JIM DODSON: Harvie Ward: The Last Amateur
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Two years ago this summer, I stopped in to say hello to an old friend who was trying to convince me I ought to move back to North Carolina for the same reasons he did.
"Whoever said you can take the boy out of Carolina but not the other way around sure got that right," Harvie Ward, 76, philosophized from his den chair in the lovely airy house he and his wife, Joanne, shared on Blue Road. "We all make a circle in life, they say. I made mine, and I'll bet you make yours, too."
"Problem is," he added with a mischievous grin, "when I first came to Pinehurst, my eyes were blue and my putter was red-hot. Now it's the other way around."
I was pleased to see that golf's eternal frat boy still had his puckish sense of humor. I'm not sure I would have, frankly.
Harvie's liver cancer had come back with a vengeance, and he knew he had perhaps only a few weeks or months to live. For more than two years prior to this point, we'd been talking about collaborating on a book about his extraordinary life in and out of golf -- a climb to the pinnacle of amateur golf fame followed by an unexpected fall from grace, national scandal, life in an alcoholic tailspin, shattered dreams and a string of failed marriages.
Only when he'd met the right woman and moved back to the Sandhills to do what he did exceedingly well -- teach others how to play golf -- did E. Harvie Ward find both the peace and redemption he'd been in search of for a very long time.
Riding High . . .
Ward's life possessed the plot lines of a Hollywood movie -- or maybe the classical elements of a Greek play.
Harvie was the charming, handsome son of a small-town eastern North Carolina druggist, who learned to play golf barefoot on a nine-hole cow-pasture golf course, wielding a hickory-shafted putter with such yeoman skill, and went on to become UNC's first All-America player.
He played his way as a virtual unknown into a star-studded field at the prestigious North and South Amateur Championship of 1948 here in Pinehurst, knocking off a string of leading players -- including his Wake Forest arch-rival Arnold Palmer -- en route to the finals against rich, talented Frank Stranahan, the top-ranked amateur in the world.
Stranahan, heir to the Champion spark plug fortune, was so cocksure of winning the North and South that year that he reserved the Carolina Hotel's ballroom and an orchestra beforehand for a victory dinner for 200 of his closest friends.
Cheered on by his rowdy fraternity brothers who drove down from Chapel Hill and behaved more like a crowd at a football game than the most prestigious amateur golf event in America, Ward blistered the greens of No. 2 with his famous putter, rewrote the script, and conducted his own victory party in the parking lot with fountains of cheap beer and booze.
Less than a year later, Ward captured the NCAA Championship out in Iowa and established himself as the new golden boy of amateur golf. The quick-witted star was sometimes photographed walking along a fairway with a pretty coed on his arm. "Harvie Ward, College Golfer -- Hubba, hubba," a Detroit newspaper headlined one of his first national triumphs.
For a while, Harvie Ward appeared both golden and bulletproof -- possibly destined to become the greatest player ever at a time when amateur golf was still the highest expression of the game and many professionals were regarded as second-class citizens.
Ward went on to anchor two Walker Cup teams and captured the British Amateur at Prestwick in 1952. He followed up by winning the U.S. Amateur titles in 1955 and 1956. The press began hailing him as "the next Ben Hogan," and no less an authority than Byron Nelson declared Harvie Ward the finest golfer in the world. He was a shoo-in, most felt, to capture a third consecutive National Amateur title.
. . . Then the Fall
But something happened. The fickle gods looked away.
Shortly before his title defense, when he was earning his crust selling cars for USGA committee member Eddie Lowery out in California, Harvie got summoned to an emergency session of the USGA executive committee and shockingly stripped of his amateur status and right to compete for a record third consecutive Amateur. For accepting his employer's travel money to play in the Masters -- a charge he didn't deny in the least -- the bluecoats insisted he had violated the rules of amateur golf and therefore must be punished. He was suspended from amateur golf for a year.
"That shocked and just about killed me. I couldn't believe it happened to me," he said one morning as we ate breakfast in a quiet corner of the Pine Crest Inn, talking about a book we envisioned calling "The Last Amateur."
He couldn't believe it because Ward was doing only what other top amateurs in golf, including Arnold Palmer and Ken Venturi, did -- permitting others to pick up the tab to important events. That practice, by the way, goes on in some form or another to this day. Ward had simply been made a public scapegoat, ending the darkest episode in USGA history. Both of us thought it was time to tell the story in full.
