Remembering my friend Bill Campbell, Hall of Famer and golf lifer

September 3, 2013

One of the most profound golf quotes I have ever heard came from Bill Campbell, the former U.S. Amateur champion who died on Friday at age 90. The quote is ostensibly about Hogan, but what it's really about is raising children, and I'll get to it in a minute.

First, the Hall of Famer himself: Bill Campbell was a West Virginia insurance man — and briefly a politician — with illegible handwriting, a prodigious memory and an exacting manner.

In 2008, I was his typist as he wrote a long first-person piece for SI about his experiences at the Masters. When I told him that in the SI stylebook, when a golfer plays with two others, it's a threesome and not a pairing, which implies two, he said, "No — it's a pairing."

Over the years, he had been paired with Sam Snead and Ben Hogan. He knew Bobby Jones and Francis Ouimet. He had been written up by Bernard Darwin and Herb Wind. He had been the president of the USGA and the captain of the R&A. Pairing it is, Bill!

We first crossed paths 20 years ago. I had written about a primitive six-hole Scottish golf course called Auchnafree, laid out by a shepherd and tended by sheep. Campbell and a couple friends got themselves there. This was pre-Internet (not that Bill Campbell ever used the Internet anyhow). Auchnafree is miles from civilization. Then, it was unfindable. (Now its location is a click away.) Campbell found it, played it and liked it. We corresponded about it. I'd quote from Bill's letters but, you know, the handwriting.

Bill had a close friendship with Sandy Tatum, another former USGA president who is as much a Californian as Campbell was a West Virginian. They didn't see each other that often, but they traveled through Scotland together among other places. I once mentioned to Bill that at one point Sandy's brother had been married to Phyllis Diller. Bill, in a most youthful voice, said, "Really." He hadn't known this interesting fact. It makes you wonder what these two lions of the game talked about on their golf trips. But I think we can guess the answer.

About seven or eight years ago, I was visiting a dying man in Florida named Tom Hearn, the father of friends. While I was there, Bill Campbell popped in to say hello. It was a warm day and Bill was wearing a long brown cardigan sweater, circa 1973, I'm guessing, with a small map of Virginia stenciled on it. A gift of the Virginia State Golf Association. Mr. Hearn and Mr. Campbell were both Ivy Leaguers, insurance men, golfers and clubmen, World War II veterans, Scotsophiles of the highest order. For some reason, their conversation turned to Old Tom Morris, talking about him not as a golfer but as a vestryman at Trinity Church in St. Andrews.

Bill was the captain of the 1955 U.S. Walker Cup team that defeated, handily, the GBI team at the Old Course. He loved Scotland and golf as it is played in Scotland. He was of the firm and fast and brown tradition. People talk about it all the time, but not enough people are really committed to it.

Bill was lanky and strong, good at many sports, and he told me about the long-drive contests that used to be held annually at the Masters, before the advent of the Par 3 Tournament in 1960. It was a way of drawing — yes — paying customers. In '51, Campbell won the contest. His winning poke was 328 yards, three longer than Sam Snead's. (See the benefits of firm and fast?) Snead was 11 years older than Campbell and the two West Virginians knew each other well.

"How'd you do that?" Snead asked.

"Easy, Sam," Campbell said, "I used one of your drivers." Campbell's driver had come out of the one of Snead's bags at the Greenbrier.

Snead said, "I want it back!"

When Campbell talked about Snead and Hogan and Palmer, he was talking about men he really knew. Campbell was a paragon of propriety, and he debated before he decided to include this amusing story about Palmer in his 2008 SI piece.

He wrote: "One year, when Arnold was past his prime but still a force, I was the rules official assigned to the 7th hole, stationed behind the green. In those days the 7th was considered a potential birdie hole, but on this occasion Arnold made a bogey. He could not have been happy. But as he came off the green he looked up and saw two women in their mid-30s watching him. He smiled and winked. The ladies were swooning. One turned to the other and said, 'I'd give my right arm for 45 minutes with him.'"

