From the Golf Journal Archives - When Television Golf Wowed the Crowd

Oct 16, 2009

Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf was something special, capturing the atmosphere of the game as well as the exotic settings where it was played.

By Robert Sommers

(Note: This article originally appeared in the March/April 1985 issue of Golf Journal.)

RATHER THAN RISK terminal frostbite with a Sunday afternoon stroll one frosty February day in 1965, I turned on the television set and watched Chi Chi Rodriguez and Tommy Jacobs play a golf match at the Lyford Cay Club, in Nassau. It was cold; through my window I could see shaggy blades of brownish grass poking through a thin layer of snow, but there they were playing golf in shirtsleeves in the Bahamas on Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf.

IT’S FUNNY how some things linger in your memory. While that show was on the air for nine years and ran through 92 matches (and I may have seen every one of them) that match in Nassau has stayed with me. Who knows why? Not because of the golf, certainly, because Jacobs shot 70 and Rodriguez shot 74, and I can’t remember one shot they played. It didn’t rank near the quality of the golf Ben Hogan played against Sam Sneak in Hogan’s only appearance. Maybe it was the policeman with his natty white helmet directing traffic on Bay Street, or the crowd milling around the straw market, or the statue of Columbus in front of the government buildings high on the hill overlooking the harbor, or the statue of Queen Victoria, watching the horse-drawn carriages taking tourists out to Fort Finley. All of those sights were included in that one hour on Sunday afternoon, because Shell gave us more than just a golf match. Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf gave us a taste of the country where matches were being played, along with a look at the world’s great golf courses.

Over lunch not long ago, somebody described it as a “neat show.” It was neat, yes, but it was more than that. It was the best filmed golf show ever produced. The sorrow of it all is that it could never be done again; producing another series like that would cost more than World War II.

Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf appeared on television for the first time on January 7, 1962, with a match between Jerry Barber, a small, gruff Californian who the summer before had holed every putt he looked at and won the PGA Championship, and Dai Rees, an equally small and gruff Welshman who, at 48, had been runner-up to Arnold Palmer in the 1961 British Open. The match was played at the Wentworth Golf Club, near London. The last appeared on February 28, 1970, with Dan Sikes playing Roberto De Vicenzo at The Olympic Club, in San Francisco.

In its nine years, the show took us to the six inhabited continents of the glove, to most of the countries where golf is played, to all but a few of the world’s greatest golf courses, and showed us every one of the great players of the era and a few from earlier times.

We saw Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gene Sarazen, Henry Cotton, Byron Nelson, Gene Littler, Mickey Wright, Marilynn Smith, Chen Ching-Po, Ben Arda, Celestino Tugot, and some of the great amateurs of the time – Joe Carr, from Ireland, who won the British Amateur three times; Marlene Streit, from Canada, who won both ours and the British Women’s Championships; Marley Spearman, of Britain, winner of two British Women’s Championships; and Brigette Varangot, of France, winner of both the British and French Championships.

We saw golf played at the Old Course, in St. Andrews, Scotland; at Pebble Beach; Pine Valley; at the Oslo Golf Club in Norway; at the Mid-Ocean Club, in Bermuda; at Wack Wack, in the Philippines; at the Country Club of Bogota, in Colombia; at Monte Carlo; in Jamaica; Japan; Luxembourg; Greece; and even in Casablanca.

It was wonderful escape and high adventure, at least for those of us who yearned to play golf in those exotic places and over great courses like Gleneages, in Scotland; Portmarnock, Ireland; Royal Melbourne, in Australia; Kasumigaseki, in Japan; Peachtree, in Atlanta; or the Delhi Golf Club, in India.

