Around the block with Joe Dey Jr.

August 19, 2011

The ghost of Joe Dey Jr. arrived at the stroke of midnight, bearing paperwork.

“I’ll grant an interview,” he said, standing in the shadows by my desk,
“but you need to fill this out first.” He handed me a battered old clipboard
and a golf pencil sharpened to a needle point.

“None of the other golf ghosts
asked me to sign in,” I said, casting a nervous eye on a two-page form titled
gga field release and waiver.

“That doesn’t surprise me,” said Dey.

He put his finger on a line marked interviewee.

“My name goes there. And
it’s pronounced die.”

He gave me a stern look, as if he expected me to make a

Dey’s appearance disinclined me to do so. A tall ghost with the erect
posture of a military man, he wore a dark blazer over a crisp white shirt and striped tie. His raven hair was combed back from a square
forehead. His eyes, under thick eyebrows, looked as if they
could see through walls — or people.

I scribbled my signature and handed him the clipboard.

“Let’s walk,” he said.

I grabbed a reporter’s notebook and
followed him to the patio doors, which, in classic ghost fashion,
he passed through without opening. (He waited outside
in the dark while I fiddled with the locks and slid back the
screen and glass doors.) He then circled around the house
and up the driveway. I chased after him, catching up as he
crossed the sidewalk into the street, where, to my consternation,
he turned left and continued walking.

“Play away!”
he said in a jovial tone.

It wasn’t until I noticed his usga rules armband that I
got it. Dey was executive director of the U.S. Golf Association
from 1934 to 1969, and in that capacity he had sent competitors
off the 1st tee of major championships and walked
the fairways as golf’s most respected rules official. He had
also served five years, from ’69 to ’74, as the PGA Tour’s
first commissioner, a tenure that saw one of his ideas — a
Tournament Players Championship — germinate into the
so-called fifth major that we now call the Players.

“I was a sportswriter myself,” he said, slowing to let
me catch up. “I covered the final leg of Bobby Jones’s
Grand Slam in 1930.”

“You were at Merion?” I opened my notebook and
my pen.

“My job that week was to describe every shot Jones hit. I
had a pad of paper and a relay of caddies. I’d write the text
for each hole and then give it to a kid who legged it to the
pressroom, where a telegrapher sent it into the office. It was
a great experience.”

It wasn’t easy writing while walking. Some light from the
street lamps filtered down through the pin oaks and maples,
but I kept turning my head to see if any cars were coming.

“And you know,” Dey continued, “I walked the final 36 holes
with Ken Venturi when he won at Congressional in ’64.”

I thought it was my imagination, but the brick and clapboard
houses on either side of us seemed to recede into
the night, replaced by ranks of luminescent spectators. A
phantom golfer, woozy with heat exhaustion, walked beside
a dapper Dey, whose clipboard had become a shooting
stick. But just as quickly, the first phantom vanished and another appeared, a man in a white cap keeping up with
the unchanged Dey’s purposeful stride.

“People thought Ben Hogan was absolutely cold and silent,”
Dey said, “but I refereed his last two rounds at Oakland
Hills in ’51, and we chatted most of the way around. I
remember on the front nine in the afternoon, when he was
really beginning to roll, he hit a three-wood off the tee and
had only a pitch left to the green. People were flocking all
around him, and he said to me, ‘You know, golf spectators
put up with a lot to watch us play. They park their cars a
mile away and come out here and get pushed around by the
marshals and police.’

And I said, ‘Yes, they do, but did you
ever consider that they greatly admire the skill you have?’

Ben looked at me and then at the club in his hands, and he
said, ‘You know, I guess it does take some skill to hit a little
ball with this thing.'”

Dey turned to me as the phantom of Hogan dissolved into
a thousand points of flickering light. “That’s good conversation,”
he said, “and right in the middle of winning the
U.S. Open.”

At the second corner Dey’s ghost turned left, leading me
up the middle of another tree-lined street.

“Is it true what
I’ve read?” I asked. “That you carried a Bible in one pocket
of your jacket and the Rules of Golf in another?”

He pulled a tiny Bible out of his right inside pocket and
raised it like an auction paddle. Shifting his shooting stick
to the other hand, he fished a dog-eared booklet out of the
opposite pocket and waved it.

“I almost became a minister,”
he said, putting the books away. “I taught Sunday school,
and when the R&A made me only the second American captain
of their club, I preached from a pulpit in St. Andrews,
which was a great honor. It’s only and finally in God that
our hope really lies.”

“But you were a stickler for the rules.”

“Well, of course.”

My comment seemed to annoy him.

“The integrity of golf is paramount,” he declaimed. “If you
don’t have that, it’s no game at all.”

“It’s just that you had a reputation for …”

“I was in a position” — he emphasized the word — “in which
I had to make unpopular decisions. I didn’t always enjoy it.”

