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