From The Golf Journal Archives - Reviving Memories

Nov 05, 2010

Four storied champions – Berg, Van Wie, Sarazen and Dunlap – reminisce sbout the game and their moment(s) of fame.

By Curt Sampson

(Note: This article originally appeared in the March/April 1997 issue of Golf Journal.)

AT FIRST, WE’D THOUGHT WE’D DO LUNCH. Imagine the ebb and flow of a conversation between four of the oldest USGA champions. “And then Bobby Jones said ...” or “I never told the press this, but when I won the Open...” or “So the Babe says to me ...” Lunch seemed tempting from a logistical standpoint, too, since three of the four live within an hour’s drive of each other in southwest Florida.

But instead we allowed each to reminisce by him- or herself, to let them have the stage without the clatter of plates in the background. They deserved a clear voice, having won their respective USGA championships earlier than anyone else alive: Patty Berg, 1946 U.S. Women’s Open; Gene Sarazen, 1922 U.S. Open; Virginia Van Wie, 1932 U.S. Women’s Amateur; and George T. Dunlap Jr., 1933 U.S. Amateur.

PATTY BERG’S FAVORITE WORD IS “GREAT.” Her favorite punctuation is the exclamation point. No matter what the subject, her manner is as buoyant as a cork, and her Minnesota-accented voice lilts upward. “I had cancer in 71 or 72,” she says, almost cheerfully. “I’ve had five or six major operations.” A severely bent spine and a replacement hip force her to walk in a slow shuffle. You can't imagine she will ever swing a golf club again, but she can.

Patricia Jane Berg, 79, lives in a white, single-story house with sculptured brown carpet. John Wayne westerns predominate her video collection. Photos of her family dot the walls and crowd the tops of counters and shelves. She pauses before a picture of her father. “My father was a whittler,” she says. “He used to whittle while he watched me play. One day he almost whittled his hand off!” A kitschy plate near the front door reads “Golf is the worst damn game you’ll ever love”; it’s practically the only indication a golfer resides in this big broad house.

But when Berg opens the back door to the garage, you see scores of old and new Wilson golf clubs, waiting like hunting dogs for the master’s command.

Golf Journal: What do you remember most about winning the first U.S. Women’s Open in 1946?

Berg: The first thing I remember was that the clubhouse (at Spokane Country Club) had burned down just a couple of days before the tournament. But they got that going quicker than quick. That course was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever played, and the members were just as beautiful. It reminded me a lot of Interlachen in my old hometown, Minneapolis.

I played a girl who was a member in the semifinals, and boy she was good. … I don’t remember her name. The Babe played, too, but she got beat in the semis. I beat Betty Jameson in the finals.

That was some of the best golf I ever played. The club and the members were a great inspiration. But most of all, I was very lucky.

GJ: Did you know Bobby Jones?

Berg: Jones’ swing was beautiful to watch, just like Snead’s was. It was like music.

GJ: Does the modern ball hit with modern clubs go too far?

Berg: No, I don’t think so. That’s progress! I love the new clubs!

GJ: What about the modern players. Do any of them remind you of the women you competed against?

Berg: Well, I swung a little bit like Jane Geddes. But she’s a much better player than I am.

GJ: Since you retired...

Berg: Oh, I haven’t retired! I’m still going to the golf course, still doing clinics and exhibitions. And I’m still taking lessons. Yes! I took from Willie Kidd, then from Lester Bolstad for 40 years, and now I take from Ron Leatherwood.

GJ: Since you stopped playing competitively in 1963, do you regret missing out on the prize money touring pros get today?

Berg: Money? No! I was lucky – lucky I was born!

GJ: You’ve enjoyed a long relationship with Wilson Sporting Goods, and gave thousands of exhibitions on their behalf...

Berg: Sometimes three a day! But most often it was one a day, on the practice tee, followed by a nine-hole exhibition. I’m very interested in getting children into golf. It teaches so many things: attitude, manners, how to play within yourself and think within yourself. I’d do my sister act, where I’d make fun of my sister’s golf swings, because they made fun of me. I’d never make fun of anyone else, of course.

GJ: What made you such a great tournament player?

Berg: You have to strive for perfection, because under pressure, your flaws become greater. Timing plus rhythm equals balance. In competition, I’d say, ‘Now Patty, tempo, tempo, tempo.’ And never give up, because it’s never too late.

GJ: Do you have any regrets about the way your life in golf has gone?

