Memories are magic. Our lives come back to us with the edges smoothed out, those long-ago days all sunny and bright with southern breezes and sapphire skies, and we hardly notice the dark and threatening clouds that frame the picture.
I state that now—at the very beginning of my afternoon talk—as a cautionary comment. I have been kindly asked by your anniversary committee chairman, Dr. Hughes—and thank you, Doug, for inviting me—to recall when the Chicago Open was played at this course, an anniversary you can surely be proud of. I once heard a pro say his club had no history because Ben Hogan never played there. By that standard, your club is rich in history, for Ben Hogan played here in the summer of 1946.
Yesterday, when I first arrived, I walked out onto the first tee and was thrilled to see your golf course again, so much more majestic and manicured than I recalled from my caddie days. I congratulate you on your success in keeping this grand clubhouse, indeed all the grounds, the tennis courts, the lawns and fields, in such wonderful condition. You honor your past by preserving it with such loving care.
My new book is entitled Ben Hogan’s Lesson. But it’s not a fan’s memoir. Nor is it an academic treatise, even though I was a college professor and I have done a great deal of research on the history of golf. This book is my attempt to tell the truth of what occurred in ’46 at this historic Chicago Open, filled as it was with tension and drama, brilliant golf, and a terrible tragedy.
When I reviewed the program for this weekend, I realized something: Of all of us, I am the only one who was actually at the club that year. Dr. Hughes, and you can correct me, Doug, began caddying a year later. True, I was only fourteen in 1946, but it was an important time in my life. A few months earlier my father had been killed serving with the army in Europe, and I felt adrift in the world. It was Hogan who got me back on course. What he taught me became the touchstone for how I would live my life.
And that is the story I will tell you this afternoon.
My tale begins, however, not with Hogan, but with someone you’ve probably never heard of: Matt Richardson, a name not mentioned, I see, in the program of anniversary events, even though he played an important part in Ben Hogan’s time at this country club.
Matt came from Gatesburg, Illinois. He was nineteen or twenty, a tall, gangly, handsome guy with thick blond hair, cut short in the style of the day, bright blue eyes, and the shy and serious manner of a small-town boy from southern Illinois. A high school graduate, he had been drafted in ’44, and after V-E Day he was discharged and played briefly on the winter tour before coming here to the country club early that spring to become our assistant pro.
Everyone at the club adored Matt: young girls, wives, mothers, men and women, and caddies like myself.
Matt had this incredible ability to lift our spirits. He’d say hello and you’d feel as if you were the most important person in his life. And he didn’t do it on purpose, to manipulate you. He never wanted anything from anyone. That was his gift, and his great charm.
He also had another rare gift: a velvety, natural swing. Anyone who follows golf knows there are two kinds of players: shotmakers and ballstrikers. In his day, Ben Hogan was both. And so was Matt Richardson. He hit a golf ball in ways none of us had ever seen, with a long, loose, perfectly cadenced stroke.
The balls Matt hit flew off the club face and rose effortlessly into the sky. One thought at first they might never return, and then, far up against the sky, the small white ball would appear to pause and drift slowly downward, ever so slowly, riding the breeze to land with the gentleness of a gesture, the softness of an open hand of greeting.
The year Matt arrived at your club Ben Hogan and sixty other touring professionals came to play in the Chicago Open. And one more person came—a girl named Sarah DuPree.
Sarah was the only child of Dr. Henry DuPree, president of the club, and that June she returned from Smith College to her parents’ stone and stucco mansion—which I see is still there today, across from the tenth fairway.
Sarah grew up alongside the course, but she never paid attention to golf until that summer. I saw her the first time she came out to play, after six o’clock on a warm Sunday evening in early June. She drove her convertible over from her parents’ house, under the shadows of those ancient Dutch elms that once graced the main entrance, and parked in the lot below the pro shop. She lifted a baby blue golf bag from the car and swung it onto her shoulder as if she were a caddie herself, then walked up the shady gravel path to the first tee as if she had been playing all her life.
