Feature Interview with Tom Paul

Part OnePage Three

How has the role of the private club changed during your lifetime, if at all?

I believe the role of the private club has changed quite a bit during my lifetime which is now sixty seven years, and to about the same degree society has changed during that time.

However, I should qualify my answer to only include the private clubs I’ve been familiar with during that time. And, by familiar with, I’m not speaking of just being familiar with the architecture of some significant golf courses, but being familiar in the sense of knowing really well significant numbers of members and the administrations of a number of significant clubs over most of my lifetime. It never occurred to me how far and wide and deep this all ran until I started looking back on it all fairly recently, which includes my time on GOLFCLUBATLAS.com when others mentioned a number of significant East Coast clubs, and began trying to discuss them and the details of their histories.

Other than mooching off my father who belonged to about a dozen golf clubs, I’ve belonged to only one club in my lifetime. That would seem a limited vantage from which to answer this question, at least from the perspective of the inside (inner-workings) of golf clubs. However, again, I must also consider my father and my extended family and friends, including my grandparents, both paternal and maternal when I consider this question. Perhaps more important, or most important of all, I must consider what I did for about twenty five years in the area of tournament competition and golf administration with primarily two golf associations, one regional and the other state, and perhaps even with the USGA itself in the last few years. All of the foregoing gave me a much better inside perspective on numerous clubs that I probably never could’ve had without those administrative positions and that generational family perspective.

Ironically, those positions and that perspective were not something I remember at any time consciously setting out to do. It was just the way things evolved over time. I might say a good analogy or explanation to the evolution of my life and particularly in golf is the title to the autobiography of an older cousin of mine, a man by the name of Anthony Drexel Duke. Tony Duke is today in his nineties and not so long ago he wrote his autobiography which he titled “An Uncharted Course.” I believe his point was he never set out to do many of the things he ended up doing and one in particular for which he received one of the highest civilian awards our country can bestow on a citizen* I’m not going to win any civilian awards for anything I’ve done in my life, as Tony Duke did, and my point is only that, like him, I feel my life, particularly in golf, was an uncharted course. Frankly, if my great, great grandparents, great grandparents, grandparents and parents could see what I have done with my life, including my life in golf, their response very well might be a collective, “Hmmmmm!?”

My father was a very good golfer, a tournament player at a high level, competing regularly in an impressive array of tournaments every year including regional, state and national championships and even a couple of US Opens. He belonged to about 10-12 clubs** over his life and it was quite rare for him to give one up, even if he was no longer in its region.***

As I mentioned above, like my father, I did not begin to play golf regularly until I was in my early thirties but at that point golf sort of became my life,**** as it had been my father’s life from his early thirties on.

Back in those days in that world I grew up in a teenager or even a pre-teenager did not need to play golf to be familiar with a vast number of clubs and their members. It was simply that way because of my extended family and their vast network of friends in those clubs up and down the East Coast. Those people of those clubs were just part of that extended world of friends and acquaintances that all seemed to know each other through the same schools, colleges, through a tight world of business connections and marriages. It was the way that world worked back then (the world that some referred to as the American “WASP”); that was the way it was, and it was, in fact, multi-generational. Remarkably, the vestiges of it within some of those clubs up and down the East Coast and elsewhere, still very much exist today.

Therefore, I will say from my observations from the perspective of tournament golf and particularly from the golf associations I’ve served on, the role of private clubs has changed in my lifetime, some of them significantly; in recent years an alarming number of them are really struggling or are in danger of failing. But the old line clubs which happen to be many of America’s most significant and enduringly respected clubs and courses that I have known so well due to much of the foregoing, haven’t changed as much as others, if at all. To walk into them today still feels the same as it did fifty years ago. Even the members look the same to me though they are the younger generations of mostly the same families I used to know and my father and our family used to know. To describe them, I would slightly alter that old adage to read; “To protect the innocent, the names have NOT been changed.”

Looking forward, I suppose one could ask what the “golf club” of the future might look like, whether private or semi-private or semi-public. In that vein, I want you to know that some of the things GOLFCLUBATLAS.com has accomplished in its dozen or so years are not that much unlike the way some of those private clubs of a century ago formed. My old friend John Ott used to say that the Philadelphia School of Architecture was essentially a group of friends who all knew each other anyway from playing golf together or through their families and social lives. The point here is that back then when one became a member of one of those significant clubs most all the members knew him anyway. It is not dissimilar to the way a group of golfers have come to know each other through GOLFCLUBATLAS.com and their various outings here and there that emanate from and revolve around GOLFCLUBATLAS.com. That is their commonality and essentially that is very much something along the lines of how those private clubs in the old days came to be via a group of pre-existing friends.

