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Golf coach leaves greens for new field

Believe it or not, chipping, putting, patience and humility can be the perfect combination for teaching the gospel.

At least it is for Mel Blasi, one of Illinois' top golfers, and head golf coach at Western Illinois University.Blasi, a member of the Macomb Ward in the Nauvoo Illinois Stake, has decided to leave his clubs and golf greens behind for an even greener field: for the next two years he will serve a full-time mission. A recent convert to the Church, the 25-year-old athlete will enter the Missionary Training Center Sept. 5 for the Nevada Las Vegas Mission.

According to Blasi, it's the skills he has learned in golfing that will help him spread the message of the gospel.

"Golf is a very humbling sport - even for the most advanced player - because sometimes you'll play terrible no matter how good you are. Golf teaches you patience because it takes a lot of time and effort to do well," he said.

A scratch player who is known for his accuracy and good short game, Blasi has been head golf coach at Western Illinois University for two years and played on the school's golf team for three years prior to that. He has also been the golf pro at Western's golf course for two years.

Under his direction, the WIU golf team won its home tournament this year and broke the Bradley University Invitational Tournament record by eight shots.

With things going so well, university officials were surprised when Blasi announced his plans to leave for a mission, but they were supportive of his move, he said.

"They offered me a leave of absence, but wanted me to make a commitment to come back. I didn't think it would be fair to the players or to the university to tell them I would be back when I wasn't sure."

In an area where the Church has come under persecution, specifically in earlier days when the saints were driven out of western Illinois, Blasi was expecting most people to react negatively to his decision to quit his coaching job for an LDS mission. But instead many people were supportive and more understanding than he had ever expected.

"I don't think they fully understand what I'm doing, but they seem to think I have a lot of courage," he said. "The people in Macomb are really good people."

Blasi became interested in the Church four years ago after taking several classes with two LDS football players at Western.

"I was kind of curious about the Mormons after that and then the missionaries showed up at my door while tracting and I let them in," he said. "At that time in my life I was wanting to find a religion I was comfortable with. I had never been baptized and knew it was important, but it had to be into the right church."

The missionaries taught Blasi the first discussion that November in 1986, but work on the golf team kept him too busy to take any more discussions.

The missionaries kept in contact with Blasi, however, and when school ended in May, he began the discussions again.

"When I finished school I really got serious about investigating and studying," he said. "I went to Church for the first time and felt the Spirit. Church was a hard step, but once I got there it really changed me."

Blasi was baptized a month later on June 28, 1987.

"I was surprised when I went to Church and already knew a lot of the people. I remember them being good people and always being good examples so that really had an impact on me."

Accepting the gospel wasn't that difficult for Blasi, thanks to several key relationships - one with his father and another with a friend. The friend, an older gentleman, taught Blasi the principle of tithing and the dangers of alcohol, drugs and tobacco.

"I had a very strong testimony of the Word of Wisdom even before I was a member," he said. "A lot of credit goes to my dad, too. He taught me a lot about values. And he has never been a drinker or smoker."

Blasi said he also knew that religion was a big commitment and not a half-way deal. "I knew it was a commitment I had to be comfortable with and never look back on as a wrong choice.

"It's hard to believe I've been a member three years. I know as long as I continue to be faithful and do the things that I'm supposed to be doing, then everything will be taken care of."

Blasi said he hesitated to be baptized until he had gained more knowledge of the Church, but the Spirit "told me it was true and I knew I shouldn't prolong it."

It was the same when he made his decision to go on a mission.

"I prayed a lot about it. I always had a desire, but once I got that spiritual conviction that I should go, there was no way I could deny it.

"You can have all the knowledge you want about what is true and what is not, but when you get that spiritual conviction, you know you can't deny it. You have to follow that conviction, that feeling from the Holy Ghost. I know it is right."

Blasi said he had a strong desire to go on a mission a year after he was baptized, but didn't feel he could go until he had the finances to support himself.

"It actually turned out better now. I have had a couple of Church callings that have helped me learn a lot about the Church. They've taught me about leadership and how to deal with people."

He has been a Sunday School teacher for the 12- to 15-year-olds in the Macomb Ward as well as the ward Young Men president for two years and the stake athletic director for a year.

Since joining the Church, Blasi says he is more goal-oriented and looks more to the future. He was endowed in the Chicago Temple in 1988.

"It's made me more concerned about who I am and where I'm going. It has definitely made me a better person."

Although his family members are not LDS, they have been "very supportive and very understanding" through his decisions to become a member of the Church and now to go on a mission. Perhaps one day they'll join the Church, he said. "I would love to see that happen."

Blasi grew up in Stronghurst, Ill., a small town eight miles east of the Mississippi River. A self-taught golfer, he started playing golf when he was 9. A country club had just opened up down the street from where he lived and provided the perfect playground.

He has also excelled in basketball. Blasi attended high school in Monmouth, Ill., after his family moved to the city. He was a member of the high school's basketball team, which finished second in the state Class A tournament in 1982. Although he was still playing golf for fun at the time, he finished 7th in the state as a junior.

After high school, he played basketball at Burlington Community College for a year and played golf at Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Ill., the next year.

He then transferred to Western Illinois where he graduated in 1987 with a bachelor's degree in physical education. He may go back to school to study physical therapy when he returns from his mission. And then again he may try to make it on the PGA tour.

Whatever he does, Blasi will continue to stand up for what he believes in.

"I've always tried to live my life like that," he said. "When you do that, people take notice and respect you for that."

As a missionary, Blasi hopes to help others make it through life's sand traps by sharing his testimony of the gospel.

"I have a strong desire to go and I hope I will be prepared when the time comes," he said. "I just want to do the best I can."

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