According to legend, Waco Turner would drive one of his Cadillacs
until it got dirty or ran out of gas. Then he would abandon it
under a tree on his golf course. Well, almost. "He never traded
in his cars," says Buddy Reisen, a retired newspaperman who knew
the Oklahoma oilman in the '50s and '60s. "He'd just put 'em up
on blocks." When Turner was in a generous mood, he followed the
example of Elvis and gave his friends and employees Cadillacs of
their own. New ones.
This is an article from the April 17, 2000 issue
There are other Turner stories. One has it that contestants in
the Opie Turner Open, an LPGA event of the late '50s, shuttled
around the course in junked cars pulled by a tow truck. Never
happened, according to Thomas (Mutt) Hays, Turner's right-hand
man at the Opie and later at a professional men's event, the Waco
Turner Open. Hays says that he personally chauffeured the pros
between nines in a station wagon, the caddies standing on the
Fortunately, for every Waco Turner story that is apocryphal,
there's one that is pure, 24-karat lore. Turner did carry a
cash-filled potato sack at his tournaments and pay bonuses
whenever he saw a pro hit a great shot. Turner did lure a retired
Byron Nelson with the gift of a pretty horse, only to stick the
golfing great with a crazy palomino. Several people remember
Turner, while giving the cast of Bonanza a tour of his private
course, driving his Cadillac onto the 16th green. Someone said,
"Mr. Turner, you're on the green." He said, "By god, it's my
green. I'll drive on it if I want to.'"
"He was quite a character," says Hays. "A lot like
what's-his-name, Howard Hughes." And nothing like
what's-his-name, Bobby Jones, although there are parallels.
Jones, the greatest golfer of his time, founded an exclusive
club in a small Southern town to host an invitational tournament
that would serve as his legacy. Turner, an occasional golfer,
started an even more exclusive club (it had only one member,
himself) in an even smaller Southern town (Burneyville, Okla.)
to host an invitational tournament that would serve as his
legacy. The only difference was that the Masters became the
epitome of prestige and refinement, while the Waco Turner,
dubbed the Poor Boy Open by an Oklahoma newspaperman, was more
of a taunt, a dust-and-dungarees poke at the Establishment.
The Masters has azaleas? The Poor Boy had wild onions growing on
its greens. The Masters gives out crystal for eagles and low
rounds? The Poor Boy would pay $500 cash for an eagle and $2,500
for a hole in one. The Masters has a champions' dinner? The Poor
Boy had a cookout every night for all the players, featuring huge
The Poor Boy (1961-64), so called because it was for Tour players
who had not won a PGA event in the previous year, was held in the
same week in May as the Tournament of Champions in Las Vegas,
where the previous year's winners played for big bucks. Despite
this handicap, the Poor Boy always had a decent field. Jack
Nicklaus played at Burneyville in his rookie season, 1962, and
finished third. Five weeks later he won the U.S. Open at Oakmont.
The LPGA event, the Opie Turner Open (1958-59), was named for
Waco's wife and business partner. That tournament attracted the
best women golfers of the time, including Betsy Rawls, Louise
Suggs and Mickey Wright. Turner brought in his oil riggers to
caddie, and they carried the unfamiliar golf bags by the handles
or under their arms. There were local rules, too. "They let us
pull the weeds before putting," says LPGA cofounder Shirley
To play at Turner Lodge and Golf Course was to experience
tournament golf through a glass, darkly. Waco and Opie were often
drunk by nightfall, and the Lodge staff provided, or withheld,
services at the owners' whim. (Waco ordered the switchboard shut
down one evening, causing an irate Tony Lema to run from his room
complaining, "You cut me off while I was settling a paternity
case!") When the sun was up, Waco patrolled the course in his
Cadillac, a rifle and a shotgun on the backseat floorboards in
case he decided to stop and shoot turtles. Sometimes he took off
from his private airstrip in his Cessna 310 and had his pilot
buzz the golfers. "You'd be over a putt," says Chi Chi Rodriguez,
"and he'd fly right by your head, scare the daylights out of
The course was eccentric too. The front nine, on Walnut Creek
bottomland, was as flat as a floor, while the hilly back nine
roller-coastered through dense woodland before ending with an
uphill, 250-yard par-3. The greens were rock hard, the fairways
shaggy and the bounces unpredictable. "The thing I remember most
about the course," says three-time U.S. Women's Open champ Susie
Maxwell Berning, "was hitting my ball into the rough and having
it land behind a watermelon."
