By Jared Olar
About nine years ago, “From the History Room” recalled the original Pekin Country Club nine-hole golf course, which was located at the present site of Pekin Community High School (“East Campus”). The new Country Club officially opened on Independence Day in 1962, the same year that construction began on East Campus at the site of the old Country Club.
The 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial volume relates that “before the club moved, many notable social and golf events took place, including a golf match in which professional golfer Sam Snead played within two strokes of the course record — a 66 with a two-stroke penalty.” Sam Snead (1912-2002) had attained great fame over the course of four decades as one of pro golf’s top players.
Surprisingly, the Sesquicentennial volume fails to mention when the Pekin Country Club played host to Snead. Long-time Pekin County Club member George Beres, who joined the club in 1945 when he was 17, recalled that the foursome who played the match included Snead, Ray Hall, the club’s golf pro; Dale Sarver, the club’s champion; and Bob Monge. Harry McClarence introduced Snead while Snead was hitting practice balls. “It was quite a sight to see him hit each ball, let me tell you,” Beres said.
To the best of his memory, Beres said he thought Sam Snead’s visit to Pekin was in the summer of 1961, the year before the club’s new golf course opened. On the other hand, Ray Hall’s son Michael, who shared his own memories of the golf match on his website in 2017, wrote that the match took place “around 1958.”
Searching through the microfilms of the Pekin Daily Times did not turn up any articles about Sam Snead’s visit in either 1958 or 1961. In an email from March of this year, Michael Hall’s older brother Jack, who caddied for Snead during the golf match, told me, “I think it was July of 1959.” His recollection was very close to the correct date.
It is thanks to Alan Harris, whose father Thomas was the club’s general chairman of “Sam Snead Day,” that I at last learned the date of Snead’s exhibition match in Pekin. In April of this year, Harris shared digital images of the pages of the match’s official score card in the Facebook group, “If you grew up in Pekin, you remember. . .” There on the front cover of the score card was the elusive date: June 20, 1959 — a Saturday. That, of course, made it very easy to find the Pekin Daily Times articles about “Sam Snead Day.”
The Daily Times sports page on “Sam Snead Day” featured an article by Times sports editor Lloyd Armstrong, headlined “It’s Sammy Snead Day: Sunny Skies Greet Slammer – It Rained For Sarazen, Babe.” Armstrong recalled that Snead’s visit was the first time in about 25 years that a professional golf star had come to Pekin. The previous occasion was a visit to the Country Club by Gene Sarazen and Mildred “Babe” Didrikson, but their exhibition match was rained out and everyone had to settle for some trick shots.
In Armstrong’s story, Olive Lohnes, one of the sponsors of the Sarazen-Didrikson event, said after waiting in vain for the rain to let up, “They finally went out to drive out some shots – I guess you’d call them trick shots – off the No. 1 tee. Everyone was disappointed but there was nothing we could do about the rain, and their schedule didn’t permit them to stay over until the next day.”
Thankfully the weather did not interfere with “Sam Snead Day.” A crowd of about 600 came to see “Slammer” play — a disappointing number, as the club had expected at least 3,000 to attend. In his “Scoreboard” column in the Monday, June 22, 1959 edition of the Pekin Times, Armstrong lamented the low turnout: “It is a major crime when sports fans of a city fail to support an appearance of the nation’s No. 1 golfer.”
Besides that, Snead’s visit didn’t get off to the best start. According to Armstrong, Snead’s plane arrived with only minutes to spare, but as Harry McClarence rushed Snead to Pekin from the airport in Bartonville, they were pulled over by the Bartonville police. McClarence explained to the officer that he was speeding because he had Sam Snead with him.
“Snead? Who’s he?” the officer dismissively replied.
The insult had no apparent effect on Snead’s play. As Armstrong reported, the match went almost perfectly for Snead, with only one sour note: he bogied 548-yard hole No. 7 with a penalty due to an out-of-bounds shot.
“Snead had stepped up to the tee on No. 7 and simply asked ‘Where’s the green on this hole?’ Pro Ray Hall pointed south and said, ‘Straight down the middle.’ Then Snead showed why they called him ‘the slammer.’ He hit the ball with a ‘whoosh’ that sounded like a jet taking off. The ball sailed on a line some 300 yards down the fairway. His second shot, an iron, went into Memorial stadium.”
In his recollections of Sam Snead’s visit, Michael Hall said:
“Hole number 7 was a par five which bordered the PCHS football stadium. I had never seen anyone hit it in two. As Sam got ready to hit his second shot on the par five he seemed to be confused and was asking my brother [Jack] where the green was. My brother showed him and he lined up and hit a perfect shot straight out of bounds over the fence and onto the PCHS football stadium property to the right of #7 fairway.
“He seemed to think that was where he wanted to hit it as he started walking after the ball. I just stood there knowing he had to come back and hit another. Finally my brother called to him and told him he had hit it out of bounds. He seemed irritated to me. He said something like, ‘I asked you where the green was!’ He had misunderstood my brother and it cost him a two-stroke penalty.”
Snead birdied this same hole in four strokes the second time around, and he easily went on to win the match 33-33 (66), coming within two strokes of setting a new Pekin Country Club course record. Ray Hall’s final score was 35-37 (72), Bob Monge’s score was 42-35 (77), and Dale Sarver’s was 40-38 (78).
“All hit some fine woods but with the exception of Hall, none was as consistent down the line as Snead,” Armstrong reported.
As a final thought, Jack Hall said to me in an email, “Sam lived near the Homestead Resort in West Virginia. When Lanae and I went up there to celebrate our wedding anniversary, Sam had passed away the week before and so we went to the wake. We met his son who I had talked to on the phone about his father wanting to build a golf course for Virginia Tech as a part of the Sam Snead Trail. Sam was laying in the casket with his straw hat on his belly and his 4 wood by his side.”