She was wearing gray FootJoy shoes, a gray pleated skirt, and a white blouse. In her bag were Patty Berg signature woods and a new set of women’s irons by Wilson. In front of the pro shop, she raised her chin and glanced around, her blond, cornsilk hair swinging in the sunlight. At that moment she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.
I was a half-dozen yards away, waiting on the caddie bench with Matt’s bag. Like other local pros, Matt had to qualify for the Open, and we had started to play a quick nine holes late in the day when the course was empty in preparation for the tournament.
Watching Sarah, I knew she didn’t know where to go or what to do, and I vaulted the iron railing on which we stacked our players’ bags and walked around the back edge of the tee box as if I were on my way to do something important.
“Hi!” she called as I passed.
I slowed, trying to appear as if I hadn’t actually been aware of her.
“Do you know where I can learn golfing?”
I smiled at her terminology and asked, “Are you looking for a game or a lesson?”
She frowned; apparently this was too tough a question. “I want to hit golf balls. My dad said I should practice golfing.”
I gestured toward the range beyond the ninth green. “You can hit balls down there.”
She shielded her eyes against the sun and stared toward where I was pointing, but it was clear she had no idea what I was talking about.
“You have practice balls?” I asked, knowing she didn’t.
She shook her head.
“You can get some from the assistant pro.” I nodded toward the pro shop.
As I spoke, Matt came out the door of the pro shop located under the men’s locker room and up the steps, moving so fast his metal spikes on the concrete sounded as if he were tap dancing.
“That’s him,” I said. But as I came to learn, she knew exactly who Matt was.
He started toward me, his spikes crunching on the gravel, and then he looked up and saw Sarah DuPree. He slowed, and one of his famous smiles developed on his face.
“She wants to hit balls,” I announced.
He didn’t take his eyes off Sarah, and I saw she was smiling back, all of her earlier nervousness vanished.
I started to say something more and stopped. The two of them had dismissed me.
“Hi,” Matt said. “May I help you with something?”
He took another step closer and she disappeared in his shadow.
“I want to learn golfing,” Sarah answered softly.
“I can’t give you a lesson now,” he answered apologetically. “I’ve got a game.” He glanced at me, as if I were responsible for this problem.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I guess I should’ve made an appointment.” She seemed almost embarrassed to discover Matt wasn’t necessarily at her beck and call.
“It’s okay.” He smiled quickly. “Listen, this is what we’ll do. I’ll get you a shag boy and some practice balls and you go down to the range and hit a few.” He nodded toward me. “Jack and I . . . we’ll play a quick nine, and when I finish up I’ll come over and work with you.” Matt turned to me. “Get a kid, Jack.”
He smiled again at Sarah, letting his full attention sweep over her like a summer breeze. I ran off to get the practice balls, and by the time I lined up Kenny Burke’s kid brother to be the shag boy, Matt and Sarah were standing together at the top of the eighteenth green.
She was perched on one foot, pelicanlike, with her long, tanned bare arms crossed at her waist and her head tilted back so she could look up at him. Already I knew, though I am sure I wouldn’t have known how to put it into words, that she was standing too close to him, too close for the assistant pro and the daughter of the club president.
On the tee, I propped Matt’s bag on its wide round bottom. From the deep zipped pockets I pulled out everything he needed to play: some tees, his glove, a couple of MacGregor balls. I took the leather hood off his driver and leaned against it while Matt and Sarah kept talking as if they had all the time in the world.
Finally he sent her toward the practice range and hurried over to me, ready to tee off. I tossed him a ball and handed him the driver. He was moving quickly as if he owned the tee, owned the golf course, owned all of us, and in many ways that summer, Matt Richardson did.
I loved to watch Matt hit his woods. And I wasn’t the only one. Club members would pause in the middle of their own games to watch him tee off and marvel at the power he could generate from what we called his butter-greased swing.
As always, the ball exploded off his club face and rode the soft wind to disappear beyond the sloping fairway and run a dozen yards farther, leaving him a short iron to the green.
Swinging Matt’s bag onto my shoulder, I was down off the tee before he caught up and handed me his driver.