Berg: Mickey Wright asked me that same question once, and I’ll tell you what I told her: No, I wouldn’t go back again, because I couldn’t be that lucky twice.

GJ: Have you considered your place in golf history?

Berg: Well, that’s another hard question. My father said that if I wanted to play golf, that was fine, but that I should help people, too. That’s why I’ve always been interested in helping golf and furthering golf, and helping people, and charities. I’ve done over 10,000 clinics and exhibitions, and a lot of them were for charity. I want people to have fun, and if they have fun, they enjoy life more. I hate to see sad people.

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SHOOTS FROM THE BRANCHES OF THE BANYAN TREE in George Dunlap’s front yard have dipped into the earth, taken root, and formed new trunks. The tree’s baroque twists and turns draw the eye like fire, or ocean waves.

The owner of the tree won the U.S. Amateur in 1933. Dunlap stopped playing in tournaments a few years later, however. “Golf was never an obsession with me,” Dunlap says. He went into other things: parenthood, sailing, a career in investing. While other champions like Berg and Sarazen had the focus and steadfastness of tall, straight oaks, Dunlap saw the virtue in variety.

He’s 88 now, a thin man with a quick mind. He and Kathryn, his wife of 63 years, live in a spacious house between the 17th fairway of the Naples Golf and Beach Club and that big tree.

GJ: Did you use wood-shafted clubs when you won the Amateur? How many clubs did you carry?

Dunlap: I’d just switched to steel, although I took both sets out (to the tournament venue, Kenwood Country Club in Cincinnati). The trouble with hickory... say you’re playing a long iron. If you hit it on the toe, the ball didn’t go anywhere. So I used steel.

I carried 17 clubs, the usual ones plus a little left-handed 4-iron and an extra wedge. Walter Bourne, the pro at Springdale in Princeton, N.J., welded a rounded piece of metal on a niblick for me; I preferred his sand wedge to the one Sarazen made.

GJ: Winning the Amateur must have been something of a surprise, since you barely qualified for the match play.

Dunlap: That’s right. There was a playoff for the last few spots. I was the last one in, too. I had an eight- or nine-foot putt, and it stopped on the lip, then boom, it fell in.

As for the tournament... my memory of the golf is not so good. I concentrated so hard, you see, my mind became a blank. But I do remember that I didn’t want to go to Cincinnati, since my wife was expecting and I wasn’t playing very well. But my father offered to subsidize me for up to $200, so I went. And I remember that when I came back home, I could hardly break 80.

GJ: You beat Max Marston in the final, 6 and 5; none of your matches was particularly close. And you defeated two players who were virtually unbeatable at match play, Gus Moreland and Lawson Little.

Dunlap: At the Walker Cup (at St. Andrews) in ‘32, Moreland would hit a putt then beat his ball to the hole. He tickled the hell out of me. He looked like his passport photo.

Little reminded me of Fred Couples; both had that big, free-flowing swing. When I beat him in the semis, I was the last amateur to beat him before his long winning streak. Little always wanted to play me again. I’m glad he never had a chance to!

GJ: As a child you split your time between New Jersey, where you were born, and Pinehurst. Did you learn to play golf in North Carolina or up north?

Dunlap: At Pinehurst. It was just a cottage colony back then. I went to a little private school, Miss Chapman’s, and one of my classmates was Forbes Wilson, whose father, Willie, was the pro at Pinehurst. They were good about letting us play the course after school. Or we’d play to the coffee tins we’d buried in the back yard.

Pinehurst had sand greens, and you didn’t pitch to them. A 50-yard shot may have meant a 4-iron or, from a little closer, a putter...

I won the North and South Amateur seven times.

GJ: What did you do to make a living after graduating from Princeton?

Dunlap: I started as a runner on Wall Street in 1932, at $20 a week. I wasn’t there long before I got a 20 percent pay cut... I inherited some money from my mother, and since neither my wife nor I are spendthrifts, we’ve been able to live on our investments.

GJ: What has golf given you?

Dunlap: Well, golf was about the only thing I could do. But I was never really all that serious about it. We had a 30-foot boat. I’d just as soon be on the boat as on the golf course.

GJ: Have you thought about your place in golf history?

Dunlap. NO, heavens, no!

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PRIVATE – NO HUNTING. A third of a mile of snow-filled forest separates Virginia Van Wie’s house from the road. The air of a late afternoon in winter is cold, and turning deepening shades of blue.

