Monday, May 25, 2009

Arnold Palmer's Coast Guard Days


Arnold Palmer in the Coast Guard

(See: Birth of the Birdie, p. 103 Arnold Palmer's Coast Guard Days)

Photo from U.S. Coast Guard.
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Chapter 9 of Birth of the Birdie


Arnold Palmer was a relatively unknown Coast Guard enlisted man when he first visited Atlantic City Country Club, and he credits with those he played with at the time as having an effect on the eventual outcome of his career.

Palmer began playing as a youngster when his father cut off the handle of a wooden club for the three year old to play. He won his first scholastic match in 1943 and the state amateur title as a sophomore. When his friend Buddy Worsham obtained a golf scholarship to Wake Forest, Worsham convinced the coach to give Palmer a scholarship as well. While Palmer was then unknown, Worsham was from a from a family of famous golfers - his brother Lew had won the 1947 U.S. Open and Virgil "Buck" Worsham was a golf professional at the Atlantic City Country Club.

"I worked as the head pro at Atlantic City in 1951 and 1952," recalls Virgil "Buck" Worsham. "I was hired by Mr. Leo Fraser, who I met through Charlie Price, the Editor of Golf World. I came right after Sonny Fraser had died, so I never met Sonny."

According to Worsham, "Atlantic City in 1951 wasn't like what it is now. It was quite unsettled and sparsely populated along Shore Road. We used to get a lot of people from Philadelphia and New York down in the summer time when people swarmed to the beaches and boardwalk. I certainly enjoyed working for Leo Fraser. It was a nice experience, a nice place to be. We had some good players, too."

As Bucky Worsham recalls the situation, "Arnold was a room mate of my brother in college when he was killed in an automobile accident. When he joined the Coast Guard he was stationed in Cape May and he would come up and stay with me and play Atlantic City every few weeks or so. He played in a few tournaments, but he was playing so infrequently he didn't win."

In his introduction to James W. Finegan's Centennial Tribute to Golf in Philadelphia, Palmer wrote, "In 1952 and 1953, I was in the Coast Guard, stationed at Cape May, New Jersey, and was able to find time for some golf. Most of it was along the Jersey shore - Atlantic City, Cape May, Wildwood. I played quite a few rounds at Atlantic City Country Club. Leo Fraser was running Atlantic City then - I know that his sons run it today - and sometimes there were some pretty good matches against some of the better amateurs in the area."

"I remember playing against Harry Elwell," Palmer recalled, "and also against Beatle Beirne, who was from Riverton." Palmer also played other local courses, including Ocean City - Somers Point, what is now Greate Bay, where Eddie O'Donnell was the longtime professional. Today O'Donnell works as a teaching professional at the Mays Landing Country Club.

Sure he remembers Arnold Palmer. "I was sitting in the pro shop (at Ocean City - Somers Point) with Harry Elwell," O'Donnell recalls, "and this young man comes in dressed in uniform and asks for the club professional."

"That's me," Eddie replied. Palmer introduced himself. He explained that his father was a club manager at Latrobe Country Club and then looked at O'Donnell sheepishly. "Can I play, Pro?"

O'Donnell asked Palmer if he was an officer.

"No, I'm just an ordinary seaman," he replied.

"Then you can play for free," said O'Donnell.

"If he was an officer, I would have made him pay. I made all the big shots pay," recalled O'Donnell.

Palmer never called Eddie O'Donnell by his name.

It was always, "Pro," in a very respectful manner.

O'Donnell gave Palmer a locker, and he went out on the course for the first time with Harry Elwell, who as club champion, was the best golfer around and a frequent Sonny Fraser Tournament player.

Elwell played with Palmer and O'Donnell, who recalled Palmer as, "a good kid, a good golfer, but nobody ever heard of Arnold Palmer at the time. We played a number of times, and eventually he told us why he joined the Coast Guard."

"Palmer eventually played Atlantic City more than he did Somers Point," said O'Donnell, "and he and Leo Fraser became good friends."

Often seen practicing on the Atlantic City Country Club driving range, Palmer was known locally as a pretty good golfer - one of the many players who shot in the 80s. But that would change.

"He wasn't in college anymore," said O'Donnell, "he as a young amateur who was getting the experience of playing regularly with good professionals and great amateurs, so he must have learned something."

One local player Palmer played Atlantic City Country Club champion Joe Rogers, who later recalled the event to friends, including Stan Dudas. "Palmer could never beat Joe at Atlantic City," Dudas recalls, "because the wind came up and Joe knew how to chip and putt. Joe wasn't a strong player, but he could shoot par and he knew how to play the conditions there. That day he beat Palmer by a stroke or two."

In 1954 Palmer won the U.S. Amateur Championship. "What I liked about him," Eddie O'Donnell said, "was that he could have been the lead man on the Walker Cup team, but he turned that down because he wanted to turn pro."

Years later, while vacationing in Florida, Eddie and his wife Mary O'Donnell watched Palmer play an exhibition match with Sam Snead. As he walked off the green Palmer recognized O'Donnell and stopped to say hello.

"Hey Pro, how you doing?" Palmer said, before he asked about Harry Elwell, who had since passed away.

Palmer then stayed and talked to O'Donnell, holding up the match for awhile, paying his respects to a small link in his life's chain that took him to the pinnacle of what they call the greatest game.

1937 U.S. Ryder Cup Team


1937 U.S. Ryder Cup Team

(Back Row) Byron Nelson, Denny Shute, Henry Picard, Horton Smith and Tony Manero.
(Front Row) Fred Corcoran, Team Mgr. Sam Snead, Ralph Guldahl, Capt. Ed Dudley and Johnny Revolta.
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Bob Hope & Sonny Fraser


Bob Hope and Sonny Fraser at Atlantic City Race Track, which they owned.
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Sonny Fraser & the President


Sonny Fraser & the President play a round at Seaview. Sonny won.
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LBJ's Secret Golf Game


LBJ’s ‘secret’

President Johnson hoped to keep quiet – but the White House secret is out.

