The colorful characters, hustlers and humbuggery of one of golf’s fringe benefits – a sideshow of skill and pizzazz.
From the Golf Journal Archives - The Trick Shot Artists
Dec 07, 2012
By David Earl
(Note: This article originally appeared in the November/December 1993 issue of Golf Journal.)
THEY WERE promoters extraordinaire. So traveled that their very mileage provided them with grist for their publicity mills, cars from their auto industry pals, and eye-popping statistics for their books, pamphlets, and press releases; so skilled that their trick-shot repertoires included feats like hitting three different balls with three different clubs at the same time so that one flew straight, one faded, and one drew; time after time, day after day, hitting balls with an iron club off watches (loaned willingly by audience members) without damaging the crystals; and hitting straight, fade, or draw at will with bizarre concoctions of clubs, from medieval chain maces to rubber-hose-shafted, or seven-foot, or big or small drivers from the knees, seated, balanced on chairs, one foot, with one hand.
Now if these boys couldn’t think of a weird way to send balls downrange, it didn’t exist. Janet Seagle, formerly the curator at Golf House, remembers Paul Hahn, the key trick shotter of the ‘40s and ‘50s, gently debunking the instruction craze by telling crowds, “Hey, you don’t have to stand up to hit.” Joe Kirkwood remembers a shot from a lie stymied by a tree that went “right across a river . . . circling like a boomerang, finishing on the green, where I holed out for a birdie 3.”
And could they talk; in fact, they still can. The selling point of the show wasn’t only the golf, but the gab, the patter, and the jokes and wisecracks. The lifestyle makes for unusual speech habits, incidentally. Most of the still-performing trick-shot artists speak of themselves either in the first-person plural (the royal “we”) in the manner of Larry “Wedgy” Winchester, 1984 National Long Drive champ, and today’s best-known trick-shotter, or as a disembodied sort of third person, a character outside themselves.
Tom Tuell, the Golfing Gorilla, cannot bring himself to say, “I do this and that as part of my act.” Instead, it’s “The Gorilla is this” or “does that.” The late Count Hilary Yogi, whose promotional material and conversation read like the label on the Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Soap bottles (“Only One Perpetual! He’s Old! Be Happy! Life at its worst is Wonderful! Obviously Greatest Golfer Of All Ages!”), decided not to talk on the phone as himself. Instead, he adopted varying identities and names, including his own real name, and told his life’s story as if it were someone else’s. Yogi wrote, “Not any golfer today or yesterday could ever come close to matching Count Yogi or his other names.”
Dramatis Personae — The Early Years
The pioneers, the greats are all gone. That’s a makeable case if you care to prosecute it. Just as in the “real” golf, where the golden boys, the Hagens and the Joneses, the Ky Laffoons and the Champagne Tonys, are memories, so has the side show lost its firstborn. Joe Ezar, who Dan Jenkins says should be thought of as “the granddaddy of them all,” is long gone and little remembered except among his contemporaries. Bob Rickey, former GWAA secretary, said, “They all played for second after Ezar.” Less obscure are Joe Kirkwood, Sr., who Golf Magazine eulogized in 1971 – “It would be impossible to measure his contribution to the growth of the game” – and movie-star-handsome pilot Paul Hahn.
These three were the first (and the old-timers claim the finest) of the golf showmen who made it pay. Why? Well, they had the shots and they had the crowd savvy. They could work ‘em all, royalty to rube, with that oil-smooth patter, jaw-dropping shotmaking, and personal charm to spare.
Shotmaking, which has been around about as long as golf itself, was beyond a doubt the legitimate parent of trick shots. But you would probably have to regard gambling as the other and more earthy progenitor. Trickshotters of the early years were known to amplify and supplement both their egos and their less-than-guaranteed purses with a bit of pigeon plucking along the way.
Some were more hustler than showman and concentrated on the bets they could wangle. Dan Jenkins wrote in The Dogged Victims of Inexorable Fate of “mysterious John Montague, the trick-shot king, who beat Oliver Hardy one day using only a baseball bat, a shovel, and a rake.”
Hardy wasn’t Montague’s only meal ticket. He kept other rich and famous company. A regular out at Lakeside Country Club in Los Angeles, remembers Bob Hope, Montague was “reluctant to be photographed. Whenever he was in position to break the course record... he picked up on the 18th tee,” Hope said that Montague had alleged underworld connections “and the word was that he was wanted by the police in Buffalo.”
