New York club professional Elmer Voight raised a geologist, a singer and an Academy Award-winning actor

August 6, 2014

Elmer came to the club as a boy, to caddie. He was eight, a poor Catholic kid from Yonkers diving headfirst into life at an affluent Jewish club in Scarsdale, N.Y, called Sunningdale, where the club motto could have been Dress British, Think Yiddish. This was near the end of the Great War. Over the decades, the members taught Elmer which fork to lift first, when to use whom, how to tie a bow-tie. They taught him Seinfeldian humor long before Jerry was born.

When Elmo — blond, square-jawed, stylish — played in the 1928 and '29 U.S. Opens, the members were there for him. When he died in 1973, in a car crash, they flocked to his funeral. They sat shivah for their pro.

His three boys, now in their 70s, grew up in the game. They caddied, shagged balls, and played evening golf with their father all summer long. On Mondays, when the club was closed, he'd pick up the boys from school and take them on outdoor adventures, or to double features. They saw everything: musicals, comedies, capers. At night, the father would tell them parables from his lawless boyhood, like the time he stole apples from Patsy Poo-Poo's apple tree and ran like hell. Live large was one of Elmer's regular themes, even if he treaded carefully in his grown-up life. He had seen the Depression at close range.

One day in the late '40s, Elmer heard that Joe Louis was playing at a nearby public course, Sprain Lake. He had always admired the boxer. He loaded the boys in the car and drove over.

"Joe, I'd like you to give an autograph to my three sons here," Elmer said. He could be a little abrupt when he was nervous. The middle son, Jon, was worried. He was afraid the champ might be put off. But he wasn't. The heavyweight's grace calmed Elmer and triggered his innate kindness: "Joe, anytime you'd like to play Sunningdale, just let me know."

In November 1960, Elmer attended the PGA of America's annual meeting and co-sponsored a motion to rescind the organization's infamous "Caucasian-only" clause. It didn't happen that year. It did the next.

"My father wasn't an activist," the eldest son, Barry, said the other day. "But he had a very strong sense of what is right."

Encouragement was a way of life at 22 Romney Place. Elmer urged all three sons to follow their interests, as did their mother, Barbara, a teacher and swim instructor. Barry, wanting an outdoor life like his father's, became a swimmer, a geologist and a renowned expert at predicting volcanic eruptions. There's no telling how many lives he has saved.

The two younger sons imitated their father's swing and became very good players. They were the captains of their golf teams at their Catholic high school. They played alongside a burly, crew-cutted young phenom from Columbus. They weren't that good.

They made a new friend at one event and brought him home. Elmer saw his younger self in the kid. "Boys, where do we put the soup spoon?" Elmer would ask. But the question wasn't really for his sons. In time, mentored by Elmer, Gene Borek became a legendary New York club pro and teacher. Gene could play. He shot 65 in the second round of the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont.

The youngest of the trio went by Chip, for the hours he devoted to his short game. But Chip's first love was music — all those Monday afternoon musicals, plus Bing Crosby and the Ink Spots on the hi-fi at the family home in Scarsdale. One day in 1964, Chip brought Jon into their parents' bedroom and played him a song he'd just written. The middle son fell to the floor. "They won't be able to get it off their lips!" he said. If you don't know "Wild Thing," you don't have a radio in your car. Wild thing, you make my heart sing, you make EV-ree-thang — 

Jon became an actor. In 1972, his parents attended one of his premieres, for Deliverance. "Son," Elmer said, "you've got a hit!"

Every time Jon Voight signs an autograph, he thinks of his father and Joe Louis, his father's nervousness, the boxer's grace, his father's gratitude. A one-minute play in three acts. Jon Voight, of course, is the father of actress Angelina Jolie.

Dr. Barry Voight, retired from a long career at Penn State, has written a loving account of his father's life for Sunningdale. Chip — Chip Taylor, professionally — recently recorded an album called "Son of a Golf Pro." Willie Nelson meets Byron Nelson. Elmo lives.

The three sons last played Sunningdale together years ago, before a family wedding. I asked Barry what Elmer would have said, if he could have seen his three sons on the first tee.

"He'd say, 'Let me out of this box!'"

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