Thursday, February 28, 2008

Palmer's First Course in Cape May


In his recently published memoirs “Arnold Palmer : Memories, Stories, and Memorabilia : from a Life On and Off the Course” (New York : Stewart Tabori & Chang, 2004), Arnold Palmer not only writes about his life and career in golf, but includes replica memorabilia, copies of letters, scorecards and photos that are pasted together like a scrapbook.

Most golfers know the Palmer story, of how he went to college at Wake Forest in North Carolina on scholarship with his best friend Bud Worsham, who was from a famous family of golfers, the younger brother of Lew Worsham, the golf pro at Pittsburgh’s Oakmont who won the U.S. Open.

When young Bud died suddenly in a car accident, Palmer quit school and joined the Coast Guard, which brought him to the training base in Cape May, where he stayed after training and became known locally, though playing golf infrequently.

In his book Palmer recalls, “Growing up in Western Pennsylvania, I shoveled a lot of snow and endured a lot of long, cold winters as a youngster. But the coldest I’ve ever been in my life was the winter of 1951 in Cape May, New Jersey, where I attended basic training for the Coast Guard. The wind whipping off the Delaware Bay that winter cut through me like a sword…”

One bad winter wasn’t enough to send Palmer away however. Palmer writes that during the Korean War, “…I didn’t see any combat. In fact, I didn’t get any further east than Cape May. After basic training the fine officers at our base decided I should stick around New Jersey and train other recruits. I accepted the job because I figured Cape May was a lot better than Guadalcanal and that training recruits, given what I’d just been through, would be fairly straightforward. What I didn’t expect were the ‘added duties’ that came with this assignment.”

Among the “added duties,” Palmer recalls, was the laying out and construction of his first golf course, a none-hole affair on the base. “Golf was a big-time officer sport in the Coast Guard, as was in the other branches of the service after World War II,” write Palmer, “So when the base commander found out I had been the number-one golfer at Wake Forest, I was given a new charge: design and build a nine-hole course on a flat, brick-hard, overgrown vacant field between two airstrips at the base.”

Like his first love, Palmer says he was profoundly influenced by the construction of this nine-holer. “That was the first course I ever designed, and it gave me a profound appreciation for the art of golf course architecture. There’s a heck of a lot more to it than routing holes on a topographical map. My Cape May design was even more demanding because I had to build the darn thing single-handedly. That is a lesson I think a lot of other course architects could learn: It’s one thing to have a vision. It’s quite another to move the dirt and make it happen.”

“To date, I’ve designed over three hundred golf course around the world, but I’ve never forgotten the lessons I learned from that little nine-holer in Cape May….”

“By the time I received my discharge papers from the Coast Guard, my golf game was pretty rusty. In college I had played every day. In the service I was a yeoman first class, trained recruits, built and maintained a golf course, and spent several hours a week as a life-guard at a nearby beach. Golf fell to fourth or fifth on my priority list. Even though I still loved the game and played as often as I could, the demands of my job took precedence.”

While Palmer may have been profoundly influenced by his first course, others failed to notice or even remember the course that Arnie built. William Carson, the public information officer at the Cape May Coast Guard base, who has been there since the 1970s, doesn’t recall a golf course on the base. “I checked with the facilities engineer and while we’re still looking, and will ask the base historian, we can’t come up with anything that proves or even indicates there was a golf course here. We just can’t see it.”

Although Palmer’s description is pretty precise, “…a flat, brick-hard, overgrown vacant field between two airstrips at the base,…” Carson said that they checked old maps, and “while there was a runway there in the late 1940s, there’s no indication of a golf course here, though it’s possible it’s been built on and developed. We can’t come up with anything, but we’re still searching.”

Nor do the local golfers who knew Palmer and played with him here recall him building a nine-hole golf course, though it could have been restricted to officers and men at the Coast Guard base. Ron Ward, longtime Wildwood Country Club golf pro, now at Mays Landing, was with Palmer at the Shawnee Country Club when he first me this late wife Winnie. “I’ve known Arnie since right after he got out of the Coast Guard and won the U.S. Amateur, and that’s a long time, but I don’t recall any course he designed on the Cape May base.”

Jim and Jack Byrne, who played with Palmer back in the 50s, don’t recall him building a golf course, or inviting them to play there either. “I talked to my brother,” Jim Byrne said, trying to refresh their memories back a half-century, “and we can’t recall anything like a golf course on the base.” They speculate that maybe Palmer did design and layout a course at a Coast Guard base where he was stationed, but it was somewhere else.

If not on the Cape May base, where the runways were later replaced by helicopter landing pads, perhaps Palmer laid out his course at the Cape May County Airport, where the old Navy Air Station was located, and where there is two runways and a lot of hard, flat land between them. But local historian Joe Salvatore, at the Naval Air Station Museum there, said there’s no indication there was ever a golf course there either.

While Arnold Palmer still has fond memories of designing his first golf course at the Cape May Coast Guard base, locating it today is as illusive as finding a first and lost love fifty years later. If still there, would be like finding a lost civilization in an overgrown jungle, and if located and revived would make a unique tourist and golf history attraction, but alas, the “nine-hole course built on a flat, brick-hard, overgrown vacant field, between two runways,” is lost history, and now only a fleeting vision etched in Arnie’s memory.

Bill Kelly can be reached at (609) 425-6297 or

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