THE POPULARITY of the show was enormous. IN its first year it never drew a Nielsen rating of less than 11, and over its nine years, not once did it have a rating under 7. Live golf coverage today seldom draws that large an audience; the weekly telecasts of the pro tour, for example, usually hover around 4. The match at Kasumigaseki, between Bob Rosburg and Pete Nakamura, drew a rating of 16. A Sunday afternoon pro football game, the measure of any show’s popularity today, draws from 12 to 16. Even after its run on national television, the show continued to be popular. Shell Oil Company produced films on all of the matches and until about two years ago lent them to clubs and civic groups for private showings. They’re no longer available for loan, but they were shown last year on the ESPN cable network.

Probably the most popular show of them all, the film that was asked for most, was the match between Ben Hogan and Sam Snead, played at the Houston Country Club and shown on February 21, 1965, the show’s fourth year. While the level of the scoring wasn’t overwhelming – Hogan shot 69 and Snead 72 – the quality of golf was astounding. In the years when he dominated American golf, Hogan was one of the great 10-foot putters, but as he grew older his putting became awful. At times he couldn’t draw the club back, and he often froze over short putts. He was 52 years old in 1964 (the matches were played the spring and summer before they were shown), and while he couldn’t putt worth a lick, he was still a wonderful striker of the ball, perhaps the best ever, and he managed a course better than anyone who ever played. And whenever he played, in no matter what kind of competition, he planned to win.

No man ever prepared himself better for one of those shows than Hogan did for this one. He arrived in Houston four days before filming began and worked on the shots he felt he would need. The result was a classic of precision golf. Over the 18 holes, Hogan not only hit every green, he was never more than 20 feet from the hole. He made three birdies without holing any sizable putts.

Scoring was lower in a number of other shows – for example, in a match played at Capilano, in Vancouver, both Stan Leonard and George Knudson shot 66, and at Glyfada, in Athens, Tony Lema shot 67 and Robert De Vicenzo shot 68 – but neither of those had the impact of the Hogan-Snead match. The caliber of the golf in the Leonard-Knudson match was so outstanding, however, that the producer thought seriously of splitting it into two one-hour shows.

THE CONCEPT of the Shell show can be traced to a Saturday afternoon round of golf at the Sleepy Hollow Country Club, in Westchester County, near New York City. The round over, Monroe E. Spaeght, who was president of Shell Oil of North America, and Gordon Biggar and Vic Armstrong, of the Kenyon and Eckhardt advertising agency, which handled one of the Shell accounts, were having a drink and watching All-Star Golf, another made-for-television show. After a few minutes, Spaeght said he wished he could put together a show for Shell – one that would be different, that would be spectacular, well done, and that would do justice to golf.

These things are said all the time when high-powered executives meet, but, for the most part, nothing comes of them. This was different. About a month later, Spaeght called Biggar and asked what he had done about a golf show. Well, until then, absolutely nothing had been done, but soon telephones began ringing.

Someone contacted Reggie Wells, who for some years had worked on the motion picture of the Masters Tournament, and Wells approached Herbert Warren Wind, author of The Story of American Golf and a number of other books on golf. Wind had left Sports Illustrated by then and was preparing to return to The New Yorker. He had collaborated annually with Wells on the Masters movie, and Wells told him he had a client in the advertising business who wanted to do an international golf show. Wells asked Wind to develop an idea for a format. With his extensive knowledge of the game, Wind, in his next meeting with Wells, suggested a show that would take the audience to a series of outstanding courses in foreign countries for matches between a leading player from the host country and a top American professional. Armstrong thought this was an excellent concept, and later Wind agreed to become a consultant should Shell approve the plan. In June, word came to go ahead with the project.

It was agreed that the first show would be played at Pine Valley, a wonderful golf course located in sandy wasteland in southern New Jersey, about a half hour’s drive from downtown Philadelphia. Pine Valley is an exclusive enclave that was presided over then by John Arthur Brown, and autocratic Philadelphia lawyer who ran the club in the way that Suleiman ruled the Seraglio. This raised a problem. You just didn’t walk into Pine Valley and say you were going to shoot some film; first you had to win the heart of John Arthur Brown. This assignment was turned over to Fred Raphael, a producer from the Filmways Company, which would do the show for Kenyon and Eckhardt. Filmways was perhaps best known for the television shows Petticoat Junction and Green Acres.

