Ramblin’ Rhodes: Augusta has had its share of early celebrity golfers

Long before the first Masters Tournament was held in 1934, many famous golfers were playing Augusta area courses; only they were not known primarily for playing golf.

 

As early as 1908, future Baseball Hall of Famer Ty Cobb was being singled out in The Chronicle for his love of playing golf.

He had just started playing professional baseball four years earlier with the Augusta Tourists team of the South Atlantic League before joining the Detroit Tigers in 1905. Cobb’s local course of choice was the Augusta Country Club on Milledge Road, which was almost in walking distance of his house at 2425 Williams St.

He even met with U.S. President William Howard Taft at the country club in November 1909 for a discussion that lasted about 20 minutes.

Taft, who a few months later in the spring of 1910 became the first U.S. president to start a baseball season by throwing out a ball, told Cobb, “Baseball is the game for young Americans. Golf is a better game for older Americans.

“I am glad to meet you in Augusta. I wish you all the success in the world and I know that you will give a good account of yourself next year on the diamond.”

If you are visiting in Augusta this week, be sure and drive to Cobb’s former home, just off Walton Way two blocks from the main entrance of Augusta University, and see the new historic marker unveiled in January by another Hall of Famer, retired Atlanta Braves pitcher Phil Niekro.

The former home is a private residence. So be polite, and don’t knock on the door and request a tour.

There is a frequent repeated rumor that Augusta National co-founder Clifford Roberts kept Cobb from being a member of the Masters’ club for whatever reasons.

But Cobb biographers point out that two of Cobb’s closest friends and hunting buddies were National members pro-golfer Bobby Jones and Coca-Cola President Robert Woodruff, who easily could have secured Cobb membership at the Augusta National if he had wanted it.

The truth is that Cobb was just more at home with the Augusta Country Club and had moved to California two years before the first Masters was held.

The first commissioner of baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, also played the Country Club course in March 1922 when he made his first and only visit to Georgia to see the Tigers team that Cobb managed in spring training at Augusta’s Warren Park baseball field.

Landis told a gathering at a barbecue dinner that he wanted to come back to Augusta if for no other reason than “to get even with the golf links” at the Augusta Country Club.

“Never have I seen 18 holes with more innate deviltry compressed into them than the 18 holes at the country club links,” he said. “The club I used yesterday morning, I will throw away, but the others in the bag I will bring back to Augusta next February and I mean to get even with that course if I have to sleep in a tent.”

But Landis never made a return trip to Augusta or Georgia.

At the same time in the early 20th century that U.S. presidents were playing the Country Club’s course, other celebrities of the era were playing across the Savannah River at the Hampton Terrace Hotel course in North Augusta and the Palmetto Golf Club in Aiken.

Among the Hampton Terrace golfers were multi-millionaire John D. Rockefeller, Pullman train car company president Robert Todd Lincoln (son of President Abraham Lincoln) and Chicago department store entrepreneur Marshall Field.

Twenty-four years before she became world famous in The Wizard of Oz as Glinda, The Good Witch of the North, actress Billie Burke made special arrangements to play golf on the Hampton Terrace course.

She had first performed in Augusta in 1912 at the Grand Opera House, located at Greene and Eighth streets, in a touring play called The Runaway.

Three years later the wife of Ziegfeld Follies showman Flo Ziegfeld Jr. was back at “The Grand” on Friday night, March 5, to perform in another touring play called Jerry before heading to Macon, Ga., to perform in the play on Saturday night.

The Chronicle reported on March 7 that Burke was “delighted” with the city of Augusta and “the wonderful golf links” of the Hampton Terrace.

So much, in fact, that “she persuaded her husband, Mr. F. Ziegfeld Jr., the well-known theatrical magnate, to arrange for a special locomotive to bring Miss Burke’s private car back to Augusta from Macon last night after the performance and give Miss Burke the opportunity of spending Sunday and part of Monday at the Hampton Terrace.”

That Monday night she was to perform in Jerry in Atlanta.

There are many internationally famous golfers in Augusta this week, but 117 years ago there was only one on local courses and he was British player Harry Vardon.

Vardon, then 29 and making his first tour of America, four years earlier in 1896 had won the first of what would be his six British Open championships. His 1900 tour resulted in Vardon winning the U.S. Open that October in Chicago.

Vardon would spend Friday, March 2, and Saturday, March 3, of 1900 playing on the Bon-Air Hotel links (later to become the Augusta Country Club) before playing the Palmetto Golf Club course on Monday, March 5, in Aiken. There even was a special train arranged that Monday morning to take Augustans to see Vardon play on the South Carolina course. His visit positively electrified area golf fans; many of whom had never seen the game played at all.

Edward B. Hook, an editor of The Chronicle who was writing a daily column called By Hook and By Crook, chronicled Vardon’s visit with anecdotes.

One such column noted of Vardon’s visit, “There were many among the spectators yesterday who witnessed the game of golf for the first time.

“I asked one of the young men in this class what he thought of the game? He replied, ‘I’ve been chasing around here for nearly an hour and am just now trying to decide which I think are the bigger fools; the fellows knocking the balls or we fellows that are rubber necking after them.’

“When I told him that I had been informed that Vardon was receiving $250 for his playing here he agreed promptly that he was no fool but preferred to reserve his opinion about the fellows who were paying for it.”

Columnist Hook added, “It only goes to show that the fellow who is at the top in his (golfing) class can make his own price. There’s money at the top as well as room.”

Probably in 1900 there would be no way to convince either golfer Vardon or columnist Hook that the 2016 Masters Tournament champion Danny Willett would be receiving a check for $1.8 million!

World-wide patrons at the Augusta National know that you dare not make any sounds while a player is doing his thing.

The Chronicle’s columnist learned the same was true even 117 years ago when Vardon was playing the local links.

“As there is likely to be a number of spectators at the games today who have never seen golf played before,” Hook advised, “I give them the benefit of the information which I acquired yesterday afternoon and warn them that they must keep perfectly silent when the players are making a stroke.

“To speak while a player is wigwagging,” Hook continued, “is to commit the unpardonable sin. I did it and know whereof I speak.”

 

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