The Great Golf Marathon of 1938
Story by Jim Ducibella
J. Smith Ferebee was born and raised in old Princess Anne County, attended Virginia Military Institute and the University of Virginia, and spent the last 30 years of his life in Richmond, where he would be an influential fundraiser for Virginia’s Republican Party and a kingmaker in state politics. It was while living in Chicago, though, that he gained a reputation for doing anything on a dare – including once swimming for 30 minutes with his hands and feet tied behind his back.
In 1937, he and Chicago friend Fred Tuerk bought 296 acres of land in what today is Virginia Beach. An offer soon came to purchase the land, which sent Ferebee and Tuerk into a disagreement that threatened their friendship. Eventually, they arrived at what they thought was a final solution to their impasse over the land, a bet that Ferebee couldn’t play 144 holes of golf in one day.
Instead, that initial bet turned out to be a prelude to the most extraordinary challenge in golf history – and a story that captivated America for the rest of the summer.
On the kind of tranquil late-summer evening that invites gentle conversation on the front porch, Reuben Trane bounded through the entrance to Chicago’s Olympia Fields Country Club and into the Amos Alonzo Stagg Room. He was in the city to celebrate his company’s greatest technological success – the Turbovac, which made commercial air-conditioning units light enough to be moved out of precious interior office space and onto a company’s roof – over dinner and drinks with James Smith Ferebee and a few of the stockbroker’s friends.
The relationship between Trane and Ferebee had blossomed in the fall of 1936 when Trane hired Barney Johnson and Company to underwrite a public offering of $300,000 of preferred stock. Two years later, the inventor and businessman from small-town La Crosse, Wisconsin, and the big-time Chicago stockbroker often talked about how much they had in common.
In college, both had toiled in unappreciated sports: After leaving Virginia Military Institute, Ferebee wrestled and swam at the University of Virginia, while Trane was a stalwart on the University of Wisconsin crew team. Now 52 years of age, Trane was an avid golfer who often competed in local La Crosse tournaments, and was at least as accomplished a player as Ferebee.
Summoned home to La Crosse after college to help run the tiny plumbing operation that his father opened in 1886, he had transformed the two-man Trane Company into a 1,500-employee force in the increasingly competitive arena of climate control.
‘SOMETHING EVEN MORE OUTLANDISH’
Even as Trane greeted Ferebee and Fred Tuerk and was introduced to a Chicago advertising executive named Adolph O. Goodwin, his mind was sifting through ways to market his breakthrough product to architects, builders, and engineers.
He momentarily pushed aside those thoughts as he and his dinner companions conversed about the most important topics of the day: the increasingly frightening shadow Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were casting over Europe, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the stall in America’s recovery from the Great Depression, and the impact those events were having on business.
Normally quiet and introspective, Trane suddenly decided to lighten the mood by having some fun at Ferebee’s expense. He joked about a recent editorial in the Wisconsin State Journal, which scolded Ferebee for not giving a female challenger to his 144-hole marathon of the previous month the match it argued she richly deserved. Trane teased Ferebee that he must be living flush these days, for how else could he explain the recent news that he had rejected a Chicago newspaper’s offer of $1,500 to play her? He then told Tuerk and Goodwin about Ferebee’s address to a group at the Stoddard Hotel in La Crosse, a short distance from Trane Company headquarters. The women, he relayed, were disappointed and the men disgusted when his friend announced that he had no intention of trying another marathon.
“People want to see you do something even more outlandish,” Trane said, coming across more seriously than he had intended. “I understand why you’re not interested, but you’ve gotten yourself into a real mess here, haven’t you?”
Ferebee simply nodded.
Tuerk, still smarting from having lost his share of the Princess Anne County property in the 144-hole wager, joined in, eager to pick the scab off an old wound. He explained to Trane and Goodwin that after reading about the many golfers who had outdone Ferebee’s marathon, he felt cheated out of his portion of the Virginia land.
The normally unflappable Ferebee exploded. “Fred, you know damn well that I won that bet fair and square.”
“Maybe?” Ferebee repeated, his voice climbing an octave as it always did when he became riled. “What are you talking about?”
“Oh, you played all the holes and everything, but it wasn’t as tough a deal as you made it out to be. People who aren’t half the athlete you are — kids, for Christ’s sake — have already beaten your ‘record,’ and it hasn’t even been a month.”
