TAMPA — Behind an easy demeanor, Don Warner possessed the keen instincts of a marketer.
He chose to market golf shoes starting in the early 1980s, a time when golfers often walked the greens in relatively unimaginative turf grippers. Warner, a career salesman, offered an alternative: lighter, high-end Italian shoes that felt broken-in right out of the box.
His exotic line featured shoes made of ostrich, python, eel and elephant skin. Most ranged from $200 to $500, but you could order an all-alligator model for $1,100.
Mr. Warner, who succeeded in marketing and designing what he called the "Rolls-Royce of golf shoes," died in a Pittsburgh hospital Nov. 27 of heart disease. He was 82.
Among the biggest fans of the shoes was Calvin Peete, now 69 and living in Jacksonville. "They were really sharp," Peete said. "They didn't look like your typical golf shoe. They were stylish and very comfortable."
Mr. Warner started Fore Ltd. out of a guesthouse in South Tampa. He hobnobbed at the Bob Hope Classic and other tournaments, looking for role models to display his product.
He chose Payne Stewart, a rising talent known as much for his knickers, ivy caps and general sense of golf fashion as his stellar game.
"He originally approached him to wear his shoes because Payne was such a snappy dresser," said Sally Warner, 69, his wife. "He wore the knickers, which would certainly show off Don's shoes."
Because Stewart had a tendency to drag a toe on his golf swing, Mr. Warner designed a feature found on many of his shoes — a brass toe plate engraved with an emblem of crossed golf clubs.
"He had an eye for a good-looking shoe of quality," said Hal Sutton, 54, who favored Mr. Warner's saddle shoes.
Mr. Warner was born in 1930 into a small Jewish family in Philadelphia. He worked for a men's clothing store, was married and divorced. In 1972 he married Sally Mack, a woman he had met in a restaurant.
She found him talkative and charming, "a born salesman."
The family moved to Tampa, where Mr. Warner sold discount shoes for his father-in-law's company.
Doing the work gave him an idea.
"He thought there was a niche for almost a designer golf shoe, very expensive but very well-made," his wife said.
He visited the Bob Hope Classic and other major tournaments marketing footwear to go along with monogrammed shirts and alpaca sweaters.
He played golf with actors Robert Wagner and Sylvester Stallone and singer Vic Damone, who also admired the shoes. He gave them shoes and encouraged them to tell their friends. Orders took six weeks to return from Italy.
"The thing is, I looked good in them," said Peete, adding that he was voted "best-dressed golfer" in the mid 1980s by caddies.
Peete said he also considered Mr. Warner a good friend. Mr. Warner was close to Stewart as well and took the golfer's death in a 1999 plane crash hard.
Mr. Warner sold the company about a dozen years ago. He played more golf, sinking his first hole-in-one while recovering from double hip-replacement surgery. He had gone to Pittsburgh recently for treatment of a heart condition.
While there, a nurse told Sally Warner her husband was "very charismatic."
"I was so pleased she could see that," she said, "even when he was ill and quiet."
His legacy has all but disappeared as the popularity of hybrid golf shoes by Adidas or Nike that can be worn off the course increases.
"We've gotten away from his style of shoe today in the world of golf," Sutton said. "I wish they had more of that back."
At least one place still affords a glimpse into the recent past, when looking good meant more than all-purpose functionality: the World Golf Hall of Fame Museum in St. Augustine.
Inside a wooden locker honoring Payne Stewart rests a pair of Mr. Warner's two-toned shoes worn by Stewart — orange alligator skin on black.
They still shine, as if just polished this morning.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.