John P. English, who grew up at a time when amateur golf trumped the professional game and went on to work for a decade as the USGA’s assistant executive director under Joseph P. Dey, died on March 6 at age 101 in Yarmouth, Mass.
English grew up in Massachusetts, where he learned the game at Plymouth Country Club from Henry Picard, who would go on to win two major championships in a Hall of Fame career. During a life full of rich golf experiences, English once played a match against Babe Ruth, became friends with Francis Ouimet and Bob Jones, was a golf writer for the Boston Herald, and served both the Massachusetts Golf Association and the USGA.
English witnessed many historic golf moments. He was at the Masters in 1935 when Gene Sarazen made his “shot heard ’round the world,” a double eagle on the 15th hole. English walked alongside Sam Snead at Philadelphia Country Club when Snead, needing only a par 5 on the final hole to win the 1939 U.S. Open, made an 8. After the debacle, English had to interview Snead, a four-time runner-up who never won an Open. “He was not a happy man,” English said.
Years later, Snead was preparing to tee off in the 1954 U.S. Open at Baltusrol Golf Club when he spotted English. “I wonder what will go wrong this time,” Snead said. He proceeded to hit his ball out of bounds.
In 1955, English walked the fairways of The Olympic Club with Jack Fleck and Ben Hogan in their 18-hole U.S. Open playoff, which Fleck won by three strokes to deny Hogan a fifth Open title.
In 1938, in North Conway, N.H., Babe Ruth defeated English in a match that was part of a celebrity tournament. “I thought I could beat him, but I couldn’t,” said English, who played to a 5 handicap at one time. “But Babe was a fine guy, and we had a very nice match.”
English served as assistant executive director of the USGA from 1949 to 1959, when it was headquartered in New York City. He helped launch the longtime USGA publication Golf Journal, and served as its editor. At the time, English was one of just three USGA staff members.
“There was Joe Dey, me and [assistant] Eddie Miller,” English recalled in a 2010 interview. “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.” Today, the USGA staff numbers nearly 300.
Through his late 90s, English regularly walked two or three holes a day on the golf course adjacent to Heatherwood, the retirement community on Cape Cod where he lived. He had stopped playing golf about a dozen years previously when he moved to Heatherwood from his home in nearby Orleans.
English was born in Haverhill, Mass., on May 13, 1910. He attended Governor Dummer Academy (now Governors Academy) in Byfield, Mass., the nation’s oldest boarding school. Upon graduation, English enrolled at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., graduating in 1932. He played on the golf team throughout, winning his school championship in prep school.
After college, English was hired by the Boston Herald, 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. “In that time, we made a big thing of amateur golf. 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 – the U.S. Amateur would lead the sports pages. But now, if it isn’t pro, it doesn’t count.”
In 1941, English enlisted in the Navy, and he was stationed at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, staying on for a year after World War II ended. He resumed his service during the Korean War, eventually serving nearly 10 years and retiring with the rank of commander.
At the USGA, became a Rules expert. “I would spend three-quarters of a typical day dealing with questions on the Rules,” said English. “Whenever anyone in the country had a question about the Rules, they called the USGA. There was a time when I was dealing with the Rules so much that I knew most of them by heart.”
After leaving the USGA, English was the alumni secretary and director of annual giving and public information for Williams, his alma mater. He kept strong ties with the Association, serving for 28 years on the Green Section Committee as well as a one-year stint on the Nominating Committee. He also had a long relationship with the Massachusetts Golf Association, where he held the posts of 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 [Ouimet], sincerely interested in everybody. He was smart, dedicated and friendly. … Bob Jones and Francis Ouimet would have been two of the priceless characters I have ever known, even if they had never played golf.”
In retirement, English served as president of the Board of Cape Abilities, which provides support for people with disabilities on Cape Cod. He also served on the board of the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History, on the vestry of the Church of the Holy Spirit, and as chairman of the Cape Cod Community College Foundation.
English is survived by two daughters, Chris English LeBeau, of Kansas City, Mo.; Sara English, of Centerville, Mass.; one stepson, Michael Laird McIver, of Houston, Texas; three grandsons; and his companion of many years, Betsey Metters. He was predeceased in 1986 by his wife of 38 years, Eleanor Lahey English.
A memorial service will be held on Saturday, March 31, at 2 p.m. at Heatherwood in Yarmouth Port, Mass.
Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org