Chapter 11 Golf & Travels Page I of IV
Leo Diegel, a very well-known golf pro, came to Tucson from Jenkinsville, Pennsylvania, during the early part of the Second World War and assumed the job as the professional at the El Rio Country Club, the community's only private golf club. At one time private pro to Adolph Zukor, chairman of Paramount Pictures, at his private golf course in the New York area, Leo was still a close friend of the Zukor family. Mildred Zukor Loew, known affectionately as "Mickey," had moved to Tucson in 1935 with her two children. Leo and his wife, Vi, occasionally visited Mickey, and this gave me the opportunity to play with Leo.
Leo loved Tucson, and indicated to me on more than one occasion that he would like to move to our city if the right opportunity came along. When the job at El Rio opened up I suggested Leo Diegel, but no one took the suggestion seriously because they thought Leo would not take the job for the small salary they could pay. I asked them to give me two or three days, and I would ask Leo if he wanted the job. The salary was only the paltry sum of $75 a month, plus the concessions in the pro shop. To tell the truth, I never thought Leo would accept the job.
Much to my surprise he did take the job and moved to Tucson, where he stayed until just before his death in the late forties. Leo was responsible for the establishment of the Tucson Open Golf Tournament whose purse the first year was $5,000. It grew until it reached $250,000, and the tourney is one of the oldest on the winter tour.
Leo was at one time among America's finest players. He was a grand guy as well. I have been told on good authority that when he was at his peak he would regularly beat Walter Hagen in private matches, and that for a while Hagen demanded, and received, from Leo, a one up handicap on each nine before he would bet him. Leo didn't deny this when I asked him about it.
Leo was the fellow who originated the odd putting position of having his elbows in a position extended from his body parallel to the line of the putt with his left elbow pointing towards the hole. He was also one of the most nervous, high-strung men I have ever known. He was a real student of the game and had some interesting theories about teaching golf, but he was impatient with his pupils who didn't do exactly as he taught. One time, while giving a lesson to his close friend, Henry Dahlberg, he said disgustedly, "If you won't do as I tell you, I'm going to walk into the clubhouse."
Hank assured him he was trying as hard as he could to follow his instructions but that it was hard to do. After a few more minutes Leo said, "Oh, to hell with you! You won't follow my instructions. I can't waste my time with you," and he walked to the pro shop.
Leo was constantly experimenting with his putting stroke and with different putters. He told me that one time he went to England to play in some international matches and took twenty-one different putters with him on the boat. He told me that he practiced putting so much on the ship, using different grips, stances, etc., that he reached the point where he had to look at a picture of himself to ascertain how he normally putted.
Several years before he came to Tucson, Leo had been pro at the swank hotel and casino resort at Agua Caliente, across the line from San Diego in Mexico. Joe Schenck, of Hollywood fame, was one of the owners of Agua Caliente and had hired Leo for the job. He had been used to hiring movie stars, producers and writers by the week at high salaries. As a starter he offered Leo $500 a week, and Leo jumped at the offer. This was several times what any pro had ever earned at a club job. In fact, as a guaranteed salary it would be a good one today when added to the income from the concessions.
Leo once told me about a humorous incident that took place when he was at his peak. He and Walter Hagen met in the finals of the annual PGA tournament, which in those days was a match play event, with the winner declared the best of all the members of the Professional Golfers Association. Hagen knew Leo was a devout Catholic, and played a trick on Leo in order to give him, Hagen, an advantage in the final match. Hagen called a priest and told him his name was Leo Diegel and that he had an almost uncontrollable urge to jump from his window.
Hagen said to the priest, "Father, I want you to come here to my room, and sit with me tonight to prevent my jumping. When you get here, please ignore my protests that I didn't call you, or don't need you. Please insist on coming into the room, and please don't leave me until daylight."
