When I came to America from Scotland in February 1948, I was 30 years old, a crack amateur golfer and not a complete stranger to opulence or autocratic power. I had spent seven years in the British army; I had been a guest of the Duke of Buccleuch on the Scottish border; I had visited the Gaekwar of Baroda and the Maharajah of Indore in India; I had dined at the viceregal lodge in New Delhi as the guest of Field Marshal Archibald Wavell, then the Viceroy of India.
But because the power and wealth in those places was subdued rather than flaunted, the ostentation of the Boca Raton Hotel in Florida and the power wielded there by the famed old golf pro Tommy Armour astounded me. Armour, a lean, silver-haired Scotsman who had been one of the best golfers in the world in the late '20s and early '30s when he won the U.S. and British Opens and the PGA Championship, now reigned supreme as the resident golf pro at Boca Raton. I went to Boca at Armour's invitation because of his boyhood friendship with my father.
When I drove up to the front entrance of the hotel, Armour, who was then 52, was there, accompanied by three uniformed doormen. "Pete," he ordered, "take my friend's car. Joe, get that golf bag round to the shop. Bill, go down to the Cabana Club and tell them we're ready for lunch."
I was led through the lobby to the back of the hotel, where we sat down at what was obviously the best table in the golfers' grillroom. In a matter of seconds we were surrounded by waiters, each of whom tried to be first to offer his services to my host.
May 7, 1978
During lunch, which Armour ordered with a flair that would have put Lucius Beebe to shame, I was informed that after the repast Tommy and I would play two pro-am champions from Chicago. I protested that I could not play in what I assumed would be a money round because I had no money. Armour gave me a withering look and said, "We'll take care of the bets. You just play." I marveled at his confidence in somebody he had never seen swing a club and said so. Once again he gave me a pitying look and said, "You think I came up the Clyde on a banana boat? I talked to a mutual friend last night. You can play. Even if you can't, I'll beat these turkeys by myself."
As it turned out, even though I shot a creditable 72, he did. Our opponents had a better ball of 68, four under par. But Armour shot 66 on his own ball, and we won the first nine, the back nine and the match.
Back in the golf shop, Tommy grunted a word of appreciation for my round but added, "How do you expect to be able to play well with the damned garden rakes you have in your bag? Here are some good clubs!" He threw me a box of Tommy Armour MacGregor woods and irons and dumped my old clubs in a trash barrel. The only club he let me keep was a putter I had been given at Carnoustie in 1931, when I was 14 years old. It had been a gift from Jose Jurado, the tiny Argentinian who bogeyed the last two holes that year, thereby allowing Armour to win the British Open—a turn of events that enraged the Prince of Wales, who was Jurado's friend and was scheduled to present the trophy to the winner.
More indicators of the esteem in which Armour was held at Boca Raton quickly followed. At the back of the golf shop there was a small lounge that separated the shop from the main grillroom. An invitation to sit around the rectangular table there and listen to Armour talk was much prized, and woe betide the man who failed to show proper respect. That first day I was at Boca, every chair but one was taken. Tommy was well into one of his stories, everyone listening in silent reverence, when the door opened and a tall, dignified man walked in. He sensed at once that he had entered at a wrong moment, and he stood, waiting respectfully, until the story was finished. Then, at a signal from Armour, he quietly sat down. I found out later that he was the chairman of the board of Republic Steel.
When the story-telling session was over, Tommy invited me to dinner at his home in Delray. We were greeted at the door by his wife, who welcomed me as if I were a friend of long standing. If it is possible to feel at home in the first two minutes in a strange house, I did.
Armour suggested we shower. As we left the living room he said to his wife, "Ten minutes, honey."
We had showered and were toweling off, in all our male glory, when the bathroom door opened and Mrs. Armour walked in with two Scotch-and-waters on a silver tray. Tommy picked his watch off the chair and said, "You're two minutes late—I said 10 minutes."
Without a trace of embarrassment, Mrs. Armour put the drinks down on the table and left. Tommy, noting my acute discomfort, laughed and said, "She's seen naked men before—what do you think is so special about you?"
As I was leaving later that night, Armour's parting words were, "Be at the hotel at 10:30 tomorrow morning. I've got to introduce you to my friend Karl in the lobby." This cryptic statement meant nothing to me, but the experiences of the day had convinced me that I should ask no questions.
Promptly at 10:30 the next morning I was again met by Armour at the hotel entrance. This time, instead of walking through to the golf shop, we took a right turn into a lobby that housed half a dozen very fancy and very expensive stores. In the Boca Raton branch of one of New York's best men's clothing stores. Armour was effusively greeted by the manager.
"Karl, old friend," said Armour, "this is my friend John Gonella, just arrived from Scotland. Fix him up. All he's got are heavy tweeds and thick flannels. It's cold in Scotland."
For the next 15 minutes I stood in wonderment as Karl strode from shelves to display cases to clothing racks, taking half a dozen shirts from one place, beautiful light linen slacks from another, and undershorts, socks, two sports coats and three cashmere sweaters from hither and yon. He put all these clothes into boxes and gave them to me with a friendly smile and the words, "No charge to Mr. Armour's friends. I hope you will come see us again."
