By Chuck Stark
(This article appeared in the Friday, August 23, 2013 edition of Kitsap Sun newspaper, and is used by permission)
At a time when many people start to slow down and reflect on what they might have accomplished in their careers, Frank Horton keeps doing what he does best: Helping people feel good about themselves.
It’s what this retired nuclear engineer from the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard is all about.
“I just like people to feel comfortable and have fun, to feel involved, to feel included,” Horton said.
His empathy for people can’t be over-stated, and it’s ultimately what drives him, whether he’s tutoring teenagers in math, which he’s done on a regular basis since his daughter graduated from Bremerton High in 1998, or he’s out on the golf course cheering on a junior golfer who might be having a tough day on the links.
Golf was never on his radar growing up in Mount Vernon, but it’s become one of Horton’s many passions.
He is about six months into a two-year term as the president of the Washington State Golf Association. It’s a volunteer position, as is his role as a United States Golf Association rules official. He’s been a caddie, a caddie master, and he was the chairman of the two national championship tournaments Gold Mountain Golf Club hosted – the 2006 U.S. Amateur Public Links and 2011 U.S. Junior.
Horton’s motto for the Publinx tells you a lot about the detail-oriented man who always seems to be wearing a smile, or trying to make someone else smile. The motto was a simple three-letter word: Wow.
“When you’re looking at a golf shot or a golf hole this week, we want you to look at it and say, ‘Wow, this is really super,'” Horton said during his welcoming speech at the APL players dinner.
Horton tends to bring the “wow” factor to everything he does in his life – and he somehow has a knack to not only get more done in the day than most, but he makes it look easy.
He learned to play the guitar about 15 years ago, and those close to him know the Stevie Ray Vaughn fan as “Frankie Ray.” It’s stenciled on the backpack that Gold Mountain’s Daryl Matheny, the former head pro who is now GM of the facility, gave him.
He remains passionate about music, and even put together a multi-media event of Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon” – synching the music to the movie “The Wizard of Oz” – for a group of friends at Gold Mountain one night.
“That gives you some insight into how his mind works, and how he chases down the details,” said Jim Spencer, the former Bremerton Parks and Recreation Director who got to know Horton when the city was preparing for the public links championship.
“He is truly amazing,” Spencer said. “His glass is so much fuller than half, it’s scary. He is truly a class act that refuses to settle for anything other than the best. … He’s all about doing the right thing, no matter the context.”
Horton, a graduate of Seattle University, has been going back to school since retiring from PSNS, where he spent his last 10 years mentoring young engineers as the second in command of the nuclear engineering department.
Horton has been taking choir classes at Olympic College for five years. He’s also taken courses in astronomy, astrobiology, anthropology and western and eastern religions.
“I just want to keep learning,” he said. “Plus, Olympic College is such a cool place. Everyone’s hustling and bustling … They’re all trying to get someplace. They’re working hard and I love the energy of the teachers. It’s just an environment that I like.”
Horton could be talking about himself. His energy and enthusiasm are contagious.
Once Scott Alexander got to know Horton, it didn’t take long for the former director of golf at Gold Mountain to recognize those traits. Alexander first called on Horton to be the club representative to the WSGA, and he started attending annual meetings to share his input.
When Alexander sought to bring the Public Links championship to Bremerton, he reached out to Horton to be his point man. He spent five years putting together all of the elements that made Gold Mountain’s APL perhaps the best in USGA history. At least, that’s what USGA officials were saying.
When it was over, the USGA paid the Gold Mountain crew the highest compliment by rewarding the city-owned course another national championship.
“I knew he would just do a bang-up job,” Alexander said. “His whole idea was to make everybody who came on to the site to feel special and he really drove that train. ‘What could we do to make something a little bit more special?’ That’s Frank. Everything he wants to do he does it well …”
Horton, who calls Alexander the biggest influence in his life, was so impressive he was invited to interview for the USGA’s exclusive 12-man executive board, which is comprised of some of the most powerful people in the golf industry.
Horton flew to Oakmont, Pa., which was hosting the 2007 U.S. Open at the time, for what he called “a pretty long, impressive interview. It was pretty exciting,” he said. “They treated me like royalty.”
Horton didn’t get the job, but he was “honored and flattered,” to get an interview.
When the interview had concluded, Horton was asked if he had anything else to add about himself.
According to Alexander, this is what Horton said: “Well, I play a mean blues guitar and I make a heckuva blueberry pancake.”
Just another of Horton’s many attributes.
Alexander has seen Horton in action when it comes to tutoring kids in math.
“He makes anything fun,” he said. “He gets the kid laughing first, then he shows him how to figure out the problem. That’s the universal thing with Frank. You could be 8 or 80, and after going away after any kind of a meeting, you’d say that guy is the coolest guy around. He connects with everybody. That connection helps a lot of kids live their passion.”
Horton connected with golf while attending Seattle University, which is where he met his wife, former Bremerton mayor Lynn Horton.
His first round was at a nine-hole pitch and putt course at Green Lake.
“A friend of mine took me there,” he said. “I remember hitting the ball on the ground, and on the ground,” he said, “and after about six holes I finally hit one up and over this little bush and I was hooked. I hit it up in the air (he laughs). It was a cool thing.”
