Taking on the Giants

Pinehurst amateur Dick Chapman more than held his own against golf’s professional greats 

By Bill Case

Left to right: Dick Chapman, Frank Stranahan, Ben Hogan and Jimmy Demaret

 

In the first quarter of 1946, young Pinehurst attorney Leland McKeithen confronted a dilemma. The Pinehurst chapter of the Red Cross stood $2,500 short of raising the $7,000 necessary to satisfy the goal for its annual fundraising drive. As chapter president, McKeithen pondered ways of reducing the shortfall. Aware that most community residents and visitors shared a love of all things golf, he considered the prospect of bringing top players to Pinehurst to play an exhibition match at the area’s nonpareil course — Pinehurst No. 2.

But, given Pinehurst’s North and South Open and Amateur tournaments, there were already ample opportunities for Sandhills golf aficionados to observe the game’s best in action. McKeithen needed an angle that would encourage the locals to reach into their pockets. He came up with a version of the David and Goliath theme: Match two top professionals, playing as a team, against two amateurs. Sure, the pros would be heavy favorites, but there were notable amateurs around who on a given day could give the pros a battle.

For a total of $500 contributed by a generous Pinehurst donor, two of golf’s greatest, Jimmy Demaret and the legendary Sam Snead, agreed to partner in the Red Cross exhibition. Though better known for his colorful personality and a wardrobe that ranged in hue from canary yellow to powder blue, Texan Demaret also possessed fabulous shotmaking skills, having captured the 1940 Masters. Snead’s Hall of Fame career was skyrocketing. “Slammin’ Sam” would win six times in ’46, including the Open Championship at St. Andrews. 

The amateurs chosen to oppose the Snead-Demaret juggernaut were Frank Stranahan, 23, and Pinehurst resident Dick Chapman, 35. Both came from privileged backgrounds. Chapman’s father made a fortune as a partner in a Wall Street brokerage firm. His mother also came from wealth, derived from her father, Clarence Geist, whose profitable investments began in utilities but included ownership of the Boca Raton Hotel & Club and the Seaview resort in New Jersey. Stranahan’s father owned the Champion Spark Plug Company in Toledo, Ohio. Both players could afford to compete internationally as amateurs, free of worry they would run out of cash.

In an era when the leading golfers were reluctant to lift anything heavier than a cocktail glass, the muscular Stranahan was a conspicuous exception. A devoted powerlifter, the sometimes-arrogant Frank would chuckle when panting bellhops struggled to lift his luggage loaded down with concealed weights. Quirks aside, Stranahan could play. Fresh from victory in Pinehurst’s North and South Amateur, he certainly qualified as a candidate for the country’s best amateur.

So did Chapman. Having won a slew of important pre-war titles including the New York, Connecticut, and French Amateurs, Chapman became a nationally prominent player after he routed his opponent in the finals of the 1940 U.S. Amateur at his home course, Winged Foot Golf Club. Recently discharged from wartime service as a major in the Army Air Corps, Chapman was poised to resume his pursuit of championship victories.

A Greenwich, Connecticut, native, Chapman had recently acquired a residence in Pinehurst. A month before the exhibition, he along with wife, Eloise, son, Dixie, and daughter Joy, moved into an opulent frame home in the area of McCaskill Road referred to as Millionaire’s Row. Chapman’s roots in the town dated back to his earliest days. His parents were respected members of the town’s Cottage Colony, and he had visited Pinehurst with the family for decades. John Chapman, himself a winner of a national seniors competition, introduced his son to the game, and had Dick competing in Pinehurst Country Club junior tournaments by age 9. Infatuated with golf, Chapman practiced diligently, developing  a classic rhythmic swing. Soon he was taking on all comers in Pinehurst and Connecticut, and also as a player on the Williams College golf team. Encouraged by his game’s rapid maturation, Dick began entering Pinehurst’s prestigious North and South Amateur, held annually on the No. 2 course. Chapman nearly won the event in 1934 at age 22, losing the final match to the perennial champion, his former Pinehurst junior opponent, George Dunlap Jr.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dick Chapman with son Dixie, wife Eloise and daughter Joy