Then Tommy marched me out of the store and back to the golf shop. "Now you can play in Florida in comfort," he said, "instead of sweating your guts out. Wear the white shirt with the blue slacks—you'll look real sharp" And I should have. The only thing that Karl had forgotten to do was take off the price tags. When I read them, I nearly fainted.
A couple of days later, before our daily match with the two Chicagoans, Tommy took me down to the Cabana Club for lunch. There, by the pool, we joined a group of perhaps six people, who were also Armour's guests. After drinks and what seemed to me a Lucullan lunch. Tommy called for the check. He took a look at it and growled to the waiter, "This is too damned high for me to pay. Carlos, you see that black-haired guy sitting at the end of the pool with the blue robe—the one with the three women? Give him this check and tell him old Tom is a bit short today."
The waiter, to whom this routine was obviously not new, walked to the end of the pool, bent over the black-haired guy with the blue robe and handed him the check. Almost immediately the man turned around with a big smile, waved his hand and yelled, "O.K., Tommy, no problem—I'll take care of it." I got the waiter's attention as we were leaving the Cabana Club, and he told me that the bill was $118, including tip.
The following afternoon, Tommy and I went to the grillroom for lunch before our fifth round against the Chicagoans. As we sat down, Tommy asked, "You ever meet Hagen?" I allowed as how I had watched the great Walter play in the British Open several times when I was a schoolboy but had never met him. "Toby," Tommy called to the bartender, "get me Hagen on the phone. Detroit Athletic Club—last stool at the left end of the bar. And bring us a phone."
Two minutes later our phone rang. Armour picked it up and said, "Hello, you old has-been. There's a friend of mine here from Scotland I want you to meet. Walter Hagen—John Gonella." And he handed me the phone. I can't remember the details of the conversation, except that Hagen asked me to challenge Armour on his behalf for $1,000, or any multiple thereof. When I relayed this challenge, Tommy laughed and snorted, "Can't hit his hat, never could, as far as I'm concerned." But I sensed the deep affection and respect that he felt for his old friend and rival.
On the 1st hole of that fifth round I was given a wonderful example of Armour's knowledge and mastery of the game. I had hit my second shot to the green the only way I knew how—with a right-to-left draw. The ball came to rest about 15 feet to the right of the stick. Tommy must have sensed that I felt pretty satisfied with the shot, because he walked over to me and said, "Why the hell do you play dumb shots?" Startled, I replied, "What's so dumb about a shot that gives me a fair chance at a three?"
"Is there a sand trap on the left of the green?"
"Is there a sand trap at the front of the green?"
"Is there a sand trap on the right of the green?"
"That's why you played a dumb shot. Watch."
He dropped three balls on the fairway. The first one, which he hit left-to-right, landed three-quarters of the way up an embankment in front of the green and bounced on. The second one he hit dead straight at the flag. It, too, fell short and ran up on the green about six feet from the hole. The third ball he hit with a right-to-left draw on the same line that I had hit mine. Only, he hit it a fraction fat. That ball also hit three-quarters of the way up the embankment—except that in this case, the embankment was a sand trap.
"See what I mean, you dummy?"
All the time this lesson was going on, one of our Chicago millionaires, who seemed less in awe of Armour than anybody else at Boca, was yelling, "Come on, Maestro, save your sermons for the practice tee—we're playing for money!"
For three more days, my wonderment growing with every round, our foursome teed off at noon. On the second-to-last day I holed a 30-footer at the 17th for a birdie to win the hole. Armour, standing on the other side of the green, took off his big straw hat and swept it in an exaggerated bow in my direction. I turned to Muggins, the caddie who had been with Armour for a thousand years, and asked, "What deserved that? That's not the first birdie I've made." Muggins, who was well up in years and had few, if any, teeth, mumbled. "Damn well should take 'is hat off—you just saved 'im seven hunnerd and fifty." I thus learned for the first time in seven rounds what the bet was. We were playing for $250 Nassaus, with automatic two-down presses. At that early stage of my American golfing experience. I didn't even know what a Nassau or a press was. But I had an idea of how much $250 was, and I also knew it was about $250 more than I had in the world.
After our eighth and last round, Tommy asked all of us to dinner in one of Delray's best restaurants. After more than a few belts and an excellent meal, he announced that he was paying the bill out of his half of what we had won. He also handed me his personal check for $875. "That's your half," he said. I was new to America and its golfing customs, had never played for more than two shillings and sixpence a round and had been the lucky recipient of more hospitality and undeserved booty than I had ever dreamed of. I tried to refuse the check.
"John, how much money do you have in your pocket right now?" Armour asked. Embarrassed, I mumbled, "Two dollars and some change."
"Well, let me tell you something," he said. "That check, which is half of what you helped win the last eight days, comes off the top of millions of dollars—maybe even more than that, if the insurance business has been good the last week. Stick it in your pocket, and shut up."
I did both.