FRANK FORD III will never forget the anonymous letter. Handwritten and postmarked CHARLESTON, S.C., it turned up in his mail one morning in the early '90s. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself," the nameless correspondent fulminated. "You're not half the golfer your grandfather was." Ford, a financial planner with an office on old Charleston's Meeting Street, could have argued the latter point. He had, after all, won the prestigious Azalea Invitational Amateur six times, while his grandfather--the legendary Frank Ford Sr.--had won it a mere four times. But he understood what had set off his anonymous correspondent. In an article in the local newspaper about the old man's induction into the Carolinas Golf Hall of Fame, he had been quoted saying of his grandfather, "He built a great record, but he was never able to take his game too far out of town."
This is an article from the April 25, 2005 issue
It wasn't meant as an insult. "Granddad was unbeatable locally, and he played great at the state level," Frank III explained recently, "but he only played in one U.S. Amateur and in a couple of four-balls with Henry Picard. His business took up most of his time. By the '50s, when maybe he could have traveled more, he was a little over-the-hill to compete nationally."
Worried that others might have misinterpreted the quote as well, Frank III took the poison-pen letter to the family patriarch and had him read it. "If what I said came off that way, I apologize," the grandson said. "I didn't mean it that way."
Frank Sr., then 88, said, "I never took it that way." He handed back the letter. "Whoever wrote this is a coward."
More likely, the letter writer simply didn't understand that "local champion" is a term of the highest endearment to the Fords of Charleston. Until Frank Ford Sr. died last June, only days after his 100th birthday, he played patriarch to a four-generation clan of hotshots with more than 100 significant championships to their credit. What the Wallenda family is to the high wire and the Gambino family is to crime, so are the Fords to golf in the Carolina Lowcountry.
They have been particularly hard to beat on their home course at the Country Club of Charleston, where the Azalea has been played since 1946. Frank Sr.'s mother, sister and brother took up the game at his behest, and each eventually won a club championship. His wife, Betsy, won multiple titles. Frank Sr. won 18 club championships; his sons, Tommy and Billy, have won 10 more between them; and Frank III has taken another 16 despite withdrawing for a decade to give other members a chance.
No less a figure than Ben Hogan learned how difficult it is to beat a Ford at Wappoo (the nickname for the course, which is bordered by Wappoo Creek). In April 1959 Hogan and Country Club of Charleston head pro Al Esposito played Frank Sr., then 55, and Picard in an exhibition four-ball match before 2,000 spectators. Hogan and Ford both shot 68s, but the match turned when Ford eagled the par-5 15th, justifying his nickname, the Wizard of Wappoo.
If Hogan was surprised, Picard wasn't. The former Masters and PGA champion, who spent his retirement years as pro emeritus at the Country Club of Charleston, often said that he had refined his own game by copying Ford's. "Frank played with Horton Smith, Paul Runyan and myself, and he beat us as often as we beat him," Picard once recalled. "He never took any strokes off us." As owner of Ford's Redi-Mix Concrete Company, Frank Sr. had neither the time nor the inclination to be a barnstormer like contemporaries Smith and Walter Hagen, but with his handsy, swaying swing he wouldn't have looked out of place in one of those Hollywood shorts starring Bobby Jones--with whom, by the way, he had played.
"Daddy's short game was astonishing," says 60-year-old Tommy Ford, who runs a commercial photography studio out of his house in nearby Mount Pleasant, S.C. "Jack Grout, Jack Nicklaus's teacher, said Daddy was the greatest wedge player he ever saw." Frank Sr. also had one of the greatest wedges ever--a yellow-shafted Spalding sand wedge designed by the club's inventor, Gene Sarazen. "My word," says Frank III, "Granddaddy could make that club sing."
It is the elder Ford's role as progenitor of a golf dynasty, however, that keeps his name in the news (Ford Family Tree, page G6). Keeping all the Fords straight is a challenge, but the line descends through his three sons (Frank Jr., Billy and Tommy) to seven grandchildren (including Frank III, Billy Jr., Anne Ford Strickland and the nongolfing Tim Ford, who nonetheless married a former member of the Dutch junior golf team, Jiska Ford), 11 great-grandchildren (including 29-year-old Cordes Ford, a Charleston lawyer who won the Carolinas Amateur when he was 20 and still holds the Country Club of Charleston course record, a 62) and finally down to a handful of fifth-generation toddlers and rug rats who are currently swinging plastic clubs with preternatural skill. Says Cordes, "There's something in the blood, maybe."
You think? Betsy Ford, upon meeting the teenager who was dating her son Frank Jr., said, "Young lady, if you marry a Ford, you'd better take up golf."
"I thought they were all crazy," says Sarah Ford Rijswijk, Frank Jr.'s widow. Now 72, remarried and the self-described matriarch of the family, Sarah took short-game lessons from her mother-in-law and went on to win six club titles and a Charleston City championship. "Now I'm as crazy as they are," says Sarah, who lives with her Netherlands-born husband, Tony, in a house just off the 15th tee of the Country Club of Charleston.
Most of the family drama played itself out among the three second-generation boys who grew up in the four-bedroom brick house on the waterfront that Frank Sr. built in the 1950s. "We were S.O.B.'s," says Tommy--as in South of Broad, the name given to socially prominent families who live between Broad Street and Battery Point. ("Wherever you go, take your tuxedo and your golf clubs," Betsy used to tell her boys. "You'll fit in anywhere.") The oldest son, Frank Jr., suffered from polio as a child but became a two-handicap golfer. He also took on a major role in the family's building-supply business before his untimely death, at 44, in the crash landing of Eastern Airlines flight 212 in Charlotte on Sept. 11, 1974.
