Dwight Eisenhower's day at Merion

Skip Adair followed a shot by Dwight Eisenhower while caddying as a 17-year-old for the former president onMay 26, 1964, at Merion Golf Club. "He kept asking me: 'How am I doing? How am I doing?' " Adair recalled.
Skip Adair followed a shot by Dwight Eisenhower while caddying as a 17-year-old for the former president onMay 26, 1964, at Merion Golf Club. "He kept asking me: 'How am I doing? How am I doing?' " Adair recalled.
Posted: June 04, 2013

Skip Adair's long entrepreneurial association with Merion Golf Club began in 1959, when he and a buddy sold sodas near the eighth tee. He later caddied there, worked its practice range, and finally helped manage the pro shop.

So it was no surprise that on the day in 1964 when he carried Dwight Eisenhower's brand new clubs around the famed Ardmore course, the 17-year-old turned a handsome profit.

The Heart Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania, sponsor of the charity golf match that lured the former president to Merion, paid him $15. Ike slipped him an extra $10. And Adair sold the three golf balls Eisenhower had given him for another $75.

"When I got home that night, my old man would like to have beat the [heck] out of me," Adair recently recalled. "He said, 'God . . . those were things you could have kept your whole life! Don't you know that?' And I said, 'Yeah, but I like money, too.' "

Though Merion will host its fifth U.S. Open this month, few dates in its storied history are as interesting as May 26, 1964, when Adair caddied for Eisenhower in the first public round the golf-mad ex-president ever played.

His partner was Arnold Palmer, and, thanks in large part to Eisenhower, the duo scored a 3-and-2 victory over the team of popular pro Jimmy Demaret and Wizard of Oz scarecrow Ray Bolger.

The crowd was limited to 1,000, and the tickets, which went for the then-exorbitant sum of $50 to $100 apiece, sold out quickly.

Palmer's wife, Winnie, helped organize the event, and the foursome she landed was an extremely appealing one.

Her husband, who had won his fourth and final Masters a month earlier, was still the sport's towering figure. The dapper Demaret, himself a three-time Masters champion, hosted a popular TV show, All Star Golf. And because The Wizard of Oz was an annual TV staple, Bolger was very popular.

Still, it was the 73-year-old Eisenhower, the 34th president and World War II hero, who was the intriguing attraction.

He didn't disappoint. From his helicopter's landing before lunch to the 45-foot putt he holed for a birdie on 17 late that afternoon, the day belonged to Ike.

And no one had a better view than Adair.

"He didn't seem to be nervous," said Adair, now 67 and the owner of a Kennett Square business that specializes in embroidering golf shirts and hats. "But he kept asking me: 'How am I doing? How am I doing?' "

Celebrity caddie

Merion selected the teenager as Ike's caddy because he was, in his own words, the club's "fair-haired boy." The other players were assigned the club's top caddies.

Adair grew up a food merchant's son on Cedarbrook Road, just a soft wedge away from the famous course that soon became his employer and favorite haunt.

"My friend and I sold sodas from a driveway near the eighth tee," he said. "Pretty soon the club got mad, and it put a stand on the sixth hole. The members still bought from us because they liked our sodas and prices better.

"By the time I was 12 or 13, I thought I was a little better than that, and I started caddying. From there I worked on the practice range and in the pro shop. I worked there every day, and the people liked me. So when Ike came, I was chosen to be his caddie."

Adair had done the same for other celebrities who played the course - Bob Hope; Cardinal John Krol; and members of the Pew family, the Merion members who headed the Sun Oil Co. But none of that prepared him for this experience.

The night before his big assignment, Adair, his parents, and sister were grilled by the Secret Service.

Those agents stood alongside Adair the following day when, after an aborted first try, Eisenhower landed near the first tee in an Army helicopter he had boarded in Fort Belvoir, Va.

Accompanied by the ex-president's aide, Gen. Robert Schulz, Adair led Eisenhower up the narrow staircase to Merion's locker room, where he changed into the clothes Schulz had set out there - a yellow shirt, brown pants, and brown-and-white golf shoes.

"We chatted the whole time," Adair said. "He said he liked my nickname, Skip. He had a new set of Spalding clubs, and he asked if there was somewhere he could hit a few practice balls."

Adair went to the pro shop and fetched Eisenhower a bucket of badly scarred balls, which were featured prominently in a wire photo dispatched across the nation.

Before the foursome teed off, there was a Merion luncheon to attend. A distracted Eisenhower was the speaker.

"He was nervous as a kitten," Palmer later recalled of the talk. "He wanted to get out on that golf course."

'He played good'

For all his association with golf - he had a green installed on the White House lawn - Eisenhower had never played a round in front of a gallery until that day.

In the alternate-shot format, Ike teed off first - he and Bolger played from the front tees - and cracked a 220-yard drive down the middle. Palmer hit his approach shot to within six feet, and Eisenhower sank the putt for a birdie.

"He played good," Adair said, "even though Palmer put him in some precarious positions."

On the eighth hole, Palmer's drive landed in thick rough.

"Ike asked me, 'What do I do?' " Adair said. "I said, 'Mr. President, hit down and through it, and don't lift your head, and it will pop right out of there.' Sure enough, it did. It landed about four feet from the hole, and the crowd went nuts."

Eisenhower, who suffered from bursitis, felt the need to offer the impressed fans an explanation.

"I'm full of aspirin today," he said.

Adair recalled that Palmer outplayed Demaret, and Eisenhower took care of Bolger. On the 16th hole, the team closed out the match.

Schulz then told Eisenhower that they should depart because the former president had a speaking engagement that night at Valley Forge Military Academy.

But Eisenhower said, "Ah, let's go on and play it out."

On the next hole, a daunting par 3, Palmer's tee shot left Ike with a 45-footer. He drained it.

"Wow," Demaret responded, "you putt like a Democrat."

Palmer said his partner "played superb all day."

Afterward, Palmer noticed that Eisenhower's elbow was bleeding. He grabbed a bandage from his bag and applied it to the wound.

It turned out that the cut was Palmer's fault. Noticing that Eisenhower's right elbow flew away from his body on swings, Palmer advised him to make sure he kept it tucked into his side.

Eisenhower, in military fashion, wore his belt buckle to the side, where it scraped his elbow on every swing.

Back in the locker room, a contented Ike surreptitiously slipped his caddie a $10 bill.

"I told him I'd already been paid," Adair recalled, "but he said, 'No, no, this is because you did an excellent job.' "

And then, as quickly as he came, the ex-president was gone.

"It was something I'll never forget," Adair said. "I've had a good life since then, and a lot of that I attribute to the lessons I learned and the people I met at Merion. I learned more working there than I did in college or in the military.

"I got to meet a lot of influential people like Eisenhower, and they put me on a good path."

Contact Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @philafitz. Read his blog, "Giving 'Em Fitz," at www.philly.com/fitz

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