On the 50th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 1994, Phil Ferranti finished fifth in the Normandy Open. “It was fabulous,” he says. “You should’ve seen the parades. That’s something you never forget.”
He played in the British Open at St. Andrews and the PGA Championship at Pebble Beach. He earned a PGA Tour card in 1968, 1977, 1979 and 1982 and became a friend of Hall of Famers Gary Player and Charlie Sifford. Ferranti spent eight years on the European PGA Senior Tour, winning the 1993 Swiss Open.
A few days ago, Phil Ferranti, who grew up in a mining family in Bisbee, Benson and Cananea, Sonora, shot a 71 from the tips at Skyline Country Club. He is 76. He owns a Mexican restaurant, El Cisne, in the foothills. He is a national-class billiards player.
He is not unlike those TV beer commercials touting “the most interesting man in the world.”
Ferranti sits in premium seats at McKale Center and Hillenbrand Stadium, accompanied by his longtime companion, Doby Hillenbrand. Yes, that Doby Hillenbrand, benefactor of the UA’s softball and swimming facilities.
In 1958, he played on what was likely the best high school golf team in Tucson history, a state championship club that produced golf pros like Bobby Gaona, Dave Leon and Tom Fink.
I’ve played golf with Ferranti four or five times and he never mentioned any of those things. Not the European Tour. Not the British Open. Not Gary Player. Not the billiards stuff. Not qualifying for the Phoenix Open five times or being the head pro at Palmbrook Country Club and Briarwood Country Club for 15 years.
I would find myself thinking “this guy is REALLY good” and when I asked about his background he would say “I have a little bit of a résumé.”
Ferranti considers himself a restaurateur as much as a golfer. Before opening El Cisne, Ferranti operated the LaPlacita Café at Plaza Palomino for 20 years.
His is a life well-lived.
“I had my Tour card four times but didn’t make enough ($1,742 in 18 PGA Tour events) to survive or attract sponsors, so I had to work for a living and squeeze in golf when I could,” he says. “It’s not a career I could have seen coming.”
He didn’t touch a golf club until he was 13. But when his family moved to Tucson in the early 1950s, a neighborhood friend told him they were hiring caddies at El Rio Golf Course, then one of two country clubs in Tucson.
“What struck me was that I saw men and women dressed properly, and I was impressed,” he remembers. “I liked being part of it.” So he became a caddie. When the Tucson Open made its annual stop at El Rio, Ferranti caddied for two of the world’s most prominent players, Tony Lema and Charlie Sifford.
“Sifford asked me if I played golf,” Ferranti says. “When I told him I was on the high school team, he told me to hit a few balls and he would watch. I’ll never forget it; he said ‘son, you have a fine swing; you’ll be a good player.’ ”
This did not fit with what Ferranti’s father had in mind.
At the end of Phil’s days at Tucson High, his dad asked him when he was going to go to the Electrician’s Union and fill out paperwork for a job.
“Dad,” he said, “I’m not going to be an electrician. I’m going to college in September.”
His father said he couldn’t pay for it.
“I’ve got a scholarship,” Phil said.
After graduating from Tucson High, Ferranti attended the UA and ultimately found work at a Chicago-area golf club, completed training as a PGA Apprentice and by 1968 qualified for his first PGA Tour event, the San Diego Open. He missed the cut.
“Early in my career, I didn’t have enough confidence,” he says. “If I made the cut it was a celebration, but I didn’t make enough cuts. That was my story.”
Ultimately he became head pro at the Palmbrook Country Club in Sun City, an affluent facility in which he profited from the old system of getting a share of the profits from cart fees, the driving range and the pro shop inventory. It was a coveted job, but when El Conquistador Country Club opened in 1988, Ferranti returned to Tucson to become general manager of the 36-hole compound in Oro Valley.
“I wasn’t playing too badly, I wanted to try the Senior Tour. It was very difficult — hundreds would try to get eight qualifying spots every week — but I got to three U.S. Senior Opens and three Senior PGA Championships, and it really whetted my appetite for competition.”
He got the break of a lifetime when he read an advertisement in Golf World magazine seeking 15 international players for the Geneva Open in Switzerland. Unimaginably, it was an all-expenses paid event and, once accepted, Ferranti took advantage. He had the second lowest round of the tournament and it led to eight years on the European Senior Tour.
“One of my favorite memories was that, as I advanced in Europe, Gary Player tapped me on the shoulder one day and said ‘Phil, I knew you’d do it one of these days.’ It was the best life I’ve ever had.”