Between 1941 and 1958, some of the greatest golf tournaments in America were staged just west of Chicago at Tam O’Shanter Country Club in Niles, Illinois. The man behind them was the country club owner and tournament organizer, George S. May. Golf Magazine would name May one of the “100 Heroes of American Golf.” And Senior Golfer magazine said of May, he “singlehandedly lifted golf to prominence.”
Here, in short form, is the story of May and his tournament and what he did for American golf in the Forties and Fifties. It begins with a club house fire in April of 1936 at Tam O’Shanter.
By John Coyne
Special to ARMCHAIR GOLF
GEORGE MAY HAD BEEN a member of Tam O’Shanter for over a decade and, after a devastating fire, he rallied with other members and rebuilt and remodeled the club house. Then, two years later, on July 4, 1938, the waters of the north branch of the Chicago River, which wound through the course, rose to flood stage and completely inundated the grounds and the new club house. It was then that May stepped in and took over the ownership and management of the country club.
May was a management consultant who started his business in 1925, operating out of one room of his Chicago north side apartment. Within two years he owned a building on North Shore Drive. By 1940 he employed more than 400 people and had offices in fifteen cities.
(Photo: John Coyne)
Between 1938 and 1941, May invested $500,000 in Tam O’Shanter. He was determined that the place would operate the same as any other business. May set up two corporations to operate the country club. With 80 members he formed Tam O’Shanter, Inc. holding onto 84% of the stock for himself. Next he leased the property for 50 years to the Tam O’Shanter Country Club. Meanwhile, he made himself president of both the corporation and the club.
In an article written by the great golf writer, Charles Bartlett of the Chicago Tribune, published in April, 1940, May said, “There’s no reason why a golf club should not be run successfully if it is treated as a business. You have to spend money to make money, and that is going to be our plan at Tam O’Shanter.”
May did just that. The new clubhouse had five bars, a dining room for 200 guests, and 602 lockers, 346 for men, 192 for women, and another 64 in a separate section for trade and fraternal tournaments. He next built an 80’x 35’ swimming pool; a playground for children; four tennis courts; paved parking for 254 cars, and a new caddie house. Turning to the course, May built back tees on five holes, lengthening the course from 6,395 to 6,680 yards. He built seven steel and concrete bridges across the branch of the Chicago River and raised five greens, including the short third hole, about 135 yards long, making it one of the toughest tests in Chicagoland.
Hosting the Chicago Open
Once his club house and course were ready, May turned to staging tournaments. The first was in 1940, the Chicago Open. It was being held for only the third time, and the first time on a single 18 hole course. Previously, it had been hosted by Medinah and Olympia Fields, both of which have more than one course.
This three-day tournament of four rounds drew the finest players of the age, many of whom played out the Chicago area: John Revolta, Evanston; Chick Evans, Edgewater; Tommy Armour of Medinah; Harry Cooper, Northmoor; Dick Metz, Horton Smith and Lloyd Mangrum, all from Oak Park.
Also in the field, where first prize was $1,500, with total prize money of $5,000, were Ben Hogan, Walter Hagen, Sam Snead, Johnny Bulla, Gene Sarazen, and Jimmy Demaret.
The Tam Chicago Open was won that year by local pro Dick Metz. Johnny Revolta of Evanston finished second. Third was Ben Hogan and amateur and golf writer, Jim Ferrier of Australia, who had a 66 in his first round. (In a personal note: deep in the pack that first round was Charles “Red” Dennison, of Midlothian Country Club who shot 75. “Red” was the pro at Midlothian when I first started to caddie at the club in the mid-forties.)
Following the Chicago Open, May would make his move to dominate tournament golf in America. He announced that Tam would hold its first annual Tam O’Shanter Open in 1941. Prize money would be $15,000, making it the largest purse in professional golf. (Three other events had prize money of $10,000: Miami, Los Angeles, and New Orleans.)
But for George May, this prize money was just a beginning. The best was yet to come.
The conclusion of this story will appear next Friday.
John Coyne is the author of The Caddie Who Knew Ben Hogan and The Caddie Who Played with Hickory. His next book, coming this spring, is The Caddie Who Won the Masters. Learn more at John Coyne Books.