Saturday, December 6, 2014

Golf's Forgotten Legends

Golf's Forgotten Legends

Just when you thought you heard every golf story to come down the fairway along comes Jeff Gold whose new book Golfs Forgotten Legends and Unforgettable Controversies (Morgan James, NY 2014) details the careers of some of the most colorful characters to fall through the cracks of mainstream golf history.

The stories of Australian Peter Thompson, Billy Casper, Seve Bellesteros Sota, Johnny Miller, Porky Oliver are all chronicled here as well as a few with local ties - Willie Anderson, who died young in Philadelphia, Johnny McDermott - the Atlantic City CC pro who won two US Opens, Tommy Armour, who Seaview owner Clarence Geist hired to be the pro at Boca Raton and Dr. Cary Middlecoff, who won the Sonny Fraser tournament as an amateur and went on to become known for his notorious slow play.

Gold's spirited chapter on McDermott references the chapter on McDermott in my book Birth of the Birdie and he agrees with my assessment of the false portrayals of McDermott in the movie "The Greatest Game" and the Golf Magazine article, which Gold, in an appendix, calls for an apology and correction.

For more on Jeff Gold and McDermott see: Kellys Golf History: John McDermott Finally Gets His Due

This book is great for profiling some of golf's most interesting but unhearld players, as well as detailing some of the most legendary golf controversies and scandals, most of which have to do with the rule of playing the ball where it lies.

Gold, who now lives in the Southwest and plays and teaches golf year round, also adds a chapter, without much sarcasm, on the joys of living and playing golf in Minnesota, which is where he met Tom Lehman, who writes the introduction.

The best part of the book however is meeting, some for the first time, some of golf's more eccentric characters.

Take for instance the greatest golfer of all time.

Who is the best golfer ever?

Bobby Jones? Ben Hogan? Arnold Palmer?

Guess again.

Maybe it’s one of the vintage players of golf’s early years? Like Harry Varden,  James Braid or J.H. Tylor? They were called The Great Triumvirate - each of whom earns a chapter in this book.

But no cigar for being the best ever.

None of these famous golfers can compete with Harry M. Frankenberg - also known as "Count Yogi" - the greatest golfer of all time.
                                Meet Harry M. Frankenberg - "Count Yogi" - the Greatest Golfer

Being a Jewish - Native American Indian was as good as being black when it came to being blackballed by the early PGA - just as black players like Charlie Sifford were kept from playing,  or South Africa's Bobby Locke - who also gets a chapter in this book -who  was banned for being too good.

Frankenberg was prevented from playing in major and sanctioned tournaments because he too was so good, too good, and being a Jewish-German-American Indian didn't help.

A natural athlete as a youth, his talents stood out and his records stand on their own - as Frankenberg holds many of the major playing records including the best round ever and the fastest round (58 minutes).

In his career he also hit 55  holes-in-one, once shot seven consecutive birdies, made two albatross (3 under par) and broke 60 four times - 55, 57, 58 and 59. He also owns the course records at Bel Air CC (63), Grossinger GC (63) and Greenview CC, Chicago (59).

The best round ever was a 55 played at Bunker Hill GC (par 74) in winning the  1934 Chicago Golf Championship. He did it with two back-to-back holes-in-one - on a par 3, 187 yards and a par 4, 347 yards (29-26).

Frankenberg also held the records for driving distance - with drives of 425, 435, 450, 453 yards and one of his students - 64 year old Mike Austin is credited by Guinness with the longest drive in tournament play - 515 yards at the 1974 Winterwood GC in Las Vegas when the ball finished 65 yards past the hole.

Known as the most consistent, mechanical golfer of all time, among his other students Frankenberg could count Ben Hogan, Walter Hagen, Tommy Armour, Babe Didrikson, Al Espinosa and President Kennedy, who said Harry was "the most exploited, unexploited individuals I have ever met."

Born near Chicago on April 4 (ca) 1908, a distant relation to Sioux Indian Sitting Bull and Bavarian Count Harry Hilary "Montana" Von Frankenberg, he was nicknamed "The Great Frankenberg" and then "Count Yogi" after he moved to Los Angeles in 1949.

Banned by the PGA, Frankenberg was forced to teach and travel around the country putting on demonstrations and golf exhibitions - much like Harry Vardon and Walter Hagen.

His book "Revolutionary Golf Made Easy" promoted his mechanical motions and quick pace and his wide travels made him a prolific teacher who taught more students than anyone.

"It isn't what'd you shot - its how'd you shoot it," is what Frankenberg told his students of the game.

As Jeff Gold relates in his informative book, "Much of Count Yogi's life is shrouded in mystery, but there's no doubt about his ability to play and teach the game."

Mohammed Ali even called Frankenberg "the greatest of all times."

Frankenberg died without much fanfare on February 15, 1990, but his exploits and the fascinating careers of other forgotten golf legends live on in this book that should be a part of every golfer’s library.

For more on Golf’s Forgotten Heroes:


Monday, November 17, 2014

John McDermott Finally Gets His Due

John McDermott Gets His Due, finally – Bill Kelly

John McDermott is finally getting his due over a hundred years after he became the first American and at 19 he remains the youngest to win the U.S. Open national golf championship.

After winning the 1910 Philadelphia Open, the 1911 U.S. Open, the 1911 Philadelphia Open, the 1912 U.S. Open, 1913 Philadelphia Open, the 1913 Western Open, the 1913 Shawnee invitational, and being the first American to place among the leaders of the British Open, McDermott was the best American golfer and said to be on his way to being the best ever.

