Riding the rails with O.B. Keeler

Tuesday April 3rd, 2007
Robert T. Jones Jr. (Bobby Jones) and O.B. Keeler (left to right) are seen here with Jones' 1930 grand slam trophies: the British Open, the U.S. Amateur, the British Amateur and the U.S. Open.
USGA Archives

"You're not Bobby Jones." My tone was accusatory, but the man at the door of my Pullman compartment gave me a wan smile. "Bobby is indisposed." No, I said to myself, Bobby is dead. Bobby's been dead for 35 years. It was midnight, and I was hungry and cranky. "Aren't you going to invite me in?" He was weaving with the rocking motion of the train, a middle- aged man wearing round, wire-rimmed spectacles, a creme-colored sport shirt and a tweed jacket. "I was expecting the ghost of Bobby Jones," I said. "The e-mail said, 'Midnight, the Lake Shore Limited.' I flew to Chicago, grabbed a cab at Midway, ran to the Amtrak counter. . . ." I felt my blood pressure spiking. "The golf ghosts have always visited me. I've never had to chase after them." The man cocked his head and made a tut-tut sound with his tongue. " 'His mind was filled with a single thought: that of his happiness destroyed for no apparent reason,' " he declared. Registering my blank expression, he added, "Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo." Emboldened by my continued silence, he entered the compartment with a peculiar wheeling motion and sat awkwardly in an armchair, his left leg extended stiffly. And that's how I met the ghost of O.B. Keeler.

An hour later a porter arrived with a tray of food-Waldorf salad, prime rib, steak fries, asparagus and chocolate cake- and a bottle of Early Times, which Keeler immediately opened. "You could get this during Prohibition," he said. "It was considered a medicinal whiskey." Sipping from his glass, he winced. "Probably didn't do much for my health."

I was over my disappointment at being stood up by Robert Tyre Jones. In O.B. Keeler I had the man Jones considered "the greatest golf writer who ever lived," the newspaperman who traveled and roomed with Jones for all 14 years of his tournament career, the man who penned several Jones biographies, cowrote Jones's autobiography, created and narrated Jones's instructional films, and functioned as his friend, mentor, press agent and factotum. O.B., they used to say, was the only man who could call Jones "Rubber Tyre" to his face. O.B. was the man who borrowed the term Grand Slam from baseball and applied it to Jones's 1930 sweep of the four major golf championships.

"Bobby suggested the train," Keeler said, watching me light into the prime rib. "We traveled more than 150,000 miles together, and it was usually just the two of us, like this, watching America rush by. We'd take our meals in the Pullman because Bobby disliked the limelight. The stares of strangers made him uncomfortable." He reached for the bottle and poured himself another finger-only now, I noticed, the bottle had a Jim Beam label, and Keeler didn't wince as it went down.

"How did he handle parades?" I was thinking of the gaudy tributes that had greeted Jones upon repatriation in 1926 and '30, when he had thrilled American golf fans by winning British Open titles.

"Not well," Keeler replied. He picked up an asparagus spear with his fingers, bit off the tender end and chewed.

" 'Fame is like a river that beareth up things light and swollen.' " He raised his eyebrows, challenging me to recognize the quotation. "Francis Bacon," he finally said. "I, on the other hand, love mob scenes. To steam up the Hudson with fireboats spraying the sky, to ride up Broadway with the ticker tape flying. . . ." He discarded the half-eaten vegetable.

"What about the mobs that followed Bobby's matches?"

"The gallery had no effect whatever on Bobby," Keeler said. "He didn't care if its component members hung on his next shot with bated breath or read the newspaper, so long as they did not walk about or talk while he was making the shot."

Our conversation continued in this vein for perhaps an hour. I'd pitch a question about Jones, and Keeler would bat it back, pausing only to refill his glass. I was most interested in his characterization of Jones as a man of delicate temperament, prone to temper tantrums as a youngster and then tormented by performance anxieties that would force him into early retirement.

"Well, it's golf, isn't it?" Keeler looked out the window, which on this moonless night was a black mirror reflecting the lighted compartment. (The reflection, I noted with only a modicum of surprise, did not include Keeler, the dishes or the folded-down table-just me, a gray-haired man staring at the glass.)

"People don't appreciate how nerve-racking golf is," Keeler said. "A major championship is far more strenuous than even a great boxing match, because the strain is constant and lasts for days at a time." It mattered, too, that Jones, although touted as the country's best golfer from age 14, had struggled for seven agonizing years before winning his first major championship.

"Through seven years, beginning at Merion in 1916, Bobby played in 10 major championships without . . . winning . . . one." Keeler leaned into the table, his bourbon breath spritzing the air. "Can you imagine? Seven years of unvaried defeat in the big shows." He glared at me for a few seconds and then leaned back, a look of defiance in his eyes. "It would have broken the heart of any but a champion."

To another question he replied, "There is something about tournaments. I am by no means settled on the psychology of it, but long ago I came to the conclusion that there are two kinds of golf-golf and tournament golf. And they are so unlike that many a superb shotmaker, and many a man who can hold his own in a friendly match, goes through his career with not even a district championship to his credit. Perhaps not even a club championship."

