RACINE – Almost everyone who has played tournament golf in Wisconsin over the last 50 years has a Bruce Hansen story, but perhaps the best story is the one he himself tells.
It’s the semifinals of the Milwaukee District Match Play Championship at Lac La Belle Country Club, some years ago. Hansen has a 1-up lead after 16 holes but three-putts the last two greens to lose to Mike Taylor, who saves par from a greenside bunker on the 18th to close out the match.
Hansen is beside himself. In times like this, when he has lost matches or tournaments he should have won, his anger always is directed inward. It’s a form of self-flagellation. On the drive home to Racine with friend Tim Monfeli, he spots 15 or 20 motorcycles parked outside a bar.
He wants punishment, deserves it. And who better to deliver than a bunch of guys in leather jackets?
He pulls into the parking lot and walks into the bar, Monfeli trailing at a safe distance. Hands on hips, Hansen delivers a loud diatribe about the ugly, crappy bikes parked outside. The bar falls silent as the bikers turn on their stools to study the 5-foot-6, 150-pound bantam before them, dressed in a bright polo and green pants, chest puffed out, itching for a fight.
“I was in one of those moods where you’re mad and you don’t know how to handle it,” Hansen says. “At that point, I was, ‘Let’s see what would happen if somebody wants to take a swing at me.’ I wasn’t very big, but I wasn’t afraid to go at it. I don’t know what I said. I was kind of out of it. I was just trying to stir up some trouble.
“I wanted to get punched that night. So you get punched? So what? I’ve been punched before.”
The bikers stare at Hansen for a few seconds and, fortunately for all involved and especially for Hansen, break out in laughter.
“They finally said, ‘Come on, sit down, have a drink,’ ” Hansen says. “I’m sure those guys were like, ‘Where’d you come from?’ Maybe I got lucky. Probably, I did, because no good could have come of it.”
Hansen tells this story between chuckles and bites of pizza at Meadowbrook Country Club, where he has been a member, off and on, since 1970. This is his home away from home, his refuge, where he has hit a million balls on the range and played thousands upon thousands of rounds of golf.
Trust us when we say nobody loves the game more than Hansen, who is 77, never married and lives in the house his parents built. He once quit a good job when it got in the way of his tournament schedule. For the last 35-plus years, he has worked as a part-time driver for Johnson Wax, a job that gives him freedom to pursue his avocation.
Most people schedule golf around life. Hansen schedules life around golf. Many is the summer day when Jason Samuelian, the head PGA professional at Meadowbrook, arrives at the crack of dawn to find Hansen already beating balls on the range.
“I still work hard on my game,” Hansen says. “It means something to me. I’ve given my whole life to the game, there’s no question about that. It’s what makes me tick, I guess.”
“Golf is everything to him,” says Samuelian, who was a talented junior golfer at Meadowbrook long before he became director of operations. “For Bruce, it’s more than a game. It’s kind of a lifestyle. How many guys do you know who are 77, 78 and practice two hours a day? I don’t know if Bruce has the most talent in the world, but if somebody with talent had his work ethic, there’s no doubt they’d be on the PGA Tour.”
Like Ben Hogan, Hansen dug it out of the dirt. Though the late Mike Bencriscutto, a Racine teaching legend, took a teenaged Hansen under his wing and instilled in him confidence and desire, his swing is largely self-made, as distinctive as Jim Furyk’s but more violent. To compensate for his lack of size, which has always put him at a length disadvantage against the better players, Hansen practically comes out of his shoes when he swings.
“I mean, nobody is going to teach that,” Samuelian says.
It’s not pretty, but it’s effective.
“Bruce has one of the most unique swings in the state,” says Bill Linneman, director of rules and competitions for the Wisconsin State Golf Association. “He truly puts every ounce of energy into his swing. Some people may laugh, but I always remind them that Bruce Hansen has his name on the Ray Fischer trophy not once but twice, and in an era when there were some awesome players.
“You can laugh all you want, but wouldn’t you kill to have your name on the Ray Fischer trophy twice?”
It’s true. Hansen won the Ray Fischer Amateur Championship, run by the Wisconsin Public Links Association and second in stature only to the State Amateur, in 1980 at Yahara Hills in Madison and again in 1983 at Janesville Riverside, both times in playoffs. In the former, he beat public links legend Archie Dadian to complete a comeback of sorts.
“The year before, I had quit competitive golf,” Hansen says. “I didn’t play tournament golf in 1979. I was just fed up with my putting and the competitive part. So that win really meant a lot to me.”
He also won the WPLA 36-hole title in 1970, outdueling reigning State Amateur champion Doug Weiss.
His name is etched on plenty of other trophies, too. He won the WSGA Best-ball title with partner Bill Dorece in 1977 and 26 years later won the WSGA Senior Best-ball title with Paul Loth. In 2015, at age 72, he won the Super Senior Division of the state Senior Amateur, shooting 74-78 at Horseshoe Bay. Last year, he won two Senior Tour events. In 2018, he shot a 70 at Stevens Point CC.
