MEMBER SPOTLIGHT
USGA Member Is Link To Golf History September 22, 2016 | SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. By Anthony Pioppi

Chet Zelenski, 93, is a lifelong USGA member and 13-time club champion at Southampton Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y. (Courtesy Chet Zelenski)

Chet Zelenski just celebrated his birthday. He commemorated the occasion by playing golf on his beloved Southampton (N.Y.) Golf Club, which opened two years after he was born.

Birthdays have a way of nudging you to take stock of your life, especially when you turn 93. If Zelenski was thinking about his life in golf, he could conjure memories of winning 13 club championships at Southampton between 1947 and 1970 or remembering the friendships he has made in the game—or having a trophy bear his name.

In 1932, Zelenski was introduced to golf when he began working as a caddie at the National Golf Links of America, the fabled home of American golf. Zelenski was nine years old when he got is first loop – Charles Blair Macdonald, winner of the first U.S. Amateur in 1895 and the architect/founder of the course he was playing. Zelenski and the combustible Macdonald, then 77, got off to a rough start.

Zelenski remembers the man the caddies called “The Bull” topping his drive into the fescue on the first hole. Before Zelenski had gotten close to where the errant shot had disappeared, Macdonald was bellowing at him to see if he’d found the ball. The baptism by fire remains a blur to Zelenski.

“All I remember is the first hole. I don’t remember anything else about the round. Isn’t that something? And I have a good memory,” Zelenski said.

He said he doesn’t recall Macdonald ever playing again, but saw him frequently around the club. Zelenski caddied there for nine years, until he got a full-time job. He recounts fondly looping for H.J. Whigham and Findlay Douglas, two of the National’s founders. Zelenski says he caddied for the winners of the first four U.S. Amateurs: Macdonald, Whigham (1896-’97) and Findlay Douglas (1898), who later became the USGA president. He also caddied for a variety of stars, including Milton Berle and Gary Cooper, and a collection of professional and top amateurs.

All these years later, though, Zelenski holds just one grudge, against Alec Girard, National’s longtime golf professional.

“He wouldn’t let us play [on Mondays],” the traditional day for caddie play at clubs. “He blamed it on the club president at the time,” adding that Girard finally relented when another caddie threatened to tell the club president that Girard blamed him for the Monday ban.

Growing in the Game

In 1943, the 20-year-old Zelenski joined Southampton – a course designed for free by Macdonald’s protégé Seth Raynor. He says it was the best local club he could afford. He has been a member there for 73 years.

Drafted into the U.S. Army, a circulatory ailment in his hands and feet kept Zelenski out of active duty, but he spent 13 months processing returning soldiers at Fort Dix in New Jersey. He returned home to Long Island, helping Uncle Sam’s war effort by working in the aircraft industry for Precision Machine, which was later bought by Grumman Aircraft Corporation, now Northrop Grumman. He had 11 friends who fought in World War II.

“They were all over the world. I was writing letters every week,” he said.

Ten of his pals returned. Only Frank Zalewski, a bazooka man who was killed in action in Italy, did not make it back alive. Zelenski married Zalewski’s sister, Anne, in 1950. They had no children. She passed away in 1987.

Zelenski has earned respect for his game and competitive spirit in the more than 73 years he has been playing golf at Southampton. He said he was never a long hitter, but maintained his 4 handicap at the top of his game because of his accuracy.

“I’d kill them with my short game,” he said.

Zelenski’s game traveled well. He, along with other local club champions, earned invitations to play in tournaments at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club (which he, like many in the area, pronounces “Shinnycock”) and National.

“I have 12 cups from them,” Zelenski said, rightfully proud of the trophies he earned from events at the two prestigious clubs.

At Southampton, they even shot a brief movie clip of Chet in his prime(see below) to capture his countenance and posture, which once bore  an uncanny resemblance to Ben Hogan, right down to the cap.

 

Dave Greene, a longtime Southampton member, grew up watching Zelenski practice and tried to learn from his game. “I, and many others at the club, always thought Chet had the closest swing to Ben Hogan that we had ever seen. That is the swing Chet was trying to copy and we tried to copy Chet’s swing,” he said.

Dedication to the USGA

In a life of milestones, Zelenski is most proud of his time as a USGA member, still enthusiastically displaying his original member bag tag on his golf bag.

“Oh, it’s great,” he said of the program. “When the Walker Cup was at Shinnecock in 1977, I was talking to a guy from the USGA and he told me I should join, so I did, and I brought the idea to the Southampton members.”

Zelenski credits his longevity to walking the golf course as long as he could.

“Oh yeah, I walked almost my whole life,” he said. “I was playing a long time before golf carts were even around.”

He grudgingly began taking a cart in recent years to save his legs. He now plays 11 holes on Fridays at Southampton. Once a year, he brings a foursome to the National, riding along and hitting shots when he feels the urge.

Jon Jennings, the golf course superintendent at Shinnecock Hills since 2012, met Zelenski shortly after Jennings started working at the home of the 2018 U.S. Open.

“He found me,” Jennings said. “He stopped in and just wanted to say hello.”

Jennings says his fondest memory is watching Zelenski work the crowd at the Walker Cup Matches at National in 2013.

“He was stopping to chat and shake hands with people in the gallery, said Jennings of the then 90-year-old Zelenski. “It was as if he owned National and wanted to show it off to the world. You would have sworn he was [former USGA president and Walker Cup namesake] George Herbert Walker. He’s an ambassador for the game.”

A Natural Legacy

Butch Armusewicz, president at Southampton for 23 years, has known Zelenski his entire life. Armusewicz’s father was part of Zelenksi’s regular weekend foursome.


“I caddied for Chet,” Armusewicz said. “I learned from Chet. He’d pull you aside and tell you what you did right and what you did wrong. We all learned to caddie from Chet.”

Zelenski, the first person granted member emeritus status by Southampton Golf Club, hasn’t competed for years. Still, he is as much a part of Long Island golf lore as Macdonald and Raynor, Shinnecock and National, especially at Southampton Golf Club, where this year it was announced that the club champion’s trophy will now be known as “The Chet.” has memorialized him forever by 


“The winner of the club championship is second fiddle,” Armusewicz said with a laugh. “It’s really about Chet.”

Anthony Pioppi is a golf writer based in Connecticut. Contact him at anthonypioppi@gmail.com.