Friday, September 21

When Pros Played for Peanuts, Part 1

By John Coyne

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

George May, at far right.
READING ABOUT THE FEDEX CUP FINALE, with $10 million of $35 million in prize money going to the winner, I got to thinking of George S. May from Tam O’Shanter Country Club in Niles, Illinois.

Ask any older time playing pro who changed golf and they’ll say “not Palmer or television, corporation sponsors, or even their own professional organization, the PGA.” They’ll say “George S. May.” He was the man who made it possible for touring pros to make a real living from the game of golf. George made golf a business, often working hard against the PGA to make that happen.

May was a management consultant, or back then in the 1930s and 1940s, a “management engineer.” He was the first sponsor of big-time, big-money golf. He was also an unpaid and long-suffering advisor to the PGA until the late 1950s when he finally told Lou Strong, the pro at his Tam O’Shanter Country Club, that he was through with golf.

“I’m just tired of fighting the whole thing,” May said, meaning the PGA organization.

It was May, according to Herb Graffis in his entertaining and informative official history of the Professional Golfers Association, who “talked to the professionals on the urgency of applying business principles to the pro shop in ordering stock and in display, advertising, and record keeping,” and then went on to instruct the PGA on running a professional golf tournament by showing them how it should be done.

At the time tournament golf was only a handful of special events: the U.S. and British Opens, the Masters and the PGA Championship, plus some low paying, local and regional PGA tournaments. May raised the ante, for golf in more than one way, beginning in 1941 with the All-American golf tournament and the All-World Championship at his Tam O’Shanter Country Club on the northwest side of Chicago.

The legendary golf writer and author Al Barkow was a caddie at Tam in those early days when golf went big time under the guiding business principles of George May. Writing in a 1965 magazine article, Barkow said, “The World was the first of the really big money tournaments in professional golf. Actually, there were four tournaments at once, each at 72 holes of medal play. There was a men’s and a women’s pro event, and a men’s and a women’s amateur tournament.”

May not only organized and staged the All-American and All-World championships, he promoted the events. A July 24, 1942, newspaper advertisement read: “Don’t miss this season’s greatest sports event. It is your opportunity to see a great show and help a great cause.” And he did that by charging $1 a day admission.


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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