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It's No Junior Achievement

Willie Park Jr. was a top early player and probably the first modern course architect; Olympia Fields might be his best design

June 12, 2003|Daniel Wexler | Special to The Times

In our contemporary golfing world, where such players as Greg Norman and Tiger Woods have become multinational corporations, it is easy to assume that large-scale commercialism began with those first great stars of the television era, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.

More informed observers may point to Walter Hagen, while the truly knowledgeable will recall that Harry Vardon was heavily compensated for his many non-tournament endeavors. Yet when it comes to developing golf's wide range of business opportunities to the fullest, any of these run a distant second to Scotsman Willie Park Jr., one of the game's pioneers and the designer of this week's U.S. Open course at Olympia Fields, outside Chicago.

Park was born in 1864 in the seaside town of Musselburgh, where the racecourse-encircled links have seen the royal and ancient game played virtually from its inception. Here Young Willie grew up in an environment uniquely conducive to golfing greatness. His father, Willie Sr., was a four-time winner of the British Open (including the first Open Championship in 1860), an occasional designer of area courses and a club- and ball-maker of genuine renown. His uncle, Mungo, had a similar resume, though he won only one Open Championship. In addition, brothers Frank, Jack and young Mungo were first-class players, as was Willie Jr.'s close boyhood friend, Willie Dunn Jr., who would eventually become one of America's pioneer golf professionals and designer of the 2004 U.S. Open course, Shinnecock Hills, in Long Island.

As a player, Young Willie twice won the Open Championship, in 1887 at Prestwick and two years later on his home turf at Musselburgh, where he defeated Andrew Kirkaldy in a 36-hole playoff.

Though perhaps something of an erratic ball striker, Young Willie had a blue-chip short game, the foundation of which was his talent with the putter. In those days of unmanicured greens, he was known to practice his stroke for as long as 12 hours, believing that properly grooved, it could overcome even the wildest drives and approaches. Often it did, gaining Park a grand reputation and leading him to coin the phrase, "A man who can putt is a match for anyone."

Curiously, despite so fine a playing record, Park is perhaps best remembered for an event he lost, a 72-hole challenge match played in 1899 against Vardon, who had just won the third of his six Open Championships. The challenge -- for a then-massive 100 pounds a side -- had been issued by Park in 1898, but it took the better part of a year, and considerable haggling, before the match was played. Anticipation of the event was perhaps unparalleled in the annals of British golf, but in the end the negotiations may have been more exciting than the game. For Vardon, 2-up after the first 36 holes at North Berwick, simply laid waste to Park upon returning to his home course, Ganton, defeating the Scotsman, 11 and 10.

Perhaps as a result of some prizefight-like pre-match posturing, Park is today occasionally recounted as being cocky and a braggart, yet ample evidence suggests the opposite. In 1891, for example, the British magazine Golf wrote, "Few professional golfers are so universally liked as Willie Park," and historian Robert Harris noted that Park was "well mannered and reserved -- the ice once broken revealed a great kindly charm." More recently, author John Adams, in his biographical volume "The Parks of Musselburgh," describes Willie as "magnanimous" and "a mature, hard-working, enterprising and courageous man, with a distinctive magnetism." He also points out that Park refused to join his fellow Scottish pros in boycotting the presence of the young Englishman J.H. Taylor at the 1893 Open, his offer to play with Taylor effectively leaving the embargo against English players dead in the water.

Young Willie, then, operated outside the professional herd, always running an independent business and never, during his adult life, seeking employment in service to a club. He was, from all accounts, reserved, perhaps even something of a loner. Yet he was obviously competitive and held immense confidence in his own game, going so far as to issue an open challenge to play anyone, anywhere, at any time, for any amount of money. And such an offer entailed more than a little risk, for in an era when high-stakes challenge matches stood among golf's biggest events, Willie Park Jr. is believed to have been the only professional regularly to stake himself, as opposed to wagering money put up by wealthy backers.

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