* Tony Duke, with a small group of his close friends from St Paul’s School, seemed to be unusually imbued with what one might refer to as a “social consciousness,” and particularly for young men from the “born-into” fortunate world they came from. One was Paul Moore who became the Episcopal Bishop of New York; another was Claiborne Pell from Rhode Island who would have a long career as a prominent democratic U.S. Senator from Rhode Island. Together they created and funded what was originally known as Boys Harbor, a summer camp in Easthampton, Long Island for disadvantaged inter-city boys. Eventually that establishment with the help of the amazingly successful socialite fundraiser, Brooke Astor, became Boys and Girls Harbor with an impressive campus in New York City. For this life’s work which positively influenced the lives of scores of thousands of inter-city children President Clinton awarded Tony Duke one of the highest civilian life achievement awards. That was not the only uncharted course his life took but it was the most notable one.

**My recollection is they included Myopia in Boston when he went to Harvard and lived for a time in Boston; Piping Rock, Meadowbrook, The Links, NGLA in New York; Gulph Mills in Philadelphia, and Gulf Stream, Seminole and Pine Tree in Florida. There were others, Aiken in S.C., Timaquana, St Augustine and Daytona Beach G.C. in Florida when he lived in those towns and gave up only long after he moved farther south and knew he would never return.

***The only club my father gave up, basically in disappointment, when he was still playing golf and living in its area was Pine Tree. Since I never got into the specifics with him, I cannot say with real assurance why he gave it up. And I do not know in the context of this overall subject on the question of gentlemen and golf and golf clubs if it had anything to do with the fact that Pine Tree was the only club he belonged to that did not exist before he joined it. He was one of its founders. I only know he became disillusioned with Pine Tree when they changed some of their original By-Laws and agreements with the founding members. As a founder and original investor he was given two lots on the golf course. One he lived in for a few years with his great friend Jim Raymond who drew Dagwood and Blondie when they both got divorced around the same time. He sold that one when they both got remarried. The other lot he kept until quite near his death. With that lot he got spiteful with the club and refused to maintain it and he even tried to bribe the garbage man from time to time to take his garbage from his house on the ocean and dump it in his lot at Pine Tree. Eventually the problem seemed to resolve itself and my father and those he opposed seemed to actually find a good deal of mirth in the whole situation after the fact. The only other club he had a problem with at one time was Seminole. I think it might’ve been in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Dad was on the board during the time a young Jack Nicklaus attempted to join the club. Nicklaus had moved to Lost Tree just to the south of Seminole. Nicklaus’s membership application created a real schism on the board that may’ve filtered into the membership or perhaps the dynamics occurred the other way around. Dad loved great golfers and touring pros—-after all he once wanted to be one himself until his mother told him she would disinherit him on the spot. I suppose Dad knew young Nicklaus’s application might be an uphill battle in a club that apparently still had some serious vestiges of that old mentality that did not accept professional golfers into the membership of a “gentleman’s” club (it was doubly complicated because at the time the club had awarded Ben Hogan an “honorary” membership). But what Dad really hated was the fact that he felt the club was not telling the whole truth about why they were going to turn down Nicklaus’s application. The reason that seemed to be spreading was that Nicklaus’s quite famous caddy, Angelo Argea, might upset the Seminole caddy cadre somehow. Dad thought that was a cover-up of the real reason they wanted to turn him down—– that they were not yet ready to accept a man like that who was not exactly of their world, despite his emanating and electrifying fame in golf. Apparently Dad’s last plea to accept him was not so popular or well received because it was something like—–“When are you superannuated aristocratic old farts going to realize how much fun it will be to get to know, to practice next to and play with a young man who is obviously going to become one of the greatest golfers who ever lived?” Nicklaus’ application was turned down and in protest Dad quit the board but he did not quit the club. And, I suppose they had enough respect left for him to honor his request that if he did quit the board his position should be taken by his young cousin  who would go on to eventually become Seminole’s president (actually more like its czar). I was proud of my father when he took that stand and I am no less proud of him for it now. It was unpopular at the club at that time but it was the right thing to do, in his opinion, and in mine now. However, the thing that most fascinates me, at least in the context of some of these questions you ask about gentlemen in golf and their private clubs, is that my father pressed his point as far as he thought necessary but when he was over-ruled by the decision of the board he did not jeopardize or lose his friends over it; he simply resigned from the board over a singular issue all understood, and he stayed on as a member and put it behind him. That, in a nutshell, I think epitomizes the ethos or the world of the gentleman and the world of his private clubs.

****I played annually in over forty tournaments for close to twenty five years. Someone once asked me how I could possibly play forty plus tournaments annually for twenty five years and particularly since I didn’t play much in the winter. The simple answer is all the association tournaments were on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and the invitationals were on the weekends so I could play two tournaments a week during the season which lasted from April until October. I did play a few invitationals in the south in the winter but since I never lived down there in the winter I didn’t like to do it because I was never ready to play well in the spring having put my clubs away in the fall.  I was a real estate broker during those years I played all those tournaments annually. My real estate company didn’t care if I was in the office or at some golf club; they only cared about the amount of business I produced, and I definitely did not have to be in the office to do that.