From the Golf Journal Archives - Golf's Great Losses: P.J. Boatwright Jr.

Mar 11, 2011

The deaths of P.J. Boatwright Jr., and Joseph Dey Jr., have taken two major personalities from the game, and from its traditions that they so strongly upheld..

By Robert Sommers

(Note: This article originally appeared in the May/June 1991 issue of Golf Journal.)

WITHIN A PERIOD of one month, the USGA, indeed all of golf, lost two powerful figures whose influence has been as profound as anyone’s in the long history of the game. Joe Dey died on March 4, and P.J. Boatwright Jr., on April 5.

Since golf became formalized late in the 18th century, no one has claimed such universal respect as these two men for their integrity, their knowledge, and their unyielding devotion to the principles and the traditions of the game.

Each was different in his approach, however; Joe was the more aggressive of the two, the more demanding of those around him, and the more likely to make an impulsive decision concerning the Rules of Golf, and then argue his point until he had convinced himself he was right, and P.J. was the more relaxed, the more forgiving, and perhaps the more thoughtful, a man to whom the rest of the world deferred in matters of the Rules.

In speaking to friends of a memorial service, USGA President Grant Spaeth told of a Women’s Open where he approached a player who had hit her ball into a coiled garden hose. Seeing Grant approach, she rose to her full height of perhaps five feet and said to Spaeth, who stands well over six feet, “I don’t want you. I want P.J.”

The two men differed in other respects, Joe’s reputation was based on his perceived excellence as an administrator, although he really wasn’t, as well as on his grasp of the Rules, and a flair for public relations. P.J., on the other hand, wasn’t known as an able administrator, although he was, but more as a force in setting up courses for the USGA’s championships, particularly the Open, and of course for his command of the Rules. Nor did he have Joe’s gift for public speaking, although he did rather well.

There was a further difference. Joe wasn’t a very good player; truthfully, he wasn’t very good at all. P.J., on the other hand, played first-class golf, and indeed played in the 1950 U.S. Open, when Ben Hogan completed his comeback from the automobile accident that almost killed him. P.J. enjoyed telling the story of that Open and the incident on the 14th tee. P.J. had shot 74-75 in the first two rounds, and survived the 36-hole cut. Toward the end of the third round, he was about to play from the 14th tee when Hogan was coming up to the 18th green.

At the Merion Golf Club, in suburban Philadelphia, where the championship was played, the 14th tee stands close to the 18th green. Hogan’s gallery was rushing toward the green when P.J. was preparing to drive. With no regard for the players, the crowd swarmed over the tee and knocked P.J.’s ball from the peg.

A year or so later, when he was playing in a tournament at the Palmetto Golf Club, in Aiken, S.C., he had the opportunity to play with Hogan at the Augusta National Golf Club, shortly before the Masters Tournament. Hogan was at his peak then, but he gave nothing away. Bobby Goodyear, an Augusta member, had arranged the match and invited Bobby Knowles, a Walker Cup player, and Boatwright. As they stood on the first tee, Hogan seemed to know everyone’s handicap, telling each man his figure, and then saying, “And I’m scratch,” an understatement of mammoth proportions.

Hogan arranged the match, taking Goodyear (at 4, the highest handicap) as his partner and stating they would play a $5 nassau. Boatwright fell relieved, since he had only $20. But then Hogan said, “And you, young man, I’ll play you another $5 nassau.” P.J. knew he was in trouble. He shot 74, but Hogan shot 67 and closed him out on the 15th hole. Short of money, P.J. had to borrow what he owed from the caddiemaster.

He often told that story and laughed about it, remembering he was only earning $60 a week, and the match cost him $40.

“But it was worth it,” he sighed.

P.J. WASN’T in golf administration then. He was working for his father, a cotton merchant. Later he joined the Carolinas Golf Association as its Executive Secretary, where he came under the guidance of Richard S. Tufts, one of the finest golf minds ever associated with the USGA. Tufts’s little 99-page book, The Principles Behind The Rules of Gol, has been a priceless contribution to the game, and the foundation for serious thought concerning the Rules.

