Every so often a handful of 1950s and 1960s-era members of the West Virginia University golf team will get together to tell some stories, play a little golf and lie about their handicaps.
Most of them are in their golden years now. They are/were federal judges, successful businessmen and entrepreneurs, real estate developers, golf professionals … you name it. But for many years, though, the laughs and the good times were always tempered by the thought that their alma mater no longer had a golf team.
Well, earlier this month, Director of Athletics Oliver Luck took care of that by reintroducing the sport after a 33-year hiatus. The Mountaineers will once again officially field a men’s golf team beginning in 2015.
“We used to get together and we’d see each other and thought it was just crazy that they did away with the golf team,” said Bob King, captain of the 1961 squad and today a federal judge presiding over the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. “We hoped that maybe someday it would come back.”
That someday is today, and the stories these guys are telling about their glory days on the golf links now once again have relevance. Sure, the courses were shorter, the equipment they used back then was much different than what the kids are using today, plus, the instruction is also much, much better now, but the basic concept of the game remains the same - get the ball into the hole in the fewest number of strokes possible.
“The amazing thing is the scores that they shot back in those days weren’t a whole lot different than the scores they are shooting these days,” said Bill Dunlap, who today spends his time between Kingwood, W.Va. and Florida. “Par was still 72 and 68 still looked good on the board.”
Back in the 1950s and 1960s, college golfers were basically left to their own devices. They got a sleeve of balls before each round, were told where they were playing in the lineup, and then went out and tried to beat their opponent in a game of match play.
If they had a problem with their putting stroke or got a case of the yips, they had to figure out how to fix it themselves (if they could).
Their coach, West Virginia University sports legend Ira Errett Rodgers, was more of a father figure and mentor than he was a golf instructor, although two years after first taking up the game, he went down to The Greenbrier with eight golf clubs in his bag and won the state amateur championship in 1929. Figuring that was a pretty impressive feat to duplicate, Rodgers never returned to defend his title, making it the grandest of exits.
“He’s probably the greatest athlete West Virginia has ever produced,” boasted King. “I understand Jerry West’s record, but Coach Rodgers did it all.”
Indeed, he did.
He was the school’s first consensus All-American football player in 1919, the old-timers say he was good enough to play major league baseball and he was also a pretty fair basketball player, too. And then there was golf, which he picked up later in life when his body would no longer permit him to play the more rigorous sports that he so loved.
Rodgers’ lessons and wisdom are still very much a part of the lives of those fortunate enough to be around him. Whenever the guys get together, a lot of their stories usually revolve around some off-hand remark Rodgers made or something he told them to do.
And all of the golfers from that era were in awe of him.
“We were and we should have been,” said Judge King. “He earned 12 letters in three different sports. He was the football coach twice, he was the assistant football coach for years, he was the head baseball and football coach when he took up golf, and he later became the golf coach, too.”
In front of him they always called him ‘Coach Rodgers’, but when he wasn’t around they typically referred to him as ‘Rat’ – the nickname he earned during his playing days.
Sam Urso, a three-year letterman who played on Rodgers’ final golf team in 1961, understood immediately what an intense competitor his coach was. When matches were played at the old Morgantown Country Club (where the football stadium presently sits) Rodgers sat behind the second green in a lawn chair where he could observe all of his players coming by. During one tight match against Penn State, Urso had the misfortune of violating one of Rodgers’ cardinal rules of competition.
“I hit the drive of my life and I’m on the fringe of the green,” he recalled. “The guy I’m playing against, his drive was over to the right. He’s got a 50-yard chip and he damned near made it. When he walked up to the green I said ‘good shot.’”
Soon after, Urso heard “psst, psst” coming from the top of the hill. It was Rodgers wanting him to walk over to where he was sitting.
“I’m thinking, what’s going on? I did about as I could do on that hole. So I walked up there and, while sitting in his chair, he motioned me to come closer to him,” Urso said. “He pointed his finger right in my face and he said, ‘Don’t you EVER let me here you say great shot again! You’re out there to beat the SOB, not make him feel good!’
“I about crapped my pants on the next hole. And I think the guy I was playing against did, too,” laughed Urso.
Bill Dunlap also learned from Rodgers the importance of competition. During one match in Williamsburg, Va., he was facing a much better golfer and was struggling to stay in the game.
“We got to the 10th tee and all of the coaches were there as well as a few spectators and Coach Rodgers came up to me and said, ‘Bill, how are you standing?’ I said, ‘I think I’m three down.’ He said, ‘Well, what’s the matter?’
“Instead of saying these guys are really good, I said, ‘I can’t putt.’ In front of everybody, he swatted me across the nose and pointed his fingers between my eyes and said ‘don’t you ever say you can’t!’
“And I never did after that.”
George Pettite played for Rodgers in the mid-1950s and remembered hitting a long approach shot to the green during a match at Westminster, but the ball kept rolling until it stopped right next to a pipe that was sitting on the green. Pettite walked over to Rodgers and asked if he could get relief. The coach shook his head.
“You put the damned ball there and you will play it from there!” Rodgers growled.
The players always wanted to pile in Rodgers’ car on trips to matches to listen to his stories about old-time baseball players or his days going up to Pittsburgh to play pro football under an assumed name. But if they were driving home from a match that they had lost, everyone tried their best to steer clear of him.
“I was always the chauffer and he was always riding shotgun and we’d get in the car after losing a match and we’d be riding along and he wouldn’t say a word,” recalled Dunlap. “Nobody in the car could say anything either. It would be real quiet and then finally he’d say, ‘I just don’t understand! I just don’t understand why you do these things?’ He couldn’t quite grasp that we weren’t as good as who we were playing.”
“If we lost and we went to dinner he wouldn’t eat with us if he thought we shouldn’t have lost,” recalled King. “Sometimes when we lost and the other team was really good he might agree to have dinner with us, but he was still upset that we should have won.”
Rodgers may have taken the losses hard, but he was always an honorable man who always made sure his athletes represented West Virginia University with class and dignity.
“We were playing some Podunk school and we were in sleeping bags, on the floor, in the gymnasium in a room above where the lockers were,” recalled Urso. “He pulled us together and he said, ‘Now boys, we’re representing West Virginia University. I want you to act like gentlemen.’
“He went on to talk about ethics and character and so on and then he said, ‘I don’t want one of you to take a towel out of this facility onto that course! Lord help you, if I ever see a towel that doesn’t belong to you in your bag or on your possession that will be the end of you!’”
“I had mistakenly taken one on a rainy day,” Dunlap chuckled. “It was some exclusive club over in Washington, D.C., and I caught all hell for that. He saw it in the trunk of the car.”
Rodgers was a little more accepting if one of his athletes twisted the knife a little bit deeper into a Pittsburgh Panther. That was the one school Rodgers absolutely despised he wanted his teams to do anything they could to beat them.
“I think we were about 5-5 or 3-3 at the time, I’m not sure, but we were just going along and weren’t burning up the course,” Urso said. “He said, ‘Gentlemen, you haven’t done much so far this year to brag about, but we can sure brag a lot if we beat the hell out of Pitt today!’
“He then went on and on about how we’ve got to beat Pitt. I honestly think two of the three years I played we beat Pitt and he was ecstatic.”
“I was on probably the worst team in school history; we were pretty bad,” Dunlap said. “But our claim to fame was we beat Pitt! And he bought us all milkshakes afterward.”
It’s a little easier now to understand where the nickname for the West Virginia-Pitt series, ‘The Backyard Brawl’, came from.
This is the fourth in a series of stories on the history of golf at West Virginia University running throughout the remainder of the summer.