Raphael was a strange choice. He had never been on a golf course in his life, and when he was given the job he spent two or three days in the New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street reading Wind’s books and trying to learn about the game. When Raphael arrived at Pine Valley to talk to Brown, he was shocked.

“I looked around and said to myself, ‘This has got to be some kind of a disaster. All I can see is sand and water. How far can these guys hit a ball?’ I wondered. I didn’t know a thing about the game.”

Raphael had a director with him named Lee Goodman, who was also a good salesman. Brown went around the golf course with Goodman and Raphael, and Goodman kept telling Brown how great the show was going to be. Finally Brown said to Raphael, “Okay. You can come down here and film a golf show provided you can do it in two days, as you say you can, if it is in color, and also if this gentleman (Goodman) will be the director.

Raphael accepted the conditions. They sped back to New York City, about two hours away, and then Raphael dashed into the office of Marty Ransohoff, of Filmways, who had the overall responsibility for assuring that the show actually happened.

“We’ve got a little problem, Marty,” Raphael said, “because Lee doesn’t know anything at all about directing a golf show. He doesn’t know as much about it as I do.”

Ransohoff was stopped for a moment, but then, glaring at Raphael, he snapped, “Teach him.”

BEFORE FILMING began, Raphael set up a luncheon meeting so that Wind could give Goodman some ideas. As they talked, Goodman diagramed how he wanted to place the cameras because, he explained, he had done this whole thing before, with Sam Snead.

Hearing this, Wind began to feel better about the project, realizing now that Goodman knew something about filming golf. Still, he was curious.

“Tell me,” he proved, “where was this match you filmed with Snead?”

Surprised, Goodman asked, “What do you mean match? We made an Alka Seltzer commercial.”

Since it was obvious then that Goodman didn’t have the practical experience to direct a show of the quality Shell demanded, Raphael hired Dick Darley, who was working with Walt Disney studios, as a backup director (Goodman eventually moved on to fulfill other commitments).

Now they were at Pine Valley with Byron Nelson and Gene Littler, and while they had a producer and director who had never seen a golf match played, they did have several experienced men on hand – Gene Sarazen, for one, who would do the commentary, and Wind, for another. The first match in the series, then, began with an uneasy feeling.

Nelson had the honor on the first tee and played his drive precisely as it should be played on this hole – long, down the left side, opening the green to the approach. Raphael remembers vividly what happened next.

“As Nelson picked up his tee peg and walked to the other side of the tee, I looked down the fairway and I saw the cameraman get off his truck and walk out to the ball. He picked it up and threw it back toward the tee and said over the radio,” Ask him to hit it again; we missed it.”

That was the first shot ever played on Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf.

There were other mistakes that day, again caused by cameramen not familiar with the game. Evidently no one told them to keep their cameras focused on the ball until it stopped rolling, and so when the time came to edit the film, all they had was the ball in flight.

Something had to be done. The only solution was to go back to Pine Valley sometime later and shoot some additional footage. They persuaded Leo Fraser, the professional and owner or Atlantic City Country Club, to go with them and hit shots while they filmed the ball rolling along the ground.

“Somehow we got through Pine Valley,” Raphael said, “and then we went overseas. Our problems really began then.”

WIND’S FORMAT called for the first overseas match to be played at St. Cloud, an excellent golf course situated southwest of Paris on ground that had been the scene of the Battle of Buzenval, during the Franco-Prussian War. Jay Hebert, who had won the 1960 PGA Championship, played Flory Van Donck, a Belgian. About then they realized they were going to have problems communicating with their production crews.

