By Bob Denney
Barely a month after earning her LPGA Tour card in 1976, Dianne Wilde saw her career fortunes come crashing down. She underwent hand surgery and never regained the skill or the on-course promise she imagined.
That disappointment would fade as Wilde became a popular member of the Western New York PGA Section; an enterprising PGA Head Professional and ultimately a teacher that many students often returned to for advice. Wilde, who turns 71 on April 6, is the longest active woman PGA Member. Nearing 36 years as a PGA Member, Wilde has spent half her life in serving the game she loves.
The path to Wilde’s staying power in the game began as a 12-year-old in Amsterdam, New York, where she hopped a fence to the Amsterdam Municipal Golf Course. It was there that PGA Professional Jim Murray recognized her passion for golf and gave her a used set of Walter Hagen clubs.
“I used those clubs to win my first State Amateur (1965),” recalled Wilde, who splits her year between teaching at Eagle Vale Golf Course in Fairport, New York, and winters in Jupiter, Florida.
Wilde went on to add New York State Golf Association Women’s Amateur titles in 1971 and 1973. She attended Cortland State University, graduating in 1969, and spent three years in Colorado combining skiing and teaching physical education at an elementary school. Wilde returned to Cortland State and completed a Master’s degree in education in 1974.
She reflected on a 1976 season that turned bittersweet – graduating from LPGA Tour Qualifying School and then facing hand surgery. “I came back after surgery, but couldn’t compete,” said Wilde. “I gave back any sponsor money I had. To be honest, it was a relief when it ran out. It was such a struggle. You either practice and don’t have anything left or not practice and are not prepared for the tournament. I am perfectionist.”
The sense of perfection translated into developing a PGA Professional career when women were a rarity in the Association. When Wilde was elected in September 1982, there were only 18 women PGA Members. Today, the PGA has more than 1,200 women members.
“I was conscious from the start that there were very few women in the PGA,” said Wilde. She recalled a moment that occurred in Hartford, Connecticut, just as she was entering the room for her first PGA Business School I class.
“Oh, ma’am, I think that you are in the wrong place,” said a man who was about to lead the class. “You might want to check down the hall.”
“Oh, but I am in the right place,” Wilde replied. After class, that same leader came up and apologized. “I said that was OK,’” Wilde recalled. “I told him that I understood.”
Any future moments of non-acceptance, Wilde said, dissipated. “For a woman PGA Member, I’ve been very fortunate,” she said. “I’ve always had great people with me and around me. Everybody was so good to me. I always felt as long as I worked hard and never asked for anything more than what I had earned, I belonged.”
A circle of mentors propelled Wilde to a PGA career. It began with PGA Professional Bob Smith of Wolferts Roost Country Club in Albany, who met Wilde when she was 13 years old. Smith encouraged Wilde to not give up her golf aspirations. “Bob was my teacher and the professional I emulated,” said Wilde. “He was instrumental in my getting to the LPGA and ultimately the PGA of America.
Wilde’s professional career began in 1979, spending two years working at Locust Hill Golf Country Club in Rochester under PGA Professional Dennis Bradley. “Dennis was ahead of the times by hiring a woman,” said Wilde.
Wilde moved to Albany Country Club where PGA Professional Bob Jordan became a trusted friend. “Bob Jordan, just like Bob Smith, really wanted me to get my PGA Membership. Bob Jordan wanted me to earn PGA Membership while I was at his club. I pushed hard and did earn it.”
Wilde developed unique “business partners” through her pet dogs. She began with Corey, a Cocker Spaniel; followed by Cody, a Cocker mix, and today had Brody, a Cocker mix poodle. “People would try to get a lesson with the lady pro with the dog,” she said. “It was a large part of the atmosphere and the culture I wanted to create. People were at ease during the lesson and we had fun.”
From Albany Country Club, Wilde moved to Big Oak Golf and Driving Range in Rochester, and stayed for four years. “It was a great place to learn, to learn about equipment, fitting and the people I worked with were fantastic,” she said.
Things sometimes happen quickly for rising professionals, and it happened to Wilde. She became friends at Big Oak with PGA Professional Don Richards, who became a business partner for 19 years.
At the time, Shadow Pines Golf Club was being built in Penfield, New York. Wilde and Richards knew a PGA Professional had yet to be named.
“We made a proposal to the owner, Gardiner “Gardy” Odenbach, who also owned nearby Shadow Lake Golf & Racquet Club,” said Wilde. “We proposed working both golf shops, running tournaments, doing everything needed,” said Wilde. “He accepted and we ended up there together.” Wilde’s popularity on the lesson tee resulted in her receiving the 1997 Western New York PGA Teacher of the Year award. She stayed through 2015 as PGA Head Professional before becoming a PGA Teaching Professional at Eagle Vale Golf Course in Fairport, New York.
“I have been so fortunate with the students I’ve had; and the loyalty and friendship,” said Wilde. “I have always gone about it in my own way and was not real technical. I wanted my students to be comfortable, to laugh and have fun. Knowing that they wanted to be with me and learn more meant everything. I had some people stay with me for some 30 years.”
Chris Devincentis, the PGA Head Professional at Eagle Vale Golf Course, used to work with Wilde at Shadow Pines. “It all comes full circle. So now, I’m working for Chris,” said Wilde.
Devincentis, who has known Wilde for more than 30 years, calls her “good to people.”
“Dianne is someone you can kid, but you know that she is fully committed to helping others,” said Devincentis. “She is an effective communicator. We need more like her. She’s a blueprint for what to do as a teacher.”
When spring arrives in Western New York, it’s Wilde’s time to return north to the lesson tee. She has no immediate plans to retire.
“The reason I’m still working is that I can’t imagine not having that interaction with the staff, with the students,” said Wilde. “It has been my honor to have been a small part of the PGA and a sense of pride to attach PGA to my name and identity. Those friends and mentors in my life, I have kept them close to my heart. I work to carry on what they taught me.”
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