Riding the rails with O.B. Keeler

Riding the rails with O.B. Keeler

march28_keeler_299x239_0.jpg
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.”