Ah, April, the month of fools, Easter (sometimes) and, of course, The Masters.
But for golf writers of a certain age (like mine) April was also the month of an important national championship: the annual Golf Writers Association of America (GWAA) Championship in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
Most golfers know about Myrtle Beach and many have been: the long stretch of Lowcountry coastline between Georgetown and the North Carolina border is chockablock with golf courses and most of them are public. The latest count I’ve seen is 59 courses within 20 miles of MB, all but 3 of them public. And most of the hotels and motels along the Grand Strand offer some kind of golf package deal, stay-and-play rates that make the area a bargain hunter’s mecca.
Sports trivia fans may know that it was in Myrtle Beach (at the “Granddaddy,” Pine Lakes Country Club) that Time Inc. chairman Henry Luce and 67 editors and writers gathered in 1954 to hash out ideas for a new weekly sports magazine that became Sports Illustrated.
I joined the Golf Writers Association of America in the early 1980s. It wasn’t easy to get in. Like other sportswriters organizations (e.g. Baseball Writers, Football Writers etc.) you had to be a sportswriter covering golf and working for an accredited publication of some kind. Most of the members were newspaper beat reporters—they all covered golf, but most also covered other sports as well. Some others worked for the big national magazines at that time: Golf Digest, Golf, Golf Illustrated, Golf World, etc.
When I applied, it was on the basis that I had just started a monthly newsletter for traveling golfers called The Links Letter. And I did a lot of freelancing about golf on the side for various other lifestyle magazines that wanted stories about the hot ‘new’ sport: golf. Still, my application was viewed with skepticism: admitting someone like me was new and different, and organizations don’t generally do new and different easily.
I was lucky to get my application endorsed by the late, great Furman Bisher, the longtime sports columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (I lived in Atlanta at the time). Based on Furman’s say-so, they somehow agreed to let me into the club.
And one of the best perks of membership, to me anyway, was the ability to sign up for the annual GWAA Championship in Myrtle Beach. The tournament and surrounding events always took place the weekend before The Masters. The thinking was that every golf writer in the world would be heading for Augusta, so why not schedule the annual tournament the weekend ahead, so they could all come down, play golf and then head up to Augusta.
The tournament began in Myrtle in 1954. My namesake (no relation) Charlie Bartlett, longtime Chicago Tribune writer and secretary of the GWAA for 21 years, brought the event to town, which was glad to host a bunch of golf writers who would go home and tell everyone about Myrtle Beach.
I drove down to Myrtle just about every year in the 80’s and 90’s, even after I joined the staff of Golfweek in 1992. It was always a fun weekend of golf, fried food, visits to Thee Doll House strip club, and getting to know some of the other characters who comprised our fraternity of golf writers.
From its earliest days, the tournament was always held at The Dunes Golf & Beach Club, one of the semi-private clubs on the beach, and home to one of Robert Trent Jones’ most heroic-style golf courses: the airplane runway tees, the long par 5’s, forced carries over deep bunkers…the whole lot.
Most golf writers pretty much suck at the game, and this course routinely ate our lunch. The thirteenth hole, called ‘Waterloo,’ is a long par five Cape hole that bends around a lake and demands three water-evasive shots before you reach the tilted two-tier green. Charlie Bartlett, late in his life, decided he wanted to play that hole once without dunking a ball in the gator-filled lake, so he took out a nine-iron and resolved to play nothing else. Twenty-two strokes later (but still dry!) he holed out.
If I remember, it was a three-day event. They had a team competition on Friday, usually with a Dunes Club member in the group. Then Saturday and Sunday we played two rounds for the championship, full handicap, separated into flights so more guys could win stuff in the pro shop. Sunday night, we had a closing banquet and awards ceremony. Monday morning, most of the field, though hungover, would caravan up to Augusta, about three hours away.
There were always more than a few characters in the bunch. I met Bob Drum there. He was the golf writer from Pittsburgh who became famous himself for covering the local kid who made good: Arnold Palmer. Drummer dined out on Arnie stories the rest of his life. He was a big, barrel-chested dude with disheveled clothes, a bullhorn voice, a dangerous twinkle in his eye and a ready quip for all occasions. You know: a newspaper guy.
He also had something of a temper, although I never saw it in action. He was famous at the GWAA Championship because of an incident some years earlier when he had gotten into an argument with another golf writer on the course, which spilled over into the alcoholic, après-golf portion of the day, and when The Drummer went out to drive home later that night and saw the miscreant’s car sitting there in the lot, he got out his three-iron and smashed in the guy’s windshield. He was suspended for the next year or two.
We had a character during the years I played, too. (I won’t mention his name because he did have serious mental problems: he ended up in an institution and died still a young man.) But everybody hated this guy: he was aloof, refusing to ride in a golf cart like normal, instead walking and carrying his own clubs. He liked to wear a Hogan cap and plus-fours. He wasn’t a bad golfer, but whenever he missed a shot, he’d pull a full nutty, screaming and yelling and tossing clubs around. I remember one hole when he had a fifty foot putt which he left on the edge, and went into his screaming diatribe about life being unfair and all, and my playing partner looked at him and said “Yeah, I always get mad when I miss a fifty footer.” He shut up. For one hole.
In the early years, our closing banquet was always emceed by the great Waxo Green, the longtime writer for the Nashville paper. He’d get up over dessert and deliver thirty minutes of stand-up that ranged from bawdy jokes to funny stories to bawdier jokes that eventually had everyone rolling on the floor. Thank God, those were the days before political correctness.
Well, times change, and so did the GWAA Championship. Suddenly, we had a bunch of female members, so out went Waxo and his dirty-joke stand-up routine. Then, the marketing people at Myrtle Beach decided it would be wise to spread the wealth around, so we abandoned the venerable Dunes Club (except for the final round) and held the tournament at other courses around town. Then, some of the Big City golf writers who believed their poop doesn’t stink decided that the whole weekend was an unacceptable form of payola with too much free swag, free food and overly discounted golf and that anyone who attended was an unethical journalist. No fun for you! So the whole tournament eventually went away.
I am proud to report that I did win Low Net (the Sandbagger Cup) one year, sometime in the early ‘80’s. My Dunes Club pewter alligator trophy, golf ball missing from its jaws, sits near my writing desk to this day. That year, I met and played with Lorne Rubenstein, the great Canadian writer, who won the Championship as Low Gross. And in the Friday team event, our member was a Gen. Hackler, who was apparently a Big Deal at the club. He was impressed with my swing, so he bought my ticket in the Calcutta (yes, Virginia, you’ll be shocked, shocked to learn there was gambling going on) and he won a couple hundred bucks on my performance.
And best of all, nobody smashed my windshield in the parking lot that night.