The priest, ready to serve a good member of his church, went to Diegel's room, insisted he be admitted and spent the night with him. Naturally, Leo didn't get much sleep, which is what Hagen had in mind. Of course Hagen defeated Leo the next day.
Golf at El Rio in those days was an important part of the life of most prominent Tucsonans. The club was small and everyone knew each other, how well or how poorly each member played, and how much each preferred to bet on the matches. When the club first opened in 1929 the bets were usually $.50 Nassau, which meant that you would lose a couple of bucks or at the very most-under the worst conditions, no more than $5.00. However, things got so tough during the depths of the Depression that everyone was playing, believe it or not, for $.10 Nassau. The caddies were paid $.25 for eighteen holes.
El Rio barely survived and wouldn't have if Hi Corbett, George Stonecypher, a local baker, and Don Fogg had not financed the losses for a couple of years. The three of them had promoted it as part of a real estate development, but the location was such that it never caught on.
It was on the wrong side of the tracks. The residential lots around the golf course were not bought by those who could afford to build the kind of homes which might have triggered the successful development of a nice subdivision. The developers finally gave up on the idea of selling large lots, and sold off the land facing the golf course, in small lots, to Mexican-American families who lived in that general area. There was no sewer line to serve the area at that time, and every homeowner had an out house in back of the home, facing the golf course. Once when the famous woman golf professional, Babe Zaharias, played an exhibition match at El Rio, she remarked after a few holes, "Most country clubs have mansions facing the course, but this is the only one I've ever seen that has shit houses facing every fairway."
Every New Year's Day El Rio would stage its annual match between the teams of the Sure-Shooters versus the BlankShooters (those who had children versus those who had none, at least none of note). The losers paid for the brunch and booze served after the match. It was always good for a lot of laughs, and a lot of drunks.
One event I have never forgotten was a challenge match between four of us older fellows, all over 40 (except for myself and I was about 38), and four young studs who hit the ball a mile and who thought they could prove they were the better players. Tim Cusick, Harry Talmade, Sr., Harold Tovrea, Sr., and I played Charles Lamb, Knox Corbett, Fred Porter and Tom Rasmussen. Lamb was state champion a year or so later, and Rasmussen was the current state and southwestern champion.
Points were to be given for individual matches, two ball matches and a four ball match. My opponent was Tom Rasmussen, and I beat him one up on each side, which was probably the highlight of my golfing career. This match was naturally played without handicap, and, when we won the matches, we older fellows told our opponents not to bother us further until they built a reputation. We never played them again, which was probably the wisest thing we ever did.
About 1930 I won the city golf championship, which was played on the city municipal links, a skinned course -- no grass on the fairways, and greens made of oiled sand. It was a somewhat different game when played on that kind of a layout. A couple of years later when the El Rio Club was open, I won the city title again. It was a 72-hole medal-play tournament, with half of the rounds played on the grass course at El Rio, and the other half on the skinned course at City Municipal. However, I was city champion of a very, very small city.
A few years later, right after the Second World War, a man by the name of "Ti" Thomas came to Tucson to make his home. He was better known as Titanic Thompson, a famous figure in the sports world. He was what is known as a "proposition bettor." He'd bet on almost anything, but most generally on something where he had an edge or the best of it.
I got to know him quite well, and he told me tales of some of his antics. He was a man of very unusual talents. He could do just about anything, play any game. And he excelled in many sports. He was a good enough golfer when he was in his prime tha the could play any of the professionals. When I say that "could" play any of them that doesn't mean that he did play them without getting some kind of a handicap.
When Bryon Nelson was at his peak Ti played him often and held his own. He was a crack trap and skeet shot, winning the Arizona Trap Shooting Title several years in a row. But Ti had a strange quirk about him. He could have made a fortune at golf legitimately, but much preferred to hustle guys for big bets, generally when he had a big advantage. He seemed to prefer to win money by his "smarts" rather than by sheer ability, of which he had more than his share.
