The book that captured my attention this year is not the swing coach’s tell-all book everyone else has been talking about. It isn’t about Tiger Woods or Bobby Jones and doesn’t mention Augusta National Golf Club or Ben Hogan or any of the usual subjects in literary golf lore.
The hero of this true Depression-era story is a 32-year-old Chicago stockbroker named Smitty Ferebee who literally bet his mortgage that he could play more holes of golf in four days than Woods played in all of 2011.
King of Clubs: The Great Golf Marathon of 1938 ($19.96, Potomac Books, Inc.) is a quick and fascinating read by Jim Ducibella, a newspaper sportswriter for three decades in and around Virginia. It required years of painstaking research cobbled from old newspaper clippings and interviews of the descendents and the lone surviving participant in what The New York Times back then described as “the most fantastic golf story ever told – or dreamed.”
Despite all the “fantastic” features of a tale that included Hollywood stars, air-conditioning tycoons, gambling and golf in a whirlwind coast-to-coast romp in the early days of air travel, only one of the descendants of the involved parties had ever even heard of Ferebee’s feat.
“It was 1938, Hitler was invading Czechoslovakia and all of these people served in some capacity in the war,” Ducibella said. “It probably seemed a little bit shallow and insincere to them to talk about a bunch of rich guys flying around the country playing golf when there were so many more ponderously important things to discuss with their children.”
King of Clubs, however, is an engaging tale in the same way that Mad Men is riveting television – it is a period piece that illuminates an era in American history when the radio story of one man playing 144 holes in a single day at Olympia Fields Golf Club near Chicago could inspire a spate of copycats across the country trying to upstage him.
“The tsunami of golf marathons after the Ripley’s show is an indication that people had absolutely nothing to do and nowhere to go,” Ducibella said of an era when unemployment was around 21 percent. “They listened to a guy on the radio and said, ‘I can do that.’ It shows how desperate the conditions were.”
As all golf stories go, one thing led to another until a bet was made and a plan was hatched to set the bar so high that nobody would dare challenge it. Ferebee would try to play 600 holes in four days in eight cities from Los Angeles to New York in September 1938. He had to walk every step, tee every ball up himself and pick it out of every hole in whatever weather presented itself. And he had to break 100 every round or the bet was lost.
“Deal,” said Ferebee, who wagered with his friend and business associate Fred Tuerk a piece of waterfront property in Virginia against the full payment of his mortgage in Chicago.
The outlandish dare – which with side bets grew to $100,000, the equivalent of $1.6 million today – was made possible by the backing of Reuben Trane, who rented a DC-3 sleeper plane for the purpose of promoting his new air conditioning business in the spotlight of the cross-country tour that was lapped up by the local media in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Kansas City, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York. It takes place on notable golf courses, including L.A.’s posh Lakeside, Olympia Fields, Blue Hills, Tuckaway, North Hills and what is now known as Eisenhower Red. Along the way they met movie stars, endured injury and exhaustion, picked up a couple stowaways and encountered foul weather and possible foul play.
By the time it ended, Ferebee covered 182 miles on foot in 96 hours, lost 21 pounds, went through 40 pairs of socks, seven pairs of shoes, eight golf gloves and 48 forecaddies. He hit 2,858 shots and never lost a ball.
In the modern era when slow play is the bane of the game from the recreational to the professional ranks, Ferebee’s racing pace of play is refreshing. Ducibella calls him “a physical freak of nature.”
“If somebody offered me $1 million to play 600 holes over four consecutive days in eight cities from coast to coast, would I do this?” Ducibella asked. “Even guys with their own planes, nobody would try this if they offered them $5 million.”
The only living source Ducibella was able to interview for the book was Ferebee’s equally freakish caddy Art Caschetta, though he wasn’t much help with the details.
“Jim, we landed, we played, we got in the plane, we took off,” was Caschetta’s recollection. “We were moving so quick and so fast that the only thing we could concentrate on was just playing golf.”
The only license the author took in the book was trying to explain one suspicious element of Ferebee’s most out-of-character round in the quest when a witness at North Hills outside Philly said Ferebee “was playing like he’s drunk.” Ducibella fashioned a character and back-story that enhances the drama weaved from the 95 percent documented facts.
“Creative non-fiction,” he calls it.
You’ll have to read it to find out who won the bet and how all of the lives played out after the 1938 marathon (not to mention the 41 pictures of all the principles including the DC-3 and it’s fetching stewardess, Lillian Fette). But it’s a rich human interest tale you’ve never heard before, one which Amy Alcott said “adds to the true passion and lore of the game.”