By Jim Ducibella
Teachers comments: One of the strangest golf stories ever, entertainingly told.
In The King of Clubs, author Jim Dubicella recounts what is surely one of the strangest true golf stories ever told: that of the 1938 four-day, coast-to-coast, eight-city, 600-hole golf marathon of J Smith Ferebee.
The marathon was the result of a bet between Ferebee and his sometime friend and business partner, Fred Tuerk. At stake was ownership of 296 acres of Virginia waterfront land.
To win, Ferebee had to play the thirty three rounds, each with a score of no more than 100 in eight different cities.
The bet was no moment of whimsey, but rather extended from Ferebee’s reputation as marathon athlete. When Olympia Fields opened its new 30 yard swimming pool, he celebrated by swimming 202 laps. Later, Ferebee won bets from Olympia members who said he couldn’t swim 1,000 laps. He also was an extraordinarly fast and tireless golfer who would regularly play 90 holes at a time at Chicago’s Olympia Fields Country Club.
“Never bet him (Ferebee),” Bears owner George Halas warned people, “even if he says the sun’s not coming up tomorrow.”
Still, when Ferebee boasted he could play all four of Olympia Fields courses (yes, it had four courses at that time) twice in a single day, Tuerk called his bluff. Ferebee won that bet, in spite of bad weather and blistered feet.
Ferebee’s initial 144 hole marathon was heavily covered by the period’s sensationalist media, and sparked a wave of marathon golf outings nationwide. Soon Ferebee’s accomplishment didn’t seem quite so incredible. So Tuerk and Ferebee worked out another bet, resulting in the coast-to-coast marathon.
It was a big bet, and the hoopla was even bigger. Ferebee had a private plane and the trip was sponsored by the fledgling air conditioner company, Trane. Crowds greeted Ferebee at each stop; bands played; police and fire departments escorted him to the courses. He started rounds before dawn and played after dark under lights provided by cars, fire departments and flares. Flight delays and storms caused sleep deprivation. A leg injury after a fall slowed him down and he survived a gambler’s attempt to sabotage the effort.
I don’t think it is a spoiler to reveal that in the end, Ferebee won his bet. It was obvious from the beginning that he would (otherwise, why write the book), and the enjoyment is not in the finish, but in the journey. And what a journey: Ferebee played his 600 holes in just 96 hours, using 2,858 shots for an average score of 85.7. More amazingly, he did not lose a single ball.
King of Clubs starts a bit slow with the obligatory introduction of the main players, their histories and the rather curious financial connections between Ferebeen and Tuerk. But it picks up the pace as soon as Ferebee begins the first round of his marathon. From there it moves quickly and I found I couldn’t put it down. It’s a measure of Ducibella’s skill as a writer that—even logically knowing the outcome—I still found it exciting.
The other thing about Ducibella that impresses are his reasearch skills. It cannot have been easy digging up seventy year old newspaper stories and interviewing the few remaining eyewitnesses to put together a cogent, seamless story. But Ducibella makes it come alive.
This is a great book that I think every fan of golf history should read. I also think it would make a heckuva movie, perhaps in the vein of other Depression-era sports movies, such as Cinderella Man or Seabiscuit.