When John English was the second in command at the USGA, you could count the number of staffers on one hand. You would also be counting back 60 years.
Meeting English last month on Cape Cod just before his 100th birthday, his firm handshake, sharp wit and vigor belied the fact that he was about to hit the century mark.
“I’m not running any races these days,” English said wryly. “But outside of some arthritis in my knees, I feel pretty good. I just hope the excitement of turning 100 isn’t too much for me.”
English’s career at the USGA spanned a time when it was headquartered in New York City, first on 72nd Street and then on 38th Street, where the Association remained until moving to its current Far Hills, N.J., campus in 1972. English came on board in 1949, and during his 10-year tenure, he worked under Executive Director Joseph C. Dey.
Dey ran the USGA from 1935 to 1969, before becoming commissioner of the PGA Tour. Among his accomplishments
with the USGA were helping to unify the Rules of Golf with the R&A, instituting the demanding course setup of the U.S. Open, adding five championships – including the U.S. Women’s Open – to its competitions calendar and creating the USGA Museum and Library. Since 1996, the USGA has annually honored one of its volunteers with the Joseph C. Dey Award, and John English knew him well.
John English worked under Joe Dey at the USGA and met elite players such as Francis Ouimet and Bob Jones. (Ron Driscoll/USGA)
“There was Joe Dey, me and Eddie Miller,” recounted English. “Our offices were on the fifth floor, and there was a big room in the front that Joe and I shared, and Eddie worked in the back.”
Dey had some strict rules, including a ban on drinking coffee in the office. However, English and Miller devised a system where coffee was delivered via the elevator, and English joined Miller in the back room for their clandestine coffee breaks.
“I got along well with Joe, but not everyone did,” said English. “He was a complex character and he had high ideals for the USGA and for himself. He said, ‘I won’t be here forever. I’m going into the ministry. That’s my calling.’ And he made no bones about it for a long time. He would occasionally go down to the Bowery and just give out dollar bills to people. And yet he could sometimes be a bit of a martinet.”
In a 1965 Sports Illustrated story, writer Alfred Wright recounted an incident in which Dey became so angry at the inertia of a scorekeeper at the Women’s Open that he rushed up onto her platform too quickly, slipped off and broke his arm. He was also adamant that women players not wear shorts in USGA championships.
“I wouldn’t get into an argument with him about women’s shorts for anything,” said English with a laugh. “He finally relented and said they could wear Bermuda shorts if they were cut to a certain length. He also wouldn’t let a championship finish on a Sunday for a long time, because Sunday was for church, not for golf. But Joe also had the highest aspirations for amateur status and playing by the rules and the honor of the game.”
Miller had caddied for Dey at his club in Glen Cove, N.Y., and Dey later hired him at the USGA.
“Eddie had fewer executive duties than we did, but he did everything else,” said English. “He ran scoreboards and moved the trunks and he got everything done. Back in the 1970s, I was driving through New Jersey and I stopped in to see [former USGA executive director] Frank Hannigan. The parking lot was so filled with cars I said, ‘I’m sorry to have come on a day when you’re having a meeting.’ And Frank said, ‘No, that’s just staff parking.’ That’s when I learned that the staff which numbered three in my day was more than 100.”
Today, the USGA staff numbers roughly 300.
English lives at Heatherwood, a retirement community on Cape Cod which is adjacent to the Golf Club at Yarmouthport, where until a short time ago, English would regularly walk two or three holes a day. He stopped playing golf about 10 years ago when he moved to Heatherwood from his home in Orleans on the Cape.
English’s introduction to the game was fortuitous, since he cut his golfing teeth in the company of a Hall of Fame player.
“When I was about 8 years old, my family began summering in Plymouth, Mass.,” said English. “We stayed in a hotel near Plymouth Country Club, and the assistant pro and caddie master at the time was Henry Picard. I used to go out and play nine holes with him late in the day.”
Picard went on to win the 1938 Masters and the 1939 PGA Championship in a career that numbered 26 PGA Tour victories.
“I remember being awed at the way he hit a golf ball,” said English. “It was like nothing I had ever seen. Much later in life, when I was living in Williamstown, Mass., Henry became the pro at the Equinox in Manchester, Vt., about an hour away, and we got together and reminisced about the old times.”
English was born in Haverhill, Mass., on May 13, 1910. He attended Governor Dummer Academy in Byfield, Mass., founded in 1763. The nation’s oldest boarding school, it is now called the Governors Academy. Upon graduation, English went on to Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., graduating in 1932. He played on the golf team throughout, winning his school championship in prep school.
Through a prep school friend, English got a job as a reporter at the Boston Herald. It was 1932, in the depths of the Depression, and English wasn’t choosy about employment. He worked first as a business reporter, then a feature writer.
“Someone heard that I played golf, and the golf writer was retiring, so they offered me the job,” said English. The golf beat of the day had a far different emphasis than today’s coverage.
“In that time, we made a big thing of amateur golf,” he said. “The weekend invitational tournaments at the big clubs around Boston were big news. And pro golf wasn’t all that much. I was brought up in an era when amateur golf was in its ascendancy.”
As a golf writer in Boston at that time, English soon got to know Francis Ouimet, whose victory in the 1913 U.S. Open had popularized golf among the masses in the United States. Ouimet also won the U.S. Amateur Championship in 1914 and 1931.
