Don’t bet on it
Wagering has been a part of golf since about the time the first bored shepherd proposed a two-dollar Nassau as he headed for the pasture with his crook and a stone. Sure, there are some golfers who want no part of the financial pressure that stretches a 2-footer for par into a throat-clenching test but there are lots more players who won’t leave the first tee without a bet on the line, not to mention automatic presses.
And then there is J. Smith Ferebee, the subject of Jim Ducibella’s enjoyable new book “King of Clubs: The Great Golf Marathon of 1938,” a most improbable tale of golf and gambling that has the extra appeal of actually being true.
Ferebee was a Chicago stockbroker in the 1930s when the Great Depression no doubt advised against any such reckless activity, but a real gambler can’t be denied. He was prone to boasting, but able to back up even outlandish claims. George Halas, owner of the Chicago Bears, would introduce Ferebee by warning people, “Rule 1: Never bet him, even if he says the sun’s not coming up tomorrow.”
But in 1938 Ferebee’s friend and rival, Fred “Fat Fred” Tuerk, ignored that caution when Ferebee claimed he would one day play all four courses at Olympia Fields CC twice in one day, walking all 144 holes. Tuerk called his bluff, putting up as stakes a plot of land the two had bought as an investment in Virginia, and so on Aug. 5 Ferebee set off at race horse pace on the first of eight rounds of golf. At 8:12 p.m. his last putt dropped, and an exhausted Ferebee, who has officially completed 144 holes in 15 hours and 7 minutes, averaging 86 for each 18, said, “Well, my game has volume if not quality.”
But that was only a mini-marathon compared to what followed when Tuerk, chafing not only at the loss but also at the widespread attention Ferebee’s feat had found, upped the ante – and then some. By the time the two had finished setting the terms of their ultimate bet, it called for Ferebee to play 600 holes of golf in eight cities, from Los Angeles to New York, over four consecutive days, or 33 rounds in just 96 hours. If Ferebee could accomplish the seemingly impossible, Tuerk agreed to pay Ferebee’s $20,000 mortgage on the Virginia property; if Ferebee lost, he would cede his ownership to Tuerk. With side bets from fellow brokers in Chicago it was said some $100,000 was riding on the stunt.
Ferebee was aided in the effort by Wisconsin air conditioning magnate Rueben Trane of La Crosse, who outfitted a special plane called “Trane of the Air” to carry the golfer from city to city. Courses were chosen for their proximity to airports, and his favorite caddie and a physician accompanied Ferebee as he set out on his marathon, which was to culminate in New York with one final hole at the World’s Fair.
The test went well at the start at Lakeside GC in Los Angeles, where Ferebee teed off in 5 a.m. darkness, assisted by volunteers with flashlights. Sixty-eight minutes later he had raced through a rough-edged 89 and was on his way.
And so it went, until in another dark round in St. Louis Ferebee slipped and suffered a serious leg injury. He was limping badly and his odds looked dim when he arrived in Milwaukee for rounds at Tuckaway CC but Ferebee would not be denied; while reports suggested Milwaukee fans “appeared singularly unimpressed and uninterested” in the challenge he pressed painfully on, adding 75 holes to his total before heading off to Chicago for more golf.
He also left Milwaukee with a 17-year-old who was found stowed away on his plane – and who was allowed to stay on the adventure in return for dog-sitting a stray Ferebee had picked up along the way.
It gives away nothing to reveal that Ferebee won his bet, or there would not have been a book about it. But more remarkable than that is this side note: Ferebee played all 600 holes without losing a single golf ball. It was an amazing test of golf, and one that made Ferebee the king of marathon golf for the rest of his days.
“King of Clubs: The Great Golf Marathon of 1938” was published by Potomac Books. For more, visit www.potomacbooksinc.com.