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Golf's Godfather
May 03, 2010
Pioneering promoter Fred Corcoran, the man behind the creation of the PGA Tour, would have loved the Players because it's all about the pros
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May 03, 2010

Golf's Godfather

Pioneering promoter Fred Corcoran, the man behind the creation of the PGA Tour, would have loved the Players because it's all about the pros

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Fred Corcoran, the first nongolfer to be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, wouldn't care much for the 17th hole, the island-green par-3 at the Stadium course. He was a tournament organizer, director and promoter. He was an agent who represented Gene Sarazen and me and many others. He was one of golf's outstanding businessmen. That the 17th makes for good TV, he'd understand, but he wouldn't have liked the hole. He was a traditionalist who took his cues from the players, and the players don't like 17 because there's only one way to play it. Fred would have sided with the pros.

Some things about the Players Championship that Fred would have liked? He'd be happy to see all the electronic scoreboards—he was the man who invented the tournament scoreboard. And he'd be glad to see that many of the big names in the field are full-fledged sports stars. When Corcoran represented Sam Snead, he made sure that the world knew Slammin' Sam not only as a golfer but also as an athlete. Fred was friends with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, and he advised them on how to bring their love of golf to the public through USO trips and their tournaments. Fred's ideas were big, but he sold them quietly.

In the late 1930s and early '40s, long before I knew him, Fred was the tournament manager for the PGA of America, and he planted the seeds that let the circuit, as it was then known, grow into today's PGA Tour. You could say he invented the Tour. The Players, as the Tour's marquee event, would impress him.

Fred was your classic street-smart Irish caddie from Boston, just like his friend Eddie Lowery, Francis Ouimet's famous caddie. I was close to Eddie, too. (And Francis Ouimet was my stockbroker. How about that!) They had different styles, Eddie and Fred. Eddie was a showman. Fred was subtle but very effective. He was one of the most influential behind-the-scenes men golf has had.

I owe Fred more than I can say. In the first half of 1964 I was playing poor golf and was thinking of calling it quits, going home to San Francisco and managing one of Eddie's car dealerships. I had missed the cut in Indianapolis and didn't have the money or the confidence to make the trip to New York to play in the Monday qualifier for the Westchester tournament. I called the tournament chairman, Bill Jennings, looking for an invitation. Jennings, the owner of the New York Rangers, said, "I have one spot—call me tomorrow." I called the next day, and Jennings said, "I spoke to people about it. Fred Corcoran lobbied hard for you. You've got the invite." That's the kind of influence Fred had.

I finished third at Westchester. That got me into the next stop in Flint, Mich., where I finished fifth. Right after that I got through U.S. Open qualifying, and right after that I won the Open, all in a one-month span. My U.S. Open win led to a 35-year career at CBS. Where would I be without that invitation to Westchester? Thank you, Fred.

After the Open, Fred was able to get me a lot of exhibition matches at the well-to-do clubs around New York City. Typically it would be me against Tony Lema. Tony and I would play an 18-hole match, and club members would follow us around, betting on us. Fred got us some nice paydays, $10,000 or more. Our contract was a handshake. He'd introduce us to the crowd on the 1st tee and walk the course with us, always in a coat and tie.

At one point he worked out a deal for Tony and me to play five winner-take-all matches, at $50,000 a match, against any two of Mark McCormack's Big Three—Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. Fred had the backers. All he needed was McCormack's O.K. Fred called McCormack, and McCormack said, "I can't split up the Big Three." Fred and I talked about it, and Fred called back McCormack and said, "My two guys will take on all three of your Big Three." McCormack said, "Are you crazy? What if my Big Three loses to your two California kids?" Fred believed in us.

He lived on the 15th hole on Winged Foot's East course. Whenever I played there, Fred would come out the back door and we'd have a little chat. He knew so much about golf and golfers. He was the man who got Hogan to play Shell's Wonderful World of Golf, a man who knew Gene Sarazen, Bobby Jones, Crosby, Hope, Nicklaus, Palmer—everybody. He knew the legends, and he was a legend himself.

He did it all. He died in 1977, at age 72. I miss him. His daughter Judy Corcoran has written a wonderful book, Fred Corcoran: The Man Who Sold the World on Golf. The book says that as a golfer, Fred's claim to fame was that he three-putted all over the world. I don't know about his putting, but I'll tell you what I do know: The man had game.

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