As for the profound Hogan quote, it's simple. Campbell and his wife, Joan, raised six children. None of them shared his passion for golf. Campbell was a member of Seminole, the beautiful oceanfront Donald Ross course in South Florida. He told me that when he joined the club he couldn't really afford it, but he felt he couldn't afford not to join it, if that makes sense. (I get it.) One day on a spring break the father packed the kids in the family car and brought them over to the club. Hogan was there, preparing for the Masters on the practice tee.

Campbell told the children, "Don't ask him anything. Just watch. You don't have to have a good time. Just remember it."

That, to me, is superior parenting. That's why you bring your kids to classical music concerts.

One last thing. When I asked Bill about his impressions of Tiger, he told me how struck he was when he met Tiger at a dinner for Amateurs at Augusta. The thing he remembered was Tiger's dazzling smile.

Bill Campbell didn't have a dazzling smile, outrageous talent, or flamboyant personality, but he did spend 62 years trying to get a rule changed, and did. Now if you are struck by your own ball it's a one-shot penalty. When Bill first incurred the penalty, at a U.S. Open qualifier in '46, it was two. Bill was a lifer.


In my conversations with Bill, the name of two players came up again and again: Snead, and Jack Nicklaus. Campbell was on the scene, in an informal advisory role, when Nicklaus decided to turn pro as an undergraduate at Ohio State. Campbell felt that turning pro was the right thing for Nicklaus to do, even though his hero, and his father's hero, Bobby Jones, had played all his competitive golf as an amateur. He felt if he tried to play amateur golf, and tried to be a businessman or student, at the same time, he would not fulfill his expectations in either pursuit. Shortly after Bill's death, Nicklaus made these thoughtful remark's about the impact that Campbell — like Joe Dey and Bob Jones and some other elder statesmen — had on him. His words say so much about Campbell, but also about Nicklaus, and, to bring it all full circle, the kind of influence Campbell and people like him had on him.

Jack Nicklaus on Bill Campbell after his passing on Aug. 30, 2013:

I first ran into Bill Campbell in 1955, when at 15 years old, I was playing in the U.S. Amateur qualifier at Camargo in Cincinnati. I managed to qualify for the U.S. Amateur and Bill must have evidently been impressed with something he saw in me, because the next year, he called the Sunnehanna (Amateur Invitational) people and got me an invitation there at age 16. He said to them, “This young man won’t embarrass you.” Thanks to Bill, I went to Sunnehanna and finished fifth.

I became good friends with Bill back then, although he was 17 years my senior. Bill was a wealth of knowledge, and if Bill saw something I needed to do or he had advice for me, he didn't hesitate to call me. I appreciated that very much. He always had a good word to say; always was a great supporter; and always a good friend.

Through the years, we have enjoyed a special friendship and he was a tremendous member of our Captains Club for the Memorial Tournament. As a longtime member of the Captains Club, Bill missed only one Captains Club meeting — that was two years ago — since the inception of the tournament in 1976. He was always there and involved. Bill always had something to contribute and was great with suggestions. Bill had a resume that was unparalleled in the game of golf, so he provided a uniquely qualified perspective. His whole interest was whatever is good for the game of golf. To my knowledge, I don't think Bill Campbell ever thought of Bill Campbell one time. He always thought of others in the game of golf.

Bill Campbell was such an intelligent and thoughtful man. He was successful in business. He served his country as an Army Captain in World War II. And he served our game for a lifetime. I thought he was the ultimate amateur in the game of golf. The game was never any purer than Bill Campbell. He absolutely did it all the right way.

Bill and I played a lot of golf together. In fact, we played together in the US Pro-Am in Cincinnati, when I partnered with Pandel Savic (long-time friend and former Chairman of the Memorial Tournament) my first year as a pro in 1962. Pandel and I were grouped with Bill and Byron Nelson in the final round. Obviously, Bill and I played together in other tournaments and other times, and I will cherish those moments and memories.

Barbara and I send out our most heartfelt condolences, our loving thoughts, and our ongoing prayers to Bill's wife Joan and their entire family. Joan, just like Bill, was always a wonderful supporter and friend to us both.