Waco Turner came out of the Turner Lodge on a crest above the 18th green last Thursday afternoon and got behind the wheel of his new tan Cadillac. As the car bounced off down a dirt road and onto the golf course, a 22-caliber rifle and a .410 shotgun rattled on the floorboard of the back seat. "Them's for turtles," said Waco Turner. "Turtles eat the fish in my lakes, and I shoot the turtles." Peering through dark glasses that balanced on a freckled nose between vaguely Indian-looking cheekbones, Waco Turner guided his Cadillac down the middle of a fairway. A golf ball kicked up dust a few yards ahead. "Why, I might get hit out here," Turner said, surprised. Suddenly he veered the Cadillac across the fairway, through a patch of Johnson-grass rough, across another fairway and onto a shale path. Golfers looked up, grinned and waved as the Cadillac passed among them. Nobody seemed to mind. This, after all, was Waco Turner's tournament and Waco Turner's golf course, and it was accepted that Waco Turner could drive his Cadillac anywhere he pleased. By late Sunday afternoon Waco Turner's Cadillac still had not been thunked by a golf ball, Waco Turner's golfers had won $20,000 purse money and $19,235 bonus money, and Waco Turner's 1964 champion was a virtual unknown, Pete Brown, who collected $3,040, all told, for shooting an eight-under-par 280 to beat Dan Sikes by one stroke and become, as a consequence, the first Negro ever to win an official PGA tournament.
It was his own sort of fierce individualism that made Waco Turner build the golf course on which his annual Poor Boy Open was held in remote Burneyville, Okla.—an old Chickasaw Indian village near the muddy Red River on the Texas-Oklahoma border. For three years Turner held his tournament at Dornick Hills Country Club in the town of Ardmore (pop. 20,184), some 30 miles to the north. But that did not work out, because people kept getting in Waco's way. Like most of the men who came up in the tough oil fields of 40 years ago, Turner cannot abide people getting underfoot or asking too many questions.
"I ran this tournament up at Ardmore until the board of directors of Dornick Hills started trying to tell me what to do," Turner said, steering his Cadillac between two of the ponds that make the front nine of his golf course look, from the entrance to the grounds, like a rice paddy. "Nobody is going to tell me what to do. I just moved down here to this 800 acres my daddy had owned since 1894, and I built my own golf course, and I have my own golf tournament, and there ain't no board of directors except me."
If there were a board of directors, the Poor Boy Open (officially sanctioned by the PGA as the Waco Turner Open) might never have been approved. The event conflicts with the Las Vegas Tournament of Champions, which assures Turner of hardly ever getting the pro tour's currently successful players. Turner does not even get his defending champion back—the winner qualifies for next year's Tournament of Champions. None of this bothers Waco Turner in the least. The Poor Boy Open charges no admission fees and seldom has a gallery, other than Turner in his Cadillac. The idea of the tournament is to give the losers a place to earn money while the winners play at Las Vegas, and the tour's losers flock in because this is often their biggest payday. To help the losers even more, Turner hands out bonuses—$500 for a hole in one, $100 for the low daily round, $50 for an eagle, $25 for a chip-in and $15 for a birdie. The bonus money has never been less than $18,000. None of that, or the purse money, Turner insists, is written off his income tax. He holds his tournament because he likes to.
May 10, 1964
"I used to run cattle, goats and hogs on this place," Turner said as he stopped the Cadillac to watch Buster Cupit hit a drive. "Golf is better. I designed this course myself. Over there, you see those ponds by that green? We tried to dig sand traps there, but water came up out of the crawdad holes, so now we got water hazards."
The Cadillac rumbled off again and swung past a metal hangar that threw flashes of sunlight near the first tee. Inside the hangar were Turner's twin-engine Cessna 310 and a dusty black Cadillac limousine that belonged to Turner's late wife, Opie, and has hardly been driven since she died two years ago. During the proper seasons the hangar floor is piled with pumpkins and watermelons from the gardens that edge some of the fairways. The gardens and orchards around the course also yield pears, peaches, onions, radishes, cucumbers and beets that are canned in the kitchen of the lodge or served in the dining room.
