Fort Worth's gentleman rascal turned golf into his own gold

Fort Worth's gentleman rascal turned golf into his own gold

02/10/2013 10:51 PM

03/14/2013 3:41 PM

In the backdrop of a city's heritage that once prominently included the roguery of notorious gamblers and world-class golf shotmakers, there appeared a man who developed a mastery of both crafts together, perhaps unlike any other in this part of the world.

"It makes a man wonder why he plays the game," T.A. Avarello told a reporter in 1958 while lamenting the demise of his dearest, now broken, putter, which, he readily acknowledged at the time, he slept with on more than one occasion.

"Do you play to win or do you play just for the fun and good fellowship and that kind of thing?"

Everyone associated with Avarello as a friend and definitely as a golf competitor, who more often than not emptied his wallet into Avarello's hands, knew his answer to that question.

Some called him an insurance man, while others recall him dabbling in oil leases through his "company," Teebet.

Thomas Anthony Avarello was neither.

The man who called Hogan and Nelson friend was a golfer, and while he never made a dime on any professional tour, there is no telling how much Fort Worth's gentleman rascal won hustling for the better part of 60 years before Alzheimer's finally robbed him of his ability to compete.

"T.A. never really wanted to devote a lot of time to anything except golf," said his widow, Betty, married to Avarello since 1977. She laughed at the thought, though she wasn't joking.

"He figured he could make more money on the golf course than anywhere else."

Avarello died last month from complications suffered in a fall, said his wife. He was 90.

Until his 85th year, he played virtually every day, and shot his age every year since he was 61, said many friends and relatives.

His triumphs included every partnership at every major country club in Fort Worth.

"If he ever made a bogey, you thought, 'What is he working on now,'" joked Keith Davidson, the director of golf at Ridglea Country Club, where Avarello played for decades.

A survey of local newspapers from the 1940s and '50s through the 1970s include the details of Avarello's legendary amateur career, which he spent on the road most weeks competing in events from here to the then "resort town" of Minerals Wells to Bowie to Stephenville all the way to the border of El Paso, teeing it up with the likes of Don Cherry, Don January, Tommy Bolt and Earl Stewart Jr.

He was a contender most every week by combining two precious ingredients: a short game and a gold putter.

His legend grew as later on he rubbed elbows with celebrities at pro-ams named after Andy Williams, Dean Martin, Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra.

Golf was his life, said Don Carroll, a close friend of Avarello's for more than 40 years. That's all he ever thought about.

"He was really something; a terrific player," Carroll said. "But he didn't want to just go out and play golf. He wanted to play for something. He was always looking for a game.

"And he had more 'angles' than a Rubik's Cube."

Senior state champ

Avarello, a graduate of Laneri Catholic High School in Fort Worth before leaving for World War II as a member of the Army Air Forces, had flair and dressed the part on the course.

He was, one reporter observed, a "walking Easter Egg."

His most cherished accomplishments as a senior were back-to-back Texas State Senior Amateur titles in 1980 and 1981 in Corpus Christi and Brookhaven Country Club in Dallas.

Before all that, though, he was the "Meadowbrook Stylist," a term renowned sportswriter Dan Jenkins pinned on him.

Meadowbrook, on the east side of Fort Worth, was the course of Avarello's youth and most likely where he was forced to learn to make shots and shape the ball around its crafty layout.

Avarello returned there often for the daily money game at noon involving as many as 12 back in the 1960s, said one player who as a high school student at Eastern Hills High School met the "Texas Legend."

"He liked to gamble and play golf," said Chris Townes, who continued to play with Avarello for years after that. "And he was very good at it."

Some 20 years after that first encounter, Avarello called with a standard proposal. A game at Shady Valley with an Avarello-esque unique set of circumstances.

Townes and his partner would play from the back, or tips. Avarello and his partner, with age having become a disadvantage in terms of length off the tees, would hit from the front tees.

Coincidence and proximity to his office caused Townes to drive by the course as he was making his way to work. As he did, he noticed Avarello's car in the parking lot.

The tee time was hours away.