When Hope and his pal Bing Crosby, who were pretty decent golfers in their time, took on The Great Montague, they’d play for $5.00 nassaus. Once after a match Bing had lost, the crooner was moaning about not getting enough strokes. Montague was offended, gave Bing the Hardy treatment and beat him in what Hope calls “one of the most famous one-hole matches in Lakeside history,” winning with a par via two fairway bats, a shovel from the greenside bunker, and a 30-foot one-putt with the rake.
Gambling aside, if you went looking for the consummate trick-shot artist, you’d keep coming up with the name Joe Kirkwood. Joe did it all with style and class. Sure, he wasn’t averse to using his talents to garner a few spare bucks. “I was hired many a time to be a sort of secret weapon,” he wrote in his autobiography with Barbara Fey, Links of Life. Once Kirkwood was engaged to partner a wealthy railroad mogul – “I was told to blow it, and I spent the entire round dubbing my shots off the toe of my club between people’s feet, looping shots around trees . . . and generally playing a frightening game. This big executive tried to coach me all the way, changing my grip and stance, giving advice of every kind and losing every bet (and he’d made plenty).” That same afternoon, Joe had set up another match, but the exec “wangled” his way out of the partnership with Kirkwood, preferring instead to play against him. So Joe still sent the ball right, left, up and down, “even skipping it across a lake (as I had in the morning), but somehow always having them come to rest on the fairway. Each time I exclaimed about how lucky they were, and the tycoon agreed with Kirkwood that “they really were lucky.”
The unaware railroad exec lost every hole. He wouldn’t even admit defeat when they told him of the hustle – “Oh, I know Joe Kirkwood well, and that sure wasn’t him playing,” the pigeon persisted.
But that sort of play wasn’t all there was to Joe, not by any means. In spite of a slight disparagement of his ability by Herbert Warren Wind in a piece on Harold Hilton – “Unlike Joe Kirkwood ... Hilton could also hit the ball straight when he had to...” – Joe must have been a very reasonable tournament golfer, since he played well over at least two decades. Harvey Penick once said to him, “You’re the only man who ever held a club right to suit me.”
First Kirkwood found he could beat ‘em down under, winning the 1920 New Zealand and Australian Open titles. So he set sail for Britain and qualified for the 1921 Open, beating Harry Vardon in his first match and tying for sixth. In the 1924 Open, he lost to Arthur Havers by blowing up down the stretch, going four over on Troon’s last five holes (courtesy of a couple of lost balls) for a closing 78 and 298. In 1926, he played in the international match regarded as the predecessor to the Ryder Cup, which was established the following year. In 1927, he had his highest finish in the British, tying for third. Joe tied Olin Dutra for first at Long Beach in 1930, beating a fine field including Charley Seaver (Hall-of-Fame baseball pitcher Tom’s dad). In 1933, he won the Canadian Open (by eight strokes) and the North and South Open.
But it was Kirkwood’s many tours with, and his great friendships and kinships with, Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen that best manifested his talents. Through appearance after appearance, Joe and his pro friends were ambassadors, spreading the gospel of golf and the joy of the game around the world. “I suspect that Joe Kirkwood did more to popularize golf then any other man,” said Lowell Thomas.
Joe’s longtime association with The Haig was a natural. They met at Pinehurst and, starting in 1922, the twosome kept busy, playing 103 matches in 105 days over one stretch. On their first U.S. tour, they used a new invention, the wooden tee, and were somewhat responsible for its popular adoption. “Joe was an invaluable partner,” wrote Hagen, who played straight man. “He would hole six balls all stymied, in rapid succession. He could turn his face away and hit 12 balls ... full shots. He’d play right-hand shots with a left-handed club and vice versa. It was all child’s play to him.” Over the next 15 years, they went everywhere – from South America to Australia to Japan, so often that Hagen learned some of Joe’s shots via osmosis. When Kirkwood injured himself “trying to catch a ball in mid-air with a niblick” in Calcutta, Walter was able to perform most of the routine. “Joe Kirkwood will almost literally drive a golf ball around the world,” read an effusive article in PGA Magazine announcing one of the pair’s journeys.
Later, as Hagen grew less active, Kirkwood found Gene Sarazen another willing traveling companion. It was every bit as rewarding as working with The Haig. “Kirkwood had stated ... that he felt the old urge to blaze a few trails coming on. I asked (him) how he felt about a possible tour of South America,” Sarazen wrote later in Thirty Years of Championship Golf. A few months later, Joe had set up “a 20,000-mile air trip... which he felt would serve as a nice warm-up for a few other little side trips, to Europe in June coincidental with the British Open, back to the States to lay in a new supply of dental floss and to play in our Open, a brief arc through western Canada and our northwestern states, on to Hawaii and Australia, and then – why not, when we were so close – a quick look-in on Asia ... I begged off on this last lap and headed for home with a mere 100,000 miles under my belt.”
