Dr John Pallin, MD    –  Kenosha Radiology Center  – Kenosha, Wisconsin

John Pallin Is Long On Talent

Wisconsin Golfer — March-April 2011     Rick Pledl

Kenosha’s John Pallin has bombed his way to a remarkable amateur career – and he’s not done yet

Length is the Holy Grail of golf. More than any other individual skill in the game, hitting the ball a long, long way attracts the attention of fellow competitors, spectators and, on the professional level, sponsors offering endorsement deals worth millions of dollars.

Today, thanks to the stunning advances in golf equipment technology, it seems every state, every city – heck, every driving range – has its bombers.

Wisconsin has John Pallin. And he could kill it way back in the persimmon driver days.

Pallin, who was inducted into the Wisconsin State Golf Association Hall of Fame in 1997, has enjoyed an amateur career that few state players have ever matched. Now a 57-year-old radiologist living and working in Kenosha, Pallin has recorded 14 WSGA titles dating back to his junior days in the early 1970s, and one of the reasons for that success is his length.

“He hit it long when nobody else hit it long,” said Steve Johnson of Mequon, who has competed on and off against Pallin since they were junior players 40 years ago. “Now, all the good young players hit it far, but he was like a freak of nature. He stood on his own when it came to distance in those days.”

Pallin, a six-time state amateur player of the year, won his first state title in 1972, when he captured the WSGA State Junior Championship. He followed it up with two State Amateur victories (1975, ’78), two WSGA Match Play titles (1980, ’92), a WSGA Governor’s Cup title (1995) and eight WSGA State Bestball titles with three different partners (1974, ’80, ’91-’96). He also won the Wisconsin Public Links Association Ray Fischer Championship three times and earned low amateur honors at the Wisconsin State Open seven times.

Despite that record, and the fact he grew up on the golf course at South Hills G&CC in Fond du Lac, Pallin said he was not a serious junior golfer. Basketball, not golf, was the sport he pursued in high school. His family had a membership at South Hills, but Pallin didn’t play in many golf tournaments when he was young. Pallin thinks he played in the State Junior a time or two before his win in 1972, and he participated in his first State Open around that time as well.

Pallin’s golf career in Wisconsin can be roughly divided into three sections. There was the period from 1972 to ’80, during which he won his State Amateur titles, played at Oklahoma State before transferring to Arizona State and attended medical school in Milwaukee. Then he moved to Arkansas for eight years where he completed his residency and taught at the University of Arkansas.

The second phase of Pallin’s amateur career in Wisconsin ran from about 1988 to ’98, a period that saw him and partner Steve Paradise dominate the State Bestball Championship with six consecutive victories.

“And then I sort of tapered off,” Pallin said recently with a laugh.

Recently, Pallin has gotten a third, somewhat more relaxed, phase of his amateur career underway. Although he never participated in the U.S. Amateur Championship, he’s made two spirited runs at the U.S. Senior Amateur in recent years, advancing to the quarterfinals in 2008 and the semifinals in ’09. He participated in the 2010 Senior Amateur but didn’t qualify for match play in a season complicated by two hip surgeries.

His success on the national level is no surprise to Pallin’s fellow Wisconsin players.

Gary Menzel of Milwaukee, himself a WSGA Hall-of-Famer who lost in the championship match at the 1999 U.S. Senior Amateur, recalls encouraging Pallin to pursue the championship when they were paired together in the Wisconsin-Illinois Cup a few years ago. Menzel’s opinion was that Pallin would do well if he ever qualified for the U.S. Senior Am, especially if he got there soon after his 55th birthday, which is the cutoff for eligibility.

“John has to intimidate these older senior players around the country (with his length),” Menzel said. “There are a lot of good players, but John is very good.”

Johnson, who in recent years has played more national events than Pallin, agrees. Johnson said he spoke to Bill Leonard, a well known amateur player from Georgia, after Pallin waxed him (5 and 4) in a first-round match at Chicago’s Beverly CC in the 2009 Senior Amateur. Johnson said he saw Leonard again last summer and he was still talking about “this guy Pallin, from Wisconsin, who just kills it.”

