An office visit from Fred Corcoran

Monday September 15th, 2008
Photo Illustration by SI Imaging; Historic Golf Photos; Fred Vuich

"Fred Corcoran called," Dave Anderson said as he passed me on his way out of the interview room at the British Open. "I'll give you his number."

His smile told me he was teasing. As a Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist for The New York Times, Anderson makes his living talking to live people. I, on the other hand, am the Haley Joel Osment of the golf beat. I not only see dead people, but I also quote them, and if some of those award committees were a little more broad-minded, I might have a prize of my own. (Not that Dave, a sensitive and gracious man, doesn't deserve his.)

Anyway, when I reached my pressroom desk a few seconds later I found a business card on my laptop keyboard. The only thing on the card was an old-style phone number: KLondike 5-4725.

There was a touch-tone phone on the desk, so I lifted the receiver and dialed, ignoring the fact that I was in Carnoustie, Scotland, and the telephone exchange was probably in 1950s Manhattan. After two rings there was a click, then a man's voice: "Hello?"

"Hello," I said. "To whom am I speaking?"

"This is Fred Corcoran."

"The Fred Corcoran who used to be tournament manager for the PGA? The Fred Corcoran who is no longer, uh . . . living?"

"The one and only," he said, projecting a Boston accent in four short words.

"I'd like to meet you," I said, "to talk about the FedEx Cup."

"That would be fine," he replied, as if interview requests were still part of his routine. "I can meet you next week at one of my favorite haunts."

"Where's that?" I asked, expecting him to name Toots Shor's, Jack Dempsey's or some other long-gone watering hole.

I wasn't prepared for his answer: "Your office."

So we met, a week later, on the 31st floor of the Time & Life Building in Rockefeller Center. Corcoran was right on time--unlike some of my golf ghosts, who would have kept Ebenezer Scrooge waiting until New Year's Eve. He appeared in my doorway at midnight, a beefy, amiable Irishman in a tan, double-breasted blazer worn over a checked shirt buttoned at the collar. "Where do I sit?" he asked, taken aback by the cartons of office equipment and janitorial supplies that share my office. I quickly cleared a step stool for him, and he sat on it gingerly, as if he expected it to buckle under his weight. "I had an office in this building in the '50s," he said, "when I was running the World Cup golf matches." He looked around. "Mine had windows."

I should mention at the outset that very little of our conversation made it into my notebook. Corcoran is--was--a born storyteller, and he responded to most of my questions with great yarns about Sam Snead, Ted Williams, Eddie Arcaro and Babe Didrikson Zaharias, all of whom he had represented as an agent. He also had plenty to say about his pal Bing Crosby, whose war bond golf exhibitions he'd produced. ("Bing said I made more telephone calls and looked up fewer numbers than anybody since the dawn of the electronic age," Corcoran told me. "He claimed I once picked up a phone and told the operator, 'Get me somebody!' ") I did write down his interesting assertion that "if I'd had the chance to swap worlds with someone, I'd have chosen yours. I thought sportswriting was the greatest job around." He then told me about the time he went to the Catskills and caught a trout with a crowbar.

Eventually we got to my topic, the FedEx Cup. "I have to write a couple thousand words about this thing," I said, "and I don't know where to start. There's this seasonlong point system, which I've pretty much ignored, and now we have a bunch of playoff tournaments leading to the Tour Championship and a $10 million payoff. And I'm asking myself, Do Tiger and company really need to pad their retirement accounts? Because these guys are so rich. . . ." I threw up my hands. "Well, I guess it's something new."

Corcoran cocked his head and snorted. "It may be many things," he said, "but it's not new. When I helped start the LPGA back in '48, I came up with the idea of a progressive golf tournament, sort of like a progressive dinner. I went to the gals and said, 'How about a transcontinental tournament? Tee off in California and hole out in New York! Four 36-hole tournaments in four different cities with a windup on the East Coast and first prize to the low aggregate score.' "

"You were ahead of your time," I said. "What happened? No one else was interested in that sort of exhibition?"

His face fell. "I'll forgive you," he said. "You were probably still in a high chair. No, we did it! We called it the Weathervane Transcontinental Tournament, and it formed the skeleton of the women's professional tour. Alvin Handmacher was the sponsor. He manufactured skirts. He put up $15,000 in prize money and a $5,000 bonus for the winner. Then he went out and spent three times that on promotion. The Weathervane lasted four years, from '50 through '53, until Alvin had gotten all the promotional mileage he could get out of women's golf." Corcoran smiled at the memory. "Alvin understood me, and I understood him. Neither of us ever wholly understood the girls."