Today's Tour events are monitored by a posse of officials, but
the Turner tournaments had one rules man--Turner. He told players
where to drop a ball if a raccoon ran off with it. He ordered his
secretaries to drive tractors and his tractor drivers to fry
catfish. If some poor soul showed up in a foreign car, an angry
Turner ran him off. "He was his own man," Nicklaus says. "If he
wanted a hole to be a par-12, it was a par-12."
A man like that--rich, impulsive, overbearing--cuts a wide swath.
One would-be biographer called Turner "the most fabulous figure
in modern-day golf." SI's Bud Shrake wrote that when one of
Turner's tournaments conflicted with the Sam Snead Festival in
White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., an official called and said,
"Mistuh Tunah, doan you ree-lize yew woan have Mistuh Snead at
yoah tuh-namit?" To which the oilman replied, "That's all right,
you won't have Waco Turner at yours." Yet, you'd be hard-pressed
today to find a golfer under 60 who has even heard of Waco
To connect to the Turner past, you need some wheels and a few
gallons of gas. Drive 20 miles south of Ardmore, Okla., on I-35.
Turn right at the Marietta exit. Then go 11 miles on Highway 32.
The old Turner place is in the woods on the left, just past
Walnut Creek. Only now it's called the Falconhead Resort and
Country Club. Like Augusta National, Falconhead has a guardhouse
at its entrance. Unlike Augusta National, a sign in the window
warns, IF YOU ARE GRUMPY, IRRITABLE OR JUST PLAIN MEAN, THERE
WILL BE A $10 CHARGE FOR PUTTING UP WITH YOU.
Vacation and retirement homes dot the property, but otherwise
the old lodge looks as it did in the '50s, when Turner was
chased out of Ardmore's Dornick Hills Country Club by a clique
of millionaires. The lodge, a rustic building with modern
touches, is now the Falconhead clubhouse. The old pro shop
building, where players slept for free in dormitory rooms, still
has a commanding view of Turner Lake and the course.
Hays, who retired as Falconhead's course superintendent in 1997,
never understood why his boss built this golfer's field of
dreams. "I only saw Waco hit a golf ball one time," he says,
steering a cart through stands of blackjack and burr oaks lining
the hilltop holes. "He was just a golf fan."
But what a golf fan. In the early '50s, when Turner ran his
oil-drilling empire from the fifth floor of the Ardmorite
Building in downtown Ardmore, he decided that his club, Dornick
Hills Golf and Country Club, should host a PGA event. Turner
poured $40,000 into course improvements, built the club a new pro
shop and signed Tour star Dutch Harrison to a three-year contract
as head pro. "He practically shut down his oil operations and
moved his workmen out to Dornick Hills," Bill Hamilton wrote in
an unpublished biography of Turner. "He had his skilled workmen
cutting weeds and laying concrete for walks. He even took up pick
and shovel himself." Under the direction of Opie Turner, laborers
added 2,000 trees, shrubs and rosebushes. When the Turners were
finished, the Perry Maxwell-designed course rivaled that of
Southern Hills, Maxwell's more famous layout in Tulsa.