 

Thus, many of the 725 spectators who paid a dollar to attend the Red Cross exhibition had known Chapman for years and were pulling for their stylish, debonair friend and his chiseled partner to somehow stage an upset over the Snead-Demaret combo. With all four players well-versed in the nuances of the exhibition’s four-ball format (a match in which two players post their lowest scoring ball on each hole against the lowest scoring ball of two other players), the gallery anticipated a riveting contest. As usual, Demaret stretched the fashion envelope, sporting an outlandishly oversized tam atop his head. Chapman appeared in old-school attire, donning a beautifully tailored V-neck sweater and tie.

It appeared the pros might make short work of the amateurs after Demaret holed a birdie putt on the par-3 sixth to put his team 2 up. But the Chapman-Stranahan team clawed back one of the holes on the seventh. The yelp of a dog on the eighth caused straw-hatted Snead to misfire on a key shot, and the match was all square. After quaffing a pint of milk at the refreshment stand, Chapman struck a brilliant iron shot which left his ball snugly hole-side on the par-3 ninth. His birdie nosed his team in front for the first time.

On the par-5 10th, Snead was presented with an opportunity to even the match, but an animal’s noise again disrupted the Slammer’s concentration. A horse on the adjacent bridle path neighed during Sam’s stroke, and his short putt went awry. After Snead narrowly missed a par putt on the 12th, the amateurs suddenly found themselves 2 up. That was how the match stood until the par-3 15th, where Snead finally caught a break. His birdie putt to win the hole hovered on the lip for over 20 seconds before dropping in. But Chapman and Stranahan still clung to their 1 up lead as the four players arrived at the par-3 17th. After another fine iron, Chapman applied the dagger, calmly draining a curving 20-foot birdie. When Snead failed to convert his birdie, he and Demaret were closed out by the amateurs 2 and 1.

After the match, Dick and Eloise, hosted a cocktail party at their home, which they now called Winter Haven. In addition to Messrs. Demaret, Snead and Stranahan, several other golf notables attended, including PGA Tour manager Fred Corcoran, Golf World founder and editor Bob Harlow, and tour player Toney Penna. Nobody relished a good party attended by entertaining guests more than bon vivant Chapman. It was later said of this personable patrician that he “was like a character out of The Great Gatsby, handsome, charming, wealthy . . . a man who knew his way around a golf course or a cruise ship, or a cocktail party on the lawn of a manor.”

The Red Cross viewed the match a success and scheduled another amateurs vs. pros exhibition on No. 2 for March ’47. In order to maximize revenue, the admission ticket was bumped to $2. Pinehurst, Inc. fronted the pros’ stipends. Chapman and Stranahan again teamed up as the amateur duo but this time they would be facing a team that was arguably the best ever — the incomparable Ben Hogan and his Texas cohort Demaret. They were certainly an odd couple. The poker faced, chain-smoking Hogan hardly uttered a word during play, while the colorful Demaret sunnily wisecracked with the gallery. No player in history spent more time on the range than Bantam Ben. By contrast, the naturally talented Demaret seldom hit balls and could reliably be found at a nightclub after posting his score. But when paired with Hogan in team competitions, Demaret shelved the hijinks. Hogan remarked that when Demaret “played with me, there was no fooling around.” Their disparate approaches  somehow blended  into a yin and yang that made Hogan and Demaret nearly unbeatable in the team competitions prevalent during the 1940s. They had already won six four-ball tournaments together and would later team to win two Ryder Cup matches.

The likelihood of the Chapman-Stranahan team replicating their success in the ’46 Red Cross match against such peerless opponents was further diminished by the fact that Demaret was enjoying his greatest season. He would carry off his second Masters title in April and ultimately emerge as 1947’s leading money winner.  And Hogan, too, was on a roll. After years battling unwelcome hooks which would crop up under pressure and wreck opportunities to win, Ben suddenly became the best ball-striker on the planet. Gone were the devastating hooks.  In their place were exquisitely controlled power fades. The wiry Texan  had apparently solved golf’s eternal puzzle. Everyone in golf speculated what the “Hogan Secret” might be, but he declined to reveal any clues other than to say he had “dug it out of the dirt.”