He was a super poker player, bridge player and gin player, and he was involved in the famous poker game played in a New York City hotel after which Arnold Rothstein was murdered, supposedly for welching on a very large gambling loss resulting from this particular game.
Ti told me the details: He had left his overcoat hanging in the closet of the hotel room where the game was played. The police traced the coat to him, and he was the first man arrested for the murder, but soon was released because he could prove his innocence through witnesses who knew he was not at the scene of the crime when it was committed. He told me that, although the crime was never solved, he knew who killed Rothstein.
Whenever he hit a new town he would get acquainted with the professional gamblers there, and such men exist in every town. In Tucson he associated with the gamblers, beat them at cards and hustled them on the golf course. Of course, none of them could even touch him as a golfer, but the gamblers would get some of the better local players to play against Ti and they would bet on the local "horse."
I, like other members of El Rio, had heard about Ti playing some of the members for big stakes, with the local gamblers betting against Ti. After a few weeks gamblers from Phoenix, Miami, Arizona and other cities would come to Tucson every Monday for a round of betting on all kinds of things against each other, and especially against Titanic Thompson, about whom all of them had heard. They must have considered it an honor to lose money to a hustler of international fame.
One day I got a call from Jimmie Aarons, a well-known gambler from Phoenix. I had known him when he went to college in Tucson. He was a graduate of the U. of A., a nice guy and very well liked and respected in Phoenix. He asked me to play a golf match against Ti the following Monday. I readily accepted, as I thought it would be an interesting experience. And it turned out to be just that.
I met Ti and the gamblers, nine or ten of them, most of whom I already knew, on the first tee at El Rio. Ti was very pleasant, a tall, angular sort of man, with slightly gray hair and a rather strange pair of eyes. He asked me if I would like to have "a little match of $l0 Nassau. "I said "Let's make it $5" which he readily and pleasantly agreed to. I had told Jimmie Aarons that I would play providing they would not tell me how much they were playing for in their bets with Ti. That was agreeable. P>
I was playing in the low or mid-seventies in those days, and at the end of the first nine I was one down. Ti was a left-handed player, although he told me later he could play pretty well right-handed if he had to.
When we got to the 18th tee I was one down on the backside. Before we teed off on eighteen, the gamblers and Ti retired to the back of the 17th green for a lengthy conference. They argued for at least ten minutes. Finally they said we could strike our drives.
Up until this hole my drives were usually only five or ten yards short of Ti's. I was always a short hitter so was not surprised that he outdrove me. After the bets were made on the eighteenth hole, Ti turned his drive loose and passed my ball at least fifty yards!
The 18th hole was a 5 par but not terribly long, something like 490 yards. My second shot was about 60 or 70 yards short of the green, but Ti sailed his ball onto the green in two. I made a good chip but left myself about a 15-foot putt, which I did not make. Ti won the 18th, and a bundle, I heard later, by rolling his first putt up close, for a tap in and a birdie. When he wanted to, he could play just about as well as the situation demanded.
I enjoyed the match very much, but I was sorry I could not win for the local boys, although I later realized that I had as much chance of beating him as I would Arnold Palmer now.
I saw a lot of Ti around Tucson for the four or five years he was here. He always had some kind of gimmick going that he wanted someone to go in with him on, to put up some money on a sure thing. I never fell for any of his propositions, but I liked him.
A few weeks after he and I had played our match, he hustled the local gamblers into a golf game consisting of playing only one hole -- with hammers. I used to go to El Rio on Monday for lunch just to listen to the conversation and betting that would go on between this bunch of characters. On this particular Monday, which was after Ti had tapped them out of several thousands of dollars each on various kinds of propositions, he suggested, "Hell, let's play one hole, each of us will use a hammer to hit the ball. Anyone can hit the ball with a hammer, just like driving a nail." They finally agreed. Ti sent one of the caddies to a hardware store to buy seven hammers.