"I got in a cart and went looking for him," Townes said, laughing. "He was moving the back tees back and the forward tees forward."

Angles.

Avarello, Carroll said, was the "best matchmaker." He could size up prospective opponents' strengths and weaknesses in what seemed an instant, then propose a bet and close the deal with the cleverness of the most gifted salesman.

"He liked everything to be in his advantage," Townes said. "And who wouldn't, right?"

Carroll began taking trips and playing with Avarello on the "barbecue circuit," amateur tournaments across the state where the big money up for contention was pooled together through "calcuttas." In calcuttas, golfers can bid on the golfer or team they think will win the tournament.

If that golfer or team won, then the bidder won a certain amount.

"When I went to these tournaments, I was going to have a good time," said Carroll. "T.A. would be in the room getting ready for the next day's round."

He was all business because it was his business.

Avarello was, in almost every sense of the word, a professional, whether winning first-place money or hundreds or even thousands in a game at Ridglea.

Friends said he worked every angle to give himself an edge, including taking care of himself like a professional, Davidson said. He ate well and didn't drink to excess and never on the course.

He kept ball warmers in his pocket because, theory holds, warm balls flew farther.

"Any little thing he thought was an edge, he was for it," Carroll said.

Ridglea's South Course turned out unkind one day to partners Carroll and Avarello, down three with two to go, until a timely bee appearance on the No. 17 green.

As a player in the opposition group swatted at the bee with the flag stick, the flailing stick grazed Avarello's head, Carroll said.

"He dropped like cattle at a packing house," Carroll said, demonstrating how Avarello lay on the green shivering and moaning.

"I loaded him into the cart and took him to my car and all the way there, 'oh, oh, oh.' He just kept on. I thought, 'You know, T., it's just you and I ... you can quit this.'

"We were almost to the hospital, and he was still shivering and whimpering in pain. I said, 'T., are you feeling any better?'"

Avarello looked up at Carroll, with a gleam in his eye and said ...

"Maybe a trifle."

All the bets were off.

18 months in 'Club Fed'

It's hard to challenge the assertion that Avarello was Fort Worth's "Titanic" Thompson, the famed gambler who wandered from place to place winning millions over his lifetime.

"I told him, 'You got to keep records because we have to pay tax on this money ... which we did," Betty Avarello said. "I insisted on that."

Avarello had a known penchant for laying a few dollars on football games, too. It got him in trouble, though, when he became part of United States vs. Thomas Anthony Avarello, et al.

FBI wiretaps conducted during a period in 1975 indicated, federal prosecutors argued, that Avarello was part of a bookmaking scheme with admitted bookie Jerry Henry Wood of Dallas, Virginia Avanell Smith -- Wood's bartender -- Bobby Joe Chapman and James Eugene Avery, both bookies, in Amarillo and Dallas, and Carmel Cosmo Bowers.

Prosecutors said evidence "tended" to show that Wood used Avarello and Bowers "to disseminate gambling information to bettors and to relay bets to him."

All were convicted.

Avarello was sentenced to 18 months in the federal correctional facility in Big Spring, aka "Club Fed" because of its relaxed, minimum security atmosphere.

"T.A. was not a bookmaker," Betty Avarello said. "He was a bettor. It was a raw deal."

He was a shotmaker, and how exactly was a man who played golf everyday to handle the withdrawals?

"They built a golf course out in Big Spring," Betty said.

Avarello and fellow inmate John Howell, also of Fort Worth, convinced the warden's office to let them rebuild some of the greens on an old golf course adjacent to the facility.

Bobby Maxwell, a club professional nearby, loaned mowers so the greens could be maintained. He also loaned some other equipment.

It might have been nothing more than a goat track, but with four holes and different sets of tees on each, there were eight holes.

Plenty of room to work on the short game.

"He's the only guy I know," said friend Wendell Conditt, "who went in a 5 handicap and came out a scratch golfer."

Avarello also was back in business.

"I forget how many cases of Coca-Cola John Howell owed him," Carroll said. "It was in the hundreds."

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