Herrmann has covered the Mets and Yankees since 1988, and has been Newsday’s national golf writer since 2002. Show More
It is one of golf's oldest traditions. Players put some cash on the line, just to make it interesting. Long Island golfers know that the most common of all golf wagers, the $2 Nassau, was born here. What they really might find interesting is that the most flamboyant golf bet of all time was decided on this turf, too.
At Salisbury No. 4, now known as Eisenhower Red, on Sept. 28, 1938, Chicago stock broker J. Smith Ferebee concluded his eight-day, cross-country golf dare, with $100,000 at stake. That sum translates to $1.6 million in today's dollars, although you really cannot put a number on how unlikely the whole thing was -- right down to the fact that Ferebee needed help getting around a darkened course from the headlights of Westbury Fire Department trucks.
We won't tell you whether he succeeded. That would be spoiling the narrative of a new book, "King of Clubs: The Great Golf Marathon of 1938" by Jim Ducibella, a Virginia-based sportswriter and historian who just couldn't resist an amazing story once he heard about it.
Yes, he learned, Ferebee really did accept the challenge of playing 600 holes on four consecutive days in eight cities, from Los Angeles to what is now East Meadow. Ferebee had to walk every hole, and, in the real pressure aspect for a double-digit handicapper, had to break 100 in each round.
"There was no TV at the time. Radio was limited. The unemployment rate was close to 20 percent. So a hell of a lot of people had a lot of time on their hands," said the author, who spent 20 years as the Redskins beat writer for the Virginian-Pilot. "So there were a lot of things going on like flagpole sitting, or someone putting an elephant on skis."
Ferebee, who won $2,500 and a half-interest in a Virginia plantation by playing 144 holes in a day earlier that year, set the bar deliberately high in this bet.
Ducibella found only one living participant, Ferebee's caddie, who did not have much recollection. Luckily for the writer, the event was well documented in the trove of Ferebee articles that the man saved. "He was an egomaniac," Ducibella said, adding that Ferebee's widow donated cartons of newspaper clippings to Virginia Military Institute, where they languished in a basement.
The golfer chose his courses based on popularity, topography (fairly easy to walk) and proximity to airports (Reuben Trane chartered a DC-3 to help promote his fledgling air conditioning business). A $1,000 bonus from promoters of the New York World's Fair convinced Ferebee to finish his journey nearby.
Ducibella's book offers many interesting details: the finish sounds like that of current Eisenhower Red, with its short par-3 16th, long par-5 17th and challenging par-4 18th; head pro Pete Cassella served as Ferebee's strategist for the final nine holes, to help him navigate through the dark; Trane recruited local people to go out and buy magnesium flares to help light the fairways. Ferebee never lost a ball.
The next day's New York Times described the challenge as "The most fantastic golf story ever told -- or dreamed of." Seventy-four years later, it still is a safe bet to see it that way.