Gen. George C. Marshall congratulates the players of the 1950 match

 

Chapman and Stranahan possessed no home course advantage over Hogan, whose breakthrough victory had come on No. 2 in the 1940 North and South Open — an event that he won again in ’42 and ’46. Hogan appreciated No. 2’s premium on ball-striking and course management, skills he possessed in abundance.

On a cool March Monday afternoon, Hogan and his wife, Valerie, motored over to the resort from their lodgings at Southern Pines’ Belvedere Hotel.  At the first tee, he was greeted with resounding  applause from 800 enthralled onlookers who jockeyed for a good vantage point to watch the players strike their opening drives. The Chapman-Stranahan team got off to a promising start, going 1 up after both Hogan and Demaret  bogeyed the first hole. But the lead was gone when Demaret drained a tying birdie on the third. The remainder of the front nine featured a marvelous exhibition of shotmaking with neither team gaining an advantage. Chapman in particular was knocking the flags down with his irons. He came within an eyelash of holing his approach on the seventh. But Hogan topped Chapman’s birdie with his own. Finally on the long 10th, the amateurs forged ahead after  Chapman holed a 25-footer for a birdie four. The amateurs built their lead to two holes after both Texans pushed tee shots right at the uphill 13th and failed  to salvage pars.

It appeared  the pros would fall 3 down on the 14th after Stranahan’s second shot nestled within 10 feet of the hole. But Demaret turned the tables, holing a curling 35-footer. After Stranahan missed his tying effort, the pros had trimmed the lead to a single hole. Both sides birdied the 16th after Chapman narrowly missed a putt for eagle following his glorious wood shot onto the well-protected green. On the par-3 17th, Chapman must have encountered a sense of déjà vu while addressing his birdie putt to close out Hogan and Demaret. He had made a similar putt on this very green to beat Snead and Demaret  in the ’46 exhibition. He ended  this match in the same spectacular fashion by stroking his winning  putt straight into the cup. Chapman’s personal score of 69  bested both Hogan and Demaret.

Over cocktails at the post-match shindig hosted at Winter Haven by the Chapmans, Hogan uncharacteristically took Dick aside and imparted advice on the amateur’s swing, “particularly in regard to the position of the left shoulder in making full strokes.” Hogan offered tips to fellow competitors about as often as he hit loose shots, but it seems he felt a kinship toward Chapman as both men shared a nearly messianic desire to perfect  their golf swings. Notwithstanding this camaraderie, Hogan did not go so far as to confide to his all-ears friend his mysterious “secret.”

Another tandem of stars challenged  Chapman and Stranahan in the March 1948 exhibition — Johnny Palmer and Bobby Locke. Palmer, a good old boy from nearby Badin, N.C., had beaten the field in the 1947 Western Open, then considered a major tournament. He would win on tour seven times and play on the Ryder Cup team in ’49, the year he finished in the top eight of the Masters, U.S. Open and the PGA Championship.

Locke was in the midst of an incredible 32-month span in which he would win 11 PGA tour events. The South African became the first non-British foreigner to distinguish himself on the circuit, and many of the American  pros deeply resented his success. It did not help Locke’s likeability that he marched in rather stately fashion to his own drummer. He looked and played in a manner different from other players. Dressed at least 15 years out of fashion in plus fours, white dress shirt and tie, his jowly appearance made him appear far older than his age of 30. He played at a maddeningly slow pace, hooking every shot, including the unerring putts he rapped with an ancient hickory-shafted blade. Bobby Locke would subsequently win four Open Championships.