Then McDermott fell ill with an undiagnosed nervous breakdown and didn’t play in a tournament after 1914, but he continued to play quietly until his clubs were stolen. In and out of asylums for the rest of his life, McDermott attended the 1971 Open at Merion a few weeks before he died at his sister’s house.

After losing his health and his clubs, McDermott appeared to have lost his legacy as well as he was much maligned by Hollywood and in a carelessly written profile in Golf Magazine that said McDermott was a “famously rude, combative, abrasive, embarrassing, insane bigot, best left forgotten.”

[Golf Mag."The Curious Case of John McDermott" by John Garrity  John McDermott won U.S. Open twice then checked into psychiatric ward -]

When Hollywood put “The Greatest Game” to the screen McDermott is wrongfully, unfairly and rudely portrayed as a typical Mick – a tall gangly red haired buffoon with a mustache.

And that’s how it seemed Johnny McDermott would be remembered, but then Pete Trenham, John Burnes and Jeff Gold stepped up to the tee and took some swings for him.

On the 100th anniversary of his tremendous feats McDermott was belatedly and posthumously inducted into the prestigious Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame, an honor that was accepted by Jim Faser, whose family owned the Atlantic City Country Club where McDermott was the pro.[Pete Trenham & The History of the PGA Philadelphia / Trenham Golf History Johnny McDermott - YouTube]

McDermott was also more accurately portrayed in a short film by Pete Trenham [Pete Trenham & The History of the PGA Philadelphia] – whose golf history web site [Pete Trenham & The History of the PGA Philadelphia] is a treasure trove of Philadelphia area golf lore, including my own book "Birth of a Birdie" [].

Then, through the efforts of John Burnes, the state of Pennsylvania erected a permanent historic plaque in front of the Kingsessing Library at 1201 South 51st Street in McDermott’s old West Philadelphia neighborhood – “JOHN J. McDERMOTT (1891-1917) In 1911 at the Chicago Golf Club, 19-year old John McDermott became the first American to win the U.S. Open. He successfully defended his title the following year. One of the world’s top golfers between 1910 and 1914, he helped to popularize the game in this country. His career was cut short due to illness and he retired in 1914. This was his childhood neighborhood, where he caddied and learned to play at Aronimink Golf Club, once located here.”

Pete Trenham helped dedicate the plaque on Thursday, October 9, 2014 [Pete Trenham & The History of the PGA Philadelphia]

And now McDermott is prominently featured in a new book – Jeff Gold’s “Golf’s Forgotten Legends and Unforgettable Controversies,” (Morgan James, N.Y. 2014)  [ / Jeff Gold Golf, Golf Book Phoenix AZ, Golf Books for Sale Phoenix AZ - Golf's Forgotten Legends: & Unforgettable Controversies: Jeff Gold: 9781630473013: Books]

This excellent book can be purchased at Jeff Gold Golf, Golf Book Phoenix AZ, Golf Books for Sale Phoenix AZ

And incldues a chapter on the greatest golfer of all time - not who you think. .
Gold details the numerous historical and factual errors in “The Greatest Game,” and takes special issue with John Garitty’s portrait of McDermott in Golf Magazine (May 2, 2012), going so far as to cancel his subscription, calling for a boycott and demanding a retraction, correction and public apology.

“In my eye,” writes Gold, “Johnny McDermott holds the title of Greatest Teenage Golfer in American History. I can’t envision another American teenager coming within miles of challenging Johnny’s U.S. Open record, a tie for second and a win, not to mention his two teenage wins in the Philadelphia Open against a field of top professionals. Even Tiger Woods as a teenager never challenged McDermott’s accomplishments.”

Rather than a boring lout, Gold says that McDermott should be honestly remembered for inspiring the now intense international Walker and Ryder Cup matches and should be an inspiration to all young, teenage golfers. 

                                                   John McDermott with U.S. Open Trophy 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Flight of the Eagle - Seaview and the Growth of Golf in America

The Flight of the Eagle – Seaview Country Club and the Growth of Golf in America

By William E. Kelly, Jr.

                                                             Summer 1914

Sitting in the shade of an apple tree near the first tee at the Atlantic City Country Club, Clarence Geist exhaled from his cigar and complained about having to wait to play a round of golf.

Mister Geist, or “C.H.” as he was known, was a multi-millionaire industrialist, owner of a number of gas companies in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Atlantic City, when gas lamps lighted the cities, and he was an avid golfer. He loved to play golf and played as much as he could, often running his companies from the golf course.

Standing next to him, his golfing partner Maurice Risley began to respond, “Mister Gist,” he said, “if I had as much money as you do I’d build my own golf course.”

And that he did. Geist instructed Risley, a real estate agent, to find him a suitable piece of property that would be good for a links course – one that ran along the bay waters and allowed for the variable winds to come into play, just like the legendary Scottish links courses. And in the end, the winds of change fanned by Clarence Geist altered the landscape of America and changed the nature, style and business of the game of golf.  

Risley was a real estate agent whose family were among the first settlers of the area, a family that includes many illustrious politicians, professionals and colorful personages, Maurice Risley one of the more interesting, if only for enticing Geist to build his own golf course.

While Risley selected and surveyed the bayside land on Route #9, just off the White Horse Pike, Geist went and hired Hugh Wilson to lay out his golf course. Wilson also laid out the Merion Golf Club course in Philadelphia, an amateur golfer who traveled to the British Isles to study the links courses there and he later helped finish George Crump’s legendary Pine Valley, which included Geist as an original member. So while Wilson only assisted in the design of three courses – Merion, Seaview and Pine Valley, they are considered three of the best golf courses in the world.