“I remember Francis first as a perfect gentleman in every way, with a fantastic memory for names,” said English. “Better than anyone I’ve ever met before or since. We got to know each other quite well.”
Ouimet also developed a knack for just what to say.
“He played lots of golf courses; everyone would invite him out to their club,” said English. “And after he played, they would all say, ‘What did you think of our course?’ Well, that presented problems for a fellow like Francis, because sometimes the course wasn’t that good and he couldn’t say that. And he didn’t want to be quoted as saying it was good if it wasn’t.
“Francis told me that he had gone to a baby shower once and a lady looked at the baby in question and said, ‘Well, that is a baby!’ So whenever anyone asked what he thought of their course, he would say, ‘That is a golf course!’ ”
English began covering golf in 1934. The first U.S. Open he covered was the 1936 championship at Baltusrol, won by Tony Manero. And in a sign of the times for professional golf, Manero took a job as the head professional at Salem Country Club outside Boston shortly after his victory.
In 1941, English enlisted in the Navy. “That ended my career as a golf writer,” he said. English was stationed at Pearl Harbor and stayed on for a year after World War II ended. “Before long the Korean War broke out and they called me back,” he said. “They gave me credit for the year I was out of the service, so I got a 10-year ribbon.”
English went back to the Herald as a feature writer for a short time, then snapped up a chance to move to New York and work for True Magazine as an associate editor. Once there, he renewed acquaintances with Dey, whom he knew from covering USGA championships. Soon English was moonlighting as an editor for the fledgling USGA Journal, and in 1949 Dey hired him away from the magazine as a full-time assistant.
“I would spend three-quarters of a typical day dealing with questions on the Rules,” said English. “In baseball or football, the rules are the rules, but in golf, your ball can be in a shoe or up a tree, and whenever anyone in the country had a question about the Rules they called the USGA. Summer and winter the calls would come in, and one episode sticks in my mind.
“A golfer in Tennessee named Lew Oehmig [who went on to become a three-time USGA Senior Amateur champion and a Walker Cup captain] was playing in the State Amateur, and he hit a ball that veered to the right and landed out of bounds in the road. But it hit a rock and shot back toward the course, ending up in a drainpipe.
“Now the ball is in a drainpipe, on the golf course. It’s in bounds and under the fairway, with no way to get at it. They called us and asked what they should do.
“Well, there was no decision in the Rules of Golf that applied,” said English. “I wrote to the R&A because we always consulted with them, and to everyone on our Rules Committee for their interpretations, which were probably all different… And for a while there, we would come into the office and ask, ‘I wonder if Lew Oehmig is still out on the 14th fairway waiting for a ruling?’ ”
“Finally we came up with a ruling and it made good sense: the ball is up the drainpipe, which is an artificial obstruction and the player is entitled to relief. Relief is within one club length at the end of the drainpipe, and when he does that he’s out of bounds. It probably took us a year to come up with it. There was a time when I was dealing with the Rules so much that I knew most of [the Rules of Golf] by heart.
“It reminded me of when I was in naval intelligence,” said English. “I knew every Japanese war ship: what its name was, how to pronounce it and where it was… because I had to.”
“During the winter we were busy trying to get ready for the next season,” English continued. “We were a staff of three people, and a hundred do it now. So you can understand. In the summer, we would all go to the National Open and the National Amateur. Joe often did the Women’s Amateur alone, although sometimes I helped. I would do the [U.S. Amateur] Public Links, the Junior [Amateur] and the Girls’ Junior. I think that’s about all there was then, but each championship was a week or eight or nine days. That’s why I eventually left – it was so tough on the family, because when Joe and I were away, nothing happened. Everything would pile up on our desks.
“It got to be very wearing in my home life, and my golf game disintegrated,” English said with a laugh.
When the USGA moved from 72nd Street to a five-story limestone building on 38th Street (just off Park Avenue), it opened a museum and library and introduced its collection of clubs donated by champions. The building was one block from the Williams alumni club in the city, and English would have lunch there nearly every day.
“One day a trustee came by and asked if I would be interested in becoming the alumni secretary,” said English. “I said I wasn’t interested, but I got home later that night… and I was facing a trip to Oklahoma for a championship, where I would be leaving my family for 10 days of getting up at 4 in the morning to set holes. One thing led to another, the college offered me the job and I took it.”
English kept strong ties with the USGA, going on to serve on the Green Section and Nominating committees, among other roles. He also had a long relationship with the Massachusetts Golf Association, including stints as president and director. One highlight of every year was the annual USGA dinner.
“Bob Jones came up from Atlanta for the annual dinner and we really got well acquainted with him,” said English. “I later had the advantage of living in Williamstown, and his son lived in Pittsfield. Bob often visited his son, so I would also see him there. He was very much like Francis, sincerely interested in everybody. He was smart, dedicated and friendly; when he had something to say, he said it concisely and beautifully and sat down. I always liked those finishes.
Bob Jones and Francis Ouimet would have been two of the priceless characters I have ever known, even if they had never played golf.”
Some of this story was excerpted from John English’s interview with Alice Kendrick for the USGA Museum in 2006. Ron Driscoll is the USGA’s copy editor. E-mail him with questions or comments at email@example.com.