Letter from St. Andrews: Lost Treasure

Twenty years ago, at the very moment of LINKS Magazine’s birth, I was with another publication, knee-deep in another celebration, an enormously successful celebration that was enjoyed by all but ended, in my case, with some bitterness. I figure this is as good a time as any to vent.

The year 1988 marked the 100th anniversary of the Apple Tree Gang, the group of pilgrims from Yonkers, New York, who are generally agreed to have introduced organized golf to the U.S. In the summer of 1987, seeing this event looming on the horizon, GOLF Magazine decided to throw a party—a very big party—to commemorate the Centennial of Golf in America.

In short time, the USGA, the PGA of America, and the PGA and LPGA Tours jumped on the bandwagon, as did—blessedly—20 corporate sponsors, as GOLF added nearly 200 editorial pages to its annual budget, all of them on the history of the game. At the same time, my editorial colleagues and I collaborated with art book publisher Harry N. Abrams to produce Golf in America, a lavish 400-page celebration of the first one hundred years. It would go into several printings and sell more than 100,000 copies—if I do say so myself, it was quite a book.

Meanwhile, we invited the magazine’s readers to submit nominations for the 100 Heroes of the First 100 Years, and formed a blue-ribbon panel to name the final 100, along with the 20 male and female Players of the Decades. The panel also named a Player of the Century, from a ballot that included Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, and Jack Nicklaus. The vote was taken ten months before the results were announced because the award was a full-sized bronze statue by Leicester Thomas, a London sculptor to both the Royal Family and Madame Tussaud’s. For 10 months, only three of us knew who the winner was, but somehow managed to keep it a secret.

Now, the pinnacle of all this came on the Monday following the 1988 U.S. Open at Brookline. It began with a “Hero-Am” wherein many of the living 100 Heroes gathered for a day of competition at the St. Andrew’s Golf Club in Hastings, New York,  and it culminated that evening in the ballroom of  the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City with a black-tie charity auction and dinner for a packed house of 1,000 guests.

CBS announcer Jack Whitaker rushed back from the U.S. Open playoff  between Curtis Strange/Nick Faldo at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, to emcee the festivities, and the three-tiered, 60-person dais that evening included more Hall of Famers than have ever been assembled before or since, beginning with Ben Hogan who made his first public appearance outside Texas in over a decade. He was joined by Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Cary Middlecoff, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Ken Venturi, Johnny Miller, and Tom Watson, and on the ladies’ side Louise Suggs, Patty Berg, Carol Mann,  Sandra Haynie, JoAnne Carner, Betsy Rawls, Kathy Whitworth, and Nancy Lopez, along with more than a score of other players and contributors to the game—everyone from  Chi Chi Rodriguez to Mark McCormack.

This was also the official publication day for Golf in America. We had hoped to place a copy on each seat at, but didn’t quite make the deadline. Only one copy had come off the press, and I had it with me that night.

I was seated at the far-right end of the first row of the dais, and midway through the meal I had the inspiration of getting the book signed by the assembled luminaries. Here was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a chance to possess a true treasure. I passed it to the dinner companion on my right, Tom Watson, who cheerfully got the ball rolling.

The evening proceeded beautifully with speeches by several of the honored guests. Snead broke up the crowd with succession of mildly off-color stories, and each of the living Players of the Decades said a few words, but the most dramatic moment came when Ben Hogan walked to the podium and offered an impromptu golf lesson based on the fundamentals of Harry Vardon. For that 20 minutes you could have heard a pin drop in The Waldorf.

The end of the evening was the announcement of the Player of the Century, a duty which fell to me.  Each of the three living candidates had been asked to prepare a speech, and former GOLF Magazine editor Charles Price had been asked to be ready to speak on behalf of his close friend Bobby Jones. Brief videos of the candidates were shown, and then I made my way to a lecturn on the ballroom floor beside which was the statue, shrouded in a black cloth.

“We won’t keep you in suspense a moment longer,” I said. “On behalf of the Centennial steering committee I’m pleased to announce that golf’s Player of the Century is Jack Nicklaus.” As hundreds of cameras flashed, I pulled a chord that unveiled a magnificent likeness of the Golden Bear in the finish of his swing.  (Today it is the centerpiece of the Nicklaus museum in Columbus, Ohio.)

Jack was so stunned, he left his prepared speech at his seat. Then, with his entire family seated at a table just in front of him, he spoke movingly, at times tearfully, of what golf had meant to him. He later referred to the evening as the greatest moment of his career.

As I think back on it, it was the greatest moment of my career, too—nearly a year of work had come to grand fruition. There was an after- party in The Waldorf that evening, and a few after-after-parties as well. At the last of them, I suddenly realized that I had completely forgotten about the book—the book signed by more than 50 of the game’s mightiest players and contributors.

I raced back to the ballroom—it was a dark, empty cavern, the dais dismantled, not a soul was in sight.  I inquired with the hotel management. No one had returned the book.

I’m not sure who has it now, a retired Waldorf busboy or whoever was sitting at the left end of the third tier of the dais, but whoever it is, they surely know that they have something of great value. I can’t imagine what the book might bring at a golf auction—surely many thousands of dollars—but to me personally, it has a  significance well beyond whatever price it may command.

So if you’re the one who has it—or you know who does—this is my plea to send it back to me. Send it anonymously, if you want, to LINKS Magazine. At age 20, they’re responsible enough to pass it on to me. If you can’t bring yourself to return the book, hey at least put it on eBay. I promise to be the first bidder…though probably not the last.