From the Golf Journal Archives - A Wonderful Ride

Dec 18, 2009

Ike Grainger never expected to live to be 100, but golf is better off because he has.

By Rich Skyzinski

(Note: This article originally appeared in the March/April 1995 issue of Golf Journal.)

Believe Ike Grainger when he says he never expected to live to see his 100th birthday.

He credits modern medicine and all its wizardry for getting him there. True enough; as late as 1988, when he was only 93, he underwent the last of his four spinal operations.

But he’s fortunate all his doctors haven’t been as accurate in their work. It was in 1920, when he was only 25, that Isaac Bates Grainger was forced to undergo an operation that resulted in the removal of 32 inches of his intestinal tract. The doctor told him he’d recover from the operation, but the more distant outlook wasn’t promising. The doctor gave him five years to live. No more.

Now Grainger tells the story with an I-really-fooled-them-smile. “Right up to the five-year anniversary of the operation,” he says, “I didn’t think I was going to make it. Every day after that has been a blessing.

“We’ve had some long livers in the family,” he continued. “Mom lived to be 93; father lived to be 78, but I never expected to live to be 100. My living to be 100 has been remarkable in that I’ve had so much medication, and so many operations, in my lifetime. I’m not sure I could count the number of operations.”

Grainger, of course, remembers a world that bears no resemblance to the 1995 version. When he was born on Jan. 15, 1895, only 24 days after the USGA was founded, Grover Cleveland, our 24th president, was in office, there were but 44 states, and the federal debt had just surpassed $1 billion. Four months later the Supreme Court would rule unconstitutional clauses pertaining to income tax recently written in the Tariff Act of 1894.

But, just as there is today, there was golf. “I started playing golf in nineteen hundred and seven, right here in Wilmington, North Carolina,” Grainger recalls. “As a young boy I can remember so vividly going out to the golf club with my parents. They used to call them Hit and Run Grainger because even though they’d start together, by the time she was finishing the sixth hole, he was finishing the ninth hole. But my mother was club champion at Cape Fear Golf Club in 1902, and I imagine her interest in golf started me off.”

And he hasn’t stopped. It was in the 1940s that he began a relationship with the USGA, one that has spanned an incredible 50 years. He joined the USGA Executive Committee in 1945, worked his way through the ranks to become president in 1954 and ’55 and since has been a member of the Advisory Committee of Past Presidents.

When Grainger became a member of the Executive Committee, he and Charles Littlefield, a vice president who would become president the following year, had to do some fancy stepping around the organization’s by-laws. Both were members of the same club, Montclair (N.J.) Golf Club, and that, as it is today, is verboten. But Grainger managed to swing a sweetheart of a deal.

“I was out in Spokane, Washington, on a business visit,” Grainger remembers, “and I got a call from Charlie Littlefield saying we were about to violate a rule of the USGA by having two members from the same club. He said, ‘I’m not going to join another club.’ So I said, ‘Okay, Charlie, you do me a favor. You call and get me a membership at Pine Valley.’

“The next night, when I went into the hotel in Seattle, there was a telegram for me. It read, ‘Dear Ike: You’re a member of Pine Valley Golf Club.’ I’m sure that’s still the quickest membership they’ve ever given.”

When Grainger was president, the world was a much simpler place. There was no lengthy and costly litigation, the total prize money for the U.S. Open was less than $50,000 (that’s the combined sum for both years, ’54 and ’55), and the entire USGA staff could fit comfortably around a holiday dinner table.

“My regime of president was nowhere near as complicated as the presidency of the USGA now,” he says. “The USGA has expanded and extended its services and it tournaments greatly and it’s involved in so many things that we weren’t involved in in 1954. I don’t know whether I could be a successful president in the present conditions under which the organization has to do business.

“When I was president we didn’t have litigation, which has taken some time, some effort and some money. We didn’t have all the complications that have developed. I can recall, many years after I left the Executive Committee, when the chairman of Augusta National asked me if I would try to get the USGA to hold its first prize in the U.S. Open down to $25,000. You can see what little success I had in trying to do that. The money and so many other things are so out of proportion.”

Becoming president was never a goal of Grainger’s, but becoming active on the Rules of Golf Committee was a priority. His interest in the Rules stemmed from an incident in 1924, when he lost a match in the Championship of Club Champions. His semifinal match was all square through 16 holes, but after his tee shot on 17 his opponent claimed Grainger’s ball was teed up in front of the markers. The players got down and looked, and Grainger’s ball was partly in front of the markers. Not knowing how to proceed, Grainger played a second ball.

He made a birdie with the first ball and a bogey with the second ball, and at the end of 18 holes they went into the clubhouse and discussed the matter with Johnny Farrell, the club’s head professional during the winter months. “He decided we were still even,” Grainger recalls. “So on the second extra hole, I had a bogey six and lost the match. From that moment on I was interested in the Rules of Golf.”

Grainger made countless Rules decisions, “some good, some poor, some ludicrous,” he says.

He was there at Augusta National when Roberto De Vicenzo signed an incorrect scorecard and was disqualified. He was at the 1947 U.S. Open at St. Louis Country Club when both Sam Snead and Lew Worsham wanted to putt first on the last green of their playoff. “We had to measure the distances,” Grainger remembers. “Sam was 30½ inches away and his opponent was 29½ inches away, so he [Sam] had the right after all. But I think it upset Sam so that he missed that putt and lost the tournament. It was a very sad thing, but Sam was a hell of a good sport about it.”

It was also during this time that the rules of the putting green were amended. “At that time the putting green was described as all the area 20 yards from the hole, exclusive of the bunkers,” Grainger recalls. “In other words, you could be in deep rough and still be considered to be on the putting green. The putting green rule was changed then, to something more reasonable, and obviously it was a change for the better.”

Time has eroded many of Grainger’s memories, but Ben Hogan remains a vivid recollection. “One of the sad moments, to me, was the U.S. Open at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. When I gave him his second-place medal you could see the disappointment on his face. He was at the top of the pile in golf … but I doubt very much if he’s given the appropriate credit for what he did in golf.”

Grainger was never a great player. The lowest he ever got his handicap was 4, “and that was marginal,” he admits. He won a half-dozen or so club championships and tried to qualify for the U.S. Amateur several times, each one unsuccessful.

But he enjoyed far greater prosperity in business. Chemical Bank tried to lure him to New York in 1924 – obviously it wasn’t aware he only had one more year to live – but he elected to stay in North Carolina and work with his father. Nineteen years later Chemical came calling again, but this time he said yes. He stayed until his retirement in 1960, but still, to this day, there’s an office and a secretary at his disposal in New York.

Though his legs and eyes have begun to fail him, Grainger has fought to maintain his independency. At age 95 he still held a driver’s license, but one day, while taking his sons, Isaac Jr. and Victor, to the airport, he stopped at a traffic light. After some hesitation, he was forced to show his hand.

“What color is the light?” he asked. But that wasn’t the last time he drove. He tussled with the State of North Carolina for six months before his license was finally revoked for good.

But what a great ride it was.

For more on the Ike Grainger Award, which the USGA presents annually to volunteers with 25 years of service, visit here.

Ike Grainger never expected to live to be 100, but golf is better off because he has. (USGA Museum)

Grainger made many Rules decisions, including one at the 1947 U.S. Open Championship involving Sam Snead and Lew Worsham. (USGA Museum)

Welcoming the Walker Cup back to the U.S. after its first loss to Great Britain & Ireland were (left to right): Frank Stranahan, a member of the winning team; Ike Grainger, then secretary of the USGA; non-playing captain Francis Ouimet; and reserve George S. Hamer Jr. (USGA Museum)