"O.K.," I said, "you've been there. What do you think of the FedEx format?"

"Well, on the whole, it's pretty good." Corcoran said. "But you'll notice that the Tour doesn't have a binding agreement with the big boys, the Tigers and the Phils, to play all four playoff events. They're hoping they'll play, but you've got the PGA Championship first, and then you've got the Presidents Cup or the Ryder Cup. Tiger might play hooky and let Briny Baird win the $10 million."

He seemed to be settling in now, and as he did he became ever more chatty. "Were you at the 1929 Amateur at Pebble Beach?" I looked at him for a moment then shook my head. "Well, that's the year that Nebraska kid, Johnny Goodman, hopped a train like a hobo and beat Bobby Jones in the opening round. Now that's a great story if you're Shakespeare looking for an angle, but it robbed the championship of its luster pretty early in the week. That's why the PGA finally changed its own championship from match play to medal. Too often the headliners were beaten in the early rounds by some diddy-bump, and the marshals would cry from loneliness."

"So you'd make sure Tiger was there at the finish," I said.

"Who, me? The son of a Cambridge tour guide?" He shrugged. "Listen, the best I ever got out of my job as PGA tournament manager was $7,500 a year and a per diem. I couldn't get Horton Smith to toe the line, never mind Tiger Woods. You've always got the headliners that the public will pay to see, and then you've got the journeymen golfers who want a bigger piece of the pie. Believe me, when I took that job, starry-eyed and innocent, I signed up for the damnedest game of badminton ever played on a golf course. And I was cast in the role of the shuttlecock."

"But you made money as an agent," I said. "You wound up with a house on the 15th hole at Winged Foot."

"I picked up a dollar or two along the way on percentage," he conceded. "The point is, today's player doesn't realize how lucky he is to have Tiger playing any of these Tour events. When I was starting out, headliners like Hagen and Sarazen didn't play the tournament circuit. The solid money was in exhibitions. World tours."

The FedEx Cup, I ventured, was the antithesis of exhibition golf. It was corporate, polished and buttoned-down--although I did like the funny commercial in which Vijay Singh catches Trevor Immelman in front of the locker-room mirror rehearsing his victory interview.

Corcoran's ghost agreed, but added, "There's still room for the oddball promotion in golf. There's always somebody trying to hit a ball from Vancouver to Banff or playing 36 holes with a whisk broom. Which is strange, when you think about it, because the game has been governed from time immemorial by rather stuffy people." He put a forefinger to his temple. "How's this for the FedEx? Jim Furyk, Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods and Roger Federer play an exhibition at the TPC Southwind, only they have to guess what club they'll need for each approach shot and ship it beforehand. Then they open the FedEx package on each hole, and they have to use that club, even if it's totally wrong for the shot." He looked at me for a reaction. "No? Too complicated?"

He shrugged again. "I pulled some beauts. One time a hat manufacturer wanted me to put on a hospital benefit in Norwalk, Conn. So I got a foursome of Gene Tunney, Babe Ruth, Gene Sarazen and Jimmy Demaret, and I put the Fred Waring jazz band on a wagon and got radio's Colonel Stoopnagel to follow the match with a sound truck, making absurd commentary. We got a paid gallery of 6,000, and it was a wild affair. I remember Ruth was putting on one hole, and the gallery, out of habit, was silent. Ruth turned and said, 'How about a little noise out there?' And they started cheering like he'd hit a homer. So it was crazy, but Demaret had a 70 and Sarazen a 71, proving that all this tippy-toe and finger-on-the-lips business is unnecessary. A good golfer should be able to concentrate in a boiler factory." Pointing a finger at my chest, Corcoran got to the pertinent point: "TIME, LIFE and Newsweek staffed it, and so did the wire services. And one radio network.

"Here's what I'd tell the Tour," he continued. "Don't make the mistake of trying to buy a friendly press with lavish luncheons and oceans of drink and then forget to offer a decent story to go with it. The only coin that is accepted as legal tender by writers like yourself is a solid news story. And I'm proud to say that I never failed to come up with a fresh thought for a desperate writer."

He put his hands on his knees and stood up, so I also stood, taking care not to knock over the bottles of tile cleaner behind my chair. "I'm not exactly desperate," I said. "Not clinically, anyway."

He winked as he went out the door, but immediately leaned back in for a final word: "Tell Dave Anderson that the Cork has now three-putted in 57 countries and one heavenly annex. He'll know what it means."

And then, poof, he was gone. But he did leave Anderson's number.

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