Ardmore, however, was still Ardmore--a dusty oil town with a
population of 18,000 and a sports palette limited to rodeo, high
school sports and the Ardmore Cardinals, a Turner-sponsored minor
league baseball team. To get golf pros to come to his prairie
outpost, Turner put up a $15,000 purse, produced spectacular
lunch buffets and introduced his unique bonus payments for
birdies, eagles, subpar rounds and holes in one. "Sometimes the
young golfers have to borrow money to get out of town after a
tournament," Turner explained. "This way they will have a chance
to pick up extra cash and give our town a boost instead of a
By 1954 Turner had boosted his first-prize money to $31,860,
second only to the $100,000 jackpot offered by George S. May in
Chicago. But unlike May, who used his consulting firm to
underwrite the World Championship at Tam O'Shanter, Turner spent
his own money. "We dealt out of our pockets," says Beth Jones,
who was Turner's executive secretary from 1954 until his death in
1971. "Mr. Turner didn't believe in stocks and bonds. The money
was in a bank in Dallas, and he spent what he wanted."
Turner's money came out of the ground in the form of Oklahoma
crude, which was fitting because Turner himself could be crude. A
short, gravel-voiced autocrat, Turner hated to go to the office
and was happiest when he had mud on his boots and either a gun or
a jug of bourbon in his hand. He was born on a Mississippi farm
in the early 1890s and moved with his family to Burneyville, a
lively cattle crossing on the Texas border. He studied geology at
Southeastern State Normal in Durant, Okla., washing dishes and
selling fruit trees to pay his way. Turner then did a stint in
the Army before returning to Burneyville. He taught school at
nearby Overbrook, where he met and married a teacher from Texas,
O.P. James, who called herself Opie.
How the Turners became rich--twice--is a pretty good story. On his
way home from school one day in 1921, Turner smelled oil while
passing a temporarily idled drilling rig. The next morning he
dismissed his students, leaped on a borrowed horse and raced
around the territory, taking out options on properties
surrounding the impending strike. He made his first fortune on
that gallop, but Turner gambled the profits on West Texas cotton
It was on to the oil fields of east Texas, where Waco and Opie
slept in a tent by night and wildcatted by day. In 1931 they
struck it rich again when Waco bought a bunch of leases near
Longview in what proved to be the richest field in Texas. Twenty
years later the wells were still producing, earning the former
schoolteachers an estimated $80,000 a day, before taxes.
"The Turners lived very simply in Ardmore," says Barbara
Sessions, a writer and former journalism teacher who lives at
Falconhead. "But they traveled fancy, and they gave away a lot of
fancy stuff." The fancy travel included winter vacations in
Florida, where Turner played golf and kept a yacht. The fancy
gifts included two Cadillacs and a set of dental caps for Beth
Jones, donations to civic organizations, debt eradication for
friends and relatives, and a horse for Nelson.
"He gave me a beautiful palomino mare," Nelson recalls with a
rueful chuckle. "My father, who knew horses, took one look at her
and said, 'She's beautiful, son, but she's no good.'" The
palomino was so hard to ride, in fact, that Nelson put her out to
pasture and ultimately traded her to another rancher for--what
else?--a worthless oil lease. Harrison later told Nelson, "I knew
all about that mare. The meanest horse you ever saw."
If Turner's generosity was outsized, so was his imperiousness. At
Dornick Hills, which he rescued from bankruptcy after World War
II, Turner ran things the way Masters chairman Clifford Roberts
ran Augusta National. By 1953 the other oil millionaires were
ready to oust Turner as club president, even if it meant losing
the Ardmore Open. ("They got sick of his domineering ways," says
Sessions.) An enraged Turner quit the club, canceled the 1955
tournament and put his oil crews to work on a new project--a
private course on 800 acres near Burneyville.
Once he had his own course, Turner got back into the tournament
business. The 1958 and '59 Opie Turner Opens attracted a stellar
field of LPGA players, and the Turners jazzed up the event with
nightly musicals, a trick roper and appearances by the 1959 Miss
America, Mary Ann Mobley. The women golfers fought heat and dust
by day and played poker in the dormitories at night. The tour
husbands, meanwhile, batched it up at the lodge and fished for
catfish in Lake Turner. The winner in '58 was U.S. Open and LPGA
champion Mickey Wright. A year later Betsy Rawls took the trophy.
In 1961 Turner enticed the men's Tour back to Oklahoma and stuck
his tongue out at Dornick Hills with the first Waco Turner Open.