Like Gene Sarazen, Van Wie lives on the water. But unlike the perpetually sunny face of south Florida saltwater, Clear Lake in Central Michigan changes with the seasons. Today it is moody, brooding and half frozen.

“Look at it snow!” Van Wie says. An erect, gray-haired woman, she never tires of the view from the picture window in her living room. How many years has she been looking at this vista? Seventy years? Eighty? The Van Wies of Chicago have had a summer home here, an hour’s drive north of Grand Rapids, since Virginia was a girl. She lives at the lake full-time now.

She turns her attention to a book that purports to be the history of women’s golf. “Bunkum,” she says of the section on herself. “ ‘Van Wie had big wrists?’ Do these look like big wrists to you? ‘A long hitter?’ Mostly, I was straight. None of it’s right. Except the quotes from Glenna.”

GJ: You played the great Glenna Collett, who won six Women’s Amateurs, in the final in 1928...

VanWie: And set a record, too. Not that I was too enthusiastic about it (Van Wie lost 13 and 12) Glenna was always great I guess I was worn out. I had two 19-hole matches along the way. In 1930, I cut it in half (she again lost to Collett in the final, 6 and 5). So I was getting better.

GJ: So did it feel like vindication when you clobbered Glenna by 10 and 8 in the final in 1932?

Van Wie: NO, not vindication. Just the fact that I won it... On the ninth hole in the afternoon round – I don’t know why I went for it – but there was water in front of the green. And I hit it in the water. And Glenna says, Thanks a lot, now I have to play another hole!'

GJ: And then you won the next two Amateurs as well. What had changed between 1928 and 1932?

Van Wie: I had improved a lot all except my putting. Everyone says, ‘How could you win three years in a row if you couldn’t putt?’ Well, I putted well against Helen Hicks in ‘33. But my putting was pretty bad most of the time. The other girls would turn away when I was on the green. ‘Has she putted yet?’

What happened in 1932 was, I discovered Ernest Jones. No, probably it was the winter of ‘31, just before the Curtis Cup. I met him at Pasatiempo. I said to him, ‘I need some help with my run-up shots.’ I thought he could fix those without hurting the rest of my game. Well, he fixed those in about five swings. Then he asked me to hit some full shots. He was the most amazing teacher I ever knew.

GJ: Jones believed in the swing part of the golf swing, that isolating any part of it was like trying to take apart a bubble.

Van Wie: He took all the worry out of it for me. They’d all say, ‘Watch your pivot, keep your left arm straight.’ Jones said, ‘What’s wrong with right?’

GJ: Which meant?

Van Wie: Helen Hicks took from Jones, too. She was my partner in the (inaugural) Curtis Cup. In the first day, in alternate shot she was hitting it so far on her tee shots I didn’t know what clubs to hit for the second shots. ‘Would you just let up a little?’ I said.

‘I can’t help it,’ she said. ‘I’m swinging!’

That’s what Jones meant. You need a swing, not the correct pivot or whatever.

GJ: You teed off on the odd holes in the alternate shot, and the U.S. was the visiting team (at Wentworth Golf Club in England). So did you hit the first shot in Curtis Cup history? Was that a scary experience?

Van Wie: I don’t know if I did or not. But representing your country is very nerve-racking. ‘My home, my God, my country.’ Either you fall apart when you get nervous or it brings out the best you can do. I was on the right end of that. Fortunately.

GJ: You quit competitive golf at the end of 1934. Why?

Van Wie: Well, I’d won the Amateur three times in a row. I thought I’d earned a rest. I was worn out. Enervated. I wanted to see if I could do something else. I worked for Beatrice Foods for 11 years, in market research for dairy products. And there was the War.

GJ: This book says you became a school teacher. What did you teach?

Van Wie: I never taught school. I was a golf instructor until I retired in 1978. Had my own studio in Chicago. I taught the Ernest Jones method.

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IT HAS BEEN ONE OF GOLF’S STURDIEST CLICHÉS for 40 years: Gene Sarazen doesn’t look his age. He wears navy plus fours for this interview, a white, hard-collar golf shirt, and sporty black and white shoes. His clothes look crisp and new. He walks slowly, but his handshake is firm, and his responses are quick and thoughtful No hearing aid, no eyeglasses. Sarazen is 94 now and guess what: He doesn’t look his age. Not even close.

