A golf legend from southwest Florida died on Sunday.
Fort Myers City’s longtime golf director Rich Lamb has passed away after a long health battle. Lamb was 67 years old and had been in the hospital for about a week.
“It’s still a shock,” said Kari Phenix, Fort Myers Country Club senior executive. “We were still texting all the time. He still knew everything was going on at ‘The Fort’, looked at the upcoming tournaments and did all of that.”
“He remembered your name,” said Eastwood professional Todd Brown. “That made people very welcome. It was perhaps his strongest quality as a person.”
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Lamb has not been able to eat or drink since June 2019. It took doctors some time to diagnose Lamb, who suffered from throat cancer in 2007. They eventually told him that he had thyroid disease and also had aspiration on his lungs. And although he tried various treatments and underwent surgery last year, his condition never seemed to improve.
“I think a lot of people expected it, but when it actually happens it’s almost like it’s not real,” said longtime Fort Myers resident and PGA Tour pro George McNeill.
“It’s a loss to me as (LPGA co-founder and legend) Patty Berg was a loss to our community,” said Fort Myers former LPGA Tour player Terry-Jo Myers. “I think Rich is the next big loss for our community.”
Lamb’s health wasn’t going to keep him from doing what he loved, and that was the Fort Myers City Golf Director.
Lamb’s condition had made speaking difficult, and that is how he became a strong copywriter, and he still remained physically connected by showing up late in the day or even after hours at the Fort Myers Country Club pro shop.
“He always wanted to talk to everyone,” said Phenix. “It was pretty hard for him to be here and not be able to get involved. Often times he would sneak in or at the stern when we were here.”
“He was certainly a man of total integrity, but he was absolutely authentic,” said Tom Case, an amateur golfer from Fort Myers who has been Lamb’s friend for 43 years. “If he was your friend, you had a good friend.”
“He was a pro to the people,” said Brown. “He worked tirelessly. He did the right thing for the city. He always had the city in view.”
Even if the city might not have had the same interest in the two golf courses as Lamb did. But it was Lamb who helped secure $ 5.8 million in funding for the renovation of the Fort Myers Country Club, originally designed by Donald Ross in 1917 and completed in late 2014, which proved to be a boon to the course. Lamb also had a nine in Eastwood refurbished, hoping to get funding for the other nine and a practice site.
“That was something he always really wanted,” Brown said of the upgrades. “That was one of his legacies. He wanted to make sure these two golf courses were modernized so that generations to come can enjoy them as generations of the past.”
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Rich Lamb came to Fort Myers hoping to play professional golf
Lamb grew up in Danville, Illinois, a small town south of Chicago near the Indiana border. He played baseball when he was growing up. “He had the best curveball in the league,” said Steve Cunningham, a childhood friend who moved with him to Southwest Florida. “Nobody could hit it.”
But golf also became something he fell in love with after following his father Sherman and older brother Johnny.
Lamb and Cunningham both played and then were on the Danville High School golf team along with Mark Haluska, who would later become another club pro in Southwest Florida. Lamb played at Danville Junior College, then got the chance to play Division I golf in Indiana state while future basketball legend Larry Bird was there.
“He was a fierce competitor and a fierce practice player,” said Cunningham of Lamb as an adolescent golfer.
Lamb thought playing professional golf was in his future, and when Cunningham’s parents built a semi-detached house in Fort Myers Beach, they went there after college. Lamb had planned to play on the mini tours. Besides the PGA Tour, there wasn’t much back then.
But Cunningham said Lamb played tennis and ended up breaking his wrist and unable to play. He spent a few hours on a nearby golf course and was soon in Eastwood. After the pro was fired at Fort Myers Country Club, Lamb took over the direction of golf in 1977.
“Things have changed over the years and he’s seen a lot of it,” said Phenix.
“He made his home when he got the opportunity to become a professional golf club,” said Cunningham. “I had an older touring pro who told me that Rich had the best job in America and that he was the only one who really deserved it.”
Lamb ran the golf course on tradition and integrity
As Brown put it, tradition and integrity were very important to Lamb.
That sometimes meant keeping fees down so older members who might not be able to play as much as they used to be would not be penalized.
