Talent, connections and kaizen have fueled Ted Kiegiel’s steady success as a golfer and mentor.
by Charles Upchurch | photography by Bob Karp
Before Raleigh’s Webb Simpson became one of the world’s top professional golfers—before he was an All-American at Wake Forest University, even before he was a star high school player at Needham B. Broughton High School—he was a slight youngster with a natural gift, learning the game at the Carolina Country Club. It was there, perhaps led by fate, perhaps by golf’s divine providence, that he met the club’s young pro, Ted Kiegiel. Did Master Webb know that his new coach, a native Long Islander who ventured south to turn professional, was mentored by the eminent George Fazio and possessed a pedigree honed at Augusta National Golf Club? Did Kiegiel know that the eight-year-old kid with the butter-smooth swing would one day hoist the U.S. Open trophy?
No. Such are the mysteries of golf and the alchemy of the game. But in 1993, there was Kiegiel, 30 years old when he took the job at the venerable Raleigh club, a bastion of the city’s old guard, with a respected but shopworn tradition. Today, in his 27th year as the club’s Director of Golf, he is one of the most respected teaching pros in the country, having turned CCC’s golf reputation, and its junior program in particular, into one of the nation’s finest.
Kiegiel grew up in Southampton, New York, showing early promise as a fiercely competitive junior player. His game continued to progress, and after college, he went on to pursue a pro career. When he relocated to Florida in the early 1980s to fine-tune his game, he found work at Jupiter Hills Club in Tequesta. The club was co-founded in 1970 by former PGA Tour pro George Fazio, who also designed the course. Fazio, who built a notable career as a golf course architect together with his nephew Tom Fazio, became a trusted father figure to Kiegiel.
As Kiegiel set his sights on playing the PGA Tour, Fazio, who had once battled Ben Hogan in a playoff for the 1950 U.S. Open title, placed a thumb on the scale of fate. “Mr. Fazio told me he knew about an opening for an assistant pro position that I might be interested in,” said Kiegiel. “He said if I wanted the job, he would put in a good word for me there.”
The place was Augusta National. Kiegiel laughs when he recalls his response: “I told him I’d need to think about it overnight.” Soon, he drove down Magnolia Lane for the first time, headed for an interview at the most storied golf club in America. For eight years, Kiegiel served as first assistant professional at Augusta National, helping to manage golf operations, giving member lessons and playing a major role during the Masters Tournament. The names engraved in the lexicon of the game became the backdrop of his workday—Rae’s Creek, Hogan Bridge, Amen Corner, Butler Cabin—and the hallowed 18, each christened as if by nature’s decree: Tea Olive, Juniper, Azalea, Firethorn.
In the company of Augusta’s exclusive membership, whether helping the chairman of a publicly traded company adjust his draw around the Eisenhower Tree, or walking nine holes with Jack Nicklaus, Kiegiel carried with him the words of George Fazio. “He said play with heart, be courageous when your game falters, and trust your instincts,” says Kiegiel.
He credits those words for helping to reinforce his kaizen approach to golf, and his mantra for life.
Kaizen—the Japanese practice of consistently making small, incremental changes that yield extraordinary improvement over time—was also a concept that attracted Kiegiel to martial arts. The correlations to golf were plain: the disciplined alignment of mental and physical energies, the combination of elegance and explosiveness, the collaboration of the conscious and unconscious mind. As Kiegiel mastered the game of golf (he is a Callaway Master Staff Professional), he also reached the advanced level of 8th-degree black belt.
The overlay of Eastern-oriented constructs with the mechanical and psychological demands of golf inspired Kiegiel to write. His book, Balanced Golf: Harnessing the Simplicity, Focus, and Natural Motions of Martial Arts to Improve Your All-Around Game, has been recommended reading for his students since 1999. For junior players, internal balance and discipline are key areas of focus.
Webb Simpson was the model subject for Kiegiel’s cerebral, even spiritual approach to golf. His father, the late Sam Simpson, cultivated in his son genuine respect for the rules, customs and sporting traditions of the game. With this foundation, and the unwavering constants of faith and family, the groundwork was laid for the making of a champion.
Armed with uncanny shot-making ability and a cool-headed temperament, Simpson learned from Kiegiel golf’s most hard-won lesson: how to play the game without the game playing you. Throughout his rise to prominence, including three state championships at Broughton, a number-one national high school ranking, ACC Freshman and Player of the Year honors, three All-American seasons, Ryder Cups, Presidents Cups and PGA Tour wins, Ted Kiegiel has been there, as a trainer, as a confidant, as sensei.
Simpson was 26 when he won the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. It was June 17, 2012, Father’s Day. Sam Simpson’s health began deteriorating soon afterward. He passed away in November of 2017. Six months later, with his mom Debbie watching from home, Webb Simpson won The Players Championship at Sawgrass for his first title in four years. It was Mother’s Day.
One of the most iconic photographs in sports shows Ben Hogan in 1950, hitting a fairway shot at Merion Golf Club outside Philadelphia. Hogan went on to outlast the local favorite, George Fazio, to win the U.S. Open. Merion was where Bobby Jones won the U.S. Amateur in 1930, his fourth victory in what was then golf’s first-ever Grand Slam. Three years later, Jones helped design and open a new club called Augusta National.
When Ted Kiegiel left Augusta to become head golf professional at Carolina Country Club, he brought a little of that magic with him. You see it in students like Simpson and PGA Tour winners Grayson Murray and Chesson Hadley from Raleigh, in LPGA Tour competitors and nationally ranked juniors, amateurs and college players who have flourished under Kiegiel’s watch. You sense it in members who have witnessed the kaizen, reinvigorating a proud golf legacy more than a century old.
Out on the practice range, in the shadows of native pines, framed by columned verandas, a young grasshopper swings gracefully, tuned in, balanced, waiting for the master.
Read Ted Kiegiel’s tips for improving your golf game.