Tennessee’s quiet golf legend

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Emmett Spicer Jr.
The Masters Tournament, which tees off today at Augusta National in Georgia, stokes tales of Bobby Jones, the greatest name in amateur golf history.

While the tales abound about Jones, who captured the Grand Slam of Golf in 1930, a smattering of Tennesseans will recollect Emmett Spicer Jr., whom Jones considered his “better.”

“He is the best I’ve ever seen,” Jones said about 75 years ago. “He is better than I am, but I can probably out-putt him.”  

In 1931, the Associated Press reported Spicer “is ranked second only to Bobby Jones as a stylist in Dixie golf ranks.”

Among career highlights of the golfer, who for the most part shaped his sparkling game from tee to green in Memphis, were five Tennessee State Amateur titles and two Southern Amateur championships.

Spicer, who was manager of the Lebanon Coca-Cola Bottling Plant 50 years ago, has two children, Rosalyn and Stuart, living in Rutherford County, while daughter Kathy lives in Lebanon, where her grandson Jay Pittman played on the Lebanon High golf team last fall.

Pittman took up the sport at 10 due to the encouragement of his grandmother.

“I just wanted him to play since my dad said that it was a game you could play your whole life. I’d drive the cart and he’d play,” said Spicer’s daughter Kathy Hesson recently at the Lebanon Golf and Country Club. “My best memories of my dad are here: Watching him putting on the practice putting green.”

“When I was growing up, he was playing for pleasure,” recalled Stuart Spicer of Murfreesboro. “Once, when he was much older, some young fellow found out who he was and challenged him to a game of golf, thinking that he would show everybody how good he was. Dad kept putting him off, until he finally told him, ‘All right, I tell you what I’ll do. I’ll play with a putter and you use a full set of clubs, and we’ll play five holes,’ and he beat him.”

That Spicer played a great game is obvious from the record books. His skill was more than simply hard work.

“I think he was naturally gifted,” said Rosalyn Wilkerson of Smyrna of her father. “He was a perfectionist. He was an only child, and he loved us all a lot but it was his way. When I was in school I had to make straight A’s. If didn’t, I got grounded.”

Wilkerson’s daughter, Lisa Ramsay of Walter Hill, has turned into the family historian, inspired in 2003 by her grandfather’s posthumous induction into the Tennessee Golf Hall of Fame.

“I guess I heard about his career growing up to some extent. I saw some of the trophies in my grandparents’ house. I knew that he golfed but didn’t really understand what that meant. When I saw the state amateur trophy, which is really big, with his name on it, I thought, ‘That is really cool.’ It just got me interested in knowing more,” said Ramsay.

The Hall of Fame noted about her granddad: “In eight years, from 1926 to 1933, Emmett Spicer of Memphis set a standard for golf in Tennessee that has never been duplicated. During this period, few tournaments were available for the everyday working man to play in, yet he won five TGA State Amateur Championships.”

Nashville Banner sports editor Ralph McGill wrote of the golfer in 1928 when he notched his second state golf crown: “It was the frail, modest Spicer, big of hand and heart and a master stylist, who showed the field what great golf was. There was not a contestant in the field of 215 who could have furnished him with serious competition. One, if sentimentally inclined in his golf, could almost fall in love with that left arm of Spicer’s. One could almost dream of those big hands and the wrist-lash that enables him to get a golf ball down the fair-green near 300 yards every clip.”

Gene Pearce, author of The History of Tennessee Golf, stated, “Emmett Spicer was the greatest golfer Tennessee had ever produced up until Cary Middlecoff. Cary, in one of his books, mentioned that he had modeled his swings after Spicer, yet people who had seen both of them play said they had never seen any similarities. Cary said, ‘That was true, but I did try to incorporate all of the key elements of Spicer’s swing into mine.’

“Chasteen Harris was a contemporary of Spicer. According to his daughter, Harris was invited to play in the first Masters. Judy Harris of Columbia [Tennessee] said not playing was the one thing he regretted about his golf career. If Chasteen was invited, I have to believe Emmett was too. Both were members of Colonial Country Club. Spicer won five State Amateurs and two Southern Amateurs. Harris won each of these tournaments once. Bobby Jones played several exhibition matches in Memphis and was always complementary of Spicer and Harris.”

Born Aug. 3, 1905, in Clarksville, Tenn., Robert Emmett Spicer Jr. moved to Memphis at 5 years of age with his father, an accountant for Coca-Cola, and mother. He began golfing at about 12 at the Colonial Country Club, initially learning the game from club pro Frank Sprogell.

On June 3, 1923, at age 17, Spicer captured the Colonial Country Club title and later that year won the Memphis city golf title. The next year at 18, he set the Colonial course record at 66, and for a lark shot a 35 at the Overton Park course with his putter as his only club.

Over a 10-year span, Spicer won state amateur titles in 1926, 1928, 1929, 1932 and 1933 and finished runner-up in 1924 and 1930. He won two Southern Amateur Championships in 1926 and 1930 and six Memphis city titles.

