"Golf shop George." That's how George Matson has answered the phone in the Southern Hills pro shop for 46 years, although exactly when the club's members dropped the comma and began to use the refrain as the 74-year-old shop manager's name is a mystery. All Matson will say is that "everybody calls me that. Some people also know me as Old Hugging George because I always give the women a hug." A hug or a firm handshake, plus a bright smile and a hearty "Top o' the morning" in his Irish brogue have endeared Matson to generations of Southern Hills members, as well as the many Tour pros who have played the Tulsa course.
Matson has been on hand for all five majors held at Southern Hills, although during last week's U.S. Open the pro shop was closed to the public. (Fans were steered to a 30,000-square-foot merchandise tent—the largest ever at an Open.) That happened once before, for the 1994 PGA Matson doesn't count the final day of the '77 Open, when a death threat was called in against tournament leader Hubert Green. "The police secured the golf shop and restricted access to the locker room," says Matson. (Green, who was apprised of the situation when he was on the 14th green, decided to finish and went on to win.)
Matson says his most vivid memory from Southern Hills's first Open, in '58, is that of an 18-year-old amateur. "I remember when Jack Nicklaus came into the shop," he says. "He was a young kid, had a suitcase with him and looked scared—like me when I came to America."
Born in Armagh, Northern Ireland, Matson was an impressionable 15-year-old and a member of his country's national guard on maneuvers with American soldiers during World War II when he heard tales of life in the U.S. "They all said, 'I own my own car,' or 'I own my own house,' " says Matson. "What they forgot to tell me was that the bank really owned the car and the house." After the war Matson painted houses until 1951, by which time he had saved $400, enough for passage on the SS America to New York City and a train ticket to Tulsa, where an aunt had immigrated.
"Everything was brown," Matson says of his first glimpse of Oklahoma. "I didn't know what was going on. In Ireland, it's green year-round." Matson placed a work-wanted classified ad in the Tulsa Tribune that caught the eye of the manager at Southern Hills. "He called me up and offered me a job doing maintenance work for $200 a month," says Matson.
In 1955 Matson was promoted to shop manager, a position he has held since. What keeps him engaged in his work? "The people," says Matson. "The change in membership keeps it fresh."
As does the occasional crisis, like the time Matson was called on to rescue a member from a man-eating golf cart. "He forgot the brake, and as he was looking for his ball in a ditch, the cart hit him in the rear, knocked him into the ditch and landed on top of him," says Matson. "We had to get a tractor and chains to pull it off."
In addition to meeting famous people—"George adds a great touch of spice and a bit of the old country," says Ben Crenshaw—Matson met Daphne Best, his future bride, at the club. "Her father ran the riding stables," he says, "and Daphne came up to the clubhouse for the mail every day at 4:30. I made sure I was there every day at 4:30 too."
That was 50 years ago. In October the Matsons, who live in the house that they bought in 1956 and in which they raised two boys, George, 43, and Mark, 42, will celebrate their golden anniversary. "When I find something I like," says Matson, "I stick with it."