Remembering Pittsburgh’s “Needle”

With Mr. Garrity still incommunicado, Sports Illustrated senior writer Gary Van Sickle has graciously provided us with the following column. “It’s sort of got a golf course theme,” Van Sickle explains, “and several Top 50 courses are mentioned.”

You grip a club when you play golf, but the reality for a lot of us is, it’s the other way around. Golf grips us.

There is so much to get caught up in—the unending line of better-than-ever new clubs; thousands of golf courses around the world we have yet to play, and most of which we never will; handicaps and the eternal quest to improve; the matches, the press bets and the smack-talk that comes with them; and the great outdoors, the beauty of nature (even if it’s sometimes re-imagined by a golf course architect).

It is easy to forget how special golf can be, how special it is.

I was reminded of this when I read in a Pittsburgh newspaper that The Needle had passed away. The Needle was Frank (Archie) Archinaco, a long-time member at swank Allegheny Country Club, not far from where I live in Pittsburgh’s northern suburbs. I did not know Archie. (I hope it’s OK if I call him Archie. I’m presuming familiarity.)  I never met the man. But just about everything I needed to know about him I learned from his obituary.  It caught my eye because most of the Post-Gazette obits were shortish items, less than a column long. Archie’s obit spread over three columns.

It was no ordinary obituary, obviously. I believe Archie had some input into it. He had a terminal disease, he knew he was dying, and his obit included tidbits about his life that no one else likely would have known or thought significant.  Seriously, who includes golfing exploits in an obituary? I’ll tell you who — a real golfer. The kind of golfer who cares so much about his round that he’ll replay all 18 holes—if you ask him—while you share drinks in the grill room afterward. A real golfer like Archie.

Ballybunion Graveyard & Green

Ballybunion was one of the Needle's favorite haunts. (John Garrity)

From the Post-Gazette: Frank passionately loved to play golf and played at nearly every top 100 golf course in the world, as well as many others. His favorites included Cypress Point, Pebble Beach, Ballybunion and his home course, Allegheny Country Club.

We all know name-dropping golfers who love to talk about the great courses of the world that they played. No matter what exotic course you say you teed it up at and loved, they’ll do you one better. Unless you’ve played Augusta National or Pine Valley, that is. Those are the ultimate toppers.

It was important to Archie, as he was dying, to let us know he’d checked off most of the top-100 course list. You’ve got to be serious to do that, plus have serious contacts just to get on some of those super-private tracks. Not to mention serious dough. But Archie isn’t one of those obnoxious name-droppers. He could have listed 20 more impressive clubs he had played, but he didn’t. He simply told us about his top-100 feat so we’d know how much golf meant to him, how seriously he took it. It also says something about the pride he had for his beloved Allegheny Country Club that he mentioned it in the same sentence with Cypress and Pebble and the ‘Bunion. It’s a loyal, true blue member who proudly waves the ACC flag even in his final days.

More from the Post-Gazette: His handicap peaked at 8. His exceptional play under pressure in tournaments labeled him, jokingly, as a sandbagger. Those who knew him well knew he never cheated at golf.

A handicap is a vanity. It’s a caste system for golf. It’s funny how handicaps inspire fudging at both ends of the scale. There are ego-trippers who claim to be 6-handicappers but can’t break 90 and players who can shoot in the mid-70s but keep their handicap in the low teens so they can win the bets and the events—yes, the sandbaggers.

Archie wanted us to know that at some point he’d gotten his handicap into single digits. That is the Holy Grail for amateur hackers. If you’ve got a single digit handicap at a private club, you’re a player. Note that Archie didn’t claim to still be an 8. But he wanted us to know that he could play the game at a very respectable level at one point in his life.

He also addressed the downside of the handicap system. When you play better than you’re supposed to play, better than your handicap says you’re supposed to, no one ever congratulates you, no one gives you credit. No one says, “Good for you for finally putting 18 good holes together. Way to finally play to your potential ” Nope. If you shoot 74 and you’re an 8 and your net 66 blows everyone else away, you’re just another sandbagger. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

This was Archie’s way of burying that unfair label. There are some amateurs—and I’ll bet Archie was one of them—who have a knack for rising to the occasion. He was probably a good putter—you have to be to get as low as 8.  I imagine Archie as the guy who always holed the putt on the 9th or 18th green when money was on the line. I picture him as clutch, the kind of guy you loved as a partner and hated as an opponent. Don’t drop the S-word on him just because he didn’t choke when the rest of would have. The man could play a little bit. Archie wants you to know that.

