Butler part of Blair County lore
Anyone who ventured to the GolfWorld driving range in Newry during the 1990s or early 2000s was almost certainly greeted by a kind, unassuming gentleman standing behind the counter.
If you were lucky, he might watch you hit a few balls.
Better yet, if you were really fortunate, you might have even received some advice from one of the area’s best golf instructors – Rhett Butler.
Butler, now 63 years old and enjoying retirement, was born and raised in Altoona. It’s likely he wouldn’t have even started playing golf if it weren’t for his next-door neighbors, the Stefanons,who introduced him to the game.
The Stefanons were members at Park Hills and would take a young Butler along to play and learn.
He picked up the game quickly and was also able to get a job at Park Hills as a caddy, which helped him to learn even more. Butler was at the tail-end of the caddy era, a time when all golfers walked.
“We got a couple of bucks for each round,” he said. “Then the golf carts came along. When they finally became cheaper than the caddies, the caddies disappeared.”
Butler worked long enough as a caddy, though, to earn the money needed to purchase a junior membership at Park Hills. He would spend long summer days at the club playing and practicing.
By the late 1960s, he became a standout golfer for Bob Reese’s Altoona High School golf team – winning a district championship and playing in the finals of the state championship.
Butler credits some of his early success to working with Park Hills head pro Jim Mullens.
“He helped me a good bit, especially with the short game, which was really my strong suit,” he said.
After high school, Butler remained one of the best amateur golfers in Blair County. He participated in most of the area’s top events, and one of his biggest highlights was winning the individual men’s title in the inaugural Greater Altoona tournament in 1978, shooting consecutive rounds of 75.
Over the years, Butler would continue his fine play. He recorded his personal low score of 66 several times, on a variety of courses, including Park Hills, Iron Masters and Down River.
In 1993, GolfWorld driving range owner Tom Treese had just moved his business from Plank Road to Newry. At the time, Treese was taking on more responsibility as a representative for Henry Griffitts golf equipment and was looking for a qualified person to run his local golf shop.
He eventually turned to Butler, who was a natural at helping patrons at the local range.
Butler had an especially keen eye with the ability to help fix a swing fault after seeing just a few swings.
“My teaching philosophy was simple,” he said. “Golf is an athletic move. You just need to put someone in certain positions – at the right time – to be a successful golfer. I enjoyed helping people get there.”
Over the years, Butler gained a reputation as being a top-notch club-fitter and golf teacher. Steve DiNicola of Roaring Spring took many lessons from Butler as he was learning the game.
“Rhett helped me more than anyone,” Dinicola said. “Anytime I ever got into a slump, Rhett would take a look at my swing and pulled me right out of it.”
In 2003, after a second change of ownership at the driving range, Butler left the golf business but remained active as a golfer. Norm Cruthers, of Newry, is a close friend who played many rounds of golf with Butler during this time.
“Rhett is one of the greatest guys you’ll ever meet, and he has a great sense of humor, too,” Cruthers said.
Cruthers recounted a particularly difficult round of golf that he played with Butler while struggling, hitting tree after tree.
“Rhett finally said to me, Norm just aim at that tree right ahead of you,” Cruthers said. “When I asked him why, Rhett just said, ‘Because you haven’t hit a darned thing you’ve aimed at all day!'”
Cruthers misses the days that he and Dinicola spent on the golf course with Butler, who hasn’t played much in recent years because of a battle with diabetes.
“Despite his health problems,” Cruthers said. “I know he could still come out and shoot a low score and beat both of us easily.”