“He’s going to run a golf course for the people in our community and all of the people who visit our wonderful area to enjoy,” said Brown.
Or when Myers and other junior golfers needed help making sure they had the opportunity to play and developing a junior membership that spanned college so they could play when they got home.
“He always had the back of all juniors,” Myers said.
Or went with Myers to see legendary Fort Myers high football coach Sam Sirianni when he was hospitalized with bladder cancer before his death in 2002 and talked about a scholarship program that was in the making.
“We have to tell him what we’re going to do for him with the scholarships,” Myers said. “We spent a fair amount of time with Coach Sam. We drove away in the car and just looked at each other and said, ‘I think we’ve just done his day.’
“That was Rich. He really took care of everyone else.”
Or, make sure what is now the Yuengling Open, the pro / amateur event at the Fort Myers Country Club each late winter, continues to go through various title sponsorships or calendar shifts.
“It’s hard to keep a golf tournament going for 50 or 60 years,” said Brown of the tournament, which was played for the 59th time in March. “The city was very, very friendly to let the tournament run in the middle of the season. It’s such a nice community golf tournament and hopefully it will continue.”
“If he said he was going to do something, he did it,” said Case. “He was the real deal. … He’s proven it over and over again over the years, right in front of my eyes.”
Despite Lamb’s frail condition when longtime tour pro Marion Heck, who won the Yuengling record five times, died in March at the age of 81, Lamb attended a meeting of Fort Myers City Council and helped raise Heck for the, what he was making public, intending to make known, to play golf in the area. Brown finally made the presentation.
“This is the last time I saw Rich,” said McNeill.
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Lamb had said a few years ago when his recent health problems began that the lung problem was likely due to radiation from his cancer treatment.
“I lost weight and just lost my appetite,” he said.
Lamb sometimes had to use a feeding tube to properly heal his lungs and drank a lot of liquid supplements.
Nevertheless, the community gathered around him.
On October 16, 2019, two friends organized a meeting to honor Lamb for his services. Mayor Randy Henderson even gave Lamb a key to the city. Friends Hal Adams and Joe Madden had organized a meeting in Lamb’s honor and announced to him about five days in advance that it would happen.
“I think it started with 10, 20, or 30, or maybe 40 people, having a couple of beers and maybe a pizza,” Lamb said then.
At least 150 people came for two hours at Edison, the restaurant in the Fort Myers Country Club.
“I was almost speechless,” said Lamb. “Both of my buds did a great job and the Edison did a great job. It was a beautiful night. “
Stephanie Sirianni of the Sam Sirianni Memorial Foundation posted on her Facebook page after the ceremony that an annual student scholarship will be awarded in honor of Lamb.
“He has touched millions of lives, directly and indirectly,” said Cunningham.
In June 2020, Lamb had undergone a procedure with a gastroenterologist at the Cleveland Clinic in Fort Lauderdale and had been hospitalized for a few days. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, his wife Karen was unable to stay in the hospital. She was driving back on Alligator Alley to pick him up when a car crossed the median and her vehicle hit head-on. Karen Lamb suffered two broken ankles, two broken ribs, and torn two vertebrae in her lower back, but recovered.
The lambs, who celebrated their 31st birthday in June, have four daughters.
“The real measure is his family – his wife, his daughters,” said Cunningham.
“He was a great family guy,” said McNeill.
Yuengling last March had its own strange twist.
A golfer named Rick Lamb, not a relative, won the tournament. Rich Lamb made sure he would be there no matter how he felt. The two lambs then spoke and exchanged punches. The younger Lamb, who played on the up and coming Korn Ferry Tour, qualified for the US Open that year and made the cut.
“When he was playing really well at Korn Ferry, everybody came into the pro shop and said, ‘Is that your boy I saw on TV?'” Said Rich Lamb after Lamb’s Yuengling win. “It just happened when he decided he had an interest in playing. I thought it was only fitting that he was on the field.”
Lamb just did what he always did – give back.
Greg Hardwig is a sports reporter for the Naples Daily News and The News-Press. Follow him on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter: @NDN_Ghardwig, email him at email@example.com. Support local journalism with this special subscription offer at https://cm.naplesnews.com/specialoffer/