According to legend, Waco Turner would drive one of his Cadillacs until it got dirty or ran out of gas. Then he would abandon it under a tree on his golf course. Well, almost. "He never traded in his cars," says Buddy Reisen, a retired newspaperman who knew the Oklahoma oilman in the '50s and '60s. "He'd just put 'em up on blocks." When Turner was in a generous mood, he followed the example of Elvis and gave his friends and employees Cadillacs of their own. New ones.
There are other Turner stories. One has it that contestants in the Opie Turner Open, an LPGA event of the late '50s, shuttled around the course in junked cars pulled by a tow truck. Never happened, according to Thomas (Mutt) Hays, Turner's right-hand man at the Opie and later at a professional men's event, the Waco Turner Open. Hays says that he personally chauffeured the pros between nines in a station wagon, the caddies standing on the back bumper.
Fortunately, for every Waco Turner story that is apocryphal, there's one that is pure, 24-karat lore. Turner did carry a cash-filled potato sack at his tournaments and pay bonuses whenever he saw a pro hit a great shot. Turner did lure a retired Byron Nelson with the gift of a pretty horse, only to stick the golfing great with a crazy palomino. Several people remember Turner, while giving the cast of Bonanza a tour of his private course, driving his Cadillac onto the 16th green. Someone said, "Mr. Turner, you're on the green." He said, "By god, it's my green. I'll drive on it if I want to.' "
"He was quite a character," says Hays. "A lot like what's-his-name, Howard Hughes." And nothing like what's-his-name, Bobby Jones, although there are parallels. Jones, the greatest golfer of his time, founded an exclusive club in a small Southern town to host an invitational tournament that would serve as his legacy. Turner, an occasional golfer, started an even more exclusive club (it had only one member, himself) in an even smaller Southern town (Burneyville, Okla.) to host an invitational tournament that would serve as his legacy. The only difference was that the Masters became the epitome of prestige and refinement, while the Waco Turner, dubbed the Poor Boy Open by an Oklahoma newspaperman, was more of a taunt, a dust-and-dungarees poke at the Establishment.
The Masters has azaleas? The Poor Boy had wild onions growing on its greens. The Masters gives out crystal for eagles and low rounds? The Poor Boy would pay $500 cash for an eagle and $2,500 for a hole in one. The Masters has a champions' dinner? The Poor Boy had a cookout every night for all the players, featuring huge T-bone steaks.
The Poor Boy (1961-64), so called because it was for Tour players who had not won a PGA event in the previous year, was held in the same week in May as the Tournament of Champions in Las Vegas, where the previous year's winners played for big bucks. Despite this handicap, the Poor Boy always had a decent field. Jack Nicklaus played at Burneyville in his rookie season, 1962, and finished third. Five weeks later he won the U.S. Open at Oakmont.
The LPGA event, the Opie Turner Open (1958-59), was named for Waco's wife and business partner. That tournament attracted the best women golfers of the time, including Betsy Rawls, Louise Suggs and Mickey Wright. Turner brought in his oil riggers to caddie, and they carried the unfamiliar golf bags by the handles or under their arms. There were local rules, too. "They let us pull the weeds before putting," says LPGA cofounder Shirley Spork.
To play at Turner Lodge and Golf Course was to experience tournament golf through a glass, darkly. Waco and Opie were often drunk by nightfall, and the Lodge staff provided, or withheld, services at the owners' whim. ( Waco ordered the switchboard shut down one evening, causing an irate Tony Lema to run from his room complaining, "You cut me off while I was settling a paternity case!") When the sun was up, Waco patrolled the course in his Cadillac, a rifle and a shotgun on the backseat floorboards in case he decided to stop and shoot turtles. Sometimes he took off from his private airstrip in his Cessna 310 and had his pilot buzz the golfers. "You'd be over a putt," says Chi Chi Rodriguez, "and he'd fly right by your head, scare the daylights out of you."
The course was eccentric too. The front nine, on Walnut Creek bottomland, was as flat as a floor, while the hilly back nine roller-coastered through dense woodland before ending with an uphill, 250-yard par-3. The greens were rock hard, the fairways shaggy and the bounces unpredictable. "The thing I remember most about the course," says three-time U.S. Women's Open champ Susie Maxwell Berning, "was hitting my ball into the rough and having it land behind a watermelon."
Today's Tour events are monitored by a posse of officials, but the Turner tournaments had one rules man—Turner. He told players where to drop a ball if a raccoon ran off with it. He ordered his secretaries to drive tractors and his tractor drivers to fry catfish. If some poor soul showed up in a foreign car, an angry Turner ran him off. "He was his own man," Nicklaus says. "If he wanted a hole to be a par-12, it was a par-12."