While in the shipyard he started playing golf with a group that included the late Reny Ahearn and Charlie Buell.
“It seemed like Charlie knew the rules. At least he said he knew the rules, but it seemed like the rule was always different when it was my ball versus when it was his ball,” Horton laughed.
“We were playing for money, probably only 10 bucks, but for me it was a lot of money. So I started reading up on these golf rules. That’s how I got started on doing golf rules.”
Horton said he joined the men’s club at Gold Mountain years ago because he wanted to establish a handicap. He plays about twice a week and his handicap is 9.2, the lowest it has ever been.
“For years and years I wanted to get down to 9.999999 because I call that a single-digit handicapper. About a month ago I did it,” he said. “I just started playing more. I had time to do it. I went to a few golf instructors and kind of figured out a few things.”
Horton enjoys the outdoors part of the sport, and he likes the exercise aspect – he prefers to walk the course – but mostly he loves the competition.
“I just love to compete,” he said. “I’ll eat my lunch faster than you if you want to put a couple of bucks on it. I love the pucker factor when you’re getting near the end.
“It’s like when you’re trying to break 90. You’ve got two holes left and if I bogey one and par one I can shoot 89. That just excites me.”
The part he doesn’t like?
“I don’t like the guy that’s throwing their clubs and swearing all the time, I just walk away from that,” he said.
At one point, Alexander introduced Horton to the Evans Scholarship program. Young caddies have to do 25 loops a year to become a candidate for the scholarship and Horton was happy to let a local girl carry his bag. He said it was one of the things that led him to wanting to volunteer more in golf.
He ended up caddying in the pro-am at the Champions Tour event when it was played at Inglewood Golf and Country Club in Kenmore, and later at the Safeco Classic, the annual LPGA event that was conducted at Meridian Valley Country Club in Kent in the 1980s and ’90s.
Horton called to find out how to get involved, and it turned out Al Sugzda, who played out of Gold Mountain, was the caddy master.
“I ended up caddying for some of the gals over there, and later became the caddy master for about the last five years of the tournament,” he said. “I’d go out and recruit caddies and kind of assign caddies. That was fun for me, and it was just one more thing that got me involved with the game.”
Horton was the WSGA secretary for about five years, and agreed to take on the role as president, but only if the association agreed to do strategic planning.
Horton wants the organization to map out a plan for its future. “What’s our mission? … When you’re making a decision, does this fit with our mission or it is helping Joe and Susy or something? So that’s one of the things we’re working on.”
The goal in general, Horton said, is to make the sport “more people friendly … to get more junior juniors involved – the 7-8-9-10 year olds. There’s already a place for the good junior golfer with Washington Junior Golf and the Northwest Golf Tour (run by McCormick Woods’ Jeff Mehlert). But I think golf is so much fun, and you can play it your whole life. If we can get more juniors involved. Maybe you’re not playing at a regulation course. Maybe you’re on a beach at Moclips where you designed a golf course and have holes and sand greens and stuff like that. You just get ’em excited about the game.”
Even if you don’t like to golf, Horton will figure out a way to make it fun. He used to take his daughter, Leslie, out to Gold Mountain when he played in a shipyard league after work.
“Leslie never like to play golf growing up, but she loved looking in the woods for animals, and we had a deal where if she found golf balls, I’d give her 50 cents for each golf ball,” he said. “If she found a Titleist, she’d get a dollar or something. I remember to this day on some of the hills, she’d turn on her side and just roll down. Those are such great memories.”
He remembered another time playing during the winter when the pond on the seventh hole on the Cascade Course was frozen. There were golf balls sitting on the ice, and Horton grabbed a fallen branch and slid it across the pond, trying to knock the balls off.
“The branch would hit the ice and it just starts to buzz,” he said. “It was such a cool sound. I sat there for half an hour throwing rocks to listen to that sound.”
Horton has no plans of slowing down. He wants to continue to be on the Washington State Golf Association board when his term as president expires. He worked the U.S. Senior Open at Sahalee Country Club in 2010 – he calls it “my Super Bowl” – as a rules official, and he has worked every APL since the one held at Gold Mountain. If Gold Mountain decides to bid for another USGA national tournament or major NCAA event, Horton wants to be involved. He still gets jazzed talking about Johnny Miller’s keynote speech aboard the USS John C. Stennis prior to the 2011 U.S. Junior.
Of all the things he does, he gets the most satisfaction out of tutoring kids in math and working with junior golfers.
He hates to toot his own horn, but when pushed he admits that he can make kids feel comfortable.
“I can answer their questions, and I just really love doing that,” he said. “I think they go away enjoying the rules more, enjoying the game of golf more if I cross paths with them.”
He’s not sure where or how he developed this personality trait.
“(Washington golf coach) Matt Thurmond asked me once why I smile all the time. I don’t have an answer,” he said. “My mom and dad, they’re both gone now, and I don’t remember them teaching us that. …
“I don’t have an answer. I just think I have an empathy for people, and when they’re feeling awkward, I like to make sure they’re not feeling awkward.”