Gone and Gone

Over the span of a person’s life, so many other lives are touched – Mitch Black will be missed

by Bart Potter

Golf took up a lot of space on Mitch Black’s planet, and he left room for the rest of life to crowd in around it.

They say he knew a million things about a million things, and he could talk about them all, and would, with anybody, any time.

Mitch had an enormous and infectious enthusiasm for life, among his passions being fly-fishing, which he shared even with his young golfing proteges.
Mitch had an enormous and infectious enthusiasm for life, among his passions being fly-fishing, which he shared even with his young golfing proteges.

Even high school kids. Black could relate. And he talked, with everybody, through a full career as a classroom teacher and an extended tenure – 39 years – as a high school golf coach in this small town on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

“He was able to have a conversation with a high school kid about whatever,” said Torrin Westwood, who played golf for Black at Chimacum High for four years (2006-2009). “He was kind of a kid at heart himself.”

It’s a small and tight golf community on this peninsula, in Port Townsend and Nordland and Chimacum, and it hit hard around here when word came in May that Black had died, in Bang Saray, Thailand, at age 70.

“I was just shocked,” said Gabriel Tonan, who played against Black’s Chimacum High teams when he was a student at Port Townsend High and later coached against Black when he took over as golf coach at his alma mater.

“He was someone I considered a close friend. We had a mutual love of golf and life.”

Every good friendship has an origin story.

Tonan, now manager at Port Townsend Golf Club, competed at the state Class 1A tournament three times as a member of successful Port Townsend teams under Coach Jim Kerns.  

But he wasn’t even in high school, maybe 13 or 14 years old, when Tonan first encountered Mitch Black, one day at Port Townsend. Black and his buddy, Dean Rigsby, had noticed the kid around the place with obvious passion for the game, and that day they invited Tonan to play with them.

“He was a lighthearted, fun dude,” Tonan said. “He didn’t necessarily influence my game. He gave me tips, yeah, but mainly it was just friendship.”

Black, a Port Townsend native, went to the University of Washington and returned to the peninsula to take a job at Chimacum, teaching history, world problems and PE through his career.

Black founded Chimacum’s golf team in the mid-1970s, prodded by Ted Wurtz, then the PGA head pro at nearby Port Ludlow, whose son Mark Wurtz became Black’s first state champion, winning 1A titles in 1981 and ’82. Mark later played on the PGA Tour. Chris Johnson won a state title for the Chimacum Cowboys in 2008.

Black stayed in the job long enough – through the 2015 season – to coach sons of players he’d coached in the early years, according to a tribute to Black by sportswriter Mike Carman in the Peninsula Daily News.

As a player, Black was known as a good stick, with a swing outside the norm.

“Golf is a very individualistic game where you have to have some room for errors, and Mitch was a great definition of that,” said Adam Barrows, next door neighbor, close friend and teammate of Westwood on the same Cowboy teams of 2006-09.

“He had his own unique swing. He was a great ball-striker, controlled, never tried to overpower anything. That to me, as a student, it’s realizing you don’t have to have a picture-perfect PGA Tour swing.”

Westwood said Black, during his peak years, might have been the best player on the peninsula.

“He had a loop swing, kind of brought it outside and looped it back in,” he said. “He was even-keeled – it translated very directly to his golf game.

“He had a really good tempo golf swing, and was definitely a good feel player with his short game.”

On a high school golf team with Black as the coach, Westwood said, “You remember the van rides more than the round of golf.”

Barrows said, “He put a lot on you as a player. If you wanted to just play golf and enjoyed playing and wanted to be part of the team, he wasn’t going to pressure you into trying to shoot even par or anything. But if you had a passion for it and wanted to grow, he would help you do that, get you in all the right spots.”

Both men are still in the game of golf.

“Mitch was a great influence on me,” said Westwood, who parlayed internships with Washington Golf and American Junior Golf Association into a position with the Pacific Northwest Golf Association, where his title is manager of membership and club relations.

Black was a big proponent for Barrows to get back to Port Ludlow (his high school home course), and he’s worked full-time there since 2011, now as assistant PGA professional.

Black was a world traveler (splitting time in later years between Thailand and Chimacum), fan of all sports (big Seattle Sounders guy), accomplished tennis player, garage band guitarist, Xbox player, fly-fisher, lover of literature, aficionado of politics, etc.

When his friends think back on Mitch Black, they say golf was never the only thing on his worldly agenda. It was just a starting point, common ground and a common language, for a guy who played a good game, in his loopy way, and talked it even better.

(Jesse Best, one of Mitch Black’s former students and member of his golf teams, recently organized a scramble fundraiser at Port Ludlow GC benefitting the Friends of Chimacum Schools Education Foundation. Donations can be made in Black’s name at focsef.org.)

Bart Potter has taught journalism in higher education, and won awards for sports writing and news reporting as a daily journalist. He serves as secretary of the Northwest Golf Media Association, and manages the golf and travel website, GreyGoateeGolf.com

(This article previously appeared in Pacific Northwest Golfer magazine, published by the PNGA and a member benefit for WA Golf members.)