Wednesday, July 6, 2011
Atlantic City Country Club - Historical Synopsis
THE COUNTRY CLUB OF ATLANTIC CITY – 1897-1997
An Historical Synopsis – By William Kelly
The Country Club of Atlantic City was incorporated in 1897 by a group of Atlantic City hotel operators who wanted to offer the game of golf to their guests. Unlike most country clubs, the Atlantic City Country Club was established specifically as a golf club, and began what became known as resort golf.
John Reid, a golf professional from Philadelphia, who was born in Scotland and played in three U.S. Opens, surveyed the Northfield site and spent a year laying out the first nine holes while the clubhouse was built. By the early spring of 1898 Mr. Reid was giving demonstrations of his long driving skills and organizing tournaments for both men and women. The first club championships were won by a husband and wife team, Mr. and Mrs. Milton Work, who were also the club bridge champions.
The Country Club of Atlantic City’s first amateur golf champion in 1898 was won by Mr. Francis H. Bohlen, who also became the first Philadelphia Country Club golf champion in 1899. Bohlen attended the 1898 U.S Amateur championship in Morristown, N.J. the same weekend Harriet Curtis attracted a large local gallery when she gave an exhibition of her skills over the Atlantic City course. With her sister Margaret, the Curtis sisters went on to win many championships and placed the Curtis Cup into competition to instigate international play.
The first time inter-club matches were organized that first year between the best players from the Country Club of Atlantic City and the Philadelphia Country Club. Other early team matches were held with the Cape May Golf Club, which while an older club, is no longer in existence.
The tourists of that day traveled primarily by train and the game of golf came to Atlantic City by rail. Atlantic City hotel guests who wanted to play golf left by trolley from Virginia Avenue and the Boardwalk. The railroad company also provided a special train for golfers when they traveled to Cape May or Philadelphia to play, and the names on the list of those who participated included the names of many of the founding members and hotel owners – J. Haines Lippincott, Frederick Hemsley, Walter Smedley, et. Al. Rather than for their guests, the hotel owners themselves took a liking to the game and played frequently.
In 1900 a group of Quaker hotel owners including some of the club’s founders formed the Ozone Club, a social group dedicated to playing golf one day a month, which they have don continuously since then. Their first match was over the Atlantic City course, where they frequently returned over the years.
Although Old records indicated there were stable fees as well as green fees, the trolley was the main mode of travel to and from the country club before the advent of the automobile. Because they wanted to get in as much golf, or drinking at the bar, as possible, they were notified of the approach of the last trolley with the clang of a bell, which rang continuously until the last trolley run was made in 1948. The bell is now by the front door.
The fifth U.S. Amateur championship was held at the Atlantic City Country Club in 1901 when Walter Travis became the first person to win a major championship with the radical Haskell ball, which revolutionized the game of golf.
If for any one thing, the Atlantic City Country Club is known as the place of origin of the term “birdie,” for one under par for a hole, the most frequently used term in golf.
Although there are conflicting reports concerning the details of exactly what occurred, three is no doubt the term “birdie” was coined sometime in December 1903, on the old 12th hole, which later became the practice green behind the clubhouse. The men who participated in that round included Ab Smith, who hit the “bird of a shot,” and A. W. Tillinghast, who became a renown golf course architect, and George Crump, the Philadelphia hotel owner who founded Pine Valley Golf Club.
In the 1910 U.S. Open, held in Philadelphia, 18 year old local boy Johnny McDermott tied Scotsmen and brothers MacDonald and Alex Smith to force a three way play-off. Although Alex Smith won the event, young McDermott placed second, which he parlayed in to a full time professional’s job at Merchantville Golf Club and within a year, became the golf pro at the Atlantic City Country Club.
McDermott replaced William “Robbie” Robinson as the club’s third golf professional. By winning the 1911 U.S. Open in Chicago, McDermott became the first native-born American to win the U.S. Open, and at 19, remains the youngest to have ever won that event. McDermott then defended his title in Buffalo at the 1912 U.S. Open, and the following year, handily defeated British pros Harry Vardon and Ted Ray at a tournament at Shawnee. After winning, McDermott gave a speech in the locker room, promising that the U.S. Open national championship trophy would not be taken across the pond by foreigners but kept in America.
McDermott was also the first American to place in the top ranks at the British Open, but a series of personal setbacks put an early end to McDermott’s career. Although McDermott played poorly in the 1913 U.S. Open, that event, held at the Country Club at Brookline (Mass.) was probably the most spectacular golf game every played. It also included Wilfred Reid, later an Atlantic City pro, and Walter Hagen, and was won by another young American, Francis Ouimet in a playoff with Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, two of the greatest players of all time. A photo of Ouimet lining up his final put on the 18th hole hung next to the locker room door for many years.
After the 1913 U.S. Open, McDermott missed a ferry and never teed off at the following British Open, then barely survived a shipwreck on the way home. In late 1913 McDermott passed out in the Atlantic City pro shop, failed to recover from a nervous disorder and never played serious golf again.