He raised his stick and pointed up the street, where another
luminescent drama was being played out under a tree. A
stocky woman in ’50s golf garb was sobbing, surrounded by well-wishers and press photographers. I guessed that the
disconsolate woman was the Hawaiian pro Jackie Pung,
who was disqualified from the 1957 U.S. Women’s Open
for attesting to the wrong score on a hole, even though
her final-round total was accurate. The ruling cost Pung
a one-shot victory over Betsy Rawls.

“I didn’t like that one at all,” Dey said, “but there was
nothing to be done about it. Where the possibility exists
for mistakes or cheating, the rules must be shored up.”

He shifted his attention to the opposite side of the street,
where rising clearly from the sidewalk was a chubby
phantom in prewar raiment hitting a tee shot.

Oliver in the final round of the U.S. Open at Canterbury,
1940,” Dey narrated. “I was having lunch in the clubhouse
that day when a messenger came up and told me three
fellows had teed off 15 minutes early on the 1st hole, and
three more were about to — and did. They just took their
scorecards from the box on the 1st tee and went off. There
was a storm threatening, and they wanted to get going.
Well, Oliver and the other five were told to quit playing
in the middle of the 1st fairway. But in the meantime
another official, who didn’t know what was going on,
told them to continue playing and that a ruling would
be made. So they played on and were disqualified. It
was hardest on Oliver, who had tied for first.”

Dey shook
his head and the scene slowly dissolved as we continued by.

“A tragic consequence.”

At the next corner he turned left again and
abruptly stopped. The street was filled with
evanescent Vietnam War protesters — spirits
from the ’72 Open at Pebble Beach, where
radicals had chained themselves together in
the 18th fairway.

Dey’s lips twitched, and he gripped the
handle of his shooting stick so hard that it made a snapping
sound. But he said nothing, and after a few seconds
the protesters literally dispersed.

We walked on.

“Here’s one you probably don’t know.” His voice was calm.

“I was on the 1st tee at the 1953 U.S. Junior in Tulsa, when
this crew-cut 13-year-old sauntered up about 30 seconds
before his tee time. Naturally, I dressed him down. ‘Young
man,’ I said, ‘if you had been a little later, you’d be going
to the 2nd hole 1 down.'”

He smiled at the memory.

“And that was my introduction
to Jack Nicklaus.”

I looked for a phantom 13-year-old, but I saw nothing but
darkened houses and empty lawns.

“No visual for that one,”
Dey said with an apologetic shrug. “It’s a rights issue.”

“Speaking of Nicklaus …” I wanted to get Dey talking
about his Tour years.

“Jack won the first Tournament Players Championship,”
he said with a brisk nod. “Labor Day weekend, 1974. Atlanta
Country Club. The purse was $250,000. Actually, Jack
won three of the first five, which gave our tournament a
real boost.”

I turned to a fresh page in my notebook. “You left the
USGA to become the Tour czar. Why?”

“Czar isn’t the right word.” He frowned. “You know, the
last czar, Nicholas, contracted hemophilia, was assassinated
and burned. Nothing like that happened to me.”

I didn’t bother to correct him.

“Commissioner, then.”

Dey stopped in the middle of an empty intersection. “I
wasn’t even thinking of retirement from the USGA. My
job remained interesting, and I was happy. But I was disturbed
by the endless rumpus between the touring pros
and the rest of the PGA. It was hurting golf. I thought long
and hard and decided that I had an opportunity to help
stabilize a very important part of the game. So I took the

He lifted his left arm in a showy manner and stared
at his watch. Then he started walking again.

“You were a strong commissioner?” I was thinking of
columnist Jim Murray’s line about Dey — that he ran golf
the way Charlemagne ran France.

“I don’t know about that.” He stopped in the middle
of the block. “I had a tendency to deal too much with the
minutiae of the job. Probably a carryover from my early
days at the USGA, when the staff was so small.”

He turned
and looked directly at me. “I recognize” — he hesitated — “I
know I was perceived as haughty. Imperious, if you will.
But I never thought that golf was a hallowed thing. Sport
is for fun, and sure, golf is a show.”

“But it’s a show,” I ventured, “with rules.”

“Exactly! What we’re really selling is the skill that is
necessary to play the game well. You never can sacrifice
the quality of the game for more color, in my book.”

Looking up from my notes, I noticed that we were standing
in front of a large, ranch-style house with a mansard

“Hey,” I said, “that’s Tom Watson’s old house!”

“I know.” Dey’s ghost looked at his watch again and started
walking toward the front door. His shooting stick had vanished,
but the clipboard was tucked under his right arm.
My voice rose to a stage whisper: “But Tom doesn’t live
there anymore!”

Dey looked back. “You really don’t know much about
haunting, do you?”

He then dissolved into the door, leaving a
few sparks of luminescence on the knocker and mail slot.

I’ll be honest. My feelings were hurt.