‘King of Clubs’ book might be the best golf story you’ve never heard

September 10, 2012

In honor of King of Clubs, a book about the Great Golf Marathon of 1938 and the amazing man who earned that sobriquet, you should speed-read it. The man's feat practically demands it.

I buzzed through this fun 139-pager on a flight from Pittsburgh to Charlotte, mainly because I couldn't put it down. It's about a golfing marathon, yes, but thanks to author Jim Ducibella, this unlikely tale of Depression-era America sprints all the way to the finish.

Speed golf may have been invented by J. Smith "Smitty" Ferebee, the unlikely hero of King of Clubs (Potomac Books, $24.95). Smitty didn't earn that nickname by being a champion golfer. He was perhaps only slightly better than the average country club hack of the 1930s.

But his stamina, endurance, speed and sheer power made him golf's ultimate marathon man.

What started as a semi-friendly bet between two members at Chicago's Olympia Fields Country Club ended with Ferebee earning national acclaim for playing (hustling, jogging, running) 144 holes of golf in one day, on foot — two rounds each on the four courses at Olympia Fields, including the course that later hosted the 2003 U.S. Open. Ferebee also won the title to a piece of Virginia land — worth $20,000, a fortune in 1938 — with his remarkable performance.

That, it turned out, was just the beginning. After news of Ferebee's feat spread across the astonished (and naïve) pre-World War II American landscape, stories of other men and even women and teenagers matching or surpassing his marathon feat began to arise.

One thing led to another and ultimately, the man who lost the land to Ferebee wanted a rematch. Eventually, Ferebee was goaded into boasting that he could repeat his Olympia Fields feat — four days in a row!

That wasn't good enough for his so-called friend. That would be 576 holes over four days, the man said. Why not just round up to a nice even number like 600? Ferebee agreed.

But not just in Chicago on his home course. In eight different cities, starting in Los Angeles and ending in New York, over four days. Just traveling on an eight-city tour in those days was difficult enough, let alone squeezing in eight rounds of golf each day. The stops included Phoenix (Encanto Golf Course); Kansas City (Blue Hills); St. Louis (Norwood Hills); Milwaukee (the original Tuckaway CC); and Chicago (Olympia Fields).

It sounded unlikely, if not impossible, but Ferebee agreed. Thus the wager snowballed into a stunt of national proportions that the media pounced on and sensationalized.

This is where the story gets complicated and Ducibella dug up all kinds of Hollywood script-like pieces. Trane, a company that was just getting started in the newfangled air-conditioning business, signed on as a kind of sponsor. It finagled a new American Airlines Skysleeper liner, a plane that had sleeping accommodations and was ceremoniously dubbed "The TRANE of the Air." The event took on a circus-like atmosphere, mixed with commercialism.

The complications included a closed airport; an airport whose runway was too short to handle the big skyliner; a lost dog; a stowaway; fog; darkness; blisters; a fall and a badly sprained ankle; illicit wagering; and drugs, as a syndicate of gamblers who'd bet heavily against Ferebee tried to sabotage his attempt. If it sounds like a Disney movie, I can only wonder why it isn't already?

The Great Golf Marathon ended in New York at the Salisbury Golf Links, now known as the Eisenhower Park Red Course. Think of the final scene in "The Spirit of St. Louis," with Jimmy Stewart playing aviator Charles Lindbergh and the Paris airport lined with torches so Lindy could see to land. Ferebee finished his last round at 10:30 at night, thanks to fans lining the fairway with lit flares, a helper holding a light near his ball so he could have enough depth perception to hit it, and a brilliant shining spotlight on a fire truck.

The final numbers seem preposterous. Ferebee played 32 rounds in 96 hours in eight cities. He needed 2,858 shots and averaged 85.7 per round. He covered 182 miles on foot. He lost 21 pounds and weighed a mere 139 pounds by the time he returned to Chicago. One New York paper dubbed him "the Hercules of golf." The most remarkable stat? Ferebee didn't lose a ball in 600 holes.

He was something of a celebrity for years after. He took golf seriously and got better at it. Ferebee said he broke par only twice at Olympia Fields, shooting 68 and 67 on the same Sunday — Dec. 7, 1941. The Pearl Harbor attack inspired Ferebee, then 35, to enlist in the Navy, and even though he was nine years too old to be a Navy pilot, he became one, anyway, and was called to active duty in 1942. He served on an aircraft carrier in 1945 at the end of the war, and was badly injured when a plane he co-piloted crashed. Ferebee died in 1988 from cancer.

The King of Clubs is part Seabiscuit and part Around the World in 80 Days and part The Match. You have to read his story to believe it. Thanks to Mr. Ducibella's inspired research, you can.