He’s been sneaking out to play golf.

For years his clubs were in the bag.

The President strives to win in whatever he undertakes and he’s noted as a poor loser.

Golf is not exactly his game. Furthermore, he’s leary of attracting the kind of criticism that Dwight D. Eisenhower got as President for his addition to golf.

For debateable reasons, Johnson decided to take up golf again, but behind a cloak of secrecy that usually covers events involving “national secrecy.” The reasons suggested included his waistline, Mrs. Johnson’s thought that he needs relaxation, and the desire to be closer to his sons-in-law, Capt. Charles Robb and Pat Nugent.

Some believe the secrecy is his 19th hold alibi. The President digs golf courses, according to observers, leaving behind more holes in the turf than he plays. Charitable experts say his 100-plus score is due to lack of practice.

Washington DC-NYC Examiner Vol. #18 Jan. 4-7 1968

Obama plays golf on Memorial Day

Obama plays golf after Memorial Day observance

1 hour ago
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama hit the golf course after marking his first Memorial Day as commander in chief.

The president's motorcade took him to Fort Belvoir in Virginia. That's where he went for a game of golf more than a week ago.

Obama grabbed his clubs after he participated in Memorial Day observances at Arlington National Cemetery. He laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns and, in brief remarks, saluted the men and women of America's fighting forces as "the best of America."

It was not immediately clear who joined the president for the round of golf.

Jolly Jim Fraser at Seaview

Jolly Jim Fraser at Seaview


Birth of the Birdie – Chapter 13

By William Kelly

James Fraser came to America from Aberdeen, Scotland in 1907, obtaining work as a golf professional at Van Cortlandt 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 Walter 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 hunting with Dr. Allen, and he used to raise birds and dogs. Al the club members loved him because he was such a great joke and story teller. He kept a batch of brandy for the member down in the cellar and going down the first hole they used to stop for a sip.”

Millie (his wife) 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 in an 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 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 hosue fell on young Leo Fraser and of raising the family on Millie.

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

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Clarence H. Geist and Seaview

From Birth of the Birdie - The First 100 Years of Golf at Atlantic City Country Club
P. 43, Chapter 12 (by William Kelly)

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 beyond imagination. He was the owner of a number of major utilities which earned him over $2 million a year, when a dollar was worth a dollar. 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 money in the West. After working as a breakman 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 on 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. Gemmel, "Geist aggressively began to acquire utilities. In 1909 he acquired Atlantic City Gas & Fuel, both serving Atlantic City and vicinity."

Gas was a very 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 realitor 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 "Jolly Jim" Fraser in an automobile accident (with a trolley), Geist went through a series of golf professionals, though he treated them all with respect.

"Dad told me Geist treated his golf professionals like staff executives," said Jim Fraser, Jolly Jim's grandson, "but it took a long time before golf professionals were admitted to most other club houses."

Jim Fraser's father, Leo Fraser also attributes the growth and popularity of first class country clubs to Geist, although Leo 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 and later retired.

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 dinning room in Philadelphia or New York that could excel Seaview's. They had horses, squash courts, tennis courts, a trap shooting range,and of course, the 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, 'You're 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 G.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 credit for all of his accomplishments that he deserved. He was a man ahead of his time."

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Seaview History 101

A weekly feature that answers reader questions about people, events, history and news in southern New Jersey.

Q: What is the history of the Seaview Country Club?
Connie Siuta, Long Beach Island

Answer Guy: Nestled in the woods of Galloway Township, the Seaview has a long history as a regional landmark.

Charles H. Geist opened Seaview Golf Club on Nov. 17, 1914, according to The Press of Atlantic City's archives, and it was the pinnacle of luxury.

Paul Jau, whose grandfather Maurice was head pastry chef there from before the Great Depression to the 1950s, said the links attracted such big names as Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman and comedian Bob Hope.

And it's no wonder. According to Michael Tidwell, the newly appointed director for sales and marketing, back then, valets took patrons' cars before a round, washed them, filled up the tank and returned them at the end.

But the club had money troubles.

A $2,000 tax hike prompted Geist to announce an unsuccessful bid to secede from the township Aug. 15, 1937. Following Geist's death, the club was auctioned Aug. 30, 1939, in a sheriff's sale. Geist's estate owed $500,000, archives show. Florence H. Geist, her daughter and Harold S. Schutt, president of the club, bought the 169-room clubhouse, 500 acres of land and three golf courses for $65,000.

Marriott Corp. bought the property in 1984 and named it the Seaview Marriott Resort . When LaSalle Hotel Properties bought the Seaview in 1997, it contracted Marriott to run the property. It was then called the Seaview Marriott Resort & Spa. LaSalle invested $3 million in the property in 2004, but by 2007, performance had slumped.

In February, LaSalle announced its intentions to change management. Dolce Hotels and Resorts and Troon Golf took over at the 670-acre property - which now includes a 297-room hotel, restaurants and two 18-hole courses - on May 8.

It is now called Seaview Golf Resort.

Got a question?

If you have a question you would like the Answer Guy to tackle, call 609-569-7489, or mail your question to The Press Answer Guy, The Press of Atlantic City, 11 Devins Lane, Pleasantville, NJ 08232. Questions can be faxed to 609-272-7224. E-mail:

Posted in Atlantic on Sunday, May 17, 2009 4:00 am