Chaplain of Muirfield: Smith's Long Ministry
Fittingly, the skins game of Jack Nicklaus' Memorial Tournament was showing on Dr. Bill Smith's TV when I dropped in to chat at Penick Village late Wednesday afternoon.
I invited him to leave the tube on because few have a more intimate connection to the prestigious Memorial than does the Rev. William E. Smith. His pretty French-blue golf shirt, after all, displayed the name of Jack Nicklaus and the insignia of Muirfield Village.
"Oh, that's all right," Dr. Bill declared, switching it off and ushering me into a comfortable chair. "The skins game is a relatively new thing. Wednesday used to be the day we did the prayers. When the action begins, trust me, I'll be tuning in."
Back on Memorial Day 1974, Smith gave the opening dedication prayer for Jack Nicklaus' Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio. At the time, Smith was the senior pastor at the North Broadway United Methodist Church in Columbus, the church where Barbara Bash Nicklaus grew up and eventually got married to Jack.
Over the years, the Smith and Nicklaus families grew close. Dr. Bill baptized their daughter Nan and was present for every family birth and wedding. He also conducted the funeral services for Barbara's mom and dad.
"The first day I preached at North Broadway," he recalled, "my wife, Mary Lou, found herself seated beside Barbara in the pews. They hit it off almost instantly, and a deep friendship grew between our families. What has always struck me as most exemplary about Barbara and Jack is their devotion to their family. I've heard Jack say many times that his family comes before golf on his list of life's priorities. I think he's proven to be a man of his word in that regard."
Beginning in 1976, Nicklaus invited Dr. Bill to give the opening prayer of the inaugural Memorial Tournament, that year dedicated to Bobby Jones. For the next 29 years, Smith concluded the tournament's opening memorial ceremony honoring a golf great by giving a prayer he spent weeks researching and crafting.
What began with a prayer for saint Bobby Jones ended with a devotional on Betsy Rawls and Dr. Cary Middlecoff. Between them came the likes of Walter Hagen, Francis Ouimet, old and young Tom Morris, Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Gary Player and Ben Hogan. In 2000, Jack Nicklaus himself was the tournament's honoree.
"The challenge with the prayers was to make them relatively concise and to the point - no more than two or three minutes was the typical length of time - emphasizing the exemplary impact the honoree had on the game of golf and in the lives of others," Smith said. "Part of the pleasure of writing these prayers came with learning more about the honorees."
The prayers became, in a way, miniature teaching moments for the multitudes who attended the tournament's dedication ceremony every May. Fortunately, Dr. Bill's first 30 prayers were collected in a nifty little book, "Prayers at The Memorial Tournament." Here are a few of my favorite excerpts.
Francis Ouimet (1978): "Lest we become discouraged by poor performance, let us remember Francis Ouimet and his dogged determination to win. When we are tempted to believe fortune smiles on others but not on us, let us remember Francis Ouimet, for whom a humble background was no barrier to greatness."
Gene Sarazen (1979): "When we are inclined to underestimate our own potential, help us to be a possibility thinker like young Sarazen, who was indeed 'one shot better than the rest.' And help us always to remember that we win not only by our skill in playing the game but by loving and respecting all people great and small."
Arnold Palmer (1993): "We celebrate his remarkable record of achievement in which he won the adulation of a vast army of admirers here and abroad. He will always be remembered for his go-for-broke style that turned tournament play into a high-risk venture. But we thank you most of all for Arnold Palmer the man, for his personal warmth and magnetism, his great sense of compassion, for grace under pressure, for inner qualities superbly developed that shaped the public man."
Billy Casper (1996): "His advice to aspiring golfers might well be called 'My Philosophy of Life': 'Play easily, smoothly, unhurriedly. Don't be too impatient or greedy. Know your limits and play within them. I may not play as well as I used to, but now I look at golf as a way to connect with people. By the prime of my career, golf was no longer the most important thing in my life. It was second to my faith and my family.'"
Jack Nicklaus (2000): "We cannot honor Jack without also honoring Barbara, the love and mainstay of his life, who has brought charm and beauty and order to their marriage for nearly 40 years. Their family - five children and 11 grandchildren - are their greatest joy, and Jack is happiest when he is with them. Let those who would sacrifice family on the altar of success take note."
Good lessons for anyone, those prayers - on or off the golf course.
As with many good things in life, Bill Smith had no inkling early in his career that he would someday wind up pastor to golf's greatest player and the chaplain of Muirfield. His father ran a rural general store in a village that straddled the Mason-Dixon line on the Eastern Shore of Chesapeake Bay.
"Seaford, Del., was beautiful farm country in those days before the new bridges spanned the bay," he remembers. "It was fairly remote and unspoiled - the Land of Pleasant Living, as some called it. My father, however, wanted his children to be aware of the outside world, so he took us very early to visit Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, exposing us to ideas and new things."