While Wilson began to lay out the course, which was later completed by the equally renowned Donald Ross, their distinctive signatures can still be clearly seen along the fairways and among the traps and bunkers. In 1927 Geist hired Howard C. Toomey and William S. Flynn to design the scenic Pines Course in the woods to the west behind the clubhouse that was expanded in 1957 by Flynn mentor William Gordon. More recently the courses were restored to their original designs to reflect the visions of Wilson, Ross, Toomey and Flynn, four of the greatest golf course architects in America.

To go with his distinctly designed links golf course, Geist hired the best golf professional available – Englishman Wilfred Reid, who had finished among the leaders of the 1913 U.S. Open championship and wanted to stay in America, the land of opportunity.

Geist, being a self-made millionaire when there were far fewer of them, is said to have earned a personal income of two million dollars a year, and he lived first class – wore the best clothes, owned the best cars, lived in the biggest houses, and exhibited a lifestyle that would become generally popular once the nation’s economy grew and money started to spread around.

So the clubhouse would also have to be the best, serve the best food and wines, provide the best service and everything would be done in a simple but elegant style.

Geist christened his club the Seaview Country Club, even though the sea was quite our of view, and the Seaview was considered one of a dozen golf clubs offshoots of the Atlantic City Country Club – some others were Pine Valley, Oakmont and most of the golf clubs in South Jersey and the Jersey Shore, which gave it the reputation of being the “mother club” when golf began to spread wing across America. While the Country Club of Atlantic City was owned by the boardwalk hotel owners and open to all of their guests, Geist’s country club would be private, open only to Geist’s friends and business associates and those who fit his personal qualifications. If you were invited, membership dues weren’t that expensive, but if Mister Geist heard you complain about anything – the food, the wine, the service – he would walk up to your table and say “You’re resignation has been accepted.”

Golf at the Seaview made its debut with great fanfare in January 1915, and over the course of the next century, a lot of great, championship golf would be played there, but the ripples of change that began there would expand far beyond Seaview and change the nature and style of the game and the landscape of America.

Geist would go on to even bigger and better things – opening the historic Boca Raton Country Club in Florida (where he hired Tommy Armour to be the club golf professional), and he made many other similar deals before his controversial death, but Seaview would continue on as a living, growing entity and see many great championships, social events and interesting characters.

Wilfrey Reid, Geist’s first golf pro, didn’t last long. From Nottingham, England, home of Robin Hood, Reid was a good tournament player and stayed at the top of the leaderboard with the best, but at a pre-1913 US Open tournament at Shawnee he got into a fist fight with British Champion Ted Ray.

The argument began in the Shawnee locker room, where Johnny McDermott, the young 20 year old Atlantic City pro and two-time U.S. Open defending champion had already created considerable controversary after winning the tournament by eight strokes and promising the foreign visitors they wouldn’t take the U.S. Open trophy home with them. McDermott’s remarks put golf on the front pages of most newspapers worldwide and created great international interest in the 1913 U.S. Open, said to be “the greatest game.”

Meanwhile Wilfred Reid, who was second after the first round at Shawnee, had words about politics with Ted Ray. Reid later said he asked Ray how he could be a socialist while making so much money playing golf. That was enough to spark Ray to take a swing at Reid, and like McDermott, the gentlemen had to publicly apologize.

While Harry Vardon and Ted Ray would tour the United States a number of times, Wilfried Reid’s 1913 visit was his first, and he liked America, and took up Geists’s offer to be the first golf professional of the Seaview Country Club, which was also making news because of its refined extravagance.

For some reason Geist wasn’t happy with Wilfred Reid, and while discussing this matter over drinks with some other rich power brokers, they decided to switch golf pros, so Wilfred Reid and his contract was traded like a sports star to the Wilmington Golf Club in Delaware, while the golf pro there went to Garden City in North New Jersey, and the pro there - James “Jolly Jim” Fraser, would become the second golf pro at Seaview.

Fraser was probably the cornerstone to that “triple-switch,” as the sports writers of the day called it, since he was from Scotland where the Fraser Clan name is proudly carved onto rocks at the Highland battlefields depicted in the movie Braveheart.  Fraser, the son of an Aberdeen constable, came to America by winning a “Silver Quill” essay contest, and he joined the many other expatriate Scotsmen who found work in America as golf professionals.

Fraser’s first job was at Van Cortlandt Park, the first public golf course in the country, which is where he was working when he met Millie Leeb on a train. They got married and when they got to Seaview they settled into a comfortable house just off the first green of the Bay Course. Those who knew it was there would stop by Fraser’s cellar door for a touch of scotch whiskey he kept in a barrel there for thirsty friends.
Millie practiced putting on the first green the morning James “Sonny” Fraser was born. Sonny Fraser was the epitome of the great amateur golfers of his day, and his brother Leo would become an esteemed professional, a protégé of Walter Hagen, and together with Mr. Geist, they would alter the nature and style of the game of golf as it is played in America.

Geist didn’t want a great tournament player, he wanted a golf professional who could teach his wife and inspire his daughters to play the game, and while Wilfred Reid would later become known for his ability to coach champion women golfers, it was left to Jolly Jim Fraser to teach the game of golf to Geist’s family and the new members of the elite, exclusive and renown Seaview Country Club.