“Wow, some girl, huh? You been hiding her from me, Jackson?” He clipped the back of my head with his open palm, still grinning, happy with himself, happy at having pounded a 260-yard drive down the center of the fairway on the par-4 first hole.
“You know her old man is Dr. DuPree?” I said and stepped away so he couldn’t clip my head again.
“So . . . ?”
“Dr. DuPree isn’t going to let his daughter hang out with the hired help.”
“I’m the golf pro!”
“You’re an assistant pro.”
“I’m the best player in Chicago.”
“That doesn’t mean squat to DuPree.”
We had reached his ball, and Matt took in the lie and then reached into the bag and pulled out the 9-iron.
“Not enough,” I told him.
He was standing behind the ball, staring up at the green and swinging the club loosely in his hand, as if he were a gunslinger looking for trouble.
Although we didn’t term it that at the time, his preshot routine was to stand directly behind the ball and stare down the target line, visualizing how he wanted the ball to play. While he studied the shot, he took two or three easy practice swings to find his rhythm. It was his way of getting his focus and relieving any tension.
Only after he had decided on the ball’s flight would he step up and play the shot. He never took any practice swings without a purpose, and in this way he predated Tiger Woods’s preshot routine. Tiger, I read recently, says his routine is to take a couple of practice swings just to reinforce the mechanics of the swing he wants to make, to restore in his muscle memory the results of having hit hundreds of practice balls.
We, of course, were playing years before Nicklaus and Tiger, and for that matter Arnold Palmer, but Matt had their same rage to win, and now I had challenged him about the club selection and he was going to prove me wrong.
It was a lesson I had learned early about Matt: He always took a challenge without thinking about the consequences. It made him an exciting player to watch, but some days out on the course, he drove himself right into trouble. He wasn’t like some pros you see on television today who find themselves in contention and the air starts leaking out of their game, one hole at a time. Not Matt. He’d just self-destruct all at once, as if a hand grenade had blown up on the fairway.
“I’ll knock down the flag,” he told me, addressing the ball. He set his right foot first, then his left, and took another quick glance at the green, a final look down at the ball. Then a long pause as he refocused his attention on the task at hand. It was a routine I knew by heart.
His swing was as casual as his stride, and he cut a thick wedge of turf from the fairway playing the shot. I dropped his bag and walked ten yards up to retrieve the divot as I watched the ball in flight. I knew when he hit the 9 that he didn’t have enough club.
It was a pretty iron. We watched it float against the blue sky of the late afternoon.
“Dead perfect!” he declared.
“Not enough,” I answered. The ball caught the front lip of the bunker and bounced into the sand.
Behind me Matt swore and thumped the flange of the iron against the turf.
Walking back, I tossed him another ball and said, “Hit the eight and let it work toward the flag; you know how the green slopes.” I pulled the club from the bag.
Matt took the 8 without objecting, but I knew he was hoping I was wrong. He set up to play the ball to the right of the flag and hit the iron with the same pure sweet motion, and it landed ten to twelve feet beyond the hole but with enough spin that it took the natural slope and came down toward the cup, disappearing from sight beyond the lip of the bunker. My guess was that the ball would be less than three feet from the pin.
Matt tossed me the iron, grinning as he did, and swearing at me, too. He was pleased by the shot, and also, I let myself think, pleased that I knew his game and would be caddying for him in the Open.
He made the short putt, and he kept up his good mood as we walked over to the par-3 number two. I swung the bag off my shoulder and he stepped up to the tee, pulling on his glove as he looked at me.
“Okay, what do I play?” he asked.
“There’s wind.” I nodded toward the patch of tall oaks circling the club’s small reservoir to the left of the hole. From the tee, we could see the treetops swaying in the late-afternoon breeze, and we both knew that while we couldn’t feel it, down by the green the wind was strong enough to blow a long iron a dozen yards off line.
“Hit a soft five,” I said.
“Give me the six.”
“Not enough club.”
“I’m going to hit it in low and let it run,” he explained.
