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Original Issue

A Man Who Played Golf

John D. Rockefeller's human qualities were best displayed when he was on the course

Most people think of John D. Rockefeller Sr. as the millionaire of millionaires and admire or detest him, depending on how they feel about millionaires in the first place. But no word or phrase says all there is to say about any man and sometimes a lesser word—one that bears no weight of legend—comes closer to the human qualities than the headline tag or the formal title. Rockefeller was also a golfer, and to some that is sufficient atonement for his being rich.

It wasn't until 1901, at the age of 62, that John D. took up golf seriously. One of his first difficulties in golf was learning to keep his head down when he hit the ball. This fault was corrected by posting a caddie next to him who would shout, "Keep your head down. Keep your head down!" as John D. prepared to swing.

His drives never were long—he averaged between 100 and 150 yards—but they were amazingly accurate. He had a slow and measured backswing but at times tended to falter on the follow-through, jokingly blaming the difficulty on the many sweaters he always wore. His short game, however, was excellent: he was not only a good putter but was precise from distances of 75 or 100 yards from the green.

No one knows Rockefeller's scores for 18 holes—if he ever played that many, he most certainly never broke 100—but contemporaries estimated that he could do 9 in 55. (He preferred to keep his scores secret.)

As Rockefeller became more proficient at his game, he played daily, riding from shot to shot on a bicycle. He moved from his estate in Pocantico Hills, N.Y. (near Tarrytown) to an estate in Lakewood, N.J., which he called Golf House, because it had a private course. It was more remote from the city than Pocantico, and he enjoyed not only his golf but long walks around his wooded land, seeing a few casual acquaintances and enjoying his relative seclusion.

John D.'s winters were spent at The Casements, a mansion in Ormond Beach, Fla. There he was less alone and over the years became known as Neighbor John by the local residents. He played golf daily, usually with an acquaintance or in a foursome. He always had a gallery of the faithful or curious: those who liked to watch golf and those who liked to watch multimillionaires.

Hymns before golf

His Ormond Beach daily routine differed little from his summer schedule. He breakfasted at eight, had a conference with his private secretary, put on his golf clothes (gloves, goggles, sweaters, loose coat and sport cap with ear covering) and at 10 o'clock was driven to the course. There he would meet friends and admirers, perhaps read them a verse (he often composed his own verses) or join in the singing of a hymn. If there was a minister present—the rector of the Ormond Union Church was one of his favorite golf partners—there might be a prayer or a short reading from the New Testament. With children present, he was not above playing leapfrog or piggyback. Of course, he carried nickels and dimes in his coat pockets and doled them out lavishly, as every newsreel spectator of the '20s and 30s remembers.

Amenities over, the game would commence. On the Ormond Beach course Neighbor John played only eight holes, because the eighth green was beside the road where his car waited to take him home. His partners were usually friends or acquaintances but sometimes celebrities and even news reporters. Although serious about his game, he was not a fierce competitor and was the first to congratulate a fellow player on a good shot. Many Rockefeller dimes are treasured to this day by those who played a good game against him. Even his caddies were rewarded with dime bonuses for good work, although they also were penalized a dime if they failed to find a ball. He rarely lost more than three balls a year.

Rockefeller maintained his interest in golf for three decades until, at the age of 93, he was forced by infirmity to give up the game. Five years later, in 1937, he died in Ormond Beach.