As a Scottish professional at one of the newest and most prestigious golf courses in America, Jolly Jim Fraser’s home on the first fairway at Seaview was the destination of many Scottish and British professionals who came to America, - the Smith Brothers, the Armours and especially Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. Vardon and Ray were actually from the British Channel Isle of Jersey, for which the state of New Jersey is named. Besides being well known as the best golfers of their day, they are considered among the best of all time, and on their visit to America in 1921 Fraser convinced them to play a promotional tournament at a new course in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, now Brookside [].

Fraser’s good friend and hunting partner Walter Hagen played with him and Fraser’s 10 year old son Leo caddied for his father as Fraser and Hagen defeated Vardon and Ray in one of their only loses in America. They may have a dozen British and US Open championships between them, but on that occasion, the Americans carried the day.

While Mister Geist detested dogs, Fraser adopted them, especially hunting dogs, and with Hagen, would take the dogs for walks into the pine forest behind the club, sometimes hunting deer and small game.
Hagen was a young 20 year old Buffalo, New York assistant pro when he witnessed an equally young Johnny McDermott win his second U.S. Open championship in 1912, which inspired Hagen to gave up his assistant pro shop job and became one of the first touring golf professionals, and when on tour he always put into Seaview to visit his good friend Jolly Jim Fraser.

Then tragedy struck on February 15, 1923 when Jolly Jim was killed when his car collided with a Route 9 Trolley. While a series of golf professionals would take his job, the Fraser clan had lost their father, so Geist stepped up and took them in and provided for their well being, especially Sonny Fraser, who Geist treated like a son.  

James “Sonny”  Fraser was a golf prodigy who as a child in 1922, played a round under 100 with President Warren G. Harding, and won a bet Geist had with the president, who was elected, if you believe Boardwalk Empire, with the help of Nucky Johnson.

When Johnson hosted the 1929 conference of organized crime bosses from around the country, Al Capone disappeared while the crime bosses determined his fate for the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre that had put unnecessary pressure on them all. While there were reports that Capone was holed up in the locker room at the Atlantic City Country Club, Geist was afraid of being kidnapped and being held for ransom by the gangsters, and was paranoid enough to have his caddy carry a Thompson submachine gun in his golf bag.
After Sonny Fraser graduated from high school Geist hired him as an executive of one of his companies, requiring Sonny only to play golf with him all day.

Leo Fraser was more rambunctious though, and didn’t want to be coddled by Mister Geist, so he dropped out of school and took a job as an assistant pro in Michigan before taking up Walter Hagen’s offer to go on a cross country tour, barnstorming golf clubs, selling equipment, putting on shows and playing tournaments like a traveling circus.

Hagen would become the first golf millionaire and was such a tournament draw he could make his own terms, and wouldn’t play if the golf clubs didn’t let all of the golf professionals in the clubhouse, from which they were previously banned by strict club protocol. Because golf pros were staff employees they were on the same social level as the cooks and maids and not considered proper gentleman, at least as the term gentleman meant in their day. Every golf professional today owes a debt of gratitude to Walter Hagen for opening the clubhouse doors to them. And Leo Fraser, who would become a golf club owner himself, got his primary education riding around the country with Hagen, one of the first great touring pros. Whenever he wanted,  Leo returned home to assume the role of golf professional at Seaview, literally his home course.
Then Geist died suddenly, leaving Sonny Fraser out of his will.

But Sonny’s new job was secretary to H. “Hap” Farley, the political boss of Atlantic City who took over when Nucky Johnson went to prison. With Nucky’s blessing Hap Farley took over the political machine in Atlantic City and his right hand man Sonny Fraser, was elected to the state legislature with plans to bring legal gambling to New Jersey in the form of horse racing.

Although there was considerable legal wrangling over Geist’s estate, the Seaview continued to function normally because the club had been taken over by Elwood Kirkman, Hap Farley’s Georgetown law school room mate.

Elwood Kirkman also owned Boardwalk National Bank, the Chelsea Title company, a number of boardwalk theaters, some motels on the pike and the Flanders Hotel in Ocean City (NJ), so the Seaview was just one of a dozen operations overseen by Kirkman, and it was under Kirkman’s leadership that Seaview hosted a major celebrity tournament in 1940 and the 1942 PGA tournament, won by Sam Snead in one of golf’s most memorial championships.

In the early forties Sonny Fraser formed a syndicate that purchased the Atlantic City Country Club from the boardwalk hotel owners, and to back the effort to open the Atlantic City Race Track he recruited a number of friends and celebrities like Olympic Champion Jack Kelly, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.

Fraser got the law passed that brought horse racing to New Jersey and was part of the group that built the Atlantic City Race Track, which also included John B. Kelly, the Philadelphia contractor, Olympic champion and father of Grace Kelly, the actress and princess of Monaco, who celebrated her sixteenth birthday with her friends in the Oval Room of the Seaview Clubhouse. 

The 1940 tournament at Seaview brought together celebrities like Bing Crosby and Bob Hope and top flight golfers including Ben Hogan, Jimmy Demaret and Gene Sarazen. Around the same time Sonny Fraser persuaded Bob Hope, his good friend and frequent golfing partner, to open the Apex Golf Club in Pleasantville, one of the few golf courses owned by and open to blacks, who were not welcome at most of the private clubs that lined Route 9.

The 1942 PGA championship at Seaview, won in dramatic style by Sam Snead over Jimmy Turnesa (2-1), was conducted in match play, and was Snead’s first major. Turnesa was then stationed at Fort Dix, and shortly thereafter, Snead joined the Navy, both men serving their country during the war.