The seven players, each of whom had put up $1,000, teed off the first tee with hammers and continued to beat the ball down the fairway using the carpenter's favorite tool as a golf club. Naturally, Ti killed them all. He won by several strokes.
A few days later I ran into him in the barber shop and asked him, "Ti, how long had you been practicing hitting a golf ball with a hammer?" He readily told me, "About three weeks."
He often would have a diamond ring or an expensive watch which he would offer to sell me for a bargain price. I don't know where he acquired those things and I never asked, but I also never bought.
He told me that he had never spent a night in jail until he came to Tucson. After he was here for three or four years he was found guilty on a morals charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He had asked his girlfriend to get dates for a couple of his traveling friends who were in town. The gals went to California with these men, and their parents preferred charges against them and Ti, since the girls were under age. Ti had to serve thirty days in the county jail on what he claimed, and I believe, was a trumped-up charge by somebody whom he had beaten in a card game.
Ti was a soft-spoken man, who seldom got into any kind of arguments. I knew he was a sharpie, as did most people who knew him wherever he went. Once I asked him if he was ever going to write the story of his life, and he said he might someday, like most men say but seldom do. He told me numerous writers wanted to do the story for him, but that he had not yet gotten around to go to work on the project. Much later I heard about his death, and while they'll never build any monuments to him, I think the world is a poorer place with Titanic Thompson gone.
The first television golf series ever made was filmed at the Tucson and Phoenix Country Club courses. A man named DeMets, from Chicago, who had made the first televised bowling series, approached Lolita Linn, owner of a promotion and travel agency in Chicago which did much to enhance our state's resort business, about the possibility of using golf courses in Arizona to produce a series of professional golf matches.
Lolita called me, and I got busy in Arizona lining up the two courses for the production of the series that DeMets had in mind. Six of the episodes were photographed in Tucson, and seven were made in Phoenix. They were the very first attempt to bring golf to sport fans other than in live telecasts of tournaments. They triggered a concept that has been very successful.
Neither the board and officials of the Tucson Country Club, nor officials of the Tucson Chamber of Commerce, had the slightest idea of the value the series could be to our community. They actually charged the production company for a list of minor expenses, including damage to the golf course. Today communities are paying several thousand dollars to have one of a series photographed there. DeMets was justifiably pushed out of shape and swore he would never make another film in Tucson.
On a Sunday afternoon, when the group of golfers were at the Tucson Country Club, Gary Middlecoff played a practice round of nine holes with our club champion, Dr. Ed Updegraff. I was in the men's grill when they came in. Ed Furgol, former U.S. Open Champion, was sitting in the grill visiting with some of us. He was to play a match for the televised series the next day.
Gary Middlecoff came to our table and said to Furgol, "Ed, you can get anyone you wish: Demaret, Hogan or Nelson. I'll take the good Doc here and we'll play you for anything you wish, on this course, anytime. I just shot a 37, one over par, and he had me down five down!" All of which made us local golfers very proud of our friend Ed Updegraff.
Updegraff played on the Walker Cup team, made up America's finest amateurs, on three different occasions, and, in the 1975 matches with the players from Great Britain played at St. Andrews in Scotland, Updegraff was captain of the American team which scored a resounding triumph.
Updegraff is probably the most popular golfer in the state and most certainly one of the very best. Once three of us, who played at the time to handicaps of 8, but who were short hitters, told Ed Updegraff that if we could hit the ball as far as he did we would play him without asking for strokes. He accepted the challenge and agreed that on the following Saturday he would play us and would not use a club which would give him more distance than we could get with our driver.
The following Saturday we went to the driving range and ascertained that he could hit a 5 iron as far as we could hit our drivers, about 190 yards. He used nothing longer than a 5 iron for the 18 hole match, three putted the 17th and 18th holes and still shot a 74, 2 over par on what is not considered to be an easy golf course. Naturally he beat us, at our own game.