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Slightly Wacky, Totally Waco
John Garrity
April 17, 2000
A tradition unlike any other? No Tour stop could match Waco Turner's Poor Boy Open
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April 17, 2000

Slightly Wacky, Totally Waco

A tradition unlike any other? No Tour stop could match Waco Turner's Poor Boy Open

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A man like that—rich, impulsive, overbearing—cuts a wide swath. One would-be biographer called Turner "the most fabulous figure in modern-day golf." SI's Bud Shrake wrote that when one of Turner's tournaments conflicted with the Sam Snead Festival in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., an official called and said, "Mistuh Tunah, doan you ree-lize yew woan have Mistuh Snead at yoah tuh-namit?" To which the oilman replied, "That's all right, you won't have Waco Turner at yours." Yet, you'd be hard-pressed today to find a golfer under 60 who has even heard of Waco Turner.

To connect to the Turner past, you need some wheels and a few gallons of gas. Drive 20 miles south of Ardmore, Okla., on 1-35. Turn right at the Marietta exit. Then go 11 miles on Highway 32. The old Turner place is in the woods on the left, just past Walnut Creek. Only now it's called the Falconhead Resort and Country Club. Like Augusta National, Falconhead has a guardhouse at its entrance. Unlike Augusta National, a sign in the window warns, IF YOU ARE GRUMPY, IRRITABLE OR JUST PLAIN MEAN, THERE WILL BE A $10 CHARGE FOR PUTTING UP WITH YOU.

Vacation and retirement homes dot the property, but otherwise the old lodge looks as it did in the '50s, when Turner was chased out of Ardmore's Dornick Hills Country Club by a clique of millionaires. The lodge, a rustic building with modern touches, is now the Falconhead clubhouse. The old pro shop building, where players slept for free in dormitory rooms, still has a commanding view of Turner Lake and the course.

Hays, who retired as Falconhead's course superintendent in 1997, never understood why his boss built this golfer's field of dreams. "I only saw Waco hit a golf ball one time," he says, steering a cart through stands of blackjack and burr oaks lining the hilltop holes. "He was just a golf fan."

But what a golf fan. In the early '50s, when Turner ran his oil-drilling empire from the fifth floor of the Ardmorite Building in downtown Ardmore, he decided that his club, Dornick Hills Golf and Country Club, should host a PGA event. Turner poured $40,000 into course improvements, built the club a new pro shop and signed Tour star Dutch Harrison to a three-year contract as head pro. "He practically shut down his oil operations and moved his workmen out to Dornick Hills," Bill Hamilton wrote in an unpublished biography of Turner. "He had his skilled workmen cutting weeds and laying concrete for walks. He even took up pick and shovel himself." Under the direction of Opie Turner, laborers added 2,000 trees, shrubs and rosebushes. When the Turners were finished, the Perry Maxwell-designed course rivaled that of Southern Hills, Maxwell's more famous layout in Tulsa.

Ardmore, however, was still Ardmore—a dusty oil town with a population of 18,000 and a sports palette limited to rodeo, high school sports and the Ardmore Cardinals, a Turner-sponsored minor league baseball team. To get golf pros to come to his prairie outpost, Turner put up a $15,000 purse, produced spectacular lunch buffets and introduced his unique bonus payments for birdies, eagles, subpar rounds and holes in one. "Sometimes the young golfers have to borrow money to get out of town after a tournament," Turner explained. "This way they will have a chance to pick up extra cash and give our town a boost instead of a knock."

By 1954 Turner had boosted his first-prize money to $31,860, second only to the $100,000 jackpot offered by George S. May in Chicago. But unlike May, who used his consulting firm to underwrite the World Championship at Tarn O'Shanter, Turner spent his own money. "We dealt out of our pockets," says Beth Jones, who was Turner's executive secretary from 1954 until his death in 1971. "Mr. Turner didn't believe in stocks and bonds. The money was in a bank in Dallas, and he spent what he wanted."

Turner's money came out of the ground in the form of Oklahoma crude, which was fitting because Turner himself could be crude. A short, gravel-voiced autocrat, Turner hated to go to the office and was happiest when he had mud on his boots and either a gun or a jug of bourbon in his hand. He was born on a Mississippi farm in the early 1890s and moved with his family to Burneyville, a lively cattle crossing on the Texas border. He studied geology at Southeastern State Normal in Durant, Okla., washing dishes and selling fruit trees to pay his way. Turner then did a stint in the Army before returning to Burneyville. He taught school at nearby Overbrook, where he met and married a teacher from Texas, O.P. James, who called herself Opie.

How the Turners became rich—twice—is a pretty good story. On his way home from school one day in 1921, Turner smelled oil while passing a temporarily idled drilling rig. The next morning he dismissed his students, leaped on a borrowed horse and raced around the territory, taking out options on properties surrounding the impending strike. He made his first fortune on that gallop, but Turner gambled the profits on West Texas cotton and lost.

It was on to the oil fields of east Texas, where Waco and Opie slept in a tent by night and wildcatted by day. In 1931 they struck it rich again when Waco bought a bunch of leases near Longview in what proved to be the richest field in Texas. Twenty years later the wells were still producing, earning the former schoolteachers an estimated $80,000 a day, before taxes.

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