While Sonny Fraser was not accepted into the military because of failing health, he became a popular politician and New Jersey State legislator who helped raise money for war bonds and founded the Atlantic City chapter of the American Cancer Society. In the legislature, Sonny Fraser rose to the elite position of Speaker of the House, and got every bill and law passed that he introduced, including the passage of the bill to bring horse racing to New Jersey, the first legal gambling in Atlantic City. 

Tragedy struck again in 1950 when Sonny Fraser finally died of a debilitating disease, ending the short but significant career of one of golf’s great amateurs. Before he died however, Sonny held an invitational tournament that attracted all of the best amateur golfers from around the country, and then he won the inaugural event, which would become an annual affair that would only be rivaled by the Crump Cup at Pine Valley.

While Sonny Fraser would be the great amateur golfer, Leo Fraser took over and restored the Atlantic City Country Club, became a senior executive of the PGA of America and is credited with saving the PGA Tour at its most dangerous hour, when the tournament pros were about to break away from the PGA to form their own tour. Leo Fraser also promoted friendly foreign Ryder Cup completion, stimulated the growth of women’s golf by bringing the US Women’s Open to Atlantic City numerous times and he helped organize the LPGA, which brought the Shoprite Classic to the Jersey Shore. Leo Fraser was also the host, in 1980, of the first PGA Seniors tournament (now the multi-million dollar Champions Tour).

After Geitz died and the Frasers left their house on Seaview’s first fairway to move to the Atlantic City Country Club, the Seaview was left in the hands of Elwood Kirkman. As the former Georgetown law school room mate of political boss Hap Farley, Kirkman was powerfully connected and could be unscrupulous in business. Kirkman had many businesses, including restaurants and motels and hotels, but his bank and title company were his primary enterprises.

When the State of New Jersey decided to build Stockton State College, Kirkman sold them some of the land, mainly pinelands, the ownership of which was questionable, and deeds provided by Kirkman’s title company proved to be falsified. Although this scandal didn’t become news until the 1980s, when it did Kirkman was forced to relinquish control of Seaview, but he was never charged, convicted or did jail time for his misdeeds. 

Marriot purchased the Seaview in 1984 it was opened it to the public, but after decades under Geist and Kirkman, it maintained its first class status, so much so that when the Rolling Stones came to Atlantic City for their Steel Wheels Tour in 1989 they preferred to stay at the Seaview rather than any of the Atlantic City casino hotels.

In 1998 Marriot sold the Seaview to LaSalle Hotels and golf course architect Bob Cupp, Jr. was brought in to restore the Bay Course to its original state as one of the finest links courses in America, and the LPGA Classic returned to Seaview, continuing its championship traditions.

Given the history of the shady land deals, some thought it ironic that Seaview would be purchased by Richard Stockton State College, though it seems quite fitting that Stockton would now own the club with plans to upgrade the facility and use it to help educate a new generation of students in the business, service and maintenance of such a first class golf resort. 

And now, a century after C.H. Geist told Maurice Risley to find him land for a golf course, it’s quite clear that Geist and those associated with the Seaview’s early history – Hugh Wilson, Wilfred Reid, Jolly Jim Fraser, Walter Hagen, Harry Vardon, Ted Ray and Sonny and Leo Fraser would, each in their own way, change the nature and style of the game, take it to another level, and with the growth of golf in every community, alter the landscape of America.

This is a summary of the Flight of the Eagle - Seaview and the Growth of Golf in America, a work in progress.

William Kelly, author of “The Birth of the Birdie,” can be reached at

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Clarence "C.H." Geist

Birth of the Birdie 12 - Clarence H. Geist 


One member of the Atlantic City Country Club who really stood out was Clarence H. Geist, one of the most eccentric individuals of all time.

A self-made man, “C.H.” was rich behind imagination. He was the owner of a number of major utilities which earned him over $2 million a year. With so much money he was paranoid of being kidnapped and was known to take along two caddies, one for his golf bag and the other to protect him with a submachine gun.
Born in LaPorte, Indiana in 1874 of Pennsylvania Dutch ancestry, he refused to go to college because college men were “saps.” 

Instead he traded horses until he was eighteen when he discovered there was not a lot of money in the West. After working as a brakeman on the railroad, and dabbing at real estate, his big break came when he met Charles Dawes, of the South Shore Gas Company. While Dawes went o to become Vice President of the United States and ambassador to the Court of St. James, Geist found his fortune in Gas.

According to William A. Gimmel, “Geist aggressively began to acquire utilities. In 1909 he acquired Atlantic City Gas & Water Company and Consumers Gas & Fuel, both serving Atlantic City and vicinity.” Gas was an important commodity and Geist was one of the men who bought and consolidated competing gas companies creating “natural monopolies.” He owned the gas companies and other utilities that served Pennsylvania, Delaware and South Jersey.

Geist maintained homes and offices in Atlantic City and Philadelphia, but spent much of his time playing golf. Geist was the President of the Whitemarsh Country Club near Philadelphia and was a member of the Atlantic City Country Club.

Geist was one of the first to travel to the Atlantic City Country Club by automobile, rather than by train, trolley or horse and buggy. “Among the automobile parties,” one newspaper item noted,” were Clarence H. Geist, who had as his guest A.W. Atterbury, one of the vice presidents of the Pennsylvania lines.”

In 1914, Geist became impatient as he waited to get to the first tee at the Country Club of Atlantic City. With him was realtor Maurice Risley, who has been quoted as responding to Geist’s displeasure by saying, “Mr. Geist, If I had as much money as you I’d build my own golf course.”

