By Ron Driscoll
LA ROMANA, Dominican Republic – Gilles Gagnon had just taken a drop after hitting a shot into the water during one of his many attempts to qualify for the U.S. Open Championship. His recovery shot sailed too high, ricocheted off a tree branch and into the same hazard.
“Are you Gilles Gagnon, the former hockey player?” asked the Rules official who had helped him with the drop. “Maybe you should have stuck with hockey.”
Few people are likely to question Gagnon’s career choice. The Montreal native, who starred as a center for Michigan State University, was working as the head golf coach and assistant hockey coach at Colgate University in central New York when a friend alerted him to a job opening at Casa de Campo.
“We had hosted the 1977 NCAA Golf Championship at Colgate, and I was becoming more interested in golf,” said Gagnon, 67. “I flew to Miami to interview for the job, and they wanted me to come to the resort for a follow-up interview. It was late September and I knew it would be snowing soon up north. For some reason, I told them I wasn’t coming down there unless I had the job. As soon as I hung up the phone, I couldn’t believe I had said it.”
Three days later, Gagnon received a call that the job as the resort’s director of golf was his. It was 1980, and he has never left. When Gagnon arrived, there was no television or radio, and the resort’s second course, the Links, had just opened. The renowned Teeth of the Dog course, which had opened in 1971, averaged just 5,000 rounds a year.
“There were very few villas on the property, and we had about half the number of hotel rooms,” said Gagnon. “You had to connect through the operator just to make a phone call. One day I found out that I could buy an antenna and watch a few TV programs from the States. What I didn’t realize is that the person we bought the antenna from had the control, so we might be watching a movie and suddenly the station would switch to a Chicago Cubs game. I ended up becoming a Cubs fan because of that.”
Gagnon proudly showed a 1981 photo of him with baseball Hall of Famers Joe DiMaggio and Juan Marichal, a native of the Dominican Republic, at Casa de Campo. During one memorable two-month stretch, he played golf with presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, as well as Jean Chretien, longtime prime minister of Canada.
One of his favorite stories involves Placido Domingo, the famed Spanish tenor, who was visiting with his friend, the late fashion designer Oscar de la Renta, a native of the Dominican who lived at the resort.
“Placido had never played golf, but he wanted to try,” said Gagnon. “We put him on the driving range, and believe it or not, he hit it pretty well. Now he wanted to play. I grabbed six caddies and gave them golf balls to put in their pockets. We put three of them on each side of the fairway, and I told them, no matter where the ball goes, one will go and get the ball and we will tee one up in the middle of the fairway. We played nine holes in less than two hours, and he had the time of his life.”
The next day, Domingo decided he wanted to play again.
“I had to explain to him that real golf is a little bit different from what he had played,” said Gagnon, who also counts among his pupils former CBS chairman Tom Wyman, French banker Guy de Rothschild and the woman who would become Gagnon’s wife, Merrilee. When Rothschild insisted on paying Gagnon for his lessons, friends told him to frame the $500 check. “I told them, to heck with that,” said Gagnon. “I needed the money.”
In 2001, Gagnon’s daughter, Dominique, qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open on her first try, trumping her father, who never achieved his goal of the U.S. Open, despite an estimated 28 attempts. Dominique, who was born in 1980, shortly after Gagnon moved his family to the island, also competed in the Women’s World Amateur Team Championship in 1996 for the Dominican Republic team captained by her father, as well as several USGA championships.
Chances are that she – as well as anyone else Gagnon has come across over the past 36 years – would applaud the career choice he made back in 1980.