I pulled the 5-iron from the bag. “Hit the five,” I repeated.
He took the club and, grinning, said confidently, “You may know how to club me, Jackson, but you don’t know how to charm women.”
“It’s not her you have to charm,” I told him.
“Old Man DuPree doesn’t know who he’s dealing with.”
I didn’t need to say it again. Matt was an assistant pro, making fifty dollars a week. My big sister, Kathy, who waitressed at the club, had it right: No matter how often a member smiles at you, you’re still just the hired help.
Matt nodded toward the distant flag stick. “Go pull the stick, Jack. I’m going to knock this sucker in.”
And he almost did.
He let the iron work with the wind and the ball landed short of the green, on the left-side apron, and rolled up to within four feet of the flagstick.
I was off the tee while the ball was still in the air. I could hear Matt behind me. I heard the swish of his trousers as he walked, his footsteps heavy on the hard turf, and then I heard him exclaim in a voice that was both amused and startled, “Oh, my God!”
I glanced around and he nodded toward the practice range on the far side of the first fairway. There was Sarah DuPree. She was alone on the tee, hitting balls out to Kenny Burke’s little brother—but she wasn’t so much hitting as flailing at them with the most god-awful swing one could imagine. It was mortifying. I was offended by her, as anyone might have been who loved the game.
“Isn’t she something!” Matt exclaimed. “Here!” He handed me the 5-iron. “Go pick up my ball and take the clubs back to the shop.” Already he was cutting across the rough, heading for the girl.
“Hey! You’ve got to practice!”
“Later,” he said without looking back.
“Later will be dark.”
“Tomorrow morning. Be here by six; we’ll play before breakfast.” His voice faded into the warm evening as he reached the first fairway and went toward Dr. DuPree’s daughter like a clothesline drive, low and hard and bullet-straight.
At the clubhouse, I went to the back of the pro shop and cleaned the few irons Matt had used, dumping the heads into a bucket of sudsy water; wiped the clubs dry; and stacked his bag in his locker at the rear of the shop. Then I walked out to the starter’s tent at the side of the first tee, where the players coming off the eighteenth green could pause in the shade, sit down, and fill out their cards before their scores were posted on the large white sheets.
The scores were still up from the day’s play, and it was Matt’s job to take them down and call the Chicago Tribune so the next day members who had won the weekend events could read their names in small print in the sports pages.
But he hadn’t called the Trib. He was still out on the practice tee with Sarah DuPree, though now he was hitting balls to Kenny Burke’s little brother.
Matt was showing off, hitting soft wedges, high floaters that drifted out to the caddie. Burke’s brother had set down the shag bag, and Matt was dropping his chips within inches of the target. Some landed close enough to bounce into the open bag.
He was trying to impress Sarah, but the truth was she didn’t know how great Matt’s short game was. She didn’t know there weren’t a hundred pros in the country who could make a golf ball dance that way.
I sat up on the back of a bench and watched Matt hit the wedges. It was a special, quiet time of the day when the course heaved out the heat of the afternoon and a cool breeze for evening picked up to fan the members sitting on the open terrace.
Half a dozen members had come out to enjoy the view and to watch Matt. The only sounds were an occasional brief burst of laughter from one of the women, the click of glass touching metal tables, and the soft thumping of a screen door as my sister, Kathy, waiting tables on the terrace, came and went from the bar.
Spotting me down on the bench, Kathy gestured that I should be heading home. I nodded but didn’t move. Since our dad died, she was always watching out for me, checking to see where I was and what I was doing. It was annoying at times, but also kind of nice, knowing she was around the club in case I needed her.
As I sat in the shadows of the starter’s tent, more members arrived for the customary Sunday evening dinner, the women in heels and bright short-sleeved dresses, the men in vivid sports jackets and white shoes, all of which, aren’t we happy to see today, have gone forever out of style.
Remembering times like this, hearing again the laughter and the tinkling of glasses after the nightmare of the war we had survived and won, we all thought—I certainly did—that everything was going to be all right for all of us and for all time.
Copyright © 2006 by John Coyne