Saturday, September 22

When Pros Played for Peanuts (Conclusion)

By John Coyne

Copyright © John Coyne. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

(This is the second of two parts. Read Part I.)

George May, circa 1950
GEORGE MAY’S INVOLVEMENT WITH BIG-TIME PRO golf began in 1936. May had been a member of Tam O’Shanter for 10 years when a fire broke out at the club’s annual spring party. Within hours the clubhouse was destroyed. It was rebuilt.

Then, in 1938, water from the north branch of the Chicago River, which wound through the course, rose to flood stage and completely inundated the grounds, particularly in the vicinity of the clubhouse. It was at that point, when the country club was going under financially, that May stepped up and purchased 84 percent of the stock; the remaining stock was divided among 80 other members.

May’s credo was that the club should be operated the same as any other business.

“There’s no reason why a private golf club should not be run successfully if it is treated as a business,” May declared. “You have to spend money to make money, and that is going to be our plan at Tam O’Shanter.”

And May was willing to spend money.

He made his clubhouse thoroughly modern, with dining rooms, bars, outdoor food and drink stands. He improved the course, and then he put on his tournaments where players had a chance to win more money in one event than they could win all year in PGA tournaments.

But May did more. He paid for full-page ads in newspapers, drawing to the tournaments people who had never seen golf played. He was the first person to erect bleachers at vantage spots at the course. He built a press room in the clubhouse overlooking the 1st, 16th, 17th and 18th greens. He had parking for everyone. He kept down the price of hot dogs, hamburgers and drinks. He had scoreboards erected around the course and kept them updated throughout the tournaments.

May attracted the best players from around the world. He had tournaments for amateurs and pros. All Americans, even African-Americans who weren’t allowed in PGA events, were welcomed at Tam with the best players from the rest of the world. May would say in 1942 that the words “National” and “All-American” implied and assured that the two tournaments would be open to any American who was willing and able to qualify. There would be no segregation at Tam. The PGA organization’s “Caucasian only” clause wasn’t lifted until 1960.

By the end of the Tam O’Shanter era (1958), pros were playing for a quarter of million dollars. Yet May changed golf in many ways besides money. He was a country club member, but he brought golf to the sports fan who didn’t know a wedge from a spoon. He invited networks to televise his tournaments and, as luck was always part of George’s MO, Lew Worsham would in dramatic style eagle the final hole of the 1953 All-World Tournament with a fairway wedge that, according to George B. Kirsch, in his recently published Golf in America convinced “television network executives they could sell advertisements to sponsors for future tournaments.”

The following year the USGA began authorizing network telecasts of the U.S. Open. Television discovered golf just when young Arnold Palmer came to play and George S. May faded into history.

Today’s pros play for $10 million and a FedEx Cup but few have any idea who George May was, or how he changed professional golf and made it possible for them to live the lives they live and play the game they love.

John Coyne is a bestselling author whose latest book is The Caddie Who Won the Masters. Learn more at John Coyne Books.

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