This "two kinds of golf" comment didn't get past me. I recognized it right away. "Jones," I said, "is famous for saying that. Are you quoting Jones?"

Keeler frowned. "No, I wrote that in 1924 or '25, maybe earlier." He hesitated. "But yes, of course, Bobby said that. I mean, we both believed that."

I was going to ask, Who believed it first? But Keeler was clearly uncomfortable with this line of questioning. He reached for the bottle and poured another glass. "I can resist anything," he said with a knowing smile, "but temptation."

By this time, frankly, I was less interested in Keeler's take on Jones-which consisted mostly of adulatory gush such as, "He was sometimes the victim of too keen a mind and too fine an imagination, but in his breast beat the heart of a lion"-and more interested in Keeler himself. I began to pepper him with questions about his newspaper career, and these he answered without a trace of defensiveness.

He was born Oscar Bane Keeler in Chicago in 1882 but "was moved" to Georgia when he was four. He took four years of Latin and Greek at Marietta High, near Atlanta, and came out as . . . a bookkeeper! A mis-erable one, at that. "In 1909 I was cashier in a fire insurance office, and one day I decided that bookkeeping was not my forte and that I would just go out to the Chattahoochee River and throw a rock off the bridge"-he paused-"without turning loose of the rock."

Before I could assimilate this bizarre confession, Keeler told me how he had walked instead up a long flight of stairs to the editorial offices of the Atlanta Georgian, where he talked the editor into giving him a job at no pay "and I had to supply my own typewriter!" His first story, against all odds, made the front page-"I was lucky right from the jump"-and Keeler was on his way.

A year at the Georgian led to a three-year stint at The Kansas City Star, where he worked alongside a young Ernest Hemingway, covering murders, fires and, whenever possible, sports. He was back in Georgia, though, living with his mother when his life turned on the unexpected playoff victory of teenager Francis Ouimet at the 1913 U.S. Open in Brookline, Mass. "Suddenly golf was no longer lumped with croquet or badminton," Keeler said. "It was a full-fledged sport that could compete for headlines with baseball and football." Keeler, who had become an avid duffer in Kansas City, began covering golf for the Georgian.

"There was a writer on the Atlanta Journal, Milt Saul, who played out at the East Lake course," Keeler said, "and he complained that a bunch of kids were cluttering up the place. 'They're under foot all the time!' " Keeler switched to a whiny voice. " 'They're even getting into tournaments! Why, I have to play one of them tomorrow, some towheaded squirt they call Little Bob Jones. What's the good of taking up time walloping infants?' "

Keeler laughed. "A few days later a friend asked Milt how much of a beating he'd dealt Jones, and Milt said, 'Do you know, that blamed kid beat me 8 and 7. I was right! They ought to keep those kids out of tournaments.' "

We were back to Jones again, so I let Keeler spin some more yarns from their travels together. The train continued to rock as we rumbled through the night, but our window had magically changed from a mirror to a screen, upon which Keeler's words played out as if on film. It was amazing. I saw Jones hit his famous Lily Pad Shot on the 9th at Interlachen. (Two skips across the fronting pond, like a flat stone, and Jones wound up putting for birdie.) I saw Jones being mobbed by the gallery at Merion in 1930 upon his 8-and-7 victory over Eugene Homans in the U.S. Amateur, which completed the Grand Slam. I saw Jones hit a brilliant approach from a sandy lie to overtake Al Watrous in the 1926 British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Anne's.

"I did not see that shot," Keeler recalled. "Bobby was two strokes behind Watrous through 13 holes, so I walked back to the clubhouse, hoping his luck would change." Keeler stared at the scene on the window, which showed a shaken Watrous three-putting on 17. "It did, but I was in the bar taking on a liberal belt of antifreeze when the news came in."

The window went dark.

Keeler was silent for a minute or so, lost in thought. "I loved the opera," he finally said, as if waking up to my presence. "Enrico Caruso was a dear friend." He took a deep breath through his nose and stared at the bottle, which was nearly empty.

"One time we stumbled into the lobby of his hotel at 4 a.m., nobody around, just the desk clerk. At the bottom of the staircase I said, 'Rico, there's one thing I'd like you to do for me someday. I'd like you to sing a solo for me. Just for me, alone.' And he said, 'Well, O.B., why not now?' And he started to sing. He sang as Germont in La Traviata." Keeler leaned back in his chair and murmured some words of Italian, sliding into a softly hummed motif that I recognized but couldn't name. "That glorious, incomparable voice echoed in the stairwell, and soon the guests began to come out of their rooms in their robes and slippers. They lined the stairs, they were enthralled. . . ."

He was mumbling now. " 'The eternal D'Artagnan has gone to his death'. . . .'Tonight, when I enter God's house, one thing I carry with me, unblemished and unbent; I sweep the threshold with a snow-white plume. . . .' "

His eyes drooped as he let his head loll against the doilied backrest.

"Do golf ghosts sleep?" I asked in a whisper.

I could barely hear his reply over the clackety-clack-clack of the rails.

"This one does."

More From the Web

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN