The popular and beloved Tommy Mullinax always wore a smile

By Rick Cooper, Guest Reporter
Published on Wednesday, August 15, 2012

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Doug Freeland’s eyes mist when he gazes at one of his many photographs of his good and great friend, the late Tommy Mullinax.

The photo is a microcosm of Mullinax’s all-too-short life. It shows a crowd of adoring fans gazing in awe as Mullinax, who died of a brain tumor at the age of 56 in 2003, drives a golf ball through a watermelon.

It seems a relatively mundane feat for a 6-foot-4 man who could drill a Titleist through a phone book. Who could win the National Invitational Long Drive Championship with a swat of 408 yards. A man whose incredible hand-eye coordination allowed him to pick a golf ball cleanly off any of the various-length tees rising in the foreground of the exploding-melon photo.

A man whose ravaging cancer made it difficult for him to walk and talk at the end of that life.

It seems Mullinax was a man of many paradoxes. He signed the photograph “Tommy ‘Lefty’ Mullinax,” yet he was ambidextrous. Astoundingly, he recorded a drive of 419 yards right-handed and one of 316 yards left-handed.

He could calmly drive a golf ball off a tee clenched in the teeth of an eager volunteer lying on the ground before him. Yet he became fidgety when he picked up his putter.“If he wasn’t so worried about his putting all the time, he could’ve been a great pro golfer,” Freeland said. “Seems like he got so nervous when he got on the greens. Scared to death he was going to three-putt.”

Mullinax’s younger brother, agreed. “If they had the mental coaches they have today when Tommy was young, I’m convinced he would have been one of the best players on the tour. He just had it in his head that he couldn’t putt. You can’t shoot 59 (as Tommy once did in competition) if you can’t putt.”

Perhaps you can if you’re an All-American at East Tennessee State University. If you can record 11 career holes-in-one, the longest ace being 319 yards. If you can win a national long-drive championship blasting a ball over 400 yards — this before the days of gravity-defying golf balls and melon-headed drivers made of Kryptonite.

“He could hit a golf ball just unbelievable,” said Mo, 57. “If he had today’s technology, there’s no telling how far he could have hit it.”

In a lower room of the clubhouse at Greer Country Club, which Mullinax called “home,” Freeland holds dozens of photos of the two together. He cradles the cherished keepsakes of their friendship. 

“I met him right here at this little golf course,” said Freeland, 70. “Tommy was in high school. I was a young man. He was just a kid.”

Along with traveling the country with Mullinax, helping him set up many of his more than 600 clinics and charity appearances, Freeland often toted the bag for his buddy.

“I caddied for him when he tried out for the Seniors (Tour). He had just turned 51. He was qualifying down at Bay Tree in Myrtle Beach. If memory serves me, he shot 79 the first day. He kept hitting his driver through the doglegs, trying to cut the corner. The next day he shot 74 hitting his 3-wood. The last day he just hit an iron off the tee and shot right at par.”

Mullinax, who graduated from Byrnes High School and attended Wofford before heading to ETSU, is a fixture at Greer Country Club. On a plaque bearing the nameplates of club champions, Mullinax’s appears above the years 1966-67-68-69. Yet in the pro shop sits the Tommy Mullinax Trophy, which bears only blank nameplates.

“We just played that tournament one time. We raised money for his family. Right here,” Freeland said, his voice trailing wistfully away.

But he brightens as he talks about an even greater talent his friend possessed than the ability to hit a golf ball.

The gift of making people smile. Especially children.

“He loved to entertain the kids more than anything,” he said. He held out a photo of Mullinax showing a little boy how to swing the club. “He always came out here to Greer and put on a show on the Fourth of July. See all those kids around him? That’s what Tommy loved best.”

 

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