McDermott’s assistant Clarence Hackney assumed McDermott’s pro position in 1914 and remained on the job for the next 26 years, until he died on New Year’s eve, 1940. Hackney had won the Canadian Open and participated in early international matches that preceded the Ryder Cup competitions.
By 1914 golf had become a popular pastime and Clarence Geist, a fabulously wealthy Atlantic City Country Club member became impatient about his tee time. His partner, Maurice Risley, reportedly said to him, “Mr. Geist, if I had as much money as you do I’d build my own golf course.” Gesit then had Risley, a realitor, purchase land in the Absecon Highland and built the Seaview Country Club.
At first Geist hired Englishman Wildfred Reid to be his first pro. Reid would later became the Atlantic City CC pro (1946-48), but his disenchantment with the Seaview situation led him to take the head pro job at the Wilmington Country Club in Delaware, whose pro replaced James Fraser at Cortland Park in New York. Fraser then completed what they called the “Triple Switch” by taking Reid’s former job at Seaview.
James “Jolly Jim” Fraser came to America from Aberdeen, Scotland around 1907. Although he played golf as an amateur in Scotland, like many Scotsmen in his day he found work as a golf professional in New York at Cortland Park, the first public golf course in America. James Fraser married in New York, where Leo was born in 1910, and then came to Atlantic City in 1916. Sonny Fraser was born a year later. The Fraser family lived in a home just off the Seaview bay course’s first fairway, where they received many famous golfers, including MacDonald Smith and Walter Hagen. Hagen became a personal friend and hunting partner of “Jolly Jim” Fraser, and won the 1914 U.S. Open, keeping the Open trophy in America for the fourth straight year.
Hagen also became the first true touring professional and first American to win the British Open. Hagen later became a close friend of Leo Fraser, and a signed photo hangs in the McDermott Room at the Atlantic City Country Club.
In 1920 James Fraser laid out a golf course in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, the opening of which included an exhibition match between Fraser and Walter Hagen against the formidable duo of Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. Ray won the U.S. Open that year, but the Englishmen would lose their match against Fraser and Hagen, during which a young 10 year old Leo Fraser served as a caddy for his father.
The Atlantic City Country Club expanded as the game of golf became more popular. The legendary Willie Park, Jr., two time British Open champion, came to Atlantic City in 1921. he reworked the entire course and added an additional nine holes, bringing the total to 27. Park also laid out the Ocean City-Somers Point golf course (now Greate Bay). Over the years golf course architects Toomey and Flynn also redesigned aspects of the Atlantic City course at a later stage.
James Fraser died in 1922 when his car collided with a Shore Road trolley. The Frasers continued to live at Seaview, with Leo and Sonny greatly influenced by Mr. Geist and other club members. Leo once recalled how he couldn’t play golf at Seaview when he played hooky from school because he mother or Mr. Geist would see him, but he often worked as a caddy at the Atlantic City Country Club. At some point Leo Fraser met Bob Hope, who then worked as an emcee and standup comic at theaters and hotels on the boardwalk, and he played frequently with Leo whenever he was in town.
In 1926 Leo, at the age of 16, went to Michigan where he obtained a golf professional job at Saginaw. Eventually Leo returned home to become the Seaview pro while his brother Sonny became a popular amateur golfer while he worked for Mr. Geist and “Hap” Farley, the political boss of Atlantic County.
For a brief period Leo took a job in the insurance business in Baltimore, where he met and married Doris Hinton, but he never strayed far from the game of golf.
After completing his grand slam in 1930, Bobby Jones chose future Atlantic City pro Ed Dudley to be the golf professional at his Augusta National. Dudley became president of the PGA during World War II and helped initiate golf exhibition tournaments that raised money for the war effort and the Red Cross. During the war the U.S. Army Signal Corps occupied the ACCC clubhouse until 1944, when Sonny Fraser put together a syndicate that purchased the club. The syndicate included Atlantic County Republican boss H. “Hap” Farley and Olympic rowing champion John B. Kelly.
While John Creesey was the pro during the war years, Sonny Fraser brought in “Big” Ed Dudley, then President of the PGA, to be the pro in 1944.
In the fall of 1944, with the tide turning in the war, Sonny Fraser called for a tournament of the best amateur golfers in the country. Sonny Fraser himself won his inaugural tournament, which was played annually until the club was sold to casino interests over fifty years later. Past winners of the Sonny Fraser invitational tournament include many who went on to win other major tournaments, including Carey Middlecoff, Julius Boros, Billy Hyndman and Howard Everett.
After serving as an officer in a much decorated combat unit in Europe during the war, Leo Fraser returned to Atlantic City where he learned that Sonny’s syndicate not only purchased the Atlantic City Country Club, but had plans on building a horse racing track. At the time Sonny was an assistant to Farley, a N.J. State legislator in Trenton who got the race track bill passed.
While Sonny Fraser, John B. Kelly and other club members were busy attempting to bring horse racing and the first legal gambling to Atlantic City, Florida Sen. Frank Smathers complained that the New Jersey race tracks would compete with the tracks in Florida, and pointed out that there were illegal slot machines in the Atlantic City Country Club clubhouse.