P.J. came to the USGA in 1959 as an assistant director, working on the Rules and conducting championships. He ran the Junior Amateur for some years, giving him the opportunity to watch many of those young players who were to become the star players of the future. Frank Hannigan, who like P.J. became the leading executive on the USGA staff, said he was the best judge of young players he had ever known.

Through this period his stature grew both within the USGA and among those he dealt with in Rules matters and in the competitions. Until 1969 his duties at the Open consisted of starting the field from the first tee until the first group reached the 18th tee, then dashing to the final green to take the scorecards.

He often laughed as he told of his first experience at the Open. When Joe told him his duties, P.J. pondered for a moment, then asked, “When do I go to lunch?”

Without pausing, Joe said, “You can probably find a hot-dog stand along the way.”

P.J.’s Open responsibilities grew enormously when Joe resigned to become the Tour’s first commissioner. Now he participated not only in choosing courses for the championships, but also in setting them up. He also became the ranking Rules authority on the USGA staff.

He became a familiar figure then. No longer confined to the scorer’s tent (Hannigan filled that role for a time), P.J. became more familiar roaming the golf course, a tall, lean, unsmiling figure with slightly slumped shoulders, a flat-topped brimmed hat, hiding behind dark sunglasses. Executive Committee members often joked that when P.J. wore those glasses as he sat in a cart while play flowed past him, he was in truth taking a nap. They delighted when a photographer did indeed catch him with his eyes closed behind the sunglasses, and they had the picture blown up to poster size and unveiled at an Executive Committee meeting.

USUALLY, though, in those early years, P.J. walked with the USGA president, who normally served as the referee with the final group at the Open or the Women’s Open, or the final match of the Amateur Championship. He enjoyed the role. He was with Jack Nicklaus, for example, during the last round of the 1972 Open at Pebble Beach, and commented that Jack played the wrong kind of shot into the 12th hole, a demanding par 3. As P.J. described the shot in an article for this magazine, Jack’s ball “came in hot,” meaning on too low a trajectory, hit the green, and bounded into shaggy rough. From there Nicklaus needed two more shots to work his ball onto the green, then holed an eight-foot putt to save a bogey. He eventually won.

Lyn Lardner was the USGA president at the time, and others around him suggested he was afraid to let P.J. out of his sight in case a Rules problem arose that he couldn’t handle. Lyn wouldn’t deny it.

Soon, though, the committee realized that with P.J. confined to the last grouping, he wasn’t available for other sticky problems that constantly arose, and so his role was changed. He would patrol the course in a cart so that he could rush to other trouble spots.

As P.J.’s prestige grew here, it grew throughout the rest of the world. In addition to his USGA duties, he was appointed secretary of the World Amateur Golf Council when Joe resigned, and became familiar with golf authorities throughout the world. They became familiar with him as well, and as his reputation grew, they deferred to him in most matters concerning the World Amateur Team Championships. Until the last few years, when Michael Bonallack was appointed joint secretary with P.J., he conducted the championships, traveling the world setting up the courses for both the men’s and women’s competitions.

As a matter of fact, he oversaw his last event in New Zealand in October, when the United States won the Women’s World Amateur Team Championship at the Russley Golf Club, in Christchurch, and Sweden won the men’s championship, at the Christchurch Golf Club. The last significant shot he saw was Phil Mickelson’s 40-foot putt for a birdie on the last hole that saved the United States a tie for second place, with New Zealand.

AT ONE TIME or another P. J. dealt with nearly every phase of USGA work. He ran certain championships, became the USGA’s ruling expert on the Rules of Amateur Status, oversaw the handicapping system, and dealt with implements and ball.

When P.J, joined the staff, balls were tested on a crude and often unreliable device set up in the basement of the USGA’s building on East 38th Street, in Manhattan, that would fire the balls at great speed through a tube, where their velocity would be timed with an electrical gadget. A ball would break loose occasionally and ricochet around the room, sending P.J. and everyone else diving for cover.

