In 1895, James Walker Tufts of Boston, a public-spirited man who had made his fortune in the manufacture of soda-fountain equipment, purchased some 10,000 acres in the Sandhills country of North Carolina with the dual aim of improving the lot of the local farmers (to whom he hoped to introduce the growing of peaches) and of building a resort where Northerners of delicate health and moderate means could escape the rigors of winter and enjoy the health-giving fragrance of the longleaf pine. Mr. Tufts' village, Pinehurst, a bit of old Concord in the heart of the South, did not develop quite as planned. A blight killed off the peach-growing scheme almost before it was started. Furthermore, only a year after Pinehurst was settled, nine holes of golf were laid out and this caused a blight which shortly thereafter killed off croquet and attracted a far more vigorous type of vacationer. For over 50 years now, Pinehurst has been the winter capital of American golf, and at the height of its season—the seven weeks from Washington's Birthday through mid-April—some 700 to 800 golfers daily take the cure on its four 18-hole courses.
The whole year round, though, it is golf, golf, golf at Pinehurst, and when the game is not being played, it is being talked. This past week when I was registering (in green ink) at the Carolina Inn, incidental to attending the third annual North and South Seniors Championship, one conversation in particular hoisted itself above the competition in the lobby and demanded to be overheard.
"I tell you," one senior was earnestly telling his group, "I saw it with my own eyes. He almost drove the green on the first hole."
"But Fred, that's almost 400 yards," one of the group protested politely. "That's my point," Fred countered. "That's where this fellow drove, right past the chocolate drops in front of the green."
I was wondering what senior—technically, any golfer who has passed his 55th birthday is a senior—-had accomplished this prodigy when the conversation, fortunately, turned a corner and it became clear that Fred was not recounting the exploits of any exact contemporary of his but was simply talking about a young slugger named Dave Smith from Gastonia, N.C. whom he had watched at the National Amateur at Detroit.
THE OLD BOYS ARE AWESOME
However, canceling out the probability that any senior will ever drive 400 yards, what the old boys are capable of is awesome enough in itself. In the qualifying round for the championship flight on the famous No. 2 course, shortened somewhat but still a very rugged layout, the medal went to Tom Robbins of Larchmont, N. Y., with a 70. Twenty-one entrants shot 75 or under, and six men who tied at 77 played off for the last five places. Well there go the dreams of a lot of us who believed that if we could still shoot in the low 80s when our hair was graying, we would be enshrined as veritable Hogans and people would point us out with mute admiration.
THE MAN TO BEAT
After the qualifying round, Tom Robbins was installed as the favorite not simply because he was the medalist but because, tournament in and tournament out, he has always been the man to beat in senior events over the last seven years. Now 62, a tall, silver-haired man with the physique and carriage of a varsity end, Tom is that genuine golf rarity: the superb shot-maker who did not take up the game in his youth. He was 34 when he did. He was living in Puerto Rico at this time, a not-unhappy nongolfer, but one weekend when his wife was in childbirth in the hospital, he thought he would kill some time watching an exhibition between two left-handed Canadians and two right-handed Americans. The match over, Robbins, a left-hander, borrowed a left-handed driver to hit one shot, just to see what it was like. He rapped the stuffings out of the ball. He then took thirteen lessons, the first left-handed, the last dozen right-handed. Between lessons he practiced furiously. Within a month he was shooting in the 70s, for keeps.
Robbins played his usual powerful game at Pinehurst this week, but youth must be served and he was eliminated on the 19th hole in the semifinals by Spencer Overton of Baltimore, a stripling of 56. Overton went on to win the final 2 and 1 from John W. Roberts, 55, of Columbus, Ohio. A builder by trade, Overton is an extremely cool and steadily impressive player. He qualified with a 72, even par, and stayed with par over his four rounds of match play. It is very easy to understand how he once took the Maryland Open in addition to winning the Maryland Amateur three times and his club championship at Rolling Road no fewer than 18 times.
Apart from the robust quality of the play, the most amazing thing about senior golf is how it has suddenly in the last few years become the hottest development in the whole golf picture. Over 300 of the breed from 33 different states, Cuba and Canada competed in the North and South Championship. Eight hundred more are already on the waiting list for invitations. It's the same with all the other senior organizations—the U.S. Seniors, the American Seniors, the Southern Seniors, the Metropolitan Seniors, the Western Seniors, et al.; their memberships have long been filled. Today, just about the only way to join a senior organization is to start one yourself.
Perhaps the most incisive comment on the whole astounding business is that this coming summer when the U.S.G.A. will conduct the first official National Seniors Championship, it will have to hold sectional qualifying rounds to insure that every aspirant gets a fair opportunity. As the poet has writ, old golfers never die, they just fade their shots a little more accurately into the pin.
This evening as I was checking out of the Carolina, there was the usual impossible-not-to-overhear conversation. "I was out in 39, Ellery," a man in a scarlet tweed jacket was moaning. "I did it by chipping in twice, and I was still one down." His companion inquired with a faint veneer of sympathy how he had finally made out. "Oh, I lost 3 and 2," the man in the scarlet coat said sadly. "My opponent said he was 69 years old. Hell, if he's a day over 61, I'm Harry Truman's caddy."
BLASTING OUT, Spencer Overton lays ball neatly on 15th green in final round of North and South Seniors Championship as his opponent, John W. Roberts, watches.