Golfers who competed with and against Frank Tenfel in amateur tournaments over the years invariably use the same words to describe his approach to competitive golf.
Fiery. Ferocious. A fighter.
“I enjoyed playing against Frank because you knew you had a tiger by the tail,” said Wisconsin Golf Hall of Fame member Archie Dadian, who battled Tenfel many times. “That’s what you want. Frank was that type. I had the highest respect for him.”
Tenfel, who lived in West Bend, died Wednesday as the result of a mobility scooter accident, according to family friend Randy Warobick. He was 93.
“He loved that thing. He loved driving it,” Warobick said. “He and (wife) Patricia live on the edge of a park and there’s miles of trails in there. He went out on his normal daily ride. They don’t know exactly what happened, but he had blood on the brain. They don’t know if that caused the accident or that was a result of the accident.”
At 16, Tenfel lied about his age and enlisted in the Navy during World War II. He wound up on Iwo Jima, a strategic island in the South Pacific where 70,000 Marines and 20,000 members of Japan’s Imperial Army engaged in a bloody five-week battle. Tenfel witnessed the American flag being raised on Mount Suribachi, a moment immortalized by Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph.
He also escaped death when a grenade landed next to him in a foxhole and did not detonate. Pat Tenfel said her husband suffered from terrible nightmares for many years.
After the war, Tenfel went to work for A.O. Smith and threw himself into golf. What he might have lacked in talent, he more than made up for with burning desire and a legendary short game. He putted cross-handed years before that became an accepted method.
He lost the 1967 State Open by one shot to Dennis Tiziani and beat a young Andy North in a playoff to win the 1969 Ray Fischer Amateur Championship. He also won the Milwaukee Sentinel tournament in 1966, when that title was among the most prestigious in the state.
After he turned 55, he dominated as a senior.
“He was always a good player,” said Gene Haas, retired executive director of the Wisconsin State Golf Association. “But as he got older, he became even better, comparatively.”
Between 1982 and 1990, Tenfel won six WSGA Senior Amateur titles, four of them consecutively (1982-’85). He always counted his victory in 1987 as his fifth in a row, because he underwent heart surgery in 1986 and did not play that year. He also twice finished runner-up.
Tenfel also won eight consecutive Wisconsin AFL-CIO Tournament titles (1966-’73) and the 1975 WSGA Governor’s Cup. He qualified for the U.S. Senior Amateur on three occasions and in 1989 was the medalist in stroke-play qualifying at Lochinvar Golf Club in Houston.
It was a marvelous record. But Tenfel sometimes let his fiery competitiveness get the best of him. He was a hothead and rubbed many people the wrong way with his less-than-gentlemanly comportment on the course.
“He was as fierce a competitor as I think I have ever played,” Dadian said. “You could say he was an a----- on the course and the nicest guy you’d want to meet off the course. He was just that competitive. Off the course, you could not find a nicer guy. He was just that fierce as a player. As far back as I can remember, he was that way. He was always himself.”
In a 2015 interview with this writer, Tenfel didn’t deny that he could be abrasive on the course and verbally abusive to tournament officials.
“When I was younger, I shot my mouth off,” he said. “When I saw something that was bad, I’d tell ‘em and yell about it and they didn’t like that. I’d tell ‘em right off, ‘This is screwy.’ I wasn’t very popular. Sometimes, I had a pretty bad temper.”
Said Haas, “He had a great golf record, no question. But people always said, ‘He was a great golfer, but …’ He had a stigma about him.”
The one glaring hole on Tenfel’s otherwise impressive resume is that he is not a member of the Wisconsin Golf Hall of Fame. First nominated in 1993, he never received 75 percent of the selection committee’s votes necessary for induction.
“Ty Cobb is in the (baseball) Hall of Fame,” Tenfel said in that 2015 interview. “They say he didn’t like anybody and nobody liked him. But as soon as he was eligible, they put him in. I don’t care what he did. He was in there because he was a great player.”
It would be difficult to keep Tenfel out of the Hall of Fame if he had won a State Amateur or a State Open to go along with his record as a senior. Though he came close on several occasions, he never won either.
“In my opinion, he should be in the Hall of Fame,” Dadian said. “No question about it. Most of the people who voted against him never played against him.”
Said Haas, “I’ve been very, very disappointed inasmuch as Frank didn’t get in the Hall of Fame.”
Whether or not Tenfel is inducted posthumously, his name will never be erased from the many trophies he won.
“Another legend,” Warobick said, “has gone to play in the fairway up above.”