Geist told Risley to find him the land, which he did, just north of Absecon, and it was there Geist built the Seaview Country Club, which opened a year after construction began in January, 1915.

Geist hired Wilfred Reid to be the first golf professional at Seaview. He also hired a private Scottish golf professional to teach his wife and daughters how to play. Reid lasted less than a year before he moved on to the Wilmington Country Club and was replaced by James Fraser.

James “Jolly” Jim Fraser was the pro at Seaview when President Warren G. Harding played a round of golf there in May, 1922.

After the death of James Fraser in an automobile accident, Geist went through a series of golf professionals, though he treated them all with respect.

“Dad told me Gesit treated his golf professionals like staff executives,” said Jim Fraser, “but it took a long time before golf professionals were admitted to most other club houses.”

Leo Fraser also attributes the growth and popularity of first class country clubs to Geist, although he didn’t believe it was such a great thing for golf.

Besides the Seaview Country Club, Geist also developed the Boca Raton Country Club in Florida, where Tommy Armour later became the club professional and where many of the Atlantic City golfers retreated during the winter months.

Leo, who became the Seaview pro in 1935 said, “There was nothing like Seaview in the rest of the country. How many other clubs at the time had an indoor swimming pool, a French chef and liveried chauffeurs who drove Rolls Royces and Pierce Arrows? Every affluent club used Seaview as its standard. There was not a dining room in Philadelphia or New York that could excel Seaview’s. They had horses, squash courts, tennis courts, a trap shooting ranges, and of course, a golf course.”

“It only cost $100 to join Seaview but it took more than money to get in, and if Mr. Geist heard anyone complain about the price of anything, he’d just go up to that person and say, ‘Your resignation has been accepted.’ That’s the kind of guy Geist was. He despised dogs, thought airplanes were the product of the devil, couldn’t stand cigarettes and his feet always hurt.”

“I talk so much about Mr. Geist because he was one of the greatest characters I’ve ever met during my whole life in golf. And he had a lot to do with my career in the early years. But you know, he was also a part of the game’s history in this country with the golf resorts he built.”

“He probably fired me and rehired me a dozen times. I probably argued with Mr. Geist more than I should have. My brother Sonny, didn’t argue with him and he got along very well with C.H. They played a lot of golf together, too. Yes, he was a character, but he owned the finest club around and he never got the credit for all of his accomplishments that he deserved. He was a man ahead of his time.” 

                                                     Clarence H. Geist and Nucky Johnson 

James "Jolly Jim" Fraser

Birth of the Birdie – 13

James “Jolly Jim” and Millie Fraser

                                     Ted Ray, Harry Vardon, Jolly Jim Fraser and Walter Hagen 

James Fraser came to America from Aberdeen, Scotland in 1907, obtaining work as a golf professional at Van Courtlandt Park, New York, the first public golf course in America, and at Great Neck. While working in New York he met Millie Leeb, from Albany N.Y. on a Flushing train. They were married and had four children, Sidney, Leo, James “Sonny” and Elizabeth.

According to Mrs. Elizabeth Fraser Jordan, her father was the son of an Aberdeen, Scotland constable who served in Singapore.

“Jolly Jim,” as he was called, came to America on a Silver Quill award scholarship, apparently because of his literary talents. His passion, however, was golf.

James Fraser was named the Seaview’s second golf professional in 1916 when he replaced Wilfred Reid. At Seaview he became associated with a number of great golfers including Mac Smith, Walter Hagen, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray.

The Fraser family lived in a house on the first hole at Seaview that is still there. “In the early days the house had coal heat and an outhouse,” recalls Elizabeth Jordan. “We were a close family; they used to call us a clan.”

With his ten year old son Leo serving as their caddy Jolly Jim Fraser and Hagen defeated Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in a Pottstown, Pa. exhibition tournament in 1920. According to Leo, his father had designed the course where the exhibition was staged and it was one of only two losses the British champions experienced on that tour, during which Ray won the U.S. Open.

Jolly Jim also won the Philadelphia Open, a significant accomplishment at the time.

“My father was a marvelous man,” relates Elizabeth. “He was a fun man who liked to collect and tell jokes, and was a good friend of Harry Lauder, the comedian. He was a bit heavy, talked with a thick Scot accent, drank Scotch naturally, and used to bring home every dog imaginable. He was a great hunter, who often went duck shooting with Dr. Allen, and he used to raise birds and dogs. All the club members loved him because he was such a great joke and story teller. He kept a batch of brandy for the members down in the cellar and going down the first hole they used to stop for a sip.”

Millie also played golf, and practiced on the putting green the morning that Sonny Fraser was born.
The world of the Fraser Clan changed on February 15, 1923, when Jolly Jim Fraser died after an auto accident with a trolley on Shore Road.

Elizabeth recalled, “He was on his way to pick up Sonny and me at school, and to mail somebody some jokes and collided with the trolley. Now the front and the back of the Toonerville Trolley looked the same so you couldn’t tell if it was coming or going, and he died of his injuries.”

Sidney, the oldest son joined the Navy and much of the burden of being the man of the house fell on young Leo Fraser and of raising the family on Millie.

“Mille was a phenomenal woman,” recalls Bonnie Siok. “She was a tiny thing with a charismatic personality. The world loved Millie. Against everyone’s wishes she used to sneak out and play cards with the caddies at the 19th Hole across from the Seaview club. Later she married Flo Ciriano, the only grandfather any of us really knew. Flo worked at Seaview and later a bartender at the Atlantic City Country Club, and was a very handsome man from Spain, who adored Millie ‘til they day she died.”

