By MICHAEL K. BOHN
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
In “King of Clubs,” author Jim Ducibella tells the story of golf’s most outlandish wager. A Chicago stockbroker named J. Smith “Smitty” Ferebee bet a friend $20,000 that he could play 600 holes of golf in eight cities, from Los Angeles to New York, during four consecutive days in September 1938.
Wagering has been a part of golf since the 1300s when the game washed up on Scotland’s eastern shore from its early Dutch and Belgian origins. From the beginning, men and women have played their matches for a stake – food, drink or coin – a friendly custom that throws bunker sand on puritanical American attempts to completely separate sports from gambling.
Betting in golf has such a long history that players often resort to eccentric wagers to spice up the routine. Walter Hagen, America’s first touring professional, played a $50 match in 1923 with a friend that started in the pro shop, extended across town and ended in the toilet of their hotel room. Chipping off the ceramic tile floor into the can was the toughest shot of the match. Venerable sportswriter Dan Jenkins enjoyed a similar game with his buddies in Fort Worth in the 1950s. They often played one 1,000-yard hole, starting at the far end of the course and ending with a chipped-out depression in the clubhouse sidewalk that served as the cup.
Ferebee’s friend and former business partner in Chicago, Fred Tuerk, had the other side of the marathon wager. However, other friends and golf partners, as well as interested bookies, soon added their own side bets. By the time Ferebee was ready to tee it up on the first hole of the first golf course on the first day, at least $100,000 had been bet on the outcome ($1.6 million in 2012 dollars).
The proposition attracted the news media’s attention from coast to coast. The story captivated the public, just as other reports interested folks about dance marathons, six-day bicycle races and pie-eating contests. Even the Gray Lady, the “New York Times,” joined the ballyhoo, calling the marathon the “most fantastic golf story ever told or dreamed.”
Ducibella, a veteran sportswriter and member of the media wing of the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame, weaves a character-rich narrative of Ferebee’s golf marathon. Foremost in the supporting cast is Reuben Trane, owner of a growing Wisconsin plumbing and mechanical company. Trane rented an American Airlines DC-3 passenger aircraft, intent on exploiting the publicity spotlight at every stop for his revolutionary air conditioning business.
The plane carried Ferebee, Tuerk, a caddy, doctor, Trane and his PR director and several others, including a stowaway kid and a stray dog. Starting in Los Angeles, Ferebee planned stops during the four days in Phoenix, Kansas City, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York. Ferebee planned to play four 18-hole rounds in the morning in Los Angeles, fly to Phoenix and hopefully play another 144 holes, plus a couple extra, in the afternoon and evening. He expected to sleep on the plane for the overnight hop to Kansas City, where he would start the cycle of play and fly again. He needed to average 150 a day to make the 600 total.
The terms of Smitty Ferebee’s bet required him to walk or run every hole and he had to personally tee his own ball and retrieve it from the cup. If he posted a score of 100 for any round, he lost the bet. Ferebee nevertheless felt confident, although he usually shot in the 80s at his home course near Chicago, Olympia Fields Country Club.
It’s clear after the first few pages that Ducibella knows how to tell an enjoyable sports story. He carefully develops the main characters in the narrative, especially Ferebee, who was a handsome, athletic and ambitious showman. Through meticulous research undertaken from coast to coast, the author surrounds the characters and action in the narrative with the description and detail that make a good story even more readable. Moreover, Ducibella gives the reader the social and economic context in which the golf marathon takes place – the lingering depression, public fascination with fads and hoopla and the growing aviation industry that enabled Ferebee’s search for a twenty-grand payoff.
Ducibella makes the reader understand that the hero in this journey had to battle his way across the country. Ferebee’s quest was no walk in the park, and the author adds to the narrative tension at every turn by detailing the obstacles the golfer encountered – blisters, a turned ankle, bad weather, minimal sleep, darkness and the pressure of breaking a 100 every time. You have to read the story to the end to see who wins the bet, and Ducibella keeps you turning the pages.
The author hunted down the only living participant from the marathon, caddie Art Caschetta, as well as families of Ferebee, Tuerk, Trane, the aircraft’s pilot and Ferebee’s physician. Braced with his interview tapes, family albums and contemporary news media reports, Ducibella carefully recreated the grand affair.
By the end of the book, readers can be expected to ask, “What happened to these people?” Ducibella scratches that itch by following the major characters to the end of their lives. That touch keeps the story from the ignominy of just another faded newspaper clipping.
The author came to the story as many other writers get ideas – happenstance. Shortly before the 2000 publication of his first book, “Par Excellence,” someone sent him a copy of a Ferebee news article. It gathered dust in his office until early 2006, when it caught his eye. A quick Google search yielded a report of the donation of the late Ferebee’s papers to the Virginia Military Institute, which the golfer had attended for two years. That was enough for Ducibella to tee up the story.
Ducibella wrote for the “Washington Star” before joining the “Virginian-Pilot” in Norfolk, Va., sports staff in 1981. There, he covered local and college football and basketball, and served as the paper’s beat writer for the Washington Redskins for more than 20 years. He is a seven-time recipient of the Virginia Sportswriter of the Year award. Ducibella is now a web writer at the College of William & Mary and lives in Williamsburg, Va.