Admission was free to the few spectators who showed up, and as
he had in Ardmore, Turner gave bonuses--$15 for a birdie, $25
for a chip-in, $100 for the low daily score, $500 for an eagle
and $2,500 for a hole in one. ("You got a thousand dollars if
you holed out from a trap," says Rodriguez. "But there were no
traps!") The most ironic bonus: The winner was ineligible the
following year. The four golfers who qualified for the
Tournament of Champions by winning the Waco Turner Open were
Butch Baird ('61), Johnny Pott ('62), Gay Brewer ('63) and Pete
Brown ('64). Brown's title was historic: the first PGA Tour win
by a black golfer.
The players loved the bonuses, the food, the card games, the
hunting and the fishing, but many were unsettled by the
childless Turners, who seemed to be reading from a script by
Tennessee Williams. Nelson, for instance, was put off by Waco's
grandstanding--the cars, the guns, the bluster. "He was a hard
man to talk to," he says, "but get him in front of a few people,
and you couldn't get a word in." Others wondered about Opie,
whose stability was suspect. "She was a wonderful lady, but
whiskey got the best of her," says Beth Jones. "She'd get so
drunk that her face would fall in her plate."
On the evening of Aug. 25, 1962, the combination of guns and
alcohol finally took its toll. A Lodge employee, taking a message
from Waco to his wife, found an inebriated Opie stumbling around
the Turners' cabin, bleeding from two self-inflicted gunshot
wounds in her side. She died in a hospital a week later--of
pneumonia. "I blame the doctor," says Jones, who was one of the
first at the scene of the shooting. "I don't think she had the
proper care." Jones also has an opinion about the rumors that
Waco, and not Opie, fired the shots. "That's just people talking.
He was down at the pro shop when it happened."
The sordid death of Opie Turner may have caused the PGA to
reassess its ties with Turner. When the PGA informed Turner after
the '64 Open that his event might be demoted to unofficial
status, he sent a sharp letter to PGA tournament director Jim
Gaquin. "If my tournament is considered so insignificant, it
should be called off," Turner wrote.
While spite triggered Turner's withdrawal from golf, finances may
also have played a role. Turner had done nothing to consolidate
his wealth. To the contrary, he spent his money as fast as he
made it. The top federal tax bracket was 85% in those days, so
every $15 that Turner paid for a birdie was actually $100 out of
his pocket. If one writer's estimate is accurate--that Turner
spent $4 million on his golf obsession--then the oilman really
blew about $27 million on guys and gals in visors and spikes.
Says Jones, "I worried that he was going to outlive what he had."
He certainly outlived the fun. Three years after the last Waco
Turner Open, the wildcatter sold his course. In 1971, after a
long illness, Turner died and was buried in Ardmore's Rose Hill
Cemetery. An obituary in The Daily Ardmorite--six dry
paragraphs--provided no hint that the deceased had turned
south-central Oklahoma into a golfer's El Dorado.
Time has been no kinder to the Turners. The name adorns a small
public school outside Falconhead, but Burneyville has all but
vanished. The once vibrant cattle crossing has been reclaimed by
the forest, leaving only a post office, a church and a few
dwellings amid the trees. In Ardmore a radio station occupies the
old Turner offices, and its young employees don't know Waco the
oilman from Wacko the clown. "There is no tangible legacy of the
Turners," says Sessions, who keeps a small collection of Turner
artifacts. "The other oilmen established foundations and built
big companies, but not the Turners. They spent it all on
Alas, there is no Hedonists Hall of Fame, but maybe someday the
World Golf Hall of Fame will find a corner for the forgotten
Turners. Visitors could push a button and see a picture of Byron
Nelson on his horse, or hear about the time Waco and touring pro
Bo Wininger slipped a live armadillo into a sportswriter's room.
You could even have an old Cadillac on blocks.
Or is the week after the Masters the wrong time to make such a
Dallas," his secretary says, "and he spent what he wanted."
south-central Oklahoma into a golfer's El Dorado.