Passing the hangar and the road that leads to the airstrip, the Cadillac turned up the hill beside the golf shop—a building that much resembles a fire hall—and crunched through the gravel past Turner's own cottage. Beyond, on the road, was a white Buick station wagon. A couple of caddies with golf bags sprawled on the rear gate of the station wagon, and up front sat golfers being ferried the half mile from the 9th green to the 10th tee. Turner, a wisp of a man even when seen at his tallest, slumped low behind the wheel, his dark glasses barely clearing the dashboard, nodded at the caddies and turned the Cadillac down toward the 18th green again.
Something was happening at 18. A few yards away a boy was tugging at the neck of a big black Labrador retriever. The handful of people around the green were laughing. A young amateur golfer, Jim Hardy of Oklahoma State University, was standing as if undecided whether to laugh or to whack the dog with his putter. Turner asked what was wrong.
"This dog has got Jim Hardy's ball," somebody said. "He run on the green and picked it up and took off with it."
"Make him put it back," Turner said in his hoarse, rasping voice.
"He's done chewed on it so's it won't roll."
"Well, drop another where that one was and keep playing," said Turner. Among other things, Turner is on the PGA Advisory Board, and he makes the rulings at his golf tournament.
"Where's that Australian fella?" Turner asked. That Australian fella was Bruce Crampton, whose victory in the Texas Open the week before was too late to qualify him for the Tournament of Champions, which has the Masters as its cutoff date. Someone said Crampton had finished his round.
"Then I'm going to the house," said Turner. "At 3 o'clock in the afternoon I like to get me a jug of bourbon and a jug of water and sit down and drink them and not have nobody bother me. I stay in about an hour or so. That's restful. [After resting last week he would emerge to take the wheel of his Cadillac again.] But golf is restful, too. I got interested in golf when I was in the Army down at Fort Sam Houston in World War I. I used to work for this captain. I'd shine his shoes and shine his boots and carry his golf bag, and he'd let me hit a ball now and then. Oh, I was a great soldier. I was a pilot in the cavalry. I'd clean up behind the horses on the picket line, and I'd pilot somewhere. The colonel would come along and say why did you pilot here? Pilot over there."
That was, perhaps, the only time in his life that Waco Turner had to take orders, and it left a lasting distaste for discipline. As a boy he lived with his father, who had been sent to Indian Territory by the Department of Interior to teach Indians and settlers in the little Burneyville school. Turner grew up in a cabin where a cedar tree now stands at the entrance to the grounds of Turner Lodge. He used to sell baskets of eggs and sorghum buckets of milk to Chickasaw Indians at Walnut Bayou, which was down in the valley where 60 years later Waco Turner built a golf course.
Oilmen are a mysterious lot. The old ones kept their books between their ears, and their contracts were a nod. A man who went around talking about everything he did was a fool. The survivors of the breed—men like Waco Turner, who is 73—like to leave their pasts tangled in myth and supposition, and their empires unexplained.
But the most likely story is that in 1921 Turner, who is part Chickasaw and whose first name came from the Waco Indians, another tribe in the Southwest, was a teacher in a schoolhouse at Overbrook, Okla. He had spent time at Southeastern State College in Durant, Okla. after his Army discharge, and he had recently married O. P. James, who changed the spelling to Opie so she could have a name.
Every day on the way to Overbrook, Turner passed a cable tool rig that was drilling for oil. Turner became friendly with the drillers and tool wrestlers. One evening as Turner arrived at the drilling site he smelled oil and heard gas spewing. The crew was waiting for more pipe and equipment before drilling in. The well had hit. Turner did not go home that night.
At 9 the next morning, as the students at the Overbrook school began to wonder where their teacher was, Waco rode up on a lathered, exhausted pony. He rang the school bell and dismissed class. Borrowing another horse from a neighbor, he rode away again. Before another sunrise, he was wealthy. By punishing himself and his horses, he had taken options on territory surrounding the oil field that was about to boom.
