I'll never forget," the white-haired man was saying to Bing Crosby, "the time we were playing with the Duke at Saint-Cloud, and he kept worrying about Texas."
The speaker was Christopher J. Dunphy, a man who has been brightening the atmosphere and the conversation and the wagering at the more select American and European golf courses for nearly 40 years. At the moment, Dunphy was seated in the spacious locker room of the Seminole Golf Club, a few miles north of Palm Beach, Fla., with his good friend Crosby. They were recalling some of their mutual experiences with one of their close friends, the Duke of Windsor.
"The Duke doesn't like to bet much," Dunphy explained to a third party, "and it's a good idea to keep him down to about a $2 Nassau or he might get excited. On this day the Duke and I were playing Bing and Ray Graham, and Bing and I had a pretty good bundle riding on the match. Every hole or two either Bing or I would yell 'Texas' to the other one. Finally, the Duke said to me, 'I say, Chris, why is it that you and Bing are always talking about Texas?' I told the Duke to never mind, I'd explain later.
"After the game I told the Duke, 'Well, sir, now I'll explain about Texas. Every time Bing or I said Texas, that meant we were doubling the bets.' The Duke thought about this for a minute, and then he said, 'I say, Chris, I'm glad you didn't tell me about it at the time.' That Duke, he's really a cute little guy."
May 22, 1960
"Uh huh," Crosby agreed, "but you've got to watch him on a golf course. He always hits his second ball first, and there you are walking down the fairway thinking he's already hit and—whish—his other shot comes flying past your head."
As the Duke and Crosby and a number of favored people know, one of the rare privileges in the world of upper-crust golf is to pal around with Chris Dunphy, whether on the course or in the locker or drawing room, and to take part in the wagering and mock-serious invective which surrounds the high-powered wheeling and dealing wherever he goes. Dunphy's is a world peopled only by the very best golfers—Sam Snead, Ben Hogan or Claude Harmon—or the sporting members of European nobility—Windsor, the Duke of Marlborough, the Earl of Dudley—or leaders of business and finance—Marshall Field Jr., Henry Ford's brother Bill, Paul Shields, George Coleman, the late Robert R. Young—or the spectacular members of international society—Bobby Sweeney, Tommy Shevlin, Tommy Tailer, Teddy Bassett, Woolly Donohue, Jock and Neddy McLean, and Jack Kennedy, the presidential hopeful.
Most of these people zero in on Chris Dunphy at Seminole, where he spends nearly every golfable day from early December until late April and where he holds the significant title of Chairman of the Greens Committee. After Seminole closes up for the season, they find him at The Greenbrier in West Virginia, where, as he will this weekend, he runs one of the country's two or three most glamorous pro-amateur tournaments with the help of Sam Snead, the resident pro. During the summer months Dunphy can usually be found at Newport or on Long Island or playing on the famous courses of England, Scotland and western Europe. By autumn he is back at Palm Beach.
Dunphy is a stocky, dapper fellow of about 5 feet 7 who is obviously in wonderful physical condition. Under his well-groomed, snow-white hair is a handsome face with the patrimony of Ireland conspicuously chiseled on its sunburned contours. A stranger might guess him to be in his early 60s, and the estimate would not be contradicted, but the personnel records at Paramount Pictures, where he headed the publicity and advertising departments 25 years ago, show that he was born in 1889.
The odds are lopsided that wherever one finds Dunphy he will either be playing golf, which he still does consistently in the 70s, or sitting among a group of his famous friends—and talking. Either he will have them all laughing with an anecdote about one of his yesterdays or, like a wild boar standing off a pack of baying hounds, he will be parrying their combined efforts to get the better of him in a bet.