Pallin also came close to winning the prestigious Senior North & South Amateur in Pinehurst, N.C., in 2009. Pallin was leading the tournament on the final hole at Pinehurst No. 2 when he attempted a shot from an awkward stance near the lip of a bunker. His foot slipped, he whiffed and he eventually walked off the final green with a quadruple-bogey 8. He finished fourth, three shots out of a playoff for the title.

Pallin has received invitations to play in other national events thanks to his success at the U.S. Senior Amateur, and he thinks he might pursue some of them. Then again, he might not. He admits he isn’t as motivated as he once was.

“I know I’m still at a point where I could play like that,” he said. “I’m not sure how much of it is technical, but most of it is related to dedication. You really gotta want to play, and I just don’t have myself fixated on golf.”

Thanks to advances in technology, Pallin said he still hits the ball well, although probably not as long as he once did with a little wooden-headed driver. But the big difference in his game, he said, was from 100 yards and in.

“(Length) helps, but not if you miss the green with a wedge.” he said. “If that part of my game was as good as it was 30 years ago, I would still play really well. And that takes practice. You’ve got to hit a lot of those shots to play competitively.”

When asked recently what about his amateur record makes him most proud, Pallin referenced the fact that he had success over a long period of time. While that’s certainly true, his play in one particular tournament stands out.

Time cannot diminish Pallin’s remarkable record in the WSGA Bestball Championship. He won the title in 1974 with Rob Edgarton and in 1980 with Rich Henken, both fellow members at South Hills. After moving to Kenosha CC, where he remains a member, he partnered with Paradise to win the title six straight times from 1991 to ’96.

“That will never be duplicated,” said Tom Halla of Lannon, who with partner John Haines eliminated Pallin and Paradise from the Bestball in 1989 and lost to them in the final in 1991 and ’96.

The latter event, held at Abbey Springs GC in Fontana, stands out in Halla’s mind because the final match was washed out by a thunderstorm with Halla and Haines in the lead and Pallin struggling. When the match finally resumed more than a week later, Pallin came out smoking, and Halla and Haines lost 1-up.

“They had perfect chemistry,” Halla said of Pallin and Paradise, who now lives in California. “Steve was nice and steady and always had a ball in play, and that kind of unleashed Pallin. He was able to play more of a risky game knowing that Steve was always going to be in play. They definitely complemented each other.”

And Halla added: “(Pallin) was an underrated short-game player, too.”

Perhaps the manner in which those victories were accomplished is as impressive as the wins themselves. As Halla noted, in the 1990s, the State Bestball format featured 36 holes of stroke play leading to an eight-team match play bracket, so Pallin and Paradise had to be incredibly consistent to advance so many years in a row.

What gets Pallin excited these days is playing with his daughter Rocco, currently a junior on the women’s track and field team at Dartmouth College. John and Rocco Pallin have formed a dominant team of late in Wisconsin’s annual Father-Daughter Championship, winning the gross title three times, including the last two years. They hope to defend this summer at Nakoma GC in Madison.

“She hits it far,” he said of Rocco, proving the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. “It’s kind of the opposite (in that tournament), where I tend to be the conservative one and she goes for the green. That gives us a big advantage because sometimes she drives it on the green and we’re putting for eagle.”

Time will tell what the future holds for Pallin’s game. He and his wife Cary, also a radiologist, share a practice in Kenosha with another doctor, and he has no plans to retire soon. The Pallins have three grown children – Rocco, plus 22-year-old twins Eric and Sarah. Right now, competitive golf vies for attention with those other aspects of Pallin’s life.

“Unless you’re really fired up, and you want to win, and you have the attitude that this is what you want to do more than anything else, it’s hard to play well,” he said. “I’m getting better about it. I want to play a little bit more, but I don’t know. We’ll see what happens.”