.
Tom McGunnigle has been giving golf lessons to young and old for over two decades. “I’ve had everything replaced and I’m not quite as nimble as I used to be,” McGunnigle said.
He could have fooled me. I recently went up to the McGunnigle farm in Peconic to take in one of his weekly golf sessions and witnessed a sweet, smooth swing from instructor McGunnigle.
Tom McGunnigle began coaching in 1987 when he took over Southold High School’s bowling team. “I was farming potatoes at the time, which were selling for two cents a pound and I needed some additional income,” he said. “I was a good bowler, so I applied for the job of Southold High School’s bowling coach.”
In 1989 McGunnigle also became Southold’s golf and softball coach.
McGunnigle took up golf after his 1976 accident. “I wanted to get some exercise so I took up golf and joined Island’s End,” he said.
McGunnigle became club champion at Island’s End and has the distinction of driving the greens on the first and second holes, back to back. He is modestly proud of his feat of taking four shots to get from the clubhouse to Long Island Sound.
Like most things he has done, McGunnigle’s golfing skills are self-taught. “My kids will tell you I analyze everything to death,” he said. “My wife says I don’t have fun doing anything because I over-analyze things, but that’s my way of having fun.”
In the late ’90s, the Southold Town Recreation Department approached McGunnigle about offering golf classes in the adult education program. With space being limited on the Southold school grounds, McGunnigle offered a chunk of his farm to serve as the practice facility. “After working out the insurance details, we began the lessons at my farm,” he said.
Getting to Tom’s practice facility is an adventure in itself. Located off the North Road in Peconic, you navigate your way down the dirt driveway with it’s twists and turns, drive past a few barns and voilà, McGunnigle magically appears before you. Acres of land complete with yardage flag sticks, sand traps and a ball-retrieving tractor. More on the tractor later.
McGunnigle offers a series of six lessons beginning with his belly-button drill. He moves onto the triangle and wrist break theories. Then it’s time for his hip high to hip high swing approach. Bubba Watson and John Daly did not attend that session. He finishes up with putting, chipping and bunker play.
One student, Sandy Rave of Peconic, said: “He makes it simple and doesn’t complicate things. And it doesn’t matter how old you are. He’s very knowledgeable.”
Back to the ball-retrieving tractor. McGunnigle’s state of the art, high-tech ball picker-upper is a 1952 Farmall tractor. This little baby runs and performs as well as its owner operates his golf clinics.
Asked what he likes best about teaching golf, McGunnigle answered: “I get the most satisfaction when a student takes it in and asks the right questions. That I love.”