Though he never won the State Amateur, he twice finished third. In 1988, he shot a course record-tying 64 during the State Open at Kenosha CC.
Hansen will play for any kind of trophy. In 2014, he won the WSGA Net Partners, a handicap tournament that most of the best players in the state consider beneath them.
“He should almost be in the (Wisconsin Golf) Hall of Fame just for his competitiveness,” Dadian says.
Nothing compares, though, with the Racine Tri-Course Championship, a 54-hole tournament contested at Meadowbrook, H.F. Johnson Park Golf Course and the Racine Country Club. The Tri-Course annually features a strong field and counts Tony Romo among its champions.
Since 1970, Hansen has missed the Tri-Course just twice – once when he was in the National Guard and again in ’79, when he briefly quit playing competitive golf. He won the tournament in 1970, 1982 and 1995, the last time at age 52. In 2008, at 65, he tied for fifth.
Incredibly, he lost in playoffs six times, including four consecutive years (1972-’75).
Which brings us to another story. Those damned second-place trophies. Hansen has no use for them. One resides at the bottom of Lake Michigan. One, he tossed into Pike Creek in Kenosha County. Several went to a watery grave in the Racine Quarry.
Once, a diver spotted shiny pieces of metal at the bottom of the quarry, brought them to the surface and realized they were the shattered pieces of a golf trophy. Thinking it stolen, he dutifully brought it to Johnson Park, where the regulars immediately knew the identity of its owner.
“They tried to give it back to Bruce,” Samuelian says. “He said, ‘I don’t want these trophies. They’re down there for a reason.’”
“It was more I was telling myself, ‘This is not where you want to end up. You’ve got to do better,’ ” Hansen says. “I wasn’t satisfied with second.”
It’s been a long and winding road for Hansen, who was one of the weakest players on the Park High School golf team in the late 1950s. When he and his friends got together at Washington Park for two-man matches, with a dime or quarter on the line, Hansen usually was the last pick.
Once, when his friends teased him about his game in the clubhouse, Bencriscutto was within earshot and pulled Hansen aside. Come back after my last lesson of the day, the great teacher said, and I’ll help you.
“Mike was a god then,” Hansen says. “At that time, I had a baseball grip and my swing wasn’t refined at all. So he gave me lessons. He didn’t charge me. I can’t emphasize enough what Mike did for me. I was kind of wandering around, you know? Golf wasn’t really that important to me at that time. It was getting there, but it wasn’t my whole life.
“I’ll never forget, we were talking in the dark, leaving the clubhouse, and he said, ‘Someday, you’ll shoot par every time you tee it up.’ I said, ‘You’re kidding. Impossible.’ It got to be that he was right.”
Many years later, Hansen would play in money games on weekend mornings at Johnson Park – where Bencriscutto ran the golf operation until his death in 1990 – with the likes of Dadian, Mark Bemowski, Jeff Thomas, Jim Webers, Jim Covelli, Paul Zarek and Gary Menzel. It was easily the best collection of amateur golf talent in the state.
Hansen made all the pairings and went out of his way to see to it that the teams were fair. That was important, because on a bad day a golfer could lose $70 or $80.
“Everybody trusted him,” Dadian says. “He’d say, ‘You’re playing with this guy and you’re playing with that guy.’ Nobody ever argued with him. He’s as honest as the day is long. Out of all the guys that I’ve played with, he’s the guy I would trust with my life to do the right thing. His honesty and integrity are beyond belief.”
One day, after an 18-hole match, the group decided to play the front nine again. Hansen birdied six of the first eight holes and lipped out birdie putts on the other two. They arrived at the ninth tee with Bemowski pressing and Hansen needing a birdie for 29.
“I said, ‘You can press me all you want, I’ve only got one thing in mind. I want to birdie this hole,’” Hansen says. “I don’t care if we’re playing for a million dollars, it wouldn’t be relevant. I hit it up there about 15 feet, ran it right in. I did what I wanted. I shot 29 … and won quite a bit of money. It’s a round I won’t ever forget.”
Hansen already has registered to play in 10 tournaments this summer. Virtually every golfer now signs up for tournaments online, but since Hansen doesn’t own a computer, he drove to the WSGA office last week and filled out the papers by hand.
“I just like to compete,” he says. “I was the marbles champion at Jefferson Grade School, sixth grade. Whatever I did – cards, poker, baseball, whatever – I had to compete. I like to win, too, but I knew that you don’t win all the time, that’s for sure. Especially in golf.
“When you do win, it’s the greatest feeling in the world.”
Hansen has enjoyed remarkable health over the years. Other than a brief problem with a cranky back – a couple cortisone shots knocked out the pain – he’s been injury-free. But he’s 77 and his game isn’t what it once was. Will he continue to play tournament golf into his 80s?
He pauses between bites of pizza.
“You’re damned right,” he says, eyes twinkling.