Rather than get rid of the slot machine, Sonny and company sold the Atlantic City Country Club to his brother Leo, who borrowed most of the money from his friend and frequent golfing companion Carroll Rosenbloom.
On January 14, 1948 the trolley bell clanged for the last time, as the last of the Shore Fast Line trolleys made its final run down Shore Road.
After Ed Dudley left in 1948, Leo hired Wilfred Reid to be the Atlantic City golf professional. Born in Nottingham, England, Reid had been the first Seaview pro, and played in both the Shawnee tournament won by McDermott and the 1913 U.S. Open at Brookline. Reid was the pro when Leo Fraser hosted the 1948 U.S. Women’s Open, introducing the area to what tournament golf is all about, and featuring Babe Zarahas’ first of four U.S. Open championships. Shortly after that tournament Zarahias helped establish the Ladies Professional Golf Association – the LPGA.
Howard Everett, who lived in a house on the ACCC course, defeated a teenage Arnold Palmer in the Pennsylvania Amateur Championship before Palmer went away to college. While Palmer was not well known at the time, his college roommate “Buddy” Worsham came from a family of great golfers. Lew Worsham had won the U.S. Open while “Bucky” Worsham became the ACCC pro in 1950. Palmer’s college life ended abruptly when Buddy Worsham died in a car crash, an accident that resulted in Palmer leaving school and joining the Coast Guard. Stationed at the Cape May Coast Guard base in 1951, Palmer frequently visited Bucky Worsham at ACCC and met Leo Fraser, a friendship that would later become significant when Leo was president of the PGA and Palmer was negotiating with them on behalf of the touring golf professionals.
As a PGA official Leo Fraser was invited to participate in the Centennial 1960 British Open, held at St. Andrews, Scotland. Leo attended the event with Jack Nuggent, Stan Dudas and Palmer. Although Palmer would be runner up in that event, he returned, won twice and helped renew American interest in the British Open.
The American PGA however was having problems with the touring pros who wanted to break away from the PGA and establish their own tour. Leo Fraser assumed the Presidency of the PGA at a crucial time in it’s history and his leadership and friendship with Palmer kept the PGA together.
Leo also understood the need to bring more new golfers into the game, especially the blue collar workers, women and young people, who were shunned at the private country clubs, so he designed and built the Mays Landing Country Club, which opened in 1961.
Leo also continued to support women’s tournaments, and Carol Mann won the 1965 Women’s Open at ACCC, a tournament that also featured young French amateur Catherine Lacosta, who went on to become the first amateur to win the U.S. Women’s Open in 1967. While here, a club member took Catherine Lacosta to Pine Valley, where she played a round, even though women were not permitted in the clubhouse at the time.
In 1971 Leo served in an official capacity on the U.S. Ryder Cup team, and in 1975 served as host once again for the U.S. Women’s Open. While the 1975 pen was won by Sandra Palmer, it was a teenage Nancy Lopez who garnered much of the attention when she finished second as high amateur.
In 1975 the Lippincott and Leeds families, original founders of the Atlantic City Country Club, sold the Chalfonte Haddon Hall, which became Resorts International, the first legal casino in Atlantic City.
In 1980 Atlantic City was the scene of an official PGA Senior’s tournament a few weeks before the U.S. Seniors Open. Sam Snead, Julius Boros, Lew Worsham and many others showed up for the event, which was a charity benefit for Juvenile Diabetes and was won by Don January.
Although there were other similar senior events of its kind, including those t the Atlantic City Country Club in 1956 (won by Art Wall) and 1957 (won by Dick Sleichter), the 1980 tournament was the first official event of what is now the multi-million dollar PGA Senior Tour (now the Champion’s Tour). Two other major senior tournaments were also held at ACCC in 1985 and 1986.
With Leo Fraser’s death in 1986, the club’s operations were assumed and its traditions continued by the Fraser family, sons James and Doug and daughter Bonnie Siok, along with Bonnie’s husband Don, the club professional. They were all very active, not only in the game of golf, but around the club house and in the organization of tournaments and special events, including the 1997 Centennial observances, which included the 1997 USGA Women’s Mid-Amateur Championship and a centennial ball.
Jim Fraser was also instrumental in the formation of the Greater Atlantic City Golf Association, the purpose of which is to foster the Jersey Shore as a golf resort destination.
From its earliest beginnings, the Atlantic City Country Club has reflected certain recurring attributes, a few of which especially stand out. There has always been a serious commitment to promoting amateur golf, the encouragement of women’s play and a pride in challenging amateur golfers from other clubs and teams from other countries in spirited competition.
And while the club was owned by the Frasers, there was a sense of family and a members community dedicated to the continuation of the club’s traditions.
These attributes are held dearly , not only in mementos hanging on the walls, but by the club’s employees and club members, who continued the traditions in the clubhouse and on the golf course every day.
As sportswriter Ed Nichterlein said, “It would be hard to imagine a more ideally situated or designed course, or one which has more historic ties to golf.”
The Atlantic City Country Club is one of the America’s oldest and most historic clubs in the country, where history is made and where golf is not just a game, but a way of life.
[In 1998 the club was sold to Bally-Hilton hotels and casinos, and now a public course owned by Caesars.]