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.