At Colonial on June 9, 1927, Spicer and Harris played an exhibition match against the Peachtree State’s Bobby Jones and Watts Gunn. The Memphians lost the match as Jones shot a 69 and Spicer a 70. Among other golfing giants of the day, Spicer played head to head against Gene Sarazen and Walter Hagen.

As for other accomplishments, he broke the Belle Meade Country Club course record in 1927 by shooting a 66. He moved to Nashville in the summer of 1928 at a time when he was booming 275-yard drives in the era of hickory-shaft golf clubs.

While employed by National Life and Accident Insurance Company and a member at Belle Meade, he became the first golfer from Nashville to play in the National Open in 1929. He competed in the 1932 U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur and likely would have played more national events except for the expenses. He once said, “A fellow must eat. … Tournaments cost too much for a working boy.”

While professional golf in the 1930s paid very little in prize money compared to today’s PGA, Spicer took a stab as a pro in January 1935 and entered the Los Angeles Open and a few other West Coast events.

“As far as I can tell, we couldn’t find where he won any prize money,” said granddaughter Ramsay, thus he returned to the amateur ranks and took a job as a Coca-Cola route salesman and truck driver in Cairo, Ill., and later became an accountant.

By this time, Spicer had married Maureen Stuart of Brownsville, Tenn. The couple was in the midst of raising three youngsters when they moved to Lebanon, where Spicer managed the Coca-Cola Bottling Plant from 1956 to 1966.

Recollecting how his father practiced the game, Stuart said, “He didn’t like to putt. He didn’t think he was a very good putter. His whole thing was, ‘If I can lay the ball right where I want it, I won’t have to putt. I can just tap it in.’ He would put a hat out in the yard and practice chipping, and he’d put a 100 balls out and chip until he put every ball in the hat.

Spicer had plans for his young son to be a chip off the old block but it was not to be.

“The last time I ever played was at Lebanon Golf and Country Club on a Fourth of July, when we always had tournaments. For my age range, I was maybe 8 years old, I only had to play five holes,” said Stuart.

“The fifth hole was a dogleg around the woods, and I ended up in the woods. I decided to cut through instead of chip out. He was standing up there watching me, but I didn’t know it. I hit about two or three trees and lost by two or three strokes so when I come up past him, he said, ‘You don’t deserve to win if you’re gonna play like that.’ So I put ’em down and didn’t pick ’em up again.

“That day my mother, my father and Kathy all won their divisions, and I didn’t,” said Stuart, now able to laugh about the incident.

A few years later, Stuart’s father prompted him to give the sport another try.

“It was the summer after the seventh grade, and I had been offered a job at the Western Auto Store,” he reminisced. “I came home to ask Dad and Mom about it. He said, ‘Well, I tell you what you can do, you can either play golf or go to work. I’ll pay you to play golf or you can work.’

“I said, ‘What does it mean pay me to play golf?’ He said, ‘You’ll be out every day after school practicing. You’ll be out there as if it was a job,’ and I said, ‘I believe I’ll go to work.’ In hindsight, looking at Tiger Woods now, maybe I would have been better off.”

Emmett Spicer continued to play the game he loved, still shooting in the 80s, until a year or so before his death of cancer at 67 in 1972. Laid to rest at Wilson County Memorial Garden, he was remembered for his personal philosophy “Live today as if it were your last. Plan for tomorrow as if it were forever” and noted for the maxim, “Don’t forget to smell the flowers along the way.”

“Daddy didn’t talk about it,” said Wilkerson about his glory days on the links. “He never wanted to be put on a pedestal.”

“He was very humble about his past,” said Hesson. “We had these old trophies upstairs in the attic. He didn’t put them on shelves and show them. Later [when the price of silver rose to record high prices], Mother sold ’em. We said, ‘Daddy finally made money from playing golf.’’

Spicer’s offspring hold on to precious few mementoes from their father’s victories across the Southland; however memories of the night of his induction into the Tennessee Golf Hall of Fame may be their best souvenir.

Said Wilkerson of the event, which featured speakers Vince Gill and Nancy Lopez, “It was a lovely night and it was really emotional for me. To think after all those years that he got that recognition.”

“I was just the proudest I could be of him,” said Hesson, “seeing him finally recognized for what he had done.”  

“I had mixed emotions to tell you the truth,” said Stuart. “I was excited and sad at the same time, because I felt like the fame was not what it was all about to him. It was about playing the game to the best of his abilities and with all his heart, not to receive recognition from others but to be the best you could be at something you loved!

“When I was little, people would walk up to him and find out who he was and look up to him in awe. I kinda began to put him way up on this pedestal that he never asked to be on. I placed him in a position too hard for anyone. But when you saw and heard people talking about him, not only was I proud but inspired, and I guess I found a hero in him for my own sake.”

Emmett Spicer’s granddaughter Lisa Ramsay sums up his Tennessee golf legacy saying modestly, “I’m not a golfer, but from what I’ve read, it sounds like there haven’t been that many people as good as he was.”

There haven’t been, not by a long shot.
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Emmett Spicer Jr, Golf, Masters Tournament, Rutherford County, Sports
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