Michael Turnbull, 1955-2022

October 13, 2022
By Joseph Oberle

“Minnesota golf lost a good one,” was the oft-repeated refrain as news circulated that Michael Turnbull, the longtime Brookview Golf Course teaching pro, had passed away in October. We friends of Turnbull at the MGA wholeheartedly concur with that notion.

But we shouldn’t say that he passed. In the opening of his obituary that he wrote for the Star Tribune, Turnbull urged against it:

“Turnbull, Michael Douglas. Michael is dead ... D-E-A-D, dead. He certainly hasn't passed. In fact, he hasn't passed since he hit Mike Jakacki for a 40-yard touchdown to beat Chaska in 1971.”

Warm, friendly and one-of-a-kind, Turnbull was also unique among golfers in his approach to teaching the game. And his renown as a teaching pro is due in great part to his affable nature, love of the profession and the joy others found in being around him.

“The mantra I give my students is, ‘this is a new swing,” Turnbull told Minnesota Golfer magazine in 2020. “I have never taken it before, so I am going to pay attention.’ Then you are ready to receive information from the clubhead instead of making it do something.”

Turnbull did not reach this seemingly counterintuitive swing instruction overnight. Rather, his golf tale is long and full of turns and obstacles. The 67-year-old Turnbull spent a lifetime in the game and 46 years teaching young players to swing a golf club, yet his passion for teaching had not dimmed as he strove to keep learning himself. He was a teacher to the end.

“[The job is] much easier today, because of my experience,” Turnbull said in 2020. “When you are teaching you need some seasoning and experience in dealing with a wide range of personalities. I have to make sure I remain in the learning mode. I must let the golfer come out of the student rather than try to mold them into something.”

Initially a young baseball player, Turnbull was 12 when he realized that his 200-yard shot at a driving range travelled farther than his hero Mickey Mantle’s record 565-foot homerun. He was hooked.

Turnbull grew up in Northeast Minneapolis, a bike ride from Gross National Golf Club, where he joined the caddie program and was exposed to golf played by some of the top local players. His game was self-taught by observing them and picking up pointers while on the bag.

He played for the Gross Junior team, competed in some MGA Junior competitions and made two trips to the Minnesota State High School golf tournament for St. Anthony Village High School (finishing 15th in 1971). Later, as a Gopher golf team member (near the end of Les Bolstad’s career), he competed in just a handful of tournaments.

Turnbulll attended college in Washington, D.C., to become a diplomat, but the Iran hostage crisis cooled those ideas. A year of law school followed that didn’t pan out, and he returned to Minnesota looking for a new career course.

After a stint as a pro at Rolling Green CC with Craig Waryan in 1983, Turnbull headed west in search of head professional job (even though his heart was still in teaching). He became a teaching pro at Sea Cliff CC in Huntington Beach, got to know folks at the famed Bel-Air CC and even took some lessons from up-and-coming Hank Haney before becoming head golf professional at Balboa Park GC in San Diego.

Ultimately, Turnbull returned to the Twin Cities and began teaching at the U and then Baker National GC. In the 1990s, Michael’s approach to the game changed, as he rejected the “fix this, fix that” methods of swing mechanics that he had been teaching for 20 years (“I still see students from that period and apologize to them for what I taught them,” he said). He carved out a teaching method that included swinging the club with your eyes closed, swaying a driver between two fingers like a pendulum and even teeing the ball up throughout the entire course for beginners.

Turnbull’s return to Minnesota golf saw him embrace the game at every level. He was a member of Minnesota Golfer magazine’s editorial advisory board, an occasional “Pro Tips” contributor, as well as, an insider source for several golf industry features. He was elected president of the Midwest Public Golf Course Managers Association (now defunct), and by virtue of that, an appointed director on the MGA Board of Directors 1998-2000; he also served on the Minnesota Section PGA Board of Directors from 1991-96, and was the recipient of the Section Youth Development Award three times (1994, 1996 and 1997). 

At heart, Turnbull was a born mentor, and his unconventional instruction was not likely to show up in any weekend instruction videos on television. But that wasn’t his intention. He hoped to catch young students before there were too many swing techniques banging around in their heads and show them the joy of a well-struck shot.

“The stuff that I do can’t be measured,” Turnbulll told the Golfer. “I just know that I have students who play longer and enjoy the game more. I am not going to guarantee they’re going to shoot well. I won’t guarantee anything—but I will say that I will help them hit the ball more solidly. That is the key to enjoying golf.”

For the past 17 years, Turnbull taught at Brookview, where running a lawn bowling court also became part of his duties. But numerous health issues have caused fits and starts throughout his life and career. He had diabetes for most of his life, contracted emphysema, COPD, H3N2 flu, congestive heart failure and A-fib once during the middle of a lesson. His health problems brought about his retirement five years ago, but he still taught at Brookview a few times a week despite arthritis in his hips and neck, limiting his ability to swing. 

In fact, on the night before Turnbull died, he was teaching another golf lesson, helping another new player learn and come to enjoy the game. 

We lost a good one.

Turnbulll is survived by his wife, Sara; two kids, Elizabeth (Sean) and John; a sister, Kathy Martin (Perry), and an assortment of splendid cousins, nephews and nieces. And he is greatly missed by all who knew him. A Memorial Gathering will be held Oct. 19 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at the Brookview Golf Course in Golden Valley.


Joseph Oberle

Joe Oberle is an award-winning author, sportswriter, and has been the managing editor of Minnesota Golfer magazine since 2002. He’s covered the Minnesota Vikings, the NFL, Minnesota Twins and spent six seasons as publications manager for the Minnesota Timberwolves, where he co-authored “Unstoppable: The Story of George Mikan.”

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