“I have dinner at 6, and I go to bed at 9:30 and read for about an hour,” he says. “Breakfast at 9, 9:30.” For exercise, he walks a few laps on his patio every day; it’s about thirty paces from end to end. What about a glass of Scotland’s second-best export? “At my age, you drink wine. Occasionally, about that much peach wine,” he adds, holding his right thumb and index finger two inches apart.

He lives in a condominium four stories above the beach. Sarazen looks out at Gullivan Bay, and at the deeper blue of the distant Gulf of Mexico, and recalls a golf tournament he won 75 years ago.

GJ: In the 1922 U.S. Open at Skokie Country Club, you had a one-stroke lead with one hole to play. And you hit a driver for your second shot to the final hole, which set up the winning birdie.

Sarazen: That’s right. I remember there was out-of-bounds on the left and water to the right. Our drivers were six or seven degrees (of loft); now they’re 10 or 11. We had to learn to play several shots with each club. Now, the courses are so soft, where it drops, it stops.

Bobby Jones and John Black finished second, one shot behind me. That was the first Open where they charged admission, you know. One dollar.

I saw Jones and O.B. Keeler, the writer, at the train station afterward. I was carrying the trophy. Jones said I’ll play you for that tomorrow."

GJ: You won scores of other tournaments, including every major. Where does the ‘22 Open rank?

Sarazen: It’s still the biggest one.

GJ: Didn’t Henry Fownes, the steel tycoon who built Oakmont, have a role in your win at Skokie?

Sarazen: I was working at Highland Golf Club in Pittsburgh, and I knew Mr. Fownes from playing Oakmont. He says he thinks I can win the Open, so he sent me and Emil Loeffler out there to practice. But they had a Scotch pro who wouldn’t let us play. Well, Mr. Fownes made some calls, and finally we got on. So when I got back to Pittsburgh, I knew exactly what to practice.

GJ: Jim Barnes was the defending champion, and you and he were feuding. Did that bother you?

Sarazen: I was just a (20-year old) kid then. A couple of days before the first round, I saw Barnes, Frances Ouimet and Chick Evans about to tee off. ‘You mind if I make the fourth?’ I said. Barnes said, ‘I wouldn’t like that.’

But Barnes did me a great favor seven years later. I saw him on a train in New York – he was working on Wall Street – and he says, ‘Go to the bank, pay off all your loans, and sell off all your stocks.’ So I missed The Crash. Barnes and I became great friends.

GJ: You began golf as a caddie at Apawamis, in New York. Ever loop for anyone famous?

Sarazen: We always judged a man by his golf bag. One time a twosome’s clubs came up. One new bag, with new clubs, the other a little Sunday bag with GR on the side. We figured the better players had better clubs and would give a better tip. Well, the other caddie had first pick, so he took the new bag, and that man turned out to be a terrible player. The other player walked up, white flannels, a gold watch chain. And that was Grantland Rice, the great sportswriter. He could always get a story out of me.

GJ: Was there anything about your life you'd change if you could? Any regrets?

Sarazen: No. (pause) I was married 62 years to Mary Katherine Peck. I certainly didn’t regret that.

GJ: Have you thought about your place in golf history?

Sarazen: I made a few contributions. I helped popularize the Reminder Grip, (a planed-off section) which showed beginning players how to hold the club with the left hand. Better players didn’t use it. It was the only thing that ever helped the average player. But a bunch of lawyers had it outlawed.

And the sand wedge revolutionized the whole game, because all the courses had to be re-trapped. I went up with Howard Hughes in his airplane, and he said, ‘Gene, pull back on that stick.’ And it flashed into my mind that some weight on the back of a niblick could make a club and a ball bounce out of the sand the same way that plane bounced into the air.

GJ: Do any of the modern players remind you of your contemporaries?

Sarazen: I’d say Arnold Palmer reminds me of Hagen. I remember the last time I made the cut at the Masters, and I had a short putt for birdie on the fifth, and Palmer scraped all around and made a long putt for par, just like Hagen used to do. I three-putted, and it was raining, and I never felt so tired in my life.

GJ: Assume you could play 18 holes this afternoon with anyone you’ve ever known. Who’s in your foursome?

Sarazen: Anyone? (long pause) Maybe Emil Loeffler and Charlie Roe. They did more for me than anyone in golf.

GJ: And where would you play?

SARAZEN: (smiling) I’d pick an easy course.

George Dunlap (USGA Museum)


Virginia Van Wie (USGA Museum)


Gene Sarazen (USGA Museum)