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

2013 US OPEN 100th Anniversary of the “Greatest Game.”

2013 US OPEN 100th Anniversary of the “Greatest Game.”
By Bill Kelly

There was a lot of history behind the 2013 US Open at Merion in Philadelphia, but none more significant than the 100th anniversary of the “Greatest Game” - the 1913 U.S. Open, and quite fitting that it was won by Justin Rose of England.

It might have happened over a century ago, but you can still soak up some of history at the venerable Atlantic City Country Club clubhouse because that’s where the legend of “the Greatest Game” began, and despite the 100 years that has elapsed, you can still feel the history emanating from the clubhouse walls, especially in the historic Tap Room or the McDermott Room, named in honor of Johnny McDermott, who made “The Greatest Game” great.

When people think of the 1913 US Open most think of the Country Club at Brookline, Francis Ouimet, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray.

The story, as it has been retold in history books and on film, has young, amateur caddy, Francis Ouimet, the son of the groundskeeper, winning the national championship by defeating in a three way playoff, British champions Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, two of the greatest golfers of all time.

The rest of the story, the real story, is equally compelling and even more incredible, but seldom told.

Rather than Ouimet however, the hero is the equally young Johnny McDermott, a Philadelphia teenager who - after thirteen foreigners, becomes the first American to win the US Open (1911). He then successfully defended his title and promised the British that they won’t take the US Open trophy “back across the pond,” creating the international anticipation for the great game.

Recently described in a national golf magazine as an “abrasive, combative, embarrassing, insane bigot best left forgotten,” most golf writers either fail to mention McDermott at all or mischaracterize him, as he is by Mark Frost in his book “The Greatest Game,” and the movie based on the book.

John McDermott is truly one of America’s forgotten heroes, for without him, there would not be “the Greatest Game” at all. He made the game great.

Before McDermott the United States National Open championship was won by golf professionals from the British isles who had either found work in America or were visiting British champions. Harry Vardon visited America a few times on promotional tours, usually taking the Open trophy with him.

McDermott, the short, slight and spunky Irish teenager knocked the British champions off their horse, not only becoming the first American, but at nineteen years, the youngest champion ever, and he won it back to back (1911-1912), the sign of a true champion, as Walter Hagen said.

Although McDermott did beat Alex Smith and other British professionals, Harry Vardon didn’t play in those tournaments, and neither did British champions Ted Ray or Wilfred Reid, so there were whispers that McDermott couldn’t really beat the best of the Brits.

For McDermott that day finally came in June 1913 when, shortly before the Open, a preliminary tournament was held at Shawnee-on-Delaware, which included most of the top Open field including Vardon, Ray and Reid.

McDermott silenced his critics and everyone else when he soundly defeated Vardon and Ray by eight strokes and then, standing up on a chair in an impromptu locker room speech, promised the foreign guests they wouldn’t take the Open Trophy home with them “back across the pond.”

Fighting words for sure, and quickly quoted by the foreign press and New York Times and even though McDermott apologized and recanted some of it, the message was oft repeated, stirring up a nationalistic fever on both sides of the “pond” that hadn’t been felt since the War of 1812.

McDermott’s promise took golf from the sports page to the front page, and got ordinary people who had never played the game, to become spectators and to pay attention to what happened at the 1913 US Open at the Country Club at Brookline.

“The Greatest Game” wasn’t great because of great shots or great play, it was a great game because Johnny McDermott, in his youthful, raging brigadier - made it so.

In the book “The Greatest Game,” McDermott is downplayed as a sidebar, and marginalized as unlikeable, and in the movie he is portrayed as a tall, red head lout with a mustache, hardly the quiet and demur, short and skinny kid he really was.

The son of a West Philadelphia mailman, McDermott discovered golf at the old Aronomick, and found work first as a caddy and after dropping out of school, as a pro, perfecting his game to the point where he barely lost the 1910 US Open while only 18. After his first job as the golf pro at the Merchantville (NJ) club, McDermott was made the golf professional at the Atlantic City Country Club.

At the 1910 Open McDermott had called Alex Smith “a big lout” and promised that he would beat him the next time they played, and he did, and when he left Atlantic City for the 1911 Open McDermott told his assistant, “you are carrying the clubs of the next US Open champion,” a prediction McDermott made true.

Photos of Harry Vardon playing at Atlantic City in 1900 still hang on the walls, and Wildred Reid, who was tied for first after the second round of the “Greatest Game,” was recruited by Clarence Geist to be the first golf professional at the Seaview Country Club when it opened in 1914.

Reid, who got into a clubhouse fistfight with Ted Ray at the 1913 Open, had designed the first nine holes at the Olympia Club in San Francisco, the site of the 1912 US Open, and was the golf professional at Atlantic City Country Club in 1948, when the US Women’s Open was held there.

For many years an old photo of Francis Ouimet lining up his final putt on the 18th green at the 1913 Open was strategically placed next to the door between the Tap Room and the Men’s Locker Room at the Atlantic City Country Club, a silent but constant reminder of the significance of that moment to everyone who passed through those doors.

Shortly thereafter Johnny McDermott disappeared, went missing for years that stretched into decades, but then nearly sixty years later, he suddenly appeared like a ghost in the pro shop at the 1972 US Open at Merion.

