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In the pleasant world of golf, which for most of its 5 million habitu�s in the United States still provides a pastoral refuge from an increasingly efficient civilization, the florid figure of George S. May, owner and operator of Chicago's Tarn O'Shanter course and its annual "World Championship of Golf," obtrudes like a brass band at a church picnic. A promoter by instinct and a business engineer by profession, May is as controversial as the tuba player who insists on getting lost in Dixieland. To some he is a money-grubbing exploiter of a grand old game; to others a great-hearted benefactor of those who help to make golf headlines. There is no middle ground between these two extremes except, perhaps, for May himself. He points with pride to achievements which are indubitably impressive, and with becoming modesty to his own self—a man who is no golfer but has the best interests of golf at heart, a businessman who argues with convincing monetary logic that business methods benefit the sport.
Besides running a golf club as efficient as a chromium-plated bar and grill, May, as he sees it, has done more to promote professional golf in America than any man since Walter Hagen won the British Open 33 years ago and thereby launched the big-time spectator interest in golf on this side of the ocean. He has popularized the big gallery at pro golf tournaments and made them profitable propositions. His annual "World Championship" tourney draws the biggest gates and the best golfers in the country, competing for the largest prizes ever offered. The exhibition tours on which he sends his winners undoubtedly have brought the game home to thousands who do not have much chance to see fine players in action; and incidentally have promoted business for the George S. May Co., the business engineering firm which May heads. The only question is this: Is all this good for golf?
A DOUGH BOY
Around this question, emotions seethe. May is damned for coldly turning golf into a business; it is plain that he is in it strictly for the money. But he is also praised for bringing thousands of new fanatics to the game. His commercialism is decried; but golfers scamper for his money. His flamboyancy is scorned; yet 30 businessmen of the Professional Golf Association Advisory Committee honored him recently by appointing him an honorary chairman. The only point on which all who are interested in golf must perforce agree is that, like it or not, May set new standards in tournament golf through the unprecedented size of his prizes which in turn have stimulated increases in other tournament rewards. For the hard-core fact of the matter is that May has the money which pro golf needs and that under the May system, the more he spends on the game the more keeps coming back into the till.
The reason for this is that May has seen to it that Tam O'Shanter, George May, the Tam golf tournaments and exhibitions and the George S. May Co. have all become inextricably interwoven in the public mind. Everything he does for golf works also, in a quite obvious way, for the promotion of his business engineering firm. In this field, he knows virtually no limits—in 1951 he boasted to a Congressional investigating committee, for example, that his firm regularly places an advertisement every three weeks in every daily newspaper in the U.S. He views the Tam O'Shanter tournaments no less realistically: With this year's attendance at his "World Championship" competition, which, begins with the All-American tournament on August 4, estimated at 200,-000 for the 11-day show, the company figures not simply to break even at a gate fee of $3 a head but, as usual, to reap a huge promotional dividend. "It's a back door to get business forthe May Co.," May says. "The more I put into prizes, the more business the company makes. I can prove it."
This year, May has invested $212,200 in the Tam O'Shanter tourney. The winner of the "World Championship of Golf" will be handed a check for $50,000. He will also be offered a contract to play 50 exhibitions for the May Co. during the coming year, at $1,000 per. As he travels over the country, May Co. salesmen will act as his advance guard, showering free tickets on chambers of commerce and on every businessman who might be a prospect for a May Co. efficiency overhaul. If things go as they have in recent years, May can expect an increase of more than 12% in his West Coast business alone. And, of course, gate receipts at Tarn will total around $450,000.
George May started on the road toward this bonanza by purest chance in 1937, when the Tam O'Shanter clubhouse burned down. He had joined the club largely for social reasons some eight years before, and had long been distressed by its casual accounting methods and slipshod billing and collecting. To a mind long geared to full exploitation of the dollar, it was obvious that things could be run better.
May, with a background of energetic salesmanship and organization, was the man for the job. Born on a farm near Windsor, ill., young George left home at the age of 19 to make a living selling Bibles. Billy Sunday was touring the nation in those days, and May used him as an unwitting advance man to soften up his prospects. Wherever Billy Sunday had just been, George May soon was—and it usually required only the gentlest sort of sales pitch to persuade the customers that now was the time to buy the Holy Writ.
When World War I came along, May-got a job in a machine shop, and went from there to an industrial engineering firm. By 1925 he had formed his own company and was doing well. The acquisition of the Tam O'Shanter club in 1937 was a new challenge to his talents, and May met it with his usual flair. His methods are direct—"There's too much diplomacy in business," he is fond of saying—and within a couple of years he had turned the club into a profitable enterprise.
Then, one day in 1940, the Chicago Open was played at Tam O'Shanter. May watched the proceedings with critical interest, and decided he could improve considerably upon the system. He inquired of the PGA what the biggest purse was in professional golf and was told it was Miami's $10,000. "We'll give $11,000," said May.