BY JOHN ROHDE
(The Oklahoman – June 9, 1996)
Urban Clarence Ferguson Junior feels awkward. Again. He’s about to receive an honor. Again. He feels it’s much ado about nothing. Again.
“To be honest with you, it’s embarrassing to me,” he admitted. “Always has been. It’s difficult to receive an award because there’s other people out there who deserve them … and they haven’t had as many years as I’ve had.”
U.C. Ferguson Jr. is 82 now. His eyesight is fading, but his insight remains refreshingly genuine. His candor remains intact. His anecdotes have not lost their meaning. He still talks from the heart, not the mouth.
On Aug. 6, the local golf icon best known as “Fergie,” will be inducted into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame. Ferguson was selected by the Jim Thorpe Association veterans committee and will join this year’s inductee class of basketball coach Eddie Sutton and Olympic gymnast Bart Conner. The late Volney Meece, a long-time Oklahoman sportswriter, will also be inducted.
Ferguson’s selection was greeted with an overwhelming sentiment of: “What the heck took so long?”
The tiny man with a massive heart was born in the early moments of Feb. 15, 1914, a tap-in away from a birthdate that couldn’t have been more apropos. “I missed being a Valentine’s Day baby by about five minutes,” Ferguson said. “My mother tried to get them to move it back to the 14th, and they wouldn’t do it. She really was upset with them.”
Lincoln Park was built in 1921. In 1928, a 14-year-old caddie showed up for work and didn’t leave for 61 years (other than a three-year stint with the Army from 1942-45). Ferguson served as a caddie, maintenance man, janitor, starter, shop boy, club fitter, instructor, mentor, guidance counselor, confidant, father figure, second assistant, first assistant, head pro, and also held down a couple dozen other odd jobs at the storied 36-hole municipal course in Oklahoma City.
He is a 60-year member of the Professional Golfers’ Association of America. That doesn’t count the five-year apprenticeship required to gain membership. “When I first got into it, I got into it to make money to eat,” Ferguson said. “I never expected to become a golf pro, but I had more fun than a barrel of monkeys.”
For a quarter century, Ferguson was tutored by Arthur Jackson, the man he replaced as head pro in 1952. “He was my second father,” Ferguson said of Jackson. “He guided me in my ways, what to do and what not to do. He called me in one day and said, ‘Have you ever thought if you’d like to come into