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In golf, he taught as well as he played

By Marty Clear, Times Correspondent
Published February 22, 2008


BAYSHORE GARDENS - By the time he went to college, Jeff Henderson had grown tired of playing golf. He had given up the game and ignored pleas that he use his considerable talent and join Florida State University's golf team.

He couldn't ignore the orders from his superior officers in the Air Force, though. Henderson was stationed at MacDill Air Force Base in the late 1960s when the brass found out what a good golfer he was. They had him hit the links with visiting dignitaries.

For the next four decades, Jeff Henderson was perhaps Tampa's most prominent golfer. There were few serious golfers in town who hadn't competed with him, taken lessons from him or played on a course that he had designed.

He passed away Feb. 17, after battling cancer for a year and a half. He was 63.

"If you played golf in Tampa, you knew Jeff," said his wife, Cindy Henderson.

Jefferson David Henderson was born in Annapolis, Md., where his father was a Navy dentist. The family moved often during his childhood and spent several years in Cuba.

It was in his early weeks at FSU that he met the woman who would become his wife.

"We were in the post office," she said. "He was with a group of guys, and I was with a group of girls. He asked one of my friends out first, but she already had a date so he asked me. I was his second choice, absolutely."

His second choice, maybe. But she was the right choice. After that first date, the couple stayed together for 45 years.

He had been in the ROTC program during college and joined the Air Force after graduation. In 1968, he came to MacDill. The Hendersons have lived in Tampa ever since.

He rediscovered his passion for golf during his Air Force years and turned pro shortly after he left the military in 1971.

"There are great playing pros and there are great club pros, and Jeff was both," said longtime friend and golf partner Ross Hays. "That's very rare."

Mr. Henderson served as the golf pro for Carrollwood Village Golf and Tennis Club for 10 years, then he became general manager of the Hall of Fame Inn course for 15 years.

After that course closed in 1998, Mr. Henderson became the director of golf operations for the city of Tampa and directed the renovation of the Rogers Park and Babe Zaharias courses. He also designed the golf practice facility at Tampa Palms.

He had the skill to be a touring pro, Hays said, but he never felt comfortable asking people to invest the considerable money that entering major tournaments involves. The highlight of his playing career came when he played in the 1998 U.S. Senior Open alongside Jack Nicklaus and other golfers he idolized.

But he loved his golfing life in Tampa, and he never regretted forgoing the peripatetic life of a touring player. He had a talent for instilling his passion for golf into students, especially young people, Hays said.

"The most tragic element of all this is that he had just started the perfect job for him, maybe six months before he was diagnosed," Hays said.

Two years ago, Mr. Henderson had taken a position with the Chi Chi Rodriguez Youth Foundation in Clearwater, where he was teaching underprivileged kids how to play golf and the life skills the game instills. He was president and CEO. But his health started to fail, and Mr. Henderson was forced to give up golf about a year and a half ago.

He died surrounded by family. A golf tournament was playing on the television in his hospital room at the time of his death.

Besides his wife, Mr. Henderson is survived by his son, Scott, his parents, Jefferson and Nana Henderson, and his sister, Carolyn Gaskins. A memorial service is scheduled for 1 p.m. Monday, at Hyde Park United Methodist Church.

[Last modified February 21, 2008, 20:11:49]

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