Doug Gelbert is the author of more than 40 books, including Centennial histories of Spring Lake Golf Club in New Jersey and Teugega Country Club in Rome, New York. He has never met a golf course that could not teach him a thing or two.
Interview with The Golf Course Hall of Fame author Doug Gelbert:
What is the genesis for The Golf Course Hall of Fame?
I wrote a book about sports halls of fame and became acquainted with the American predilection for declaring immortality. There are plenty of golf course lists but they tend to focus only on the playing experience. The courses in this book were selected more for their contribution to the overall story of North American golf since it is on the courses where that history is written.
What is your background in golf?
I once worked as marketing director for the outfit that operated the public golf courses in Philadelphia. The jewel of the city golf system is a course called Cobbs Creek and in promoting the work we were doing on the course I discovered that it was designed by Hugh Wilson, who did Merion and very little else. So that got me started investigating golf course history. I have also written public golf course guidebooks for Philadelphia, Washington DC, Baltimore and Harrisburg and centennial histories for two clubs, Spring Lake in New Jersey and Teugega in Rome, New York.
What criteria did you use for including courses in the “Hall of Fame?”
Well, people have to be able to see the golf course sometime. Being famous for exclusivity is a different kind of famous. Many private clubs have amazing golf courses but do not ever host national tournaments. The USGA has said that Los Angeles Country Club is the best course never to host a U.S. Open. Well, it is sort of hard to put a course like that in a Hall of Fame, isn’t it? Even Pine Valley opens its doors to the public one day of the year.
How did you select the inductees for the “Hall of Fame?”
I started with the core of golfing immortals - Hagen, Jones, Hogan, Palmer, etc and included the courses most associated with them. Then I did the same thing with architects. And then I picked out courses where landmark tournaments took place. But then there are courses associated with women’s golf and senior golf and courses that tell a Civil Rights story of segregated America. And how about Grande Oaks where everybody’s favorite golf movie, Caddyshack, was filmed? You can’t get more famous than that. The conceit of the book is that taken together all these courses will connect the dots of the history of golf in North America.
Can you speak to the research for the book?
Golf history is a lot like baseball history. There are facts that are set in stone in record books and there are stories that, well, who really knows what happened? Like Babe Ruth calling his shot in the 1932 World Series. Golf has those as well. Walter Hagen told the story of how he showed up for the 1913 U.S. Open as an unknown and announced he was there to help “the boys” defeat the British invaders Vardon and Ray. It’s easy to imagine a brash 30-year old Hagen doing that but a 19-year old who had competed in one tournament outside of Rochester? Maybe not so much. A more recent example is the 1971 U.S. Open playoff at Merion between Trevino and Nicklaus. The stock story is that Trevino took out a rubber snake and tossed it to Nicklaus on the first tee to break the tension, maybe rattle the favored Golden Bear. I read an interview with Trevino who said the snake was from a photo shoot in the Merion rough earlier in the week and he had forgot it was in his bag. When he discovered it for the playoff Nicklaus asked to see it and Trevino tossed it to him. As for unnerving Nicklaus he opened with a par and Trevino bogied the first hole. So the effects of the horseplay with the snake must have kicked in later to cause Nicklaus to lose the playoff. I try to get to the root of the stories in the book as much as possible but golf historians do not even agree on how Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie met to create Augusta National - and both men wrote about it in memoirs.
Do you have a favorite story from the book?
George S. May was golf’s ultimate showman, the Bill Veeck or Charlie Finley of the game. Many of their innovations were ridiculed at the time and later became standard operating procedure in baseball. May built the first grandstands, sold the first beer to spectators, printed the first programs. He wanted the players to wear numbers so fans could identify them but the pros balked at the idea and the numbers went to the caddies. The first prize at a May tournament was bigger than every other tournament’s purse - career-changing money. His tournament was the first ever on national television in the early 1950s - before the Masters, before the U.S. Open. That was the one Lew Worsham holed out from the fairway for eagle on the last hole to win. But not all of May’s ideas were winners. For example he put a golfer in a Masked Marvel outfit to compete in one of his tournaments. When Arnold Palmer came along and most of the tournaments started offering the same kind of money as May the pros stopped coming to his Tam O’Shanter course rather than deal with the shenanigans. So May put a sign in front of the club saying all were welcome - except PGA pros. His last act was to replace caddies at his club with a cart fleet - again the first course owner to do so. Sports Illustrated printed statements of outrage by the golf establishment predicting the end of golf, including a club pro who insisted that golf was a game, not a business. Well, today many courses would not exist without their cart revenue. To the end, May was trying to show that the game was about fun and entertainment to a golf world that, much too often, takes itself way too seriously. I hope the spirit of George S. May runs through this book.