In the oil business a man can be rich one day and broke the next. It has happened to thousands, and it happened to Waco Turner. By 1931 he was hanging around the oil fields in East Texas and carrying his own mug to bum coffee from the men on the drilling rigs. Somehow, by fast talk, shrewd judgment and luck, he picked up a lease in Gregg County and persuaded a driller to put down a wildcat well for him. The oil was there. Waco Turner had his second fortune within 10 years, and he had the leisure to think about golf again as well as the money to walk around a course without having to haul a captain's clubs.
Turner lived big. He bought a house and yacht in Florida. He caught a blue marlin off Key Largo that hangs on the wall of his Oklahoma lodge. He went to the golf tournaments at Pinehurst and White Sulphur Springs and the other posh places of the South. He brought in another oil field in Velma-Alma in southwestern Oklahoma. He built up what has been estimated as a bankroll of $40 million. In those days Turner called a million dollars a "barrel," and he scattered his money through dozens of banks. When he needed cash for something or other, he would tell his friends, "I'll just go bung another barrel."
By 1952 Turner had decided to have his own golf tournament. He chose a date that conflicted with the Sam Snead Festival in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va. The Snead tournament was by invitation, and Turner wanted to do something for the left-outs. An official of the Snead Festival phoned Turner and said, in the softest of southern accents, "Mistuh Tunah, doan yew ree-lize yew woan have Mistuh Snead at yoah tuh-namit?"
"That's all right," came the answer. "You won't have Waco Turner at yours."
It was at Dornick Hills in 1952 that Turner instituted his bonus system. That year he paid the money in cash out of potato sacks, the bills wadded and crumpled like the loot from a crap game. But he decided more money was being stolen than paid in bonuses, and the procedure now is to pay by check. In 1960 Turner sold all his oil holdings, retired to his father's old farm at Burneyville, and began to build his $2 million lodge and golf course. In 1961 he held the first Poor Boy Open there, thus providing himself with all the golf he can watch through the windows of his Cadillac.
The pros are grateful. "Waco Turner has done more for golf in this section than any 10 men," says Labron Harris Sr., coach of the NCAA championship golf team at Oklahoma State and father of the 1962 National Amateur champion, Labron Jr. "Nobody knows all the nice things Waco does for people. If you ask him about them, he'll tell you it's a damn lie."
That, in the last analysis, is the feeling you get about Waco Turner's golf club: this place, you think, must be a damn lie. To the northeast, the land falls off into a vast green pasture of fairways broken by oaks and pecan trees and splashed by lakes and marshes where wild ducks swim among the reeds. In the lakes are channel catfish, bluegills, Texas perch and the turtles Turner blasts with his rifle and shotgun. In 12 hours last week a tournament official caught 100 pounds of catfish for a Friday night fish fry from one of the course's water hazards. From the lake banks, bullfrogs make their peculiar deep thunking sound. The bullfrogs grow to a monstrous size. Some, the natives assure you, swallow golf balls and drown.
The main road goes along a crest above the lakes and the front nine of the golf course. Strung out on the crest are the golf shop, five cottages and the lodge, which has 35 hotel rooms in all. These are rented to golfers or fishermen approved by Waco Turner. The back nine of the golf course lies to the northwest, hilly country where the greens and fairways are tucked among the woods and an occasional pond glints through the trees.
Waco Turner is master over this domain. He presides like a feudal lord. He has an organist drive out from Ardmore to play Red River Valley for evening sings. Anyone he does not like is ordered off the property. His only concession is to tornadoes, for this is their country even more than his. Burneyville is in an area known as Tornado Alley, and a tornado alert was in force during the second day of the tournament last week. The lodge has been constructed with so much steel that radios will hardly work inside its walls, and the guest rooms have trap doors that lead down to a storm cellar.
The golf course itself is good enough, tough enough and interesting enough to be a championship one if Turner cared to make it that. But he prefers that this land—where he still raises grain and maize for the quail and pheasants—be played purely for his own amusement, and for the profit of the losers who do not get to go to the Tournament of Champions. "We can't let them big shots in Las Vegas have all the money," he said last week as he cruised the course in his Cadillac. "Now can we?" The poor boys hope not.