"Golf Shop George." That's how George Matson has answered the
phone in the Southern Hills pro shop for 46 years, although
exactly when the club's members dropped the comma and began to
use the refrain as the 74-year-old shop manager's name is a
mystery. All Matson will say is that "everybody calls me that.
Some people also know me as Old Hugging George because I always
give the women a hug." A hug or a firm handshake, plus a bright
smile and a hearty "Top o' the morning" in his Irish brogue have
endeared Matson to generations of Southern Hills members, as well
as the many Tour pros who have played the Tulsa course.
Matson has been on hand for all five majors held at Southern
Hills, although during last week's U.S. Open the pro shop was
closed to the public. (Fans were steered to a 30,000-square-foot
merchandise tent--the largest ever at an Open.) That happened once
before, for the 1994 PGA. Matson doesn't count the final day of
the '77 Open, when a death threat was called in against
tournament leader Hubert Green. "The police secured the golf shop
and restricted access to the locker room," says Matson. (Green,
who was apprised of the situation when he was on the 14th green,
decided to finish and went on to win.)
Matson says his most vivid memory from Southern Hills's first
Open, in '58, is that of an 18-year-old amateur. "I remember when
Jack Nicklaus came into the shop," he says. "He was a young kid,
had a suitcase with him and looked scared--like me when I came to
Born in Armagh, Northern Ireland, Matson was an impressionable
15-year-old and a member of his country's national guard on
maneuvers with American soldiers during World War II when he
heard tales of life in the U.S. "They all said, 'I own my own
car,' or 'I own my own house,'" says Matson. "What they forgot to
tell me was that the bank really owned the car and the house."
After the war Matson painted houses until 1951, by which time he
had saved $400, enough for passage on the SS America to New York
City and a train ticket to Tulsa, where an aunt had immigrated.
"Everything was brown," Matson says of his first glimpse of
Oklahoma. "I didn't know what was going on. In Ireland, it's
green year-round." Matson placed a work-wanted classified ad in
the Tulsa Tribune that caught the eye of the manager at Southern
Hills. "He called me up and offered me a job doing maintenance
work for $200 a month," says Matson.
In 1955 Matson was promoted to shop manager, a position he has
held since. What keeps him engaged in his work? "The people,"
says Matson. "The change in membership keeps it fresh."
As does the occasional crisis, like the time Matson was called on
to rescue a member from a man-eating golf cart. "He forgot the
brake, and as he was looking for his ball in a ditch, the cart
hit him in the rear, knocked him into the ditch and landed on top
of him," says Matson. "We had to get a tractor and chains to pull
In addition to meeting famous people--"George adds a great touch
of spice and a bit of the old country," says Ben Crenshaw--Matson
met Daphne Best, his future bride, at the club. "Her father ran
the riding stables," he says, "and Daphne came up to the
clubhouse for the mail every day at 4:30. I made sure I was there
every day at 4:30 too."
That was 50 years ago. In October the Matsons, who live in the
house that they bought in 1956 and in which they raised two
boys, George, 43, and Mark, 42, will celebrate their golden
anniversary. "When I find something I like," says Matson, "I
stick with it."
COLOR PHOTO: GREG FOSTER