The Smiths were good Methodists. Bill's dad was superintendent of the local Sunday school where his mother taught the high school boys, and a favorite uncle named Tilghman served as minister to several Methodist parishes strung along the Eastern Shore.
So it was no real surprise when Bill enrolled in Western Maryland College thinking along the lines of parish ministry.
He finished in 1942 and moved on to Boston University's School of Theology on scholarship. As he earned his Masters in Divinity, he also bussed tables at a restaurant and served as the choirmaster and soloist in a Congregational choir in racially mixed Roxbury.
"My goal was to be the best-educated teaching pastor I could possibly be," he explains.
After the dean of the school prevailed on him to extend his stay and serve as interim chaplain of the university, Smith decided to pursue his doctorate in theology.
One day while he was registering for classes, he noticed a well-dressed young black man behind him in line and introduced himself. "He told me he came from Atlanta, Ga., and his name was Martin Luther King," Dr. Bill remembers with a booming laugh. "I thought, oh, right and I'm John Wesley!"
But the two classmates hit it off almost immediately. They shared and survived many of the famous theology school's most rigorous courses in each other's company.
"Martin was getting his degree in the philosophy of religion, and there was never anyone who prepared better than he did for those very challenging classes," Smith recalls. "Whenever a question was asked, his was the first hand up. That's when he became exposed to the writings of Gandhi and Emerson, the -transcendentalists, the existentialists, and all the rest. He was an absolutely brilliant seminary student, on fire with learning."
Upon graduation, Bill Smith accepted a post at a Methodist church in Salem, Mass.
"Martin had several very attractive offers, including a prestigious church down in Atlanta," he says. "We talked about this, and he told me that he needed to return to Birmingham, however, to be with his people. Those were the exact words he used. It was impossible not to be moved by his quiet passion and determination."
Smith saw his fellow seminarian several more times over the next few years, including during the famous Civil Rights march on Washington.
"Martin's death was a terrible blow to this country, robbing us of a truly first-rate mind and soul," Dr. Bill says. "But the legacy he left us changed everything."
Smith went on to shepherd a young United Methodist Church in College Park, Md., tripling its size in a matter of a few years. He also served as an adjunct professor at American University and vice president of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington. He was elected to the prestigious General Council and placed in charge of superintending parishes in his region.
"I felt a little like a fish out of water," he allows, "because I really longed to be back in the active parish life with people."
That opportunity came in 1965 when he accepted the post of senior minister for the North Broadway United Methodist Church in Columbus, Ohio. He stayed 17 years and made some of the closest friendships of his life, including with a family named Nicklaus. The Smiths' children, Craig and Janet, grew up there, and son Craig even got bitten by the golf bug.
Golf With Craig
Because Mary Lou's parents retired to Pinehurst, trips to the Sandhills became part of the family's life.
"Craig was an excellent young player almost from the minute he picked up a club," says Dr. Bill. "I, on the other hand, was a mere duffer who could barely break 100. Yet I fell in love with what golf gives you - exercise, good companionship, the right kind of values. You're always playing yourself - which of course is the ultimate challenge."
One of his fondest memories is playing golf with Craig at CCNC.
"He just loved the game and had the most wonderful outlook toward the game and life itself," he says.
Tragedy struck, however, when young Craig was diagnosed with advanced bone cancer. In 1969, Jack Nicklaus presented Craig an intimately signed copy of his book "The Greatest Game of All." Craig's last round was played at Pinehurst No. 1 a few months before he died in 1971, just shy of turning 14.
"He battled it bravely, and it devastated us all, particularly his sister. We bear the sadness to this day," he reflects as I thumb through the Memorial prayers and come to a prayer for old and young Tom Morris. The younger Morris died mysteriously after his wife and child died in childbirth. Lore attributes the younger man's death to simple heartbreak.
"We can only imagine the pride the father must have felt to see his son surpass him," Dr. Bill wrote in honor of them. "Then for tragedy to strike so quickly, so devastatingly; a young mother, an infant and young father gone."
In 1987, Dr. Bill and Mary Lou retired to the Sandhills. A short time later, he began teaching at Duke Divinity School. He -performed his last duty as the chaplain of Muirfield in 2005.
"Golf is a game that -remembers its heroes because of what they pass along to those who follow," Dr. Bill reflects.
Does he miss performing the tournament's opening prayer?
"Oh, of course I do," he replies with a big smile and a booming voice. "Part of me yearns to go back and be part of that wonderful ceremony. I never aspired to be the chaplain of Muirfield, but I'm so glad I had the opportunity to write those prayers. I've passed that on to others."
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist with The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at email@example.com.
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