George May: The P.T. Barnum of Professional Golf
In Illinois, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the tournament every caddie wanted to loop in was George S. May’s two weeks at Tam O’Shanter Country Club in Niles, Illinois, on the northwest side of Chicago.
George May, a one-time revival-tent Bible salesman who earned millions as an efficiency expert teaching big corporations how to work better and smarter, bought Tam O’Shanter in 1936 and rebuilt it.
The Tam O’Shanter clubhouse was a vast concrete-and-glass, triple-decker building with a sprawling dining room overlooking the course and a one-hundred-foot high water tank in the form of a golf ball atop a red tee. You could see it for miles. At the height of its operation, the club had thirteen bars and telephones on every tee for the convenience of the members.
Noted golf historian, Al Barkow, former Golf Magazine editor and author of Golf’s Golden Grind, about the PGA, grew up as a caddie at Tam. He recalls anyone could join Tam, if they could afford the membership. “The elite of Chicago’s Mafia were an integral, visible, part of the scene at ‘Tammy O,'” according to Barkow, “some playing golf at the club under assumed, anglicized names.”
Barkow describes May as a “short man who walked with the head-high, shoulder-back erectness of those who carry a well-fed but not much exercised stomach. He always seemed to have a kittenish smile on his face, a little like someone who had pulled a fast one on the world.”
George May was the P.T. Barnum of the professional tour, the first really big-time golf promoter in America. In 1941 he staged the Tam O’Shanter Open, which had a purse of $11,000, the biggest in pro golf at the time. In 1954, he set the first prize for his World Championship at Tam at $50,000 and guaranteed the winner another $50,000 for a series of fifty exhibitions. He was promising golf professionals this amount of money at a time when the entire purse for the average pro tour event was around $25,000.
He staged his tournaments for 17 years, from 1941 through 1957, giving away over $2 million dollars in prize money to the golf pros. But for all his efforts he was scorned by those same professionals and their association, the PGA. As Al Barkow puts it in his book on the Tour, “he [May] was effectively drummed out of his game … [he was] harangued and held in contempt to his exhaustion, and he left the scene.” In that way, as Barkow points out, May was like Bill Veeck dealing with the major-league baseball-club owners.
May was the first to put up grandstands for a tournament; the first to put up scoreboards to show the up-to-minute scores of the leaders called in from around the course by short-wave radio. He had programs printed with the players’ names and sold them for a quarter. And that’s where he got in trouble with the players. The pros balked when he suggested they wear numbers so spectators could easily identify them by matching their numbers with his program. A compromise was finally worked out: caddies would carry the numbers, pinned to their backs, and not the player.
The golf professionals also didn’t like that May employed clowns to walk around the course, brought in a “masked marvel” golfer to play in the events, gave away door prizes, and told the spectators they could gamble on the club’s slot machines, or hang around till evening and dance in the outdoor pavilion. Nor did the pros appreciate that the gallery might just spend the day picnicking beside the fairways while watching the players go by.
By the end of his career, May would put up a sign in front of his country club stating that no PGA pros were allowed on his golf course. But before that, for well over a decade, he put on quite a show that thrilled golfers and fans and put real money in the pockets of the pros.
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