But the Palmer-Locke team could not compare with the draw of Hogan and Demaret, and the admission price was accordingly cut back to one dollar. Those who paid their way were treated to an exciting nip-and-tuck affair. Thanks to Palmer’s sterling play, the amateurs were unable to gain the upper hand, and there would be no three-peat for Chapman and Stranahan. Chapman did come within 4 inches of a hole-in-one on the sixth hole, and Stranahan, needing to hole a 25-foot putt on the 17th to extend the match, managed to do so. But when the 18th was halved in pars, the professionals took the match 1 up.

Perhaps disappointed with the decreased revenue from the series, the Red Cross elected not to hold the professionals vs. amateurs match in 1949. But Demaret did stop by Pinehurst to bunk  in at the Chapmans’ place in mid-April. Friends Jimmy and Dick shared more than their golf talent. Both were accomplished nightclub singers. Chapman had sung at a hotspot in New York and “crooned lilting songs” during a wintertime gig in 1939 at Pinehurst’s long-gone Club Chalfonte. Owner Karl Andrews then marveled, “Dick is playing golf as well as he sings and you know that’s good.” Now, pleasantly immersed in Pinehurst life, Chapman mostly confined his vocal performances to solos in The Village Chapel’s choir.

Hoping for a reprise of the blockbuster match of ’47, the Red Cross lured Hogan and Demaret back to Pinehurst for another exhibition in 1950. But this time, Chapman would have a different amateur partner — Harvie Ward. The charismatic 23-year-old Tarboro, N.C., native burst onto the national scene after his  sensational victory on No. 2 at the 1948 North and South Amateur. A raucous band of fraternity brothers and fawning co-eds from the University of North Carolina motored down from Chapel Hill to root him on, and they carried the beaming Harvie off the 18th green after he vanquished Frank Stranahan. Harvie followed up that triumph by winning the NCAA individual title in ’49, and would later win the 1952 British Amateur, as well as back-to-back U.S. Amateurs in 1955 and ’56.

Mostly recovered from the horrific crash with a Greyhound bus that nearly cost him his life the previous year, Hogan’s game was rounding into form. He and Demaret would post memorable campaigns in 1950 with Demaret winning his third Masters, and Hogan being named Player of the Year after his historic U.S. Open playoff win at Merion Golf Club. Smarting a bit from their stunning ’47 exhibition loss, both stars (particularly Hogan, who hated losing to amateurs) were eager to turn the tables on Chapman and his new partner. This time the pro team played superbly right out of the gate. A pair of Hogan deuces on the ninth and 15th left the amateurs reeling 2 down. It appeared that Chapman and Ward would be closed out on the long 16th, but Ward “scrambled from trap to roadbed” to halve the hole and keep the match alive.

After nailing his rifle-shot iron to the 17th green, Hogan was sure of his par and certain victory. The amateurs were down to their last bullet — a 60-foot putt by Chapman to extend the match. As Chapman addressed his ball, a sparrow suddenly perched directly on his line to the cup. His concentration broken, Dick stepped aside until the bird flew away. After he took his stance a second time, the bird repositioned itself on the line and, according to the Pinehurst Outlook, ”went into a feathery sort of buck-and-wing.” The exasperated Chapman was forced to back off his putt again. Finally, the sparrow exited for good and Dick rapped his desperation putt. Just then, the fates intervened. A gust of wind blew a dead leaf into the ball, ever slightly redirecting its path right into the hole. Chapman’s electrifying stroke sent the match to the 18th, where  he confronted another last-gasp birdie putt, a 15-footer from the fringe. Chapman holed this one too, and the amateurs implausibly salvaged a halved match.

Gen. George Marshall, national president of the Red Cross, and a seasonal Pinehurst resident, personally congratulated the players on their performances. Marshall presented  mementos to mark the occasion. Though no golfer himself, the architect of Allied victory in World War II and the Marshall Plan that rebuilt war-ravaged Europe often enjoyed attending competitions held at No. 2.