A hole-in-one eluded him for nearly his entire career. However, on Oct. 3, 2009, he scored a hole-in-one with a 5-iron at Allegheny’s eighth hole.

That’s another thing about golfers. There are certain things you do. Kind of a Bucket List. You’ve got to play Pebble Beach, the Old Course at St. Andrews, and a few other classic layouts before you die. And you’ve got to make a hole-in-one. It’s just one lucky shot out of thousands, but you’ve got to get one. It’s a pride thing. It is something golfers inevitably ask each other: “So, have you made an ace?” They leave off the “yet,” but it’s implied. As in, you’re not a real member of the club until you score a hole-in-one. It’s also an implied invitation to ask them about theirs… please.

Archie got his ace, all right. Just barely in time.

One year later (after the ace), Frank was diagnosed with terminal, inoperable, metastasized pancreatic cancer. He promised friends and family that he would “fight to my last breath” to beat the disease.

We know now that Archie lost that match. He was 67. He was “charismatic, charming, clowning and joking,” his obit said, and he earned his nickname, The Needle, “because of his pointed teasing with friends.” He was a former president and CEO of PPG’s Automotive Glass and Service.

His obit said that he had another nickname, “the General,” given to him by nurses at the hospital where he was born because he weighed nearly ten pounds and was much larger than the other children. “The comparison would foreshadow the remainder of his life,” the obit said. You can forgive Archie that vanity because he’d already lived the life and proved he was a business leader—a general.

Archie also wanted you to know that he was voted high school class president and later graduated with honors from Villanova University, where he was classmates with Jim Croce, the late singer-songwriter, and  played cards with him.

I’m glad Archie included golf in his obituary. It told me a lot about him. I didn’t know Archie personally, but I know golfers just like him. So do you—the successful businessman who exudes confidence at all times and is always trying to win the game, whether it’s a double-press bet or scoring a better tee time or telling a funnier story. You drop a name in the men’s grill, he drops a bigger one. It’s part of the he-who-dies-with-the-most-toys-wins mentality, except in this case it’s a he-who-plays-the-most-golf-courses-wins game. Guys like him make golf clubs fun. They make you want to hang out at the grill room and shoot the breeze—not that you’d ever actually admit that to him, naturally. That would be another win for him.

No, I never met Archie—The Needle—but it is obvious that golf had a strong grip on him. He accomplished a lot in his illustrious life. And, it seems to me, he was a real golfer. I hope—I believe—that Archie would consider that high praise, indeed.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but Pinehurst No. 2 (No. 51 on the Top 50) reopened  Monday after a thorough makeover by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore. The Donald Ross-designed course, which will host the 2014 U.S. and U.S. Women’s Open Championships, had 32 acres of grass and roughly 700 sprinkler heads removed. “My mouth literally falls open when I see the incredible work that they’ve done,” said USGA executive director Mike Davis, explaining why he was forced to play his round blindfolded.

4 Comments

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4 responses to “Remembering Pittsburgh’s “Needle”

  1. John Harrity

    “The Needle” sounded like he was a hell of a guy. Nice blog Gary!
    RIP Archie.

  2. John Garrity

    A fine column. I didn’t think the Top 50 could afford a writer of Van Sickle’s ability.

  3. Jason Archinaco

    Gary (and John) —

    Thank you for your article. My dad would have loved it.

  4. Barry McGee

    Gary, you nailed it. He was a student of the game and he knew the history of all the courses. But best of all he was a friend like no other. And oh yes. he was a bona fide needle first class. You have honored him in a very special way by looking at his love of golf as he did as a model for living- integrity, respect, preparation, practice and strive to be better today than you were yesterday. Thank you for the article. But remember, if you are the needle, to RIP is out of the question!

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