DeKALB – Mark Rolfing regales in stories about his younger days golfing. After all, the sport gave him a purpose when he needed a guiding light in his teenage years.
“My mom joined the club after my dad died,” Rolfing said. “She wanted to get us into more of a social situation here, and it really turned out to be a good move for me because I would have been pretty isolated, I think, as a kid. ... The club was just a great place for me to learn a lot of the skills I did and communication.”
Rolfing was in DeKalb last week, as the Barbs named their annual tournament after him. The DeKalb High School Class of 1967 graduate and NBC Golf Channel analyst and broadcaster has put together a career of commentary around golf and has been an example of simplistic observation whose voice golf fans the world over recognize.
Rolfing’s journey to golf was aided as much by the support of his mother, Marie, as it was by his own interest in the sport.
Marie handled the task of raising three young boys for years without the presence of her husband, Jim, who died in a place crash traveling between DeKalb and the corporate headquarters of Wurlitzer Piano, where Jim was an executive at the time of his death Nov. 29, 1960, when Mark was 11 years old and a sixth-grader at Littlejohn Elementary school.
Seeking a place of organization in life, he and his brothers leaned toward golf at Kishwaukee Country Club.
“My life after that … with sports definitely, I started gravitating toward golf pretty quickly, because of the club,” Rolfing said.
Ask Rolfing what he remembers about golfing for the DeKalb Barbs at Kishwaukee Country Club, and he talks about something sweet.
“When we traveled, we had little box lunches, sack lunches. You got one ball and a sack lunch,” Rolfing said. “In the sack lunch, there were Moon Pies for the dessert. I don’t remember why I remember Moon Pies, but I know they were Moon Pies. None of us had any money back then, so when you practiced and stuff like that, you couldn’t play for a dime or a quarter or anything like that, so we played for the Moon Pies.”
As cool as scrambling for Moon Pies sounds, Rolfing noted that golf was far from the cool kids’ sport when he was a Barbs athlete.
“Golf as a game was just different then. I was a three-sport letterman. I remember this vividly, and golf just wasn’t cool enough that I would put the letter on the outside of my jacket,” Rolfing said. “So I had a football letter and basketball letter, and then my golf letter was sewed on the inside of my jacket. It wasn’t that cool to be a golfer, to be a golf champion.”
Rolfing found success quickly in golf, despite little formal training.
“In terms of the game itself, I was not a big technician,” Rolfing said. “We had a pro here [in Kishwaukee], but I never really got a whole lot of lessons. I didn’t have anybody teach me the fundamentals of the game maybe the way they should. I’m a pretty simplistic analyst. I’m way more situational than stats. I’m not a big stats guy. I think stats are valuable to an extent but certainly not a crutch you should lean on all the time in your analysis.”
The layout of the course at Kishwaukee Country Club shaped the way Rolfing’s game developed. The “bones” of the course remain the same, Rolfing said, although he played on it in school when the course was nine holes.
He remembers ignoring the advice of his own high school coach John Goodwin, opting to go for the green on the first hole rather than play safe and lay up in front of the green.
“I always wanted to hit driver, and I thought I was so good that I could do whatever I wanted, Rolfing said. “I would drive into trouble and bogey the hole,” Rolfing said, while smiling broadly.
But it was for this reason, Kishwaukee Country Club’s long, narrow fairways, that Rolfing learned to drive straight down the middle.
Rolfing, a Hawaii resident who travels year-round for golf coverage, played several holes with some former high school teammates when he was in DeKalb for the first Mark Rolfing Cup, at which the Barbs varsity team won the title. New golf projects will keep him coming back to the Chicago area in the future.
First-year DeKalb boys golf coach Brad Kerkman gave credit to athletic director Peter Goff for making the event come together and setting up Rolfing’s trip.
“I hung out with [Rolfing] all afternoon, and we just talked golf, and he’s got a lot of pride in DeKalb. I kind of joked with him. I’m like, ‘You’re going from Florida and then Hawaii tomorrow, but you make a pitstop in DeKalb, Illinois,’ and he just thought it was the coolest thing,” Kerkman said. “He’s such a great guy. He cares about these kids. I stay in touch with him, update him. He texts me and asks how the team’s doing. He really cares about this team and what we’re trying to do here. Having someone like that, with the knowledge he has and just the experience in the golf world overall, I think it’s great for the kids to see.”
Rolfing was able to see firsthand how golfers play differently at DeKalb High School now. Watching the 10-team tournament from the clubhouse, Rolfing marveled at the way the high school golfers approached the game.
Watching a golfer chip onto a nearby green, he lamented that when he was a teenage golfer, he would have just putted from the rough. The savvy and gamesmanship from young golfers continues to impress the longtime veteran.
“The game’s changing, and it’s going to have to change if it’s going to grow in today’s world,” Rolfing said. “Because of that, people have phones at tournaments now. It’s a much younger crowd that’s becoming golf fans, and it’s way more interactive between fans, players and announcers like me.”