John Shearer: Charlie Thompson's Life On The Golf Course

Monday, September 09, 2013 - by John Shearer
Charlie Thompson
Charlie Thompson

Both the Chattanooga Golf and Country Club and the Lookout Mountain Golf Club are known for their rich histories, and Charlie Thompson helped shape both years ago.

Mr. Thompson, now 92 years old, was briefly the head golf pro at Lookout Mountain in the early 1950s and later for more than 20 years was at the Chattanooga club, where he had formerly been an assistant.

During that latter time, he helped a few golfers at the club get better, and he saw at the club a few who were already pretty good – such as Arnold Palmer.

As he looked back on his career recently from his Stuart Heights area home, he sounded as content as a golfer sitting in a clubhouse after shooting par or better. In fact, he would likely give himself a good score for finding the right career.

“Working at a country club is a little like going to an amusement park – it’s fun,” he said. “It’s just an enjoyable place to work.”

Raised in Memphis, Mr. Thompson began his golf career working under pro Dub Fondren at the public Galloway Golf Course in the West Tennessee city after serving in the Merchant Marines during World War II.

“I worked for two years in the shop doing whatever needed to be done,” he said. “He was a good teacher and he worked with me regularly.”

While there, Mr. Thompson learned of a job opening for a caddy master and assistant shop pro at a new Atlanta course named the Peachtree Golf Club. So he applied.

He ended up not getting the job, but he did receive a letter of receipt back during the process from one of the officials involved with the new club. His name was Bobby Jones, and Mr. Thompson still has the letter from the great golfer, who was then retired from competitive playing.

In March 1949, he began working as an assistant at the Chattanooga club – or the “Country Club” as locals have called it for years -- after learning from an encouraging salesman of the opening. Helping hire him was Bill Oehmig, the father of noted golfer Lew Oehmig.

The head pro at Chattanooga was Everett “Red” Gann, who had come up through the ranks of caddies working at the club under pro Wilbur Oakes Sr. Mr. Gann, a World War II veteran who also played in several U.S. Opens, had formerly been an assistant at Chattanooga.

Mr. Gann’s career also included being a pro at Meadow Lake (later called Rivermont) and the Brainerd Municipal Course in addition to operating a golf driving range or two in the Brainerd area.

Mr. Gann had returned to Chattanooga after the war as an assistant to Bud Carroll before becoming the head pro shortly before Mr. Thompson arrived.

Mr. Thompson remembered that his time at Chattanooga as an assistant was very much a learning process. But he also imparted plenty of knowledge onto others, as he worked with the juniors and women.

Billy Ragland would go on to win the Tennessee Men’s Amateur in 1950, while fellow member Marnie Polk would win the Tennessee Women’s Amateur from 1951-53. Mr. Thompson particularly remembers making a small log fire out on the course to be able to give Mr. Ragland a lesson after dark one night while the latter was coming home from college.

“It was a teaching experience,” Mr. Thompson said of his roughly two years as an assistant at Chattanooga. “We gave worlds of lessons. I learned I had some knowledge when I came here. I learned a lot from ‘Red’ and from teaching itself.”

He remembered that he and Mr. Gann were also able to play a lot with the members in those days, which is not always the case for pros today with other demands on their time. A couple of other differences between then and now for golf pros was that pros used to make most of their money off instruction and that they once had exclusive rights to sell golf club company equipment.

After about two years as an assistant, Mr. Thompson became the head pro in Gadsden, Ala. However, within a few months, the Lookout Mountain job came open, and Mr. Thompson was able to get the position due to all the contacts he had made in Chattanooga.

“I lived in the clubhouse in an old wooden building,” he said, adding that it later became a maintenance facility.

While on the mountain, he also installed the first bent grass greens in Chattanooga, he said.

In 1953, he became the head pro at the Chattanooga club. Mr. Gann had left the club to operate his driving range and to work as a salesman for Wholesale Furniture and Appliance Co.

Unfortunately, late one night in early February 1954, Mr. Gann was traveling as a backseat passenger in a vehicle with three other Wholesale employees following a business meeting when the car went out of control on Riverside Drive and Mr. Gann was killed. The driver was charged with manslaughter, old news reports say.

Longtime local golfer and businessman Wes Brown, who grew up playing the Chattanooga club, recalled that Mr. Gann was a good guy who once gave him an important lesson about the mental aspect of golf.

“He said on a tight-looking hole, look away from the tightness of the hole and focus on the horizon above the trouble,” Mr. Brown recalled.

Mr. Thompson settled in at the Country Club and would stay there more than 20 years. For about four years, he was also the course superintendent at the club and took care of the course grounds.

He had taken a four-month course at the University of Massachusetts on golf course maintenance and architecture.

The Chattanooga club – which was opened in 1896 and is the oldest club in Tennessee at its original site -- was considered unique in that it was built on smaller acreage than is typical for a course. It also ended both nines with par 3s.

But perhaps its most unusual feature when Mr. Thompson was there was the now-covered large hole in front of No. 17 green. Evidently part of a sawmill operation in the pre-course days, it created a little bit of a challenge for golfers whose balls would go down in it.

“It was deep,” Mr. Thompson said. “You can tell people how deep it was and they wouldn’t believe it. You could stand at the bottom and couldn’t see over it.”

While that view was not that great for a golfer, some of the other views on the course were, including of the Tennessee River. And, when Mr. Thompson started at the club, the vacant Lyndhurst mansion of Coca-Cola bottler J.T. Lupton was a sight to behold.

“It was a great big beautiful building,” remembered Mr. Thompson of the now-razed structure. “Some of the stuff was still there. The stories were that the building was so big it called for a manager and labor force of several people to manage it. And it had bicycle riding tracks for kids.”

The old clubhouse, which had been designed by W.T. Downing, the same architect who drew the plans for Lyndhurst, was also nice, with an open porch to the river when Mr. Thompson first came, he said.

Of course, the people at the club were quite interesting, too. Mr. Thompson remembers Ewing Watkins, a standout early golfer at the club. He still had a nice swing when Mr. Thompson met him, even though he was past his golfing prime.

He also remembered Jack Harkins, who headed the Professional Golf/First Flight company in Chattanooga. “He was a big Irishmen and he was a great fun maker and a pretty good player,” he said.

The outgoing Mr. Harkins played at least once at the club with comedian Bob Hope, and was also responsible for such company-sponsored golfers as Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Tommy Bolt playing there.

“Palmer played over there regularly,” Mr. Thompson recalled. “He flew in here and practiced. The first time I saw him, he and his wife came here with a Plymouth and an Airstream trailer.”

He also saw Ben Hogan play in an exhibition at the club.

Mr. Thompson left the Chattanooga club in 1975, was involved in truck sales, and then later came out of retirement to serve as Hamilton County Circuit Court Judge Sam Payne’s court officer for about 15 years.

“It was fun,” he said. “It was an easy job. I’m a people person and my job was the jury.”

He also enjoyed his time at the Country Club.

“I enjoyed it,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of good friends from it.”

Jcshearer2@comcast.net

To listen to Mr. Thompson's memories of being a golf pro, listen here.

To listen to Mr. Thompson's memories of Arnold Palmer, listen here.

Nos. 1 and 2 at Chattanooga Country Club around 1950s or early 1960s
Nos. 1 and 2 at Chattanooga Country Club around 1950s or early 1960s

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