“They didn’t know golf,” Raphael remembers. “They didn’t know how to follow it. You’d say to one of the French cameramen, ‘Did you follow the ball?’ and he’d say ‘Oui’ and smile. Then you’d say “Did you miss the ball?’ and he’d smile and say ‘Oui.’ ”

The original plan had been to take only a minimal crew along on these trips. The first traveling production crew that went from New York City to Paris consisted of Sarazen, a Hollywood scriptwriter, a director, a lead cameraman, and Wind. Through his work around the world with other Filmways projects, Raphael had the contacts to line up technicians, and so the plan had been to hire local people. It was such a failure a permanent crew was formed. The last time a group left New York it consisted of 45 people and four tons of equipment. As the crew’s work improved, so did the production techniques. While in the early days, filming the show might take two or three days, the last match took only four-and-a-half hours. This was the match between Roberto De Vicenzo and Dan Sikes, at The Olympic Club, and at one point, Joe Dey, who was the referee of the match, told Raphael that the players were complaining that they had to move too fast. General Jimmy Doolittle, who was a member of Shell’s board of directors, said that never since the days of General George Patton had he seen an army move so quietly and efficiently.

Because of the improving efficiency, the budget never varied. It was $1.3 million in the first year and it was still $1.3 million in the last, even though prize money increased significantly. In the beginning, match winners won $3,000 and the losers $2,000. At the end, the winners got $7,000 and the losers $3,000.

As they went along, the producers of the show learned other things – for instance, not to plan for a match to be played in Canada in late September, which is what was done that first year, at Banff. When the film crew arrived the weather worsened and snow began to fall. The match had to be delayed, of course, and that helped run up costs.

PROBABLY the match that had the most problems was played at Kasumigaseki that first year. Rain fell for 10 days and the course was unplayable. Dow Finsterwald was scheduled to play Pete Nakamura, the man who had led Japan to its victory in the 1957 Canada Cup, and he was also scheduled to play in the Ryder Cup Match, at Royal Lytham and St. Annes, in England, just after filming the show. Because of the rain delay, Finsterwald had to leave; he was replaced by Bob Rosburg.

The Japanese, particularly the members of Kasumigaseki take their club golf very seriously. Shell usually scheduled matches for early in the week, when they would least inconvenience the membership. As day after day of rain pushed the shooting schedule further into the week, Wind approached George Mizota, the Kasumigaseki member who had arranged for the match to be played there. Wind told Mizota that he was sorry, but because of the delays, the filming would have to be done over the weekend.

“Oh no, Mr. Wind. You can’t do that. We have our red and white match this weekend. People are coming from all over the four islands, we cannot postpone it.”

“You don’t understand, Mr. Mizota,” Wind responded. “This is a very expensive project. We have to do this as soon as we can. Can’t you postpone your club match?”

”You don’t understand, Mr. Wind. Our members will be here from all over Japan. This is one weekend of the year when we are all together. It cannot be postponed.” The members had their match and the Shell show had to wait.

The show had another effect. Gene Sarazen hadn’t played competitive golf in many years, and a generation of golfers had grown up without knowing what a wonderful golfer he had been. Sarazen was hired to do the narration, and while he was not exactly Walter Cronkite, he did know the game, and he had great public relations value. He was a bona fide personality known in foreign countries.

WHEN THE 1966 matches were being done, during 1965, the Viet Nam War was gaining momentum. The schedule called for visits to Manila, Kuala Lumpur, in Malaysia, and then to Greece. While he was in Manila, Sarazen had a telephone call from the president of Shell, who asked him to change his travel plans. When the filming ended in Kuala Lumpur, Shell wanted Sarazen to go to Rangoon before heading for Greece, because the president of Burma was a golfer and he wanted to play golf with Gene. Because Burma discouraged any foreigners from coming into the country, very few Americans had been there in three years, and Sarazen refused to go.

“I’m not getting trapped into that,” he said.

Soon Sarazen had another telephone call, this time from Dean Rusk, then the Secretary of State, urging him to go to Rangoon.

