American golf has always been extremely fortunate in the type of persons it has had as its champions. This happy fact was never more conspicuous than it was last Thursday night when golfers from all over the country gathered in the grand ballroom of the Plaza Hotel in New York to honor, principally, Babe Zaharias, Ed Furgol and Billy Joe Patton at the third annual dinner of the Metropolitan Golf Writers Association. The Babe was on hand to accept the Ben Hogan trophy for 1953, since she was unable to come up for the dinner last winter. Furgol was on hand to receive the Hogan trophy for 1954. At the moment Babe and Ed are our National Open champions but, for the occasion, that was somewhat irrelevant; the Hogan trophy does not demand victory but only that some person burdened with a physical handicap tries. Billy Joe Patton—or should it be William J., since that remarkable young man was temporarily situated north of the Mason and Dixon line?—was up from N.C. to receive the MGWA's Gold Tee award as the golfer who did the most for the game in 1954. Ben Hogan was there to present their trophies to the Babe and Ed, and Bob Jones was there to present the Gold Tee to Billy Joe. Now there is a galaxy of class for any man's firmament.
Whenever golfers get together, certain features of our national mores pop right out at you. For example, ever since Walter Hagen revealed himself some 40 years ago as a man who really did not mind if he outdressed the millionaires, golf pros have been the country's most haberdashing set. Until recently the pros were a trifle shaky, comparatively, about their after-dark combos but they've conquered that now, and it is doubtful if the Plaza ballroom, that old glade of the F. Scott Fitzgerald gang, ever was populated by a more immaculately garbed group—always excepting the writers. For another thing, there was a time, and not so long ago, when an athlete was considered a veritable spellbinder if he could manage a three-sentence speech without running out of words; and as for a spontaneous remark, well, as the old saying goes, they couldn't ad-lib a belch after a Hungarian meal. That certainly has gone by the boards. Nowadays, in this age of communication, they all step to the microphone as relaxed as a Hope or a Crosby and it is a real treat to listen to them.
THE FIBER OF CHAMPIONS
But above all, what the diners were most aware of as they looked up to the head table and listened to one fine speech after another was that each of the principal guests had, in his or her own way, scored tremendous victories after overcoming physical and emotional disabilities of a very serious nature. It is hard to think of an occasion when so much fiber and strength of will was packed together at the center of any table. The individual stories are all well known: Ben Hogan, injured so badly in a highway collision that it was doubtful if he'd ever walk, let alone play, again and who went on to win another National Open only 16 months later, went on from that to win two further National Opens and the British, and who will be going on for some time yet; Babe Didrikson Zaharias, who underwent an operation for cancer in April, 1953 and then some 15 months later, when the average person in her position would have been settling into a career as a bedridden invalid, swept regally to victory in the Women's National Open, a tournament that requires 36 holes of play on the final day; Ed Furgol, the kid who in June, 1936 started to hitchhike from Utica to Baltusrol so that he could watch the National Open. He didn't quite make it. He got to New York all right but couldn't get a hitch out of the city. Eighteen Junes later he won the National Open at Baltusrol—a man who built himself a champion's game despite the fact that he plays with a withered left arm that goes along on his swing just for the ride. And Robert Tyre Jones Jr., still "first in the hearts of his countrymen," as Linc Werden of the New York Times, the toastmaster, put it. Bob has been enduring whatever is the diametric opposite of good health for the past six years. So what has happened? Bob Jones has been more active (and possibly more influential) than he ever was.
They were all there to honor Billy Joe Patton, Morganton's gift to the big leagues. The hardships Billy Joe has had to contend with have been relatively minor ones but here, beneath the droll delivery of a helluva player who is also a helluva speaker with a fine original mind, was the infant golf prodigy who never quite bloomed; the long-driving college star who never quite caught fire; the never-was who, at 32, invited to the Masters on the shoestring qualification of being a Walker Cup alternate, somehow still felt he had the stuff and poured it out tournament after tournament.
It was a very enjoyable evening and also a very stirring one.