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COURSE CHANGE

Tampa's Palma Ceia head pro is retiring after 34 years - to play again.

When Gil Gonsalves officially retires as head professional at Tampa's Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club on May 31, he's going to use his free time to play golf. Lots and lots of golf. Since taking the job on June 1, 1974, Gonsalves has taught golf, organizedtournaments, run the golf pro shop and recruited members. But he has had little time to actually play the game.

"I really don't play a whole lot,'' he said. "I play Sunday mornings with my wife, Sharon. That's about it. I stay too busy. So what am I going to do when I retire? I'm going to play golf. My wife and I, we're going to travel and play golf.''

Until then there will be luncheons in his honor as well as a farewell dinner. He will organize his last Gasparilla Invitational amateur tournament, which begins Friday. And his career will end in a double-wide trailer, a makeshift pro shop during renovations to the clubhouse.

The journey

Gonsalves, 64, was born in Bermuda and raised in a house between the fifth and sixth holes of the Mid Ocean Golf Club. He learned to play with the only club he could find, a left-handed iron. When that wore out, Gonsalves found some right-handed clubs.

"People would ask me what I would shoot and I could only give them a 14-hole score,'' he said. "There were four holes that went by the clubhouse and I didn't play them because I didn't want to get kicked out.''

When he was 16, in 1960, the family moved to Rhode Island to be close to relatives. He continued playing and advanced through the amateur ranks. In 1966, he was working with pro Augie Boyd as an assistant when Boyd told him about an opening at the Country Club of Orlando.

"Two weeks later I'm in my Rambler driving from Rhode Island to Orlando,'' Gonsalves said. "I'm going through South Carolina and Georgia thinking, if I go off the road nobody's going to miss me. I've got everything I own in that car.''

Gonsalves stayed in Orlando as an assistant to Jimmy Brass until the opening at Palma Ceia in 1974.

"I thought I was coming to see the president but there was a whole selection committee,'' he said. "I had my resume scribbled on a sheet of paper. But I got the job on a Tuesday and I had to start on Saturday.''

He became only the third head pro since the course was opened in 1916.

The club

Palma Ceia sits among neighborhoods and strip stores along south MacDill Avenue. When it first opened, there was little development around the course. Since then, the Donald Ross-designed course has been surrounded by homes. But it has stood the test of time.

It has hosted the Gasparilla Invitational for 53 years. The club's membership has steadily grown. Gonsalves said there is a 10-year waiting list. The course's tight layout and plush, green fairways are most of the reasons why. It is a par 70 and 6,211 yards from the tips.

When Gonsalves arrived, he made a point to strengthen programs for women and junior golfers. And he gave plenty of lessons.

"That first summer, one day I gave 19 lessons,'' he said. "I slept well that night.''

The legacy

Gonsalves, a scratch golfer, has taught hundreds, if not thousands, to play and become better. One of his protegees, Joan Delk, spent time on the LPGA Tour. He has had several assistant pros become head pros or general managers, including Joe Hodge at Lone Palm Golf Course in Lakeland, Clay Thomas at Westchase in Tampaand Bob Ford at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club.

"Personally, he's been a big influence on me,'' said Thomas, who has been GM at Westchase for 15 years. "I grew up out there, and he's the one who taught me golf. And professionally, I often find myself asking, 'What would Gil do?' I've kind of modeled what I do on what I saw him do. He's been a mentor to a lot of people.''

Gasparilla Invitational

For the first time, the winner will be eligible to play in the PODS Championship at Innisbrook on March 6-9. Last year's champion, Michael Morison of Atlanta, returns. Also returning is three-time champ Peter Dachisen of Tampa and 2004 winner Richard Kerper of Clearwater.

There are 200 entrants in this year's field. Gonsalves said the field was selected by a committee, with the main criteria being amateurs with handicaps of three or less.

"It's grown a lot,'' Gonsalves said. "It started as almost like a member-guest tournament to a national tournament. We have people from 23 states, including California, in this tournament. We've had some U.S. mid-amateur champions play in our tournament because they say the greens get them ready for Augusta (the Masters).''

The three-day event begins with a shotgun start Friday morning and afternoon. It is open to the public. The top eight players are scheduled to tee off at 1 p.m. Sunday.

Rodney Page can be reached at page@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8810.

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