The second son, Billy, quickly established himself as a golfer of Fordian stature. A strong, if erratic, competitor as a youth, he went to the quarterfinals of the 1951 U.S. Junior in Champaign, Ill., upsetting the defending champion, Mason Rudolph, along the way. A year later he turned heads by beating Dub Pagan in the 36-hole final of the Biltmore Forest Country Club Men's Invitational, one of the South's top amateur events. He then enrolled at North Carolina, where he played No. 1 for the Tar Heels. "Billy was as good as Bob Rosburg, Arnold Palmer, any of them, when he was in college," says Tommy, "but that's where he peaked."
Ask members of the Ford family why Billy didn't go on to golfing fame, and they either state the obvious--Frank Sr. needed him at Ford's Redi-Mix--or they allude to Billy's hard-drinking lifestyle, which old-timers describe, in that genteel Southern way, as "dissipation." (Now 71, the second son has been hospitalized for months on end with lung and liver problems and, more recently, a damaged heart valve.) There is general agreement, however, that Billy suffered from trying to please his father. "He could've been the best golfer or best concrete salesman ever," says his younger brother, Tommy, "but he never would've received the recognition he craved from our dad."
It wasn't lack of interest on the old man's part. ("He adored Billy," says Sarah.) But the eldest Ford was a tough old coot. One time, for instance, Frank Sr. and young Billy were playing the 340-yard 14th hole at the club. "It was downwind," Frank III recalls. "Granddaddy said, 'I'll give you five dollars if you can knock it on with your driver.' So Billy killed it, the ball rolled up on the green and then over. He said, 'Where's my five dollars?' Granddaddy shook his head and said, 'The ball's not on the green, son.'"
"Daddy just made it too hard," Billy would later confide to his nephew Frank III. "No matter what I did, it wasn't quite good enough."
In any event, the man who might have become the family's best golfer never gave the pro game a serious look. "If there were money on Tour like there is today, I might have made a different decision," Billy said recently from his hospital room. "But back then there wasn't enough money to spread around. Unless you finished first, second or third, you didn't win anything." Besides, Frank Sr., while well-to-do, wasn't the type to stake his son to an open-ended golf junket. "I got out of the Army in January of '59, and I went to work a week later. I didn't have anybody to support me on Tour." In a weak voice Billy adds, "I'd like to have tried."
The example of Billy Ford might explain why his son, 41-year-old Billy Jr., who was a four handicapper in college, would rather hook blue marlin and king mackerel in off-shore fishing tournaments than play golf. Or why his nephew Tim Ford--a renovation contractor and "a beautiful swinger of the club," according to his mother, Sarah Ford Rijswijk--doesn't play at all.
It's not clear if Frank Sr. himself came to regret how he had handled Billy, but latter-day Fords say that he showed less interest in their games than he did his own--until, like Frank III, they got too good to ignore. It was not the patriarch, in fact, but his wife, Betsy--Granny, as she was known to young and old--who drove the children and grandchildren to the course and taught them the fundamentals. "She was the consummate golfer," says Sarah. "Henry Picard was the kind of teacher who could inspire you, and Granny was that way too. The first club championship I won, I beat her, and she was happier about it than I was."
In that respect Betsy was nothing like her intensely competitive husband. The Fords love to tell about the time Frank III won his third Azalea, in 1988, by beating two-time U.S. Amateur champion Jay Sigel in the finals. "My granddad was 84 then," says Frank III with a smile. "He came onto the final green as the match concluded and said, 'Congratulations, Bubba. And now you can stop right there.'"
"He didn't want Frank to break his record!" Sarah says with a howl of glee. "He was a little bit of a peacock."
Asked how he had responded to the old man's jibe, Frank III shrugs. "I didn't know what to say." He then grins. "But I won the next three in a row."
Golf trophies, the Fords freely admit, may not be the best measure of a person, but the family sees the game as a kind of truth-telling device, a mirror of the soul. Frank Jr., by all accounts, was nervous and excitable on the course. Billy lacked his father's killer instinct. Tommy, despite having the best swing in the family, didn't become a confident player until he was in his 40s.
"Some people get right to the edge, but they can't jump off the diving board," says Frank III. "They don't trust themselves to go for it." His own search for the winning formula led him some years ago to the W. Timothy Gallwey book The Inner Game of Golf, which argues that the key to great play is simply getting out of one's own way. "I read that book four times, and I won a tournament every time after I read it." He laughs. "I think I'm going to go read it again."
The Country Club of Charleston, meanwhile, has to get used to the idea of a Lowcountry golf season without Frank Sr. riding around in his cart or leaning on his walker while giving pointers on wedge play. "I guarantee you, any event we had, he was here to watch golf," says Hart Brown, the head pro. "He was a gem."
Two years ago, when he was 99, Sarah took her father-in-law to a theater to see the Bobby Jones movie Stroke of Genius. Sitting in the dark, Frank Sr. looked up at the giant men in plus fours and flapping ties hitting shots with hickory-shafted clubs.
"Who is that?" he asked.
The old man snorted. "Don't look like him."
Sarah says that didn't keep old Frank from enjoying the movie.