Kirkwood’s son, Joe Jr., took after his dad a bit. He played golf – seventh in the 1949 U.S. Open and in the money the three years following – and played Joe Palooka in the movies.
Dramatis Personae — Paul Hahn
Paul Hahn was the trick-shot king of the ‘50s and ‘60s, combining an unerring show-business sensibility with excellent trick-shot abilities and respectability including a Class A PGA membership. Paul dressed in “a one-piece parachutist’s jumpsuit made of scarlet velour (with) a polka-dot ascot,” (reported Myron Cope of Sports Illustrated) during his heyday. His “grasp of commentary and satire is the appurtenance that lifts his act a flight above other trick-shot artists,” said Cope.
Hahn, a native of Charleston, S.C., tried tournament golf, but, in his own words, he “could hit ‘em with the best off the practice tee but got yipping nerves when the chips were down.” He turned to trick shots, advertising “The Paul Hahn Exhibition, an outstanding performance of trick shots combined with a unique comedy routine and informative PGA golf clinic.” It worked – he was earning $60,000 a year in 1952, piloting his own Piper Comanche airplane over 100,000 miles per year to exhibitions, contributing to Golf World magazine in a weekly column, and working on the first of two books and two pamphlets. Dave Marr remembers, “Paul was the first one with a real gift of gab and a show-business mind.”
Handsome as a movie star, he used the Graph-Check swing sequence camera to good advantage, supporting his theory of “swinging the clubhead” with sequence photos showing that his trick-shot clubs (the triple-swivel driver and the rubber-hose-shaft driver) straightened to full extension at contact, the latter after wrapping around his shoulders on the backswing.
Hahn wasn’t averse to a wager or two. After losing a $2 nassau to Doug Sanders, who’d cleaned him with a 67 for a total of $8 out of pocket, Hahn asked Doug if he’d like to try to make that $88. Sanders agreed, and the two had a little eight-shot driving contest, with Hahn using the trick-shot clubs. Guess who won? “One by one, I went through Doug Sanders,” Hahn said. “We’re the closest of friends now, but the lesson he learned from me was never bet another man’s game.”
Paul claimed to be the originator of the “William Tell” shot, hitting a teed ball first from an audience member’s, then from his wife Bobbie’s, mouth. He performed his show at many of the major championships, including 10 PGAs and four years running at The Masters. Hahn remembered Augusta National as the crucial moment of his career There, in his first exhibition, he started to warm up with a 5-iron. Beset with nerves, he shanked his first three shots, but his quick wits saved him. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he announced, “the most difficult shot in golf – the intentional shank!”
The Current Cast of Characters
This age is not devoid of trick-shot artists, though the nature of the entertainment business would not offer you any sort of evidence (unless you were an active golfer) of the truth of that statement. In fact, nowadays the golf entertainer is of two genres, the true trick-shot artist and the long driver.
Long driving is primarily a power game. Folks like Gary “Ball Park” Franks, Evan “Big Cat” Williams, and 13 others make up an exclusive fraternity, the “350 Club.” Membership is by invitation only and conditional upon your verified and frequent ability to drive the ball 350 yards. The repertoire of tricks usually involves power and distance. Williams features the act of driving a ball through a telephone book as part of his performance, made easier, no doubt, by the tendency of a ball to elongate into an oblate spheroid (football shape) about six feet off the clubface. There’s a national long-driving contest, and the 350 Club members do quite well each year, thank you very much.
Probably the most unusual member of the 350 Club is The Golfing Gorilla, who numbers among his specialties driving balls off tall buildings and other high places. In real life, the Gorilla is Tom Tuell. He hit upon the Gorilla idea, he says, after noting the success of baseball’s costumed Chicken (formerly the San Diego Chicken, Ted Giannulis). “I walked up there on the practice tee at one Tour event and began hitting balls, dressed in the gorilla suit. When the pros noticed I could actually hit, they were readier to accept my presence,” recalls Tuell. “My career’s crux point occurred when I was asked to hit the first ball off the tee to start a Tour event I had one shot – it was make it or break it, right there.”