While he oversaw so many of the USGA’s functions, P.J.’s reputation, though, was based on the Open and the Rules. He was the guardian of tradition in all things related to golf, and especially liked to see narrow fairways and slick, firm greens in the Open. As the 1990 cham¬pionship approached, he wasn’t satisfied with Medinah Country Club’s greens; he felt they were a touch too soft, but meeting Tim Simpson on the course a day or two before the Open began, he said they’d probably turn a bit more firm by the time the first round started.

Somewhat startled because he thought they felt like iron already, Simpson asked Boatwright, “How do you make rocks hard?” P.J. laughed at that one. He liked to see the greens fast as well; some say too fast. When a staff member argued that greens held to the speed he liked them, perhaps 10 or 11 feet on the Stimpmeter, made putting too important, P.J. argued the opposite, saying a champion golfer should be able to putt fast greens. Losing the argument and growing desperate for some means to save his point, the staff member glared at P.J. and snarled, “You must have been a good putter.”

P.J. turned on that engaging grin and said, “Yeah, I could putt.”

He did have his occasional disputes with Committee members, and he often talked in his sleep. During the Masters Tournament a year ago, Nancy Boatwright, P.J.’s wife of 39 years, came to the breakfast table shaking her head and smiling. Asked to explain, she said P.J. had just blurted out in his sleep, “All right, turn it into a pitch-and-putt course.” Then she laughed and said, “He’s arguing with Judy Bell about the Women’s Open.” P.J. and Judy, an Executive Committee member, set up the Women’s Open course together.

Boatwright was honored frequently, most recently receiving the 1990 William D. Richardson Award for distinguished contributions to golf, given by the Golf Writers Association of America. He also received the Metropolitan (N.Y.) Golf Association’s Distinguished Service Award, in 1983, and the Metropolitan Golf Writers Association’s 1986 Gold Tee Award.

P.J. was a quiet, somewhat studious, impeccably dressed man who slouched through the halls of the USGA in a slow-paced gait, poked his head through an office door and without fail called the occupant by his last name, held a brief conversation in his soft Southern voice, then ambled off, probably back to his office in the center of the third floor. Those of the staff will remember him setting behind his uncluttered desk, drawing on his pipe, grappling with a problem concerning the Rules.

THIS IS also the vision held by Spaeth. Speaking of an early meeting with P.J., he said, “About 12 years ago I paid a courtesy call on P.J. at Golf House. He was sitting at his desk with his books puzzling by himself over a Rules problem. How remarkable, I’ve mused ever since that this quiet man from places I don’t know – Aiken, Spartanburg – achieved such a dominant position and presence. Indeed, I came to feel he had the attributes of a superb jurist, certainly those of a statesman.

“First and foremost, he understood his charter – the preservation of the traditions and values we inherited from Scotland, with heavy emphasis on the individual responsibilities of the golfers. He learned from his mentor, Dick Tufts, but it was P.J.’s hand that steered us so carefully. He was obviously a caring expert, but he was a craftsman as well, carefully identifying the issues, and then interpreting and drafting with clarity and skill. He understood that defining the game by means of the Rules would succeed only if they made sense, they were understood, and they were accepted by golfers. His explanations and justifications were compelling.

“There was never a hint of impatience or arrogance. For the volunteer Committeeman who advanced an idea, he would pause, maybe draw on that pipe, then he might drawl, ‘Grant, I think you may have something there.’ Those were special moments.”

P.J. was 63 when he died. He had planned to make the 1992 Open his last, retire, move to Charleston, S.C., buy a boat, and spend the rest of his days fishing.

(Next's week's Golf Journal Archive article - Golf's Great Losses: Joseph C. Dey, Jr.)

P.J. Boatwright in a familiar setting. Putter under his arm, which he used to choose hole locations, and paint can in his hand, which he used to mark them, he set the holes at USGA competitions. (USGA Museum)

With the 1983 Open Championship at stake, P.J., pipe in hand, watched over Tom Watson as he took relief from the grandstand near Oakmont Country Club’s 18th green. Watson lost the Open to Larry Nelson. (USGA Museum)

In later years, P.J. patrolled the course, where he would be available for rulings anywhere. With Jack Mahaffey, an Executive Committee member from Pittsburgh. (USGA Museum)