One of Dunphy's infinite supply of stories harks back to his first meeting with Tommy Armour, the famed Scottish golfer, who first arrived in this country in the early '20s when Dunphy's golf was at its peak. Someone set up a match between them at the Apawamis Club in Rye, N.Y., and Armour, who is a canny negotiator in his own right, arrived there with the notion of making a little walking-around money. The name of Dunphy meant nothing to Armour, who gladly gave Dunphy two strokes a side. "When I topped my drive off the first tee," Dunphy recalls, "I could see Tommy's face light up. He figured he had hold of a pretty good thing that afternoon. I had to take out a wood for the long second shot up to the green, but I hit it right alongside the pin, stiff. Armour had a nice drive and a good second to the green and was down in 2 for his par, but when I sank my little putt for a birdie he turned to me and said, 'Who are you, mon, anyway?' I told him, 'Don't worry about who I am, but let me warn you: there are a thousand better than me all over this big country.' " That afternoon Dunphy shot a 71 to Armour's 72, and left the Scotsman wondering if it might not be wise to return to the moors.
Among the inhabitants of Chris Dunphy's world, the two most engrossing subjects in life are money and golf—in that order. A game of golf among his friends must be well spiced with financial incentive. The reason that Dunphy is such a vital element in their way of life, aside from the fact that he is a charmer, is that he knows how to blend the uncertainties of golf with the profit motive.
On an average day, Dunphy will arrive at Seminole about midmorning in his $13,500 Cadillac Eldorado sedan, and until late afternoon he will preside over the golfing activities like a tyrannical schoolmaster. First he will supervise any problems involving the upkeep of the course itself, which, thanks largely to Dunphy's efforts over the last 15 years, now ranks among the truly testing courses in the world. Having studied under the top agronomists of the South, Dunphy qualifies as a legitimate expert on the care and feeding of grass, with the result that a ball alighting anywhere on Seminole's deep and cushiony fairways sits up like a soap bubble resting on a tuft of cotton. The greens are uniformly smooth, and as slippery as the baize on a billiard table.
Before lunch, as the Seminole locker room begins to fill with the day's golfers, a group conversation builds up around Dunphy. Devoted almost exclusively to such financial matters as who owes how much money to whom and what kind of bets can be arranged to equalize matters, the talk seems, at first, to be on a rather hostile plane. "I can't remember," Dunphy will shout in his husky, high-pitched timbre while pulling an amply stuffed money clip from his pocket, "when I've ever been so thin. And I can't think of a better time than now to get a few accounts straightened out so that we can all start the day without anything troubling us. I happen to have my books in good shape, but I can't say the same for some of the rest of you. I mean, I can't keep carrying you fellows all year. You understand that, don't you?"
When several repetitions of this same thought are ignored by the rest of the gathering, Dunphy will stuff his money clip brusquely back into his pocket and say, "Well, I can't sit around forever waiting for you deadheads to pay up. Let's have some lunch and maybe we can organize a little go out there on the golf course."
Throughout lunch the talk at Dunphy's table continues in the same abrasive tone, and the odds seem unfairly stacked; all hands aim their obloquy at Dunphy. Here he is, trying to arrange foursomes and handicaps for the afternoon's golf so that, everyone can have a game and a bet with his peers, yet Dunphy can seldom pronounce an edict without meeting a barrage of abuse.
Once on the golf course, Dunphy is no longer the threat that he was back in 1952 when he set the amateur course record for Seminole with a 67 (since lowered to 65 by Bobby Sweeney), or in 1932 when he went all the way to the 35th hole before losing to two-time British Amateur Champion Cyril Tolley in the finals of the Newport Invitational. Nevertheless, he still swings as well as nature could possibly allow a man past 70 to do. This is all the more remarkable considering that less than 18 months ago Dunphy had an emergency abdominal operation that put him on the critical list. Four weeks after surgery he showed up at the golf course and started hitting nine-irons. After five weeks he was again playing 18 holes.
To compensate for the minor erosions in his golfing skill, Dunphy always makes sure that he carries an adequate handicap. He currently considers nine or 10 as adequate. "It depends," he says, "on who I'm playing with."
One always expects a slight smile to cross Dunphy's face at moments like this, but it never does; you know it must be there, but you can't see it. When it comes to handicaps, however, those owned by the players in Dunphy's coterie at Seminole are just as whimsical as his own, for by and large a Seminole handicap is whatever Dunphy decrees it to be.