Eight-year-old Dixie Chapman was home when Ben Hogan stopped by the traditional post-match party at Winter Haven. The youngster was thrilled when Mr. Hogan ordered him to grab a club and meet him in the backyard. After observing Dixie’s form, Hogan told father Dick, “His swing’s perfect. Don’t change a thing.” Then, with a conspiratorial air, Ben spirited Dick away from the rest of the guests into the den. After locking the door, Hogan spotted a Bible and removed it from the bookshelf. With a solemnity suggestive of an initiation into a secret society, Hogan exacted from Chapman a promise, sworn on the holy text, that he would tell no one what was about to be revealed. It was the mysterious Hogan Secret. Maybe, given that Hogan later explained to Life magazine that his discovery involved a complicated combination of weakening the grip, pronating the left wrist, cupping it at the top of the swing, and then supinating it on the downswing, it was really several secrets. Others claim Hogan never divulged the true secret or, as Snead believed, there was no secret at all. 

Whatever the case, it appears Hogan’s revelation didn’t satisfy Chapman’s quest for golfing perfection. Something of a mad scientist, he was forever experimenting with new ways to strike a golf ball. Dixie remembers his dad would return from the course exulting, “I’ve got it!” only to move on to some new theory the next day. Chapman’s interest in the swing led him to author numerous magazine articles and a book entitled Golf as I Play It. His study of the game was not confined to its mechanics. He devised a new type of competition, primarily geared to mixed couples, in which each of the partners hit tee shots, and then hit each other’s ball. The best of the  second shots was then selected by the team with that  ball played alternately until holed. “Chapman” competitions (also called “Pinehurst”) are still held most everywhere golf is played.

There was one more Red Cross benefit match played in April 1952 that featured a new professional team. The Red Cross landed boyish Jack Burke, Jr., who had played in the Ryder Cup held at Pinehurst in ’51, and the tempestuous Tommy Bolt, the winner of the final North and South Open, also held in ’51. Burke’s banner year would come in 1956 when he won both the Masters and PGA.  Bolt held his famous temper in check just enough during the 1958 U.S. Open to win his only major. Chapman, having further burnished his stature by winning the 1951 British Amateur, arrived at the exhibition with a new partner in tow — Hobart Manley, Jr., the 1951 North and South Amateur champion. Buoyed by Manley’s twin deuces on holes six and 15 and his scorching-hot putter, the amateurs edged Bolt and Burke 1 up. It was the only one of the five exhibitions in which Chapman’s play was overshadowed by his partner.

Chapman would continue to play great championship golf for another 15 years. He was a member of his third winning Walker Cup team in 1953. He continued to add to his collection of international victories and would compete in 19 Masters tournaments, an amateur record. Dick and Dixie, who today lives at the Country Club of North Carolina, made for a great team in father-son competitions, winning several, including a tournament held near the family’s summer quarters at Oyster Harbors on Cape Cod. Both father and son qualified for the 1958 U.S. Amateur. But Dick’s most treasured golfing achievement occurred that same year on No. 2 where, after over two decades of falling short, he finally won the North and South Amateur at age 47.

Dick enjoyed competing in all sorts of Pinehurst events. Like his father before him, participating in the Tin Whistles’ club championships (he won eight of them)  and he relished pairing with Eloise in  mixed “Chapman” competitions. Eloise died in 1966 and Chapman subsequently married Anne McKee. After a stroke in 1970, Dick’s golf was limited. He died in California in 1978.

Chapman was inducted into the Carolinas Golf Association Hall of Fame in 1986. He is the only player to have  been crowned amateur champion of the United States, Great Britain, France, Canada and Italy, a record bolstered by his remarkable performances in the Red Cross exhibitions. He won three, tied one, and lost one in five team matches against golf’s greatest. Of the seven players Chapman’s teams competed against in the series, all but Johnny Palmer are enshrined in the World Golf Hall of Fame. Collectively, his adversaries won 26 major championships (Hogan and Snead alone accounted for 16) and 199 tournaments on the PGA Tour.

When Dick Chapman passed away, Time eulogized him as the “amateur Ben Hogan.” It is likely Ben considered it a personal compliment to be compared to his genial Pinehurst friend whose intense dedication to golf matched  Hogan’s own.  PS

Pinehurst resident Bill Case is PineStraw’s history man. He can be reached at Bill.Case@thompsonhine.com.

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