The chilling effect on amateur golf, however, was even more troubling. After the scandal broke, most of the nation's leading amateurs hurriedly turned pro, including Palmer and Venturi and a dozen other future familiar marquee names. One columnist called it the "College Boy Stampede." In many ways, Ward was indeed America's last great amateur player.
Ward's justified rage at the perceived injustice nearly destroyed his life. For the next 30 years he went on a charming bender, battling demons of one kind or another.
Circling Back to Home
"Coming back to Pinehurst was the second-smartest thing I ever did," he said that summer morning two years ago when I came by Blue Road to say hello -- and goodbye to a friend and an American original. "The second thing was convincing Joanne to marry me. She's really the one who saved me, you know."
He gave me one of his old frat-boy smiles and chuckled. "She convinced me I had a lot to teach young people about golf -- and maybe how not to live your life."
He asked me if I was finished with my biography on Ben Hogan yet, and I explained that the book was just out and we could start his book the moment I finished the book tour.
"Better hurry," the Last Amateur quipped. "I can see the clubhouse from here."
We talked for a little while about many things -- his recent final trip out west to play Cypress Point with old friends, the great friendships that had developed while teaching out at Forest Creek, and my own thoughts about moving back to the Old North State.
Among other things, I ex-plained to Harvie that I had a secret plan to hook my hockey-playing Yankee son, Jack, on golf the way I fell hard for the game the year my father began regularly bringing me to the Sandhills. Jack was 13 -- exactly the age at which I played my first full round at Mid Pines -- and had a great slap shot for a putting stroke. Harvie laughed hard at this, pointing out that I was already circling around to home.
"Tell you what," he said, as he walked me slowly to his front door, where his golf bag still sat as if ready to go on a moment's notice. "You bring him back here with you, and I'll teach him how to putt."
"It's a deal," I agreed, fighting back my own emotions.
That was the last time I saw or spoke to Harvie Ward. He passed away 10 or 12 weeks later.
Grace and Courage
For reasons I can't fully explain, I'd put off phoning Joanne during my first year back in the Sandhills. Maybe I just didn't want to be reminded that Harvie Ward was really gone -- and with him, a world of incredible stories.
The day before my 15-year-old son Jack arrived in town this week to tune up for a big father-son tournament down in Myrtle Beach, I decided it was time to drop in at Blue Road again.
Joanne looked great, healed and rested.
"It was so difficult to lose Harvie," she said, settling into the same chair where her husband had sat two years ago during our final visit. "I remember when the wonderful Hospice folks finally came to help. Harvie knew the end was near and said to me that the saddest thing was that he wouldn't be here to grow old with me.
"I told him, 'Harvie, you'll always be young,'" she said.
"The eternal frat-boy golfer," I prompted. She smiled.
"Exactly," she said. "That's what everybody loved most about Harvie -- his happy, upbeat spirit. He faced life and death with such grace, humor and courage. For a while after I lost him, I just felt lost, too."
'He Got His Wish'
To make matters worse, she also lost both her parents within weeks of Harvie's death. In the 18 months since then, she has traveled extensively and spent time with her four sisters, quit playing golf and acquired a new dog. As she spoke, Babe, her elderly whippet, leaned loyally on her knee, while Eddie, the young Maltese cat, snuggled in her lap. Joanne now presides over a peaceable kingdom of five dogs and two cats on Blue Road.
"People here have been great," she said as she walked me to the Carolina-blue front door after our little summer morning visit. "They've regularly called to check up on us, which means more than they can know."
I asked if she'd ever considered leaving the Sandhills. Too many memories, maybe.
"Yes. But only briefly. This place suited Harvie, and it suits me, too. He always said this was his final house, the one he wanted to be carried out of at the end. He got his wish. His spirit just fills this place."
The Last Amateur's golf bag was still sitting by the front door, exactly where it had been on my previous visit. I said something about it, thinking of the putting lesson Jack never got, and Joanne smiled again.
"I've got his clubs in my bag," she explained, a touch wistfully. "I've started playing again, but there's a lot of rust on my game."
Award-winning author Jim Dodson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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