There was this handsome man in knickerbockers coming toward me on the gravel path leading to the St. Andrews course," said George Turpie, reaching back to recall a meeting before the 1895 British Open.
"I was a little bit of a fellow at the time, and he towered over me. As he passed I tipped my hat. When he saw me bow he smiled and took the golf bag he was carrying off of his shoulder.
" 'You know this course?' he asked. 'Yes, sir,' I said. 'I was practically born on it.' When he asked if I wanted to caddie I jumped at the chance. It wasn't until he got ready to tee off for a practice round that I noticed the name on the bag—Harry Vardon. It nearly bowled me over." For George Turpie, who had been born 15 years before at St. Andrews, it was the first of many adventures with great golfers.
At 85 Turpie is white-haired and soft-spoken, with a kind face and a long memory. He left the moors of Scotland before the turn of the century to "look into things across the water."
Turpie settled first in Chicago and later in New Orleans, his permanent home since 1915. The pioneering Scot gave the game its major impetus in New Orleans, designing the first course in City Park as well as the existing layout at New Orleans Country Club. He served as pro at three clubs and in 1941 became assistant pro at St. John's course in City Park, where he has checked tickets near a soft-drink stand alongside the 7th hole for the last 20 years.
The last of 13 children, George was born April 19, 1880, a few blocks from St. Andrews, the cradle of modern golf. In 1898 he sailed for the U.S. at the urging of an elder brother, who was then head pro at the Edgewater Golf Club in Chicago. Two years later, at the 1900 U.S. Open in Wheaton, Ill. George and Harry Vardon renewed their acquaintance.
"An unbelievable thing happened in that tournament," says George. "The great Vardon missed a shot completely. He was playing with Taylor in the final round and leading him by three shots going to the 18th. I was standing there and saw him make a putting stroke at the ball—but the club passed over it, missing it entirely.
"When Harry told the scorer he had a 5 instead of a 4, the man was thunderstruck. Afterward I asked him about it, and he said simply: 'Nerves, my boy, simply a case of nerves.'
It was at Edgewater that Turpie gave Chick Evans his start as a caddie, and Turpie often wonders what would have become of Chick if a coin he tossed in 1899 hadn't come up heads.
"You could see right away Evans had tremendous natural ability," says Turpie, "but he was a problem child. He and another caddie named Joe Moheiser were terrific rivals and awful jealous of one another. One day, after they had mixed it, I read them the riot act. 'Next time I catch you two fighting,' I told them, 'one of you will have to go."'
A few days later, they were at it again. Turpie broke them up and then, as a crowd gathered, pulled a coin from his pocket.
"Evans called 'heads' and that's how it turned up," says Turpie. "I told Moheiser he'd have to go, and I never heard from him. Chick went on to win the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open. I've often asked myself if Joe could have reached those heights. He had just as much ability."
In the winter of 1901-02, Turpie took a teaching job in Pasadena, Calif. and soon discovered he had an illustrious pupil: John D. Rockefeller, richest man in the world.
"Rockefeller would take a half-hour lesson and then we'd play nine holes," recalls Turpie. "He would have his valet along with a pail of ice and a towel. Every now and then, he'd dip the towel in the water to soothe his head. He'd tip his caddie a dime."
One winter George went to visit his brother, who had moved to New Orleans. He grew fond of the city and its mild climate, which was good enough for year-round golf. There he met a Scottish girl named Mary Begg, who had come over from Scotland with her uncle after her parents died. They were married in February 1907, and the following December they arrived in St. Andrews for a visit just in time for the birth of their first child, Marion.
Nineteen years later, Marion Turpie won her first of three Southern championships, rewarding a doting father for hours of painstaking instruction. By the time she was 5, she had been swinging special clubs fashioned by her dad.
Turpie caught his first glimpse of Bobby Jones at the 1919 men's Southern in New Orleans. The 17-year-old Bobby arrived with his mother and played a practice round at the New Orleans Country Club. That was all it took to convince Turpie. "I caddied for Vardon and saw all of the other greats, but I had to take my hat off to this youngster," says Turpie. "Here was a gift from heaven. It looked like the game had been invented for him."
Jones advanced to the semifinals, where he lost to Nelson Whitney 6 and 5, but a shot he made in the qualifying round was the talk of the tournament. "Bobby's tee shot on the first hole—a par-3—bounced off to the right side of the green and wound up inside a discarded shoe left by one of the green-keepers," says Turpie.
"I was referee, and they called me over for a ruling. Since he wasn't entitled to a lift under the existing rules, I told Bobby he'd have to play both the ball and the shoe if he wanted to avoid a penalty. He then calmly took out his niblick and pitched both onto the green. The ball popped out and rolled to within 15 feet of the hole. He missed his putt and took a bogey, but his shot was the main topic of conversation the rest of the week."
Turpie has no claim to fame as a player. "I finished third in a Los Angeles tournament in 1902 and picked up $25," he says. "I played in several U.S. Opens but was always out of the money."
Until an eye operation three years ago—it was the first time he had ever been in a hospital—Turpie visited the City Park driving range weekly to hit a bucket of balls. His brother Harry died in 1946—on his way to the range—and Turpie's wife passed away 10 years ago.
Turpie's ambition now is to live as long as Churchill, who died at 90. He has five years to go. "I don't know what Sir Winston's formula for longevity was," he says, "but I can give you a simple one—golf and fresh air."