Mr. Golf’: Gifford was a fixture on local courses
And that isn’t just because Lyle Gifford was one of the few local people who actually knew Ray Fischer, whose name has long been attached to the prestigious Wisconsin Public Links State Medal Play Championship that has been played every June at Riverside Golf Course in Janesville since 1982.
But the fact is, every year when the tournament comes around, people ask: “Who was Ray Fischer?”
Gifford always had the answer.
“Ray Fischer was a USGA director from Greendale, who was very instrumental in the development of golf,’’ Gifford would respond.
And the response to Gifford was overwhelming when he once had the distinction of substituting for Fischer at a USGA meeting in Chicago.
“They measured me up for a sport jacket,’’ Gifford recalled, shortly before he was inducted into the Janesville Sports Hall of Fame in 2002. “Then I was sitting there with people from all over the world, and they treated me like a king.”
Janesville’s beloved “king” died this week at the age of 82, leaving a legacy of his passion for golf and the dear people he met through that sport.
“There’s nothing better than the people you meet through golf,” he told this reporter more than once. “That’s what stays closest to your heart.”
Gifford still was shooting his age well into his 70s and was at the heart of Janesville golf for more than 60 years. He was a three-time city champion, a state and national competitor, promoter of youth golf and a devoted servant for the public links organizations.
And the friendships he built along the way were a two-way street.
“He was very courteous and always somebody I could look up to,” said Rollie Scott, an All-Big Eight football player for Janesville High in 1957, who became Gifford’s frequent tournament caddy and lifelong friend.
That relationship began when Scott was Gifford’s paperboy, delivering the Gazette, and it took off from there, with the two sharing time together even up until recent days.
“He really had a lot to do with helping me as a golfer and so much more,” Scott said.
And with the mutual respect the two shared, an occasional triumph over Gifford on the golf course meant a lot to Scott. In particular, he recalled outdriving Gifford at Riverside one day many years ago.
“ ‘You got me by a couple yards,’ he told me,” Scott recalled. “And that become our longtime saying.’’
Gifford became renowned for having lots to say and great stories to tell. But that also worked two ways.
“He never had a full swing,’’ Scott said in describing his friend’s golf game at the time of Gifford’s local induction. “He did wonders with a half a swing, and he really could hit if he took a full swing.”
Gifford was in full swing, though, in his devoted golf efforts off the course. He took his role seriously as a director for the Wisconsin State Public Links, where he helped break the Milwaukee area monopoly and provide opportunities for Janesville, Beloit and other cities to host major tournaments.
Through golf and his ownership of a vending business, which he operated out of Beloit for 29 years, the 1946 Janesville High graduate’s friendships blossomed.
“He knew a lot of people, and he never forgot a face,” Scott said.
One face Gifford missed dearly in recent times was Loraine—affectionately known as “Cork,” his wife of almost 56 years, who died in 2007.
On their first date, they went to a Texas Cowgirls basketball game in Edgerton. But they soon found they were more fit for tee to green.
“If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t be a golfer,” Gifford once said. “She’s followed me a lot of places, and we’ve had a lot of fun.”
And the fun will long be remembered by those who also cherished their friendship with Janesville’s own “Mr. Golf.”