‘THAT’S NOT A MARATHON’
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Ferebee replied loudly enough to draw disapproving glares from diners at nearby tables. “I don’t care who did what. None of them played golf courses nearly as tough as Olympia Fields.”
“That may be, but if it hadn’t stormed, you would have finished this great ‘feat’ before supper,” Tuerk retorted. “Hell, you could have spent most of the evening in the pool. The way I see it, that’s not a ‘marathon.’ You owe me a chance to get my land back, and I’ll bet you that these men agree.”
“Let’s get two things straight,” Ferebee snapped. “One, it isn’t your land. Not anymore. Two, I don’t owe you a goddamned thing.”
“That’s what you say, but you seem to be the only person at this table who thinks this is over.”
Trane and Goodwin exchanged glances, shocked but mesmerized by the sudden twist in the conversation. Ferebee lowered his fork and raised his glass. He rested the rim against his lower lip for a moment then took a sip.
“All right, Fred,” he finally said. “Sam Snead just took home a lot of money when he won a four-day tournament. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’ll play 144 holes a day for four straight days.”
Now it was Trane’s turn to bolt upright. “What!” he screeched, forgetting where he was. “Smitty, you’re not serious?”
“Yes, sir, I am, and right here at Olympia Fields. One hundred forty-four holes a day for four straight days. That ought to keep everyone quiet. Right, Fred?”
Goodwin suddenly wagged his finger. “I’m not so sure,” he interjected. “You’ve already played 144 holes at Olympia Fields. People will say you have a big advantage because you know this place so well.”
Ferebee then suggested he could play 144 holes one day at Olympia Fields and the other rounds at three other local clubs.
“If you are really interested in seeing this craziness end,” Goodwin argued quietly, “you should look beyond Chicago.”
Ferebee raised his glass again. This time he leaned the rim against his forehead and stared through it at the rest of the room. “I have a four-day business trip scheduled for later this month,” he said. “I’ll pick a course in each city and do it then, playing 144 at each.”
600 HOLES, FROM NEW YORK TO L.A.
Suddenly, everyone at the table was pitching ideas that the group batted around and dissected. Trane wanted to know how Ferebee could make his appointments in one place, play golf, and still get to the next city in time to do it again. When Ferebee said he’d fly, Trane scoffed.
“You can’t rely on commercial schedules; you’d have to have your own plane to even stand a chance,” Trane told him, effectively ending any notion Ferebee had about mixing business into this emerging new bet.
Goodwin then multiplied 144 by four and concluded that 576 holes wasn’t an exciting enough number. “Why not 150 a day?” he asked. “Make it an even 600 holes. And turn it into a marathon no one else would ever be crazy enough to try. Go from New York to Los Angeles. Believe me when I say that the press will eat each other alive going after this story.”
Trane stared across the table in disbelief at his new acquaintance. Where had Ferebee found this guy? He’d never mentioned him before. If Tuerk’s interaction with Goodwin was any indication, they were strangers, too.
How Ferebee and Goodwin came to know each other is pure conjecture. Ferebee may have met him in Virginia; in 1918, Goodwin was stationed at the Naval Operations base in Norfolk, just a few miles from Ferebee’s home in Princess Anne County. Or maybe they’d met on another Chicago-area golf course. Ferebee didn’t limit himself to playing only Olympia Fields.
Born in Raleigh, North Carolina, Goodwin had attended Mars Hill Junior College before serving as an ensign in the navy during World War I. Most of his career had been spent as a copy editor for newspapers in Raleigh and at the New York Herald Tribune before he moved into advertising.
Ferebee glanced at Tuerk for a reaction.
“I personally don’t see how this is possible,” Tuerk said. “Just to be straight, if you don’t do this, the property in Virginia reverts to me, correct?”
Ferebee nodded. “And if I make it?”
“I’ll pay your mortgage,” Tuerk responded, making an offer worth about $20,000.
“Deal,” Ferebee said, extending his hand.IB
Jim Ducibella is a former [Norfolk] Virginian-Pilot sports writer who now writes Internet articles for the College of William & Mary.
King of Clubs: The Great Golf Marathon of 1938
By Jim Ducibella
168 pages, 36 b&w photos, ISBN 978-1-59797-836-1,
Potomac Books, $24.95 hardcover, copyright 2012
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