Home » Commentary

Three to Remember

By John M. Ross,
Jack Lemmon
View large image
Golf was Jack Lemmon's passion and he played it earnestly. (.)

The summer, understandably, is the happiest of times for golfers, but this past fortnight or so has been rimmed with utter sadness for many, as two of the game's most prominent contributors left us. They never won championships or made entries in the record books, but each was responsible for an important swatch in the fabric that is American golf.

When film legend Jack Lemmon died in late June, my neighbor talked at length about his many great films. "Which one did you like best?" I wondered.

"Well, I think I liked all of them. But when I think of him, I don't see him in a movie. I see him in a sand trap at Pebble Beach, struggling to get out," he responded with a chuckle.

A large segment of the American public gave a similar reply, especially the golfers. For the 25 years or more that Lemmon played in the Pebble Beach National Pro Am he invariably stole the show with his heroic, but futile, efforts to make the final cut. He never did make it, but usually more people talked about Lemmon's struggle than the heroics of Arnie Palmer or Jack Nicklaus, or the ultimate winner.

With Lemmon it was never a performance like the ones staged by some celebrities for the benefit of the TV cameras. Golf was his passion, and he played it earnestly. He'd even get down to Pebble four or five days before the tournament and practice almost around the clock. That he still wound up in most of the bunkers he attributed to some strange curse inflicted by a caddie in the long ago.

The never-say-never image he presented was an enormous plus for the game. It triggered the celebrity tournament phase of the Tour's growth with Dean Martin, Jackie Gleason, Danny Thomas and Sammy Davis, among others, joining the pioneering Bing Crosby and Bob Hope and it zoomed the golf audience to a higher plane and sent purses sky-rocketing.

Of course, that was Jack's image in Hollywood, too. He matched, in real life, the character he played on the screen so many times - Mr. Nice Guy. I can testify to that because I saw it up close.

I had chatted briefly with Jack at Pebble Beach a few times when it was the old Crosby Clambake. At one time, after he had finished his round, we were in a congenial group in the Club IXX lifting a few. During a lull in the chatter, I told him that I had seen one of his less-heralded pictures, "Operation Mad Ball," on TV a few nights earlier. He responded instantly. He took my elbow and led me away from the group, and went on to tell me a fascinating array of stories about how it was shot. It was just like listening to the spirited Ensign Pulver in "Mister Roberts."

Before the group broke up, he came back to me again, saying: "I meant to tell you that I tried all those tips on sand play that you had in your golf magazine a few weeks ago. But don't worry. I won't tell anybody!" Like so many have written and said recently, "One of a kind!" Fred Raphael didn't play the game any better than Jack Lemmon and wasn't as well known, but the game is still reaping benefits from his input.

In the early Sixties, when golf was just beginning to take its baby steps in television, Raphael, a pioneer in early TV sports production, came up with a unique idea for a series that would pit two well-known golfers in a head-to-head match each week. And, as a kicker, it would be played at a famous course in a different country each week. The Shell Oil Company snapped at the idea, and it became "Shell's Wonderful World of Golf," the longest-running show in golf history.

It was a staggering production chore, since Raphael's plan called for travelogue segments to balance the golf. He had cameras going in different directions at all times, but it came together in a spectacular way and attracted huge audiences from the very start.

Raphael wasn't a golfer and was not very knowledgeable about the game, but he was smart enough to hire the beloved and beknickered Gene Sarazen, one of the game's greatest players, as the host for the show. His folksy manner was a smash hit from the start, and awards came early and often.

The show not only strengthened golf's foothold on the tube, but it also underscored the fact that golf is a worldwide game, and that there are other great courses in faraway places, and competent foreign golfers to go with them.

Raphael and Sarazen always took a breather from the hectic schedule to make an annual pilgrimage to the Masters in Augusta, Georgia, where just about everyone in the game shows up on cue. As they sat together in front of the clubhouse, two old heroes, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead, walked past them headed for the first tee. Sarazen turned to Fred and said:

"There they go, the legends of golf."

A lightbulb went on in Fred's head, and a few weeks later he would be putting the finishing touches to a new television event featuring the top stars of yesterday. Of course, the title was "The Legends of Golf," and Liberty Mutual was happy to pour big bucks into its promotion and sponsorship.

It was an idea whose time had come. By now, Fred knew that golfers over 50 could still play a good game, but were seldom seen on the big tour. He also knew that golf fans were sentimental about their old heroes. It was a formula that clicked immediately.

He set up two-man teams of over-50s, and was able to attract the top names of yesterday, including Tommy Bolt, Lloyd Mangram, Cary Middlecoff, Jimmy Demaret, among others, as well as Nelson and Snead. It was golf nostalgia at its best. And Raphael was lucky enough to come up with a couple of nerve-tingling matches in his first two events. The TV ratings were among the best of the year, and it quickly became a stellar attraction on the golf menu.

It wasn't long before the old boys started asking: "Why don't we do more of these?" And that, of course, led to the formation of the PGA Senior Tour in 1980, undoubtedly the best new idea in sports over the past half century.

Unlike other sports, it opens the door to a second career for golfers who no longer have to start a countdown at 50. With more than 40 events, including the Legends, and purses averaging well over $1-million, the Senior Tour not only offers the old guys a chance to get rich, but also to have one of the best retirement programs in sports.

Let's hope they remember Fred in their prayers.

At one time, Ely Callaway's only significant connection with golf was his relationship to the famed Bobby Jones, a distant cousin. But when he died last week at age 82, he was a giant in the golf industry who had touched a substantial number of America's golfers.

Energetic from the start, he made his first windfall at age ten - $150 from selling magazines. And there was no stopping him after that. Working his way up the ladder in the textile industry, he became president of Burlington, the largest textile company in the world, at age 48.

Shifting gears, he started the Callaway Winery in California, and boasted of the fact that Queen Elizabeth had ordered a second glass of his white wine at a luncheon in New York during a visit. And it's likely this endorsement didn't hurt one bit when he sold his winery to Hiram Walker for a tidy profit at $14 million.

At age 62, he finally got into golf by buying a small golf company for $400,000 and turned it into Callaway Golf, whose current sales now exceed $5 billion.

The backbone of his company's success was the Big Bertha, a driver with an enlarged "sweet spot" and, according to Callaway, easier to hit. He followed this quickly with enlarged irons, and sales soared.

The response to Big Bertha encouraged him to take another step forward, and this produced the ERC, a thin-faced driver that does not conform to the distance limits established by the U. S. Golf Association. The Royal and Ancient Club of St. Andrews did not agree with the USGA decision, and there were some hints that Callaway would lead a legal test of the USGA's power. Happily, it didn't happen, and Ely Callaway closed out a positive career on that high note.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment