Monday, May 12, 2008

Kenny Robinson - Keeping the Past Alive

From Golf Styles - New Jersey Edition, April 2008, p. 15

Keeping the Past Alive

He's been at the club for almost 40 years and watched the evolution of a local shrine from its heyday as an elite private golf club to one now open to the public.

When Kenny Robinson arrived in 1969, Atlantic City Country Club was yet in its prime - hosting dignitaries, golf legends, celebrities and champions of industry. The 74 year old has been a fixture at the club longer than anyone, serving as caddie, pro shop manager, starter, ambassador and historian.

"Even though we are now open to the public, it's retained a private club atmosphere," Robinson said. "The clubhouse has changed little over the last 50 years or so. At the front door is the bell that rang for the last rolley returning hotel guests to Atlantic City."

Robinson recalls many tales of colorful characters and people he's known during his time at the club, mentioning such stars as Perry Combo, Joe Namath, Bob Hope, Bert Lancaster and many others who frequented the facility.

"It was the most sought after club to get a game and a most congenial place to visit. The service, help and food have always been excellent. the recipe for our famous crab cakes, still served today, came from Leo's wife Doris Fraser," added Robinson.

"Jolly" Jim Fraser bought the club in the early '40s. In 1944, his son Leo bought it from his brother Sonny. Leo went on to become PGA president from 1969 through 1971.

The Fraser family operated the facility as a private club. Leo's children - Jim, Doug, and Bonnie - carried on the time-honored traditions and gracious hospitality.

"In 1997 the club was sold to Bally-Hilton-Caesar's entertainment, who kept it private for high rollers. They merged with Harrah's/Showboat in 2006. The new owners opened the course to the public, and has worked to preserve the club's history," said Robinson.

(609) 236-4400

There's also a good photo of Kenny on the back patio.

The one errata, is worth elaborating on.

"Jolly Jim" Fraser was an early golf professional. He never owned a golf course.

Born in Scotland, Jolly Jim was one of the first early wave of Scottish pros to find work in America.

Arriving in New York he worked at a number of early golf courses, including Winged Foot, before becoming the first or maybe the second golf professional at Seaview. There may have been one before him, who didn't work out with Clarance Geist, the gas industry barron from Baltimore who built Seaview in 1914 when he couldn't get a tee time at the Atlantic City Country Club.

Geist recruited Jolly Jim Fraser to be the Seaview golf professional, and he lived in a house on the first fairway of the Bay Course with his vivacious red haired wife Millie, and their two sons Leo and Sonny. There may have been other kids, but Leo and Sonny were players who would have a major impact on the game of golf.

Jolly Jim was also a hunter, and was good friends with other European golf professionals who visited Fraser at Seaview when they came to America. He was also good friends with Walter Hagen, and the two often went hunting in the back woods, what his now the Pine Course. Jolly Jim was also an animal lover, and there were always a lot of dogs running around.

Killed in a traffic accident with a Shore Road trolly while delivering some mail to the post office in Pleasantville or Absecon, Jolly Jim's wife Millie and sons stayed on at Seaview, with Millie marrying a bartender at the club and Geist adopting the Leo and Sonny and raising them as his own sons.

While Geist took a shine to Sonny, Leo went on barnstorming tours with Walter Hagen, selling clubs and playing tournaments across the country before settling in to a golf professional job in Michigan. When Leo finally returned home, he assumed the golf professional job at Seaview, while Sonny was groomed by Geist to take over his gas company and run Seaview and Boca Raton, the equally exclusive golf and country club Geist built in Florida.

Sonny was a terrific golfer, a dedicated amateur when the best players were amateurs.

During World War II, Leo Fraser enlisted in the Army and fought in Europe, while Sonny worked with Philadelphia bricklayer John Kelly, Hap Farley and others to buy the Atlantic City Country Club, which had fallen on hard times, and to build the Atlantic City Race Track and bring live Thoroughbread horse racing, and the first legal gambling to the area.

When Florida Sen. George Smathers heard about the plans, he began to raise trouble, not wanting more race tracks and gambling to compete with the Florida tracks and illegal Florida casinos. Smathers complained that the Atlantic City syndicate that was building the race track had illegal slot machines in the Atlantic City Country Club, but instead of removing the slots, they sold the club to Sonny's brother Leo, the returning war hero.

Although Sonny's syndicate gave his brother Leo good terms on the purchase of the ACCC, Leo still had to borrow a considerable amount, mainly obtained in a personal loan from Carroll Rosenbloom, the owner of the Baltimore Colts, who lived in Margate. With Leo Fraser as the owner, the slots stayed in the clubhouse for another decade, until they hosted a New Jersey State Police dinner.

Sonny Fraser was elected to the New Jersey state legislature and was the odds on favorite to run and win the governorship when he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Even though he was sick Sonny Fraser could play golf, and Leo hosted an amateur golf tournament the Sonny Fraser Invitational, that Sonny won the first year (Dr. Cary Middlecoff won the second).

While Sonny died, his tournament lasted for decades, until the casinos purchased the Atlantic City Country Club. In its day, the Sonny Fraser tournament was as big if not more significant than the similar amateur Crump Cup invitational held at Pine Valley around the same time of year.

Now that the Atlantic City Country Club is open to the public, it might be time to consider restarting the Sonny Fraser Tournament, and invite some of the best amateur players from around the country to return to Atlantic City and compete in the Sonny Fraser, and begin a new era.

As for "Jolly Jim Fraser," he was one of the first Scottish golf professionals to work in America, one of the first golf pros at Seaview, and the father of two of the most important American golfers, Leo the consumerate pro, and Sonny the great amateur.

Bill Kelly