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AUGUSTA, Ga. — George Kopac would have so cherished this weekend at the Masters. He would have loved sharing stories with his friends about the little boy who showed up at his driving range off the Hudson River, in the dead of winter, and hit balls high and far into deep piles of snow.

He would have loved reminding his wife and children of the prediction he made two decades ago about Scottie Scheffler.

“This kid is gonna be something someday,” Kopac used to say.

And sure enough, the kid grew up and became the world’s No. 1 golfer, a three-time PGA Tour winner this season and the third-round leader at the Masters with a three-shot cushion. Surrounded by family, Kopac, a former pro and golf lifer, watched a tournament for the final time last month inside Nyack Hospital. He was dying of pancreatic cancer when he watched Scottie Scheffler win the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Everyone agreed that the victory meant something profound to the former Rockland County caddie and high school golf champ who served in the Navy on the USS Columbus, once qualified for the U.S. Open and, in 1967, purchased the driving range he’d once worked at as a teenager on 9W in the Palisades. Kopac expanded the place, added more than two dozen tees and made it his family business. His wife, Gertrude, and their five children all worked there, and so did his sister Florence, and they all kept the range open from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m., seven days a week.

The many celebrities who reportedly showed up to work on their swings included Mickey Rooney, Ed Sullivan, Ginger Rogers, Dick Gregory, Jon Voight, Willie Mays, Glenn Close and, much later, one celebrity-to-be who hadn’t yet seen his fifth birthday. Scott and Diane Scheffler would arrive at the range with their three daughters, who focused on minigolf, and their son Scottie, who focused on hitting the ball as hard as he could.

Third-round leader Scottie Scheffler tees off on the 17th hole of the Masters at Augusta National.
Third-round leader Scottie Scheffler tees off on the 17th hole of the Masters at Augusta National.

“That kid would just pound away day after day, no matter the weather,” recalled George Kopac’s daughter, Kathy. “He would hit balls in the winter and we picked them up after the snow melted.”

The routine started one ice-cold day when young Scottie begged for a ride to the range, until his father relented and drove him there just to prove it was closed. As it turned out, George Kopac was working on site — George Kopac was always working on site — and he handed the kid a bucket of balls and the dad a shovel, and promised them he’d always leave out golf balls for the boy on even the most forbidding winter days.

Scottie became a year-round regular, hitting out of Super Jumbo buckets that carried up to 200 balls and were sold in the morning in two-for-one specials. “He had the most natural swing,” said Kathy, who had played in high school. “At age 5, Scottie had an absolutely perfect swing. You could tell he was born to play golf.”

And play golf young Scheffler did. George Kopac, a rugged man with big arms and hands, didn’t believe in a one-grip-and-one-swing-fits-all approach to instruction. He let Scottie be Scottie, and that was plenty good enough. The Schefflers moved to Texas when their son was 6 — Diane had landed a COO job at a Dallas law firm — and over time the Kopacs lost track of the family.

Scottie Scheffler shares a laugh with caddie Ted Scott during the third round of the Masters.
Scottie Scheffler shares a laugh with caddie Ted Scott during the third round of the Masters.

A grown-up Scottie resurfaced on their radar when he became a PGA Tour Rookie of the Year, a Ryder Cup hero and then a multiple winner on tour, years after the Kopacs sold the range and settled into their Rockland County retirement. Scheffler’s journey became their journey from afar, and the Kopacs half-jokingly discussed showing up at one of Scottie’s tournaments and holding up a “9W Driving Range” sign — just so he knew they never forgot him.

They gathered in front of the TV Saturday to watch Scheffler play the third round of the Masters with a sizable lead, just like they’d watched him Thursday and Friday. On the phone before Scheffler teed off, George Kopac’s high school sweetheart and wife of 67 years, Gertrude, spoke of her late husband as a humble and decent man with a lion’s heart.

Scottie Scheffler hits off the pine straw on the 18th hole during the third round.
Scottie Scheffler hits off the pine straw on the 18th hole during the third round.
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“I just lost the love of my life,” she said, “and I’m all choked up thinking about this. We watched this kid Scottie when he was so little. George was thrilled to see him having so much success. He just loved watching him play.”

George Kopac died an 88-year-old great-grandfather on March 10, four days after Scheffler won at Bay Hill. On the first hole Saturday, informed that Kopac had recently passed away, Scott Scheffler stopped, gathered himself and recalled what the range owner had told him when they first met: “I’m just trying to keep the lights on and pay the rent.”

Scheffler and wife Diane were wearing Ryder Cup jackets, and Scott was carrying a blanket, on what felt like a Lambeau Field day at Augusta National. Perhaps it was fitting that Scottie was trying to win the Masters on the frozen tundra.

After all, he learned how to play golf in the snow at George Kopac’s range near the New York-New Jersey border. “I knew this kid was going to make it,” Kopac told his family before he died.

He lived long enough to see Scottie Scheffler make it. No green jacket required.

Source: NYPOST

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