Raphael, meanwhile, was awakened at two o’clock in the morning and told that Shell didn’t care how he did it, but Raphael had to get Sarazen to Burma. Finally, Raphael made a deal with Sarazen; if Sarazen would go, both Raphael and George Rogers, the announcer, would go, too.

After debating for a while, Sarazen accepted the deal. Visas were arranged and all three went off to Rangoon. When they arrived they were met at the airport by about 20 people, taken to dinner, and the next day Sarazen played golf. Later, after Rogers and Raphael had played, they were approached by someone at the American Embassy who asked how fast they could pack. They both said they hadn’t unpacked, so their questioner asked, “Good, because you’ve got to leave right away. You’re in the country illegally.” Apparently believing his job was at stake, the man assigned to bring Sarazen into the country had faked the visas for Rogers and Raphael. Hearing this, Rogers and Raphael didn’t even bother with their luggage; they dashed to the airport and took the first plane out of Burma. Sarazen, unaware of what had happened, had to bring all the baggage with him later.

Rogers left the show after four years. He was succeeded by Jimmy Demaret.

When a show was being filmed overseas, the crew was accompanied by an accountant. Immediately after he arrived, the accountant deposited $25,000 in a bank and converted the money into local currency, because Shell didn’t want its crew leaving unpaid bills behind. During the last years of the show, a match between Doug Sanders and Peter Alliss was being done in Faro, in southern Portugal. After arriving in Lisbon, the accountant went to a bank, exchanged the money, and put the Portuguese currency into an attaché case. He then climbed into a car with Raphael and Demaret for the drive to Faro. Along the way they came to a police roadblock. Every care was being stopped and searched by a horde of policemen looking for the loot from a large bank that had just been robbed.

Now there they were, Demaret, Raphael, and the accountant, strangers in the country, with $25,000 in a briefcase, driving away from where a bank had just been robbed.

They were worried.

When their turn came, they pulled up to the roadblock and were ordered to get out of the car and open all their baggage. Demaret picked up the briefcase and stood holding it while the policemen rooted through their baggage, throwing clothes into the street, probing for secret compartments, and searching through their car.

Finally satisfied, the policemen told them to pick up their debris and be on their way.

No one had bothered to look in the briefcase.

It is still a little difficult today to remember the popularity of the show. The results of the matches were kept secret before they were shown, and so there was a moderate amount of friendly betting going on among those watching the telecasts. Even though he was the producer of the shows, Raphael didn’t own a color set, and so on Sunday afternoons he’d go to the Tudor Hotel, on East 42nd Street, in New York City, and watch the show in the bar. One Sunday two men and a woman were watching the show and betting against the bartender on every hole. They were winning. At the end of the show they left, and the bartender struck up a conversation with Raphael.

“I don’t believe what happened,” he said. “Those three wiped me out. They won just about every hole on that program.”

“Yeah,” Raphael said, “I saw it.” Then Raphael made a suggestion.

“Look,” he said, “next week Byron Nelson is playing Gerry De Wit at the Hague. Why don’t you bet that De Wit beats Nelson.”

“You’re crazy,” the bartender said.

“Why don’t you really bet a lot of money that Nelson doesn’t break 80?

“Mister,” the bartender said. “I’m cutting you off. No more beer.”

The next week Raphael came back, the same three were there betting against the bartender again. Through the first nine holes the match was fairly even, but on the second nine Nelson began to lose strokes. By the time they reached the 18th hole, he was well behind De Wit. At the end of the match, Nelson had shot 80.

The bartender paid off his bets, the people left, and he sauntered over to Raphael.

“Have a drink,” he said, drawing a beer. “Tell me, what do you know about this golf show?”

“Do you ever look at the credits?” Raphael asked. “I’m the producer of that show.”

“Are you kidding me?” the bartender said. “What happens next week?”

“Forget it.” Raphael grinned. “You had your chance.”

This article originally appeared in The Met Golfer.