The capricious system by which Dunphy handicaps himself and his friends is just one of the reasons why Dunphy's reputation outside his immediate circle is somewhat tarnished. When he strays from his own playgrounds, golfers who know him only by reputation are inclined to lock up the club silverware. You will hear that Dunphy's arsenal of gamesmanship includes such devices as the rattling of coins or the sudden cough when an opponent is about to play a vital shot, and some persnickety golfers will even follow Dunphy into the rough when he has hit a bad shot, just to be on the safe side.
Dunphy's reputation among outsiders stems largely from the many and sometimes fanciful tales that have been built up around him over the past generation or more. Nonetheless, one of the great satisfactions that the rich find in betting with Dunphy is getting the better of him rather than occasionally taking his money, for it is generally conceded that in the art of gambling Dunphy is a master. Unfortunately for his reputation, he was involved as the auctioneer in the Calcutta scandal at the Deepdale invitational tournament on Long Island in 1955, and such incidents tend to confirm the suspicions of people who don't understand Dunphy's real role in golf as the catalyst for the rich man's fun.
One of the intriguing things about Dunphy is the mystery that surrounds his origins. There are almost as many versions of it as there are people who tell it.
Most stories hold that Dunphy began his extraordinary career as a bellhop or night clerk in hotels around the New England area. All that Dunphy will say is that he started out in the hotel business in his youth and that when he took over the management of the Bretton Woods Hotel in New Hampshire at the age of 26 he was the youngest hotel manager in the country.
It was while he was at Bretton Woods, Dunphy says, that he first met the late Edward B. McLean, publisher of the Cincinnati Enquirer and Washington Post. Dunphy played a lot of golf with the older man, and the latter took such a shine to Dunphy that he hired him and brought him home to Washington.
It was shortly after World War I that Dunphy first went to work for McLean, who gave him a vague but executive title on the Post. However, much of Dunphy's time was spent as a recreational companion for McLean, and it was through the famous publisher that he met many of the celebrated politicians and sportsmen of the time. He played an occasional round of golf with Warren G. Harding at the Columbia Country Club in Washington, and even one at Augusta long before a later President put the place on the golfing map.
After he began working for McLean, Dunphy also started making a reputation as one of the better amateur golfers on the East Coast. In 1922 he won the District of Columbia Championship, the President Taft Cup at the Chevy Chase Country Club in Maryland, the Wardman Cup at Columbia and the Lake Worth Championship at Palm Beach. The following year he won amateur titles in places from Bar Harbor to southern Florida.
Dunphy was married to Rebecca Thomson in 1928. There followed a brief career as a stockbroker on Wall Street before he signed with Paramount Pictures. In 1936 he was sent to Hollywood as head of the studio's West Coast advertising and publicity.
Dunphy's wife, a talented interior decorator from Philadelphia, died during the war and left him with an educated eye for attractive surroundings and a comfortable though not spectacular private income from perhaps half a million. In 1946 Dunphy retired to Palm Beach, where he now lives on a fashionable side street. His house is furnished with the utmost charm and taste, and has lately become one of the regular ports of call for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor during their winter visits to Florida.
NO HUMPTY DUNPHY
There is a serious side of Dunphy which doesn't square with the legend that has grown up through the years of the canny, querulous golfer with a thousand ways to skin you and a million ways to keep you entertained in the process. No one likes to think of Dunphy as a man who is putting three students through Notre Dame, two of whom he has never met. The Dunphy legend that people prefer is built around stories like the time when, after a round of golf at Seminole, he drove his friends to the Palm Beach airport, where they had parked their private plane. As they boarded the plane, Dunphy reminded them for the umpteenth time about the money they had lost to him on the afternoon's golf. They, as so many of Dunphy's friends like to do, pretended they weren't going to pay him. They closed the door, and the last they saw of Dunphy he was clinging to the tip of the plane's wing and shouting wildly that he wanted his money.
"I mean I was almost airborne," Dunphy said later as he repeated the story for the enjoyment of the crowd in the Seminole locker room.
Naturally, Dunphy received his winnings—as when has he ever not?—but it is easy to visualize his frantic indignation at the airport. Nonetheless, as has always been the case with Dunphy since McLean first discovered him in New England nearly 40 years ago, it is difficult to determine just who was kidding whom.