Tired and haggard, dressed in a shabby, wrinkled suit, McDermott went unrecognized, and was ordered out of the pro shop by a young, assistant pro who thought he was in the way.

But then Arnold Palmer came along and recognized McDermott and the young assistant pro was quietly informed, “You know you just kicked a two-time winner of the US Open out of the pro shop.”

Palmer put his arms around McDermott and asked, “How’s your game coming?”

McDermott reportedly said that his putting was okay but his long game was off, to which they laughed and agreed that all you could do was practice.

McDermott died a few months later, a grave marker simply states John McDermott - 1972 - US Open Golf Champion 1911 - 1912

And now, on the 100th anniversary of “the Greatest Game,” Johnny McDermott should be remembered as the young, brash kid, the first American to win the national championship, two time winner of the US Open and at nineteen years old, still the youngest champion ever.

And he should be especially remembered as the one whose promise to keep the US Open Trophy on “this side of the pond,” took the game of golf to another level and sparked the great international competitions personified by the Ryder and Walker Cups, encouraging friendly competition among nations.

And now when things get heated up, tensions rise, sabers are rattling and we are about to go to war, perhaps someone should suggest our differences between nations should be settled like gentlemen - on the golf course.

And this year, after the 100th anniversary of “the Greatest Game,” Englishman Justin Rose took the US Open National Championship trophy home with him, across the pond.

[Bill Kelly is the author of “300 Years at the Point,” a history of Somers Point, N.J., and “Birth of the Birdie,” a history of golf at the Atlantic City Country Club. He can be reached at ]

Saturday, February 2, 2013

2013 US Open at Historic Merion GC

2013 US Open at Merion 

The 2013 US Open at the historic Merion Golf Club will present another opportunity to call attention to the local connections to the great history of the Open, especially the 100th anniversary of John McDermott's attempt to defend his title for a third consecutive time and the legendary preliminary tournament at Shawnee. 

From what I understand, a new book on the history of Shawnee is in the works. 

Besides Atlantic City CC pro John McDermott winning the 1911 and 1912 US Opens, there are a number of other local connections. 

When the 1971 US Open was held at Merion, the Open ground crew came to the Atlantic City Country Club to collect some straw grass, that grows along the bay that they put around some of the greens as an additional hazard.  

That was the last US Open that McDermott would watch as a spectator and when he would meet Arnold Palmer. 

Pete Trenham's Gold History site is gearing up for the Open and is filling us in on some of the great history of the game. 

More to come on this as we get closer to tee time. 

Bill Kelly 

Dear Golf Historians and Golf Enthusiasts
With the U.S. Open coming to Merion GC again in June the  team is announcing four presentations that will appear on our website leading up to the tournament. This, our first of the four, showcases the 1934 U.S. Open at what was then called Merion Cricket Club.

The winner, Olin Dutra, pulled off an amazing feat. While visiting his brother Mortie in Detroit on his way to Merion he suffered an attack of dysentery and had to be hospitalized. Still feeling week he trailed the leader Gene Sarazen by eight strokes at the end of 36 holes. Dutra suffered another attack after Friday’s round and had to play Saturday’s double round on a diet of sugar cubes and water. He was the last player off the tee on Saturday morning and in spite of having to face greens that had been spiked up by the earlier players he finished the day one stroke in front of the field. He was $1,000 to the better, less the $150 he paid his caddy Harry Gibson, and 15 pounds lighter than when he arrived at Merion.    

When you go to our website you will see a new look for the U.S. Open. The winners of the four U.S. Opens held at Merion are pictured along with the 1934 program book and a list with the order of finish which shows the money breakdown. You can view all 52 pages of the program book which features articles by the “Dean of American Sports Writing”, Grantland Rice, and O.B. Keeler who chronicled every stroke of Bobby Jones’ career. In order to read the articles you may need to enlarge them.  

We want to give a special thank you to well known Chadds Ford golf writer Jeff Silverman for writing the lead for our U.S. Open presentation.   

-  Pete Trenham 

Previous United States Open Winners At Merion - Olin Dutra 1934, Ben Hogan 1950, Lee Trevino 1971 & David Graham 1981

Looking Back At The Four U.S. Opens Held At Merion
by Jeff Silverman

Pete Dye, who knows a few things about golf courses and what can happen on them, once observed that “Merion isn’t great because history was made there; history was made there because Merion is great.” Great golf courses bring out the best in great players, in terms of game, certainly, but also in the ways they test – and reveal – the core of a champion’s character.

Olin Dutra had to beat back terrible illness and a more terrible reputation for collapsing down the stretch to triumph in 1934. Less than a year and a half after the horrific crash that almost killed him, Ben Hogan was forced to grittily walk on wobbly legs to prevail – over an exhausting four rounds and a play-off -- in 1950. Twenty-one years later, Lee Trevino confronted and banished crushing self-doubt – and the immense shadow of Jack Nicklaus – to prove that his first Open victory was no fluke, while a decade after that, an unheralded David Graham triumphed over what had been, in the championship’s approach, an exhausted game and a depleted body to survive the field and hoist the trophy.

With the U.S. Open returning to the East Course for the fifth time in June, the eyes of the golf world will again be on a small patch of the Main Line that was talked about as a pushover -- too short, too compact, too dated -- by Dutra’s own contemporaries. Yet, if I learned one thing in the writing of “Merion: The Championship Story,” the club’s forthcoming history, it is this: it is the very marvelous character of the course itself – deemed passé as far back as 1934 – that has let it stand up to every challenge, and, in so doing, continue to stand the test of time.