The Gorilla succeeded, of course, splitting the fairway with a 250-yard drive. Since then, he’s appeared at many Tour events, and (with a flair for self-promotion reminiscent of the old-timers) has written a book, The Gorilla Book of World Records. The premise of the book is that athletic events performed while wearing all or part of a gorilla suit are worthy of recording, in the manner of Guinness; to further those ends, the redoubtable Tuell offers gorilla masks (legal for record attempts) through mail order.
In addition to the power hitters and Tuell’s Gorilla, there’s still a thriving market for the tricksters. More than a dozen artists are actively performing as of this writing, of whom the best-known are Paul Harm, Jr., and Larry “Wedgy” Winchester.
Paul Hahn, Jr., son of pioneer Paul Hahn, operates out of Boynton Beach, Fla., these days, and most recently has returned from a trip that saw him performing in Australia and the South Pacific. Sponsored by Daiwa, his show is a mixture of trick shots and comedic patter. He’s been learning his craft for many years – in his father’s book, he was lauded as “having more shots than his dad,” and that was written more than two decades ago.
Larry “Wedgy” Winchester, who’s enjoyed the benefits of an equipment manufacturer’s sponsorship for eight years, is a native of Utah. Wedgy received a shot in the promotional arm when he won the 1984 National Long Drive Championship using one of his trick clubs, an extended-shaft driver. He also finished third in the event in 1985, he says, and eighth in 1986. The centrifugal force generated by a swipe at the ball with a five- or seven-foot shaft sometimes makes him spin 360 degrees on the follow-through. He got his start at his father’s driving range during the late ‘50s, and proceeded through college golf (where he won six matches with a broken leg in a plaster cast, shooting one under par over the six rounds).
Wedgy’s innovative trick shots include the “Winchester Repeater,” in which he advances down a line of teed balls with irons in each hand striking one after another in a continuous motion not unlike that of a windmill. Wedgy’s authored articles for golf magazines on trouble shots; he works 70 to 100 dates each year, and has performed in 49 countries. His contemporaries hold his talent in esteem, long-drive expert Evan “Big Cat” Williams says, “Wedgy hits the longest and most difficult trick shots of anybody in the business.”
Undoubtedly the most unusual of the recent trick shotters was one Count Hilary Yogi, of Hollywood, Calif. Yogi was a former driving-range pro and teacher from Chicago whose origins are shrouded in mystery. Even his real name was in doubt. He was sometimes known as Harri Frenciotti and sometimes as Harry Frankenberg. Yogi wrote a book, Five Simple Steps to Perfect Golf, which was sold by mail and phone order from ads in PGA Magazine.
A recent Yogi letter read, “We’ve been burglarized and stolen so often . . . County Yogi’s not interested in publicity. He’s had more than anyone who’s ever lived and everyone is after us now. Not any golfer, today or yesterday, could ever come close to matching Count Yogi. He scored all the records. Started the babies, blind, handicapped, amputees to be perfect the most difficult science of all sports. Even taught a dog and turtle to putt. All his family are perfect, too.”
There are other practitioners of this genre. Paul Hahn, Jr., mentions a Paul Buuman from Georgia – “more professional than the others, but he’s been sick recently.” Chuck Workman, head pro at Bethpage State Park on Long Island, N.Y., and an infrequent competitor on the Senior Tour, performs a trick-shot show a few times each year. There’s Dennis Walters, who’s lost the use of his legs but still amazes ‘em by hitting shots of all varieties from a specially adapted golf cart with a swivel seat. Curt Wilson of Arizona does several shows each year for Veteran’s Administration hospital patients under the banner “Golf Is Fun.” And there are also regional artists, among them Buddy Demling, Mike Calbot Joey Oshman (Joey “O”) and his golfing circus, Mike Smith, Buddy Shelton, Bobby Brue, and Jack Roseman. The ranks have lost a few members recently, too – Jack Redman, who did stage work in California, and Pete Longo have passed on, and Jim McIlhenny is prevented from performing because of injury.
It’s hard to speculate what the future holds for this most unusual application of the Royal and Ancient game. One thing’s sure, though – as long as there’s golf and golfers, there’ll be somebody who comes up with a new angle, a strange shot or a new twist. Golfers are an inventive lot, aren’t we?
Joe Kirkwood enjoyed all the trappings of a carnival in his act, including outlandish garb and outsized props. (USGA Museum)
The aptly named John (Mysterious) Montague found garden implements almost as effective as golf clubs when it came to fleecing suckers. (USGA Museum)
One of the new generation of trick-shot artists, Peter Longo takes quite a collection of bizarre golf implements on the road. (USGA Museum)