In his 46 years as a pro, the past 44 of them at Smithtown Landing, Michael Hebron has learned there are two important, inviolable properties in golf: "You can't predict your score. And every shot is a surprise."
Those capture his career arc, too, considering he was inducted this month into the PGA Hall of Fame. No way would he have predicted that honor when he was a caddie in Bayside. It would have seemed a huge surprise even when he was an award winning golf teacher and author in the 1990s, before he changed his whole philosophy.
Back then, he departed from the traditional methods of giving lessons -- imparting swing techniques and correcting bad grips -- and began promoting the art of learning golf simply by exploring and having fun. He figured he always would be seen as "a third wheel" in his industry. Instead, his emphasis on the "green grass experience" is now a cornerstone of the modern golf business. And he has been awarded his profession's highest honor.
"I teared up as I left the stage," he said in the pro shop the other day, reflecting on having been honored in Port St. Lucie, Fla. As Hebron returned to his seat, Pro Football Hall of Famer Franco Harris, sitting behind him, told the 70-year-old grandfather, "Young man, great lesson for all of us."
Hebron had thanked his mother, his mentors, his staff and especially his customers.
"Amateurs are the game," he said this week, recalling his speech. "They buy our green fees, they buy our membership fees in clubs, they buy equipment, they take lessons. Without amateurs, we don't have a profession."
Some of the people with whom he grew up in Bayside came to the event, recalling how they were basketball aficionados. Hebron's brother, Jimmy, spent 14 years as Bobby Cremins' assistant coach at Georgia Tech. But Michael was drawn to the old Bayside Links by neighbor Bob Joyce, who went on to play on the PGA Tour and become the longtime pro at Southampton Golf Club. Joyce set him up with his first job as assistant to Gene Borek at Pine Hollow
After moving to Smithtown Landing Hebron became a star among instructors. Then, like a fastball pitcher becoming a knuckleballer, he switched his approach. He took 80 hours of courses at Harvard on the workings of the brain. "Inconsistency has to be seen as a positive, not a negative. You learn from your inconsistencies," said the man whose new book, "Modernizing Approaches to Learning," will be out this spring.
He remains a traditionalist. The basement library in the St. James home he shares with his wife Pat is filled with memorabilia from Hogan, Paul Runyan and other icons. He just sees his role differently. "A traffic cop for ideas," he said, helping students -- especially youngsters in a popular junior program -- learn through experience and enjoyment.
"A 36-handicapper is not broken. He just needs developing," the new Hall of Famer said. "If somebody had a really flat backswing, I'd tell them they had a perfect swing for under a tree. I'd tell them, 'Now let me see a swing that wasn't under a tree.' "