By Ron Driscoll
Museum Moment: Mission Accomplished: Shepard's "Moon Club" Brought Golf to Lofty Heights
Feb 03, 2011
For years, comedian Bob Hope took the stage to his signature tune, “Thanks for the Memories.” Little known to many is that we have Hope to thank in great measure for one of the enduring memories in golf: Alan Shepard’s shots with a makeshift 6-iron on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 14 space mission on Feb. 6, 1971.
Having become the first American in space aboard the Freedom 7 craft in 1961, Shepard’s place in history was already secure when he and fellow Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton showed Hope around the NASA complex one day. As Shepard recalled, “Hope had an old driver that he was swinging as we walked around the campus. We hooked him up in a moon walker, and as he was bouncing up and down on his toes, he used the driver for balance. That’s when I said to myself, I have to find a way to hit a ball on the moon.”
Shepard wasn’t just concocting a publicity stunt – he also was thinking scientifically. A typical 6-iron shot of 150 yards on Earth would hang in the air 25 to 30 seconds and travel 900 yards in the one-sixth gravity of the moon. “All of us who were lucky enough to be on the surface tried to think of something that would demonstrate the lack of gravity, the lack of atmosphere,” said Shepard in a 1996 interview with Golf Journal.
With the idea firmly planted, and his role as commander of the Apollo 14 mission secure, Shepard took the next step. He brought the retractable instrument that he was going to use to collect rock and soil samples from the lunar surface to a golf professional he knew, Jack Harden at River Oaks Country Club in Houston.
“I swore him to secrecy,” said Shepard. “And then I asked him, ‘Is there any way we can make a 6-iron fit on this strange little handle?’ Sure enough, he cut off a 6-iron, put a little fitting on it, and we had it.” Shepard had sought a 6-iron clubhead because the multi-piece shaft of the instrument was about the length of a 6-iron.
Shepard practiced diligently, again in secret, swinging the makeshift club after work hours while wearing everything he would be encumbered by on the moon: a pressurized space suit with oxygen tanks, radios and other gear. “At least I got to the point where I was making some contact,” he recalled. “I wanted to be sure I didn’t fall down, because I planned to do it in front of the television camera.”
Despite all the preparation, Shepard’s plan was nearly scuttled by Bob Gilruth, director of the manned space center. When Shepard broached the idea to him, Gilruth initially dismissed it as “frivolous.” Shepard persisted, promising that if there were any problems with the mission, he would abort the effort. Besides, he added, “I’m going to pay for the golf balls, I’m going to pay for the clubhead, and there will be no expense to the taxpayer.” Gilruth finally agreed, and when Apollo 14 lifted off, only a handful of people knew of Shepard’s plan.
After more than nine hours on the lunar surface over two days with fellow astronaut Edgar Mitchell, conducting experiments and setting up research stations, it was time to depart. With the main mission having gone smoothly, Shepard pulled out the club and his two golf balls. He later joked that he played “winter rules in February” by improving his lie on the moon’s surface.
“It was impossible to get two hands on the handle [because of the pressurized suit],” he later recalled. “And it’s impossible to make any kind of a turn. I shanked the first one; it rolled into a crater about 40 yards away. The second one, I kept my head down.”
Shepard famously described the shot on camera as traveling “miles and miles and miles,” a wild exaggeration. He later said, “I hit it flush and it went at least 200 yards,” since the shot had carried over an area where he and Mitchell had set up some experiments. “One of the experiments failed a couple of weeks later and they blamed my golf ball for hitting it,” Shepard recalled with a chuckle during a 1996 speech at the USGA Museum, on the 25th anniversary of the moon shots.
Following the Apollo 14 mission, Shepard returned to his position as chief of the astronaut office. He was promoted to rear admiral before retiring from both NASA and the Navy in August 1974.
The club was much sought after upon Shepard’s return. Interestingly, while Bob Hope provided the inspiration for the moon shots, his longtime friend and movie co-star Bing Crosby helped to procure the club for the USGA.
Crosby became a member of the USGA Museum Committee in 1972, and Shepard played for several years in Crosby’s annual pro-am at Pebble Beach. In 1973, Crosby wrote to Shepard on behalf of the USGA: “It seems to me that Golf House would be an ideal repository for the celebrated implement.” Shepard agreed, and the USGA officially received it from him in June 1974, in a ceremony during the U.S. Open at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y.
Shepard kept a sense of humor about his place in history. When reporters asked him in 1961 what he thought about as he sat atop the rocket, awaiting liftoff on Freedom 7, he had replied, “The fact that every part of this ship was built by the low bidder.”
During the 1996 speech at the USGA, he recalled receiving a call about the Moon Club. “The Smithsonian said they were building a new exhibit in the Air and Space Museum and wanted to use my golf club. I said I was sorry, but I don’t have it. I gave it away. There was silence at the other end of the line before they asked where. I said it went to the USGA where it ought to be. They said, ‘Don’t you know that it flew in a government spacecraft and it automatically becomes the property of the Smithsonian?’” Shepard asked the crowd, “Can you imagine talking to an admiral that way?”
The Smithsonian later received a replica of the Moon Club.
Ron Driscoll is the copy editor for USGA Communications. E-mail questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alan B. Shepard holds the moon club during his visit to the USGA Museum in Far Hills, N.J., in 1996. (USGA Museum)
The Moon Club is displayed in the Arnold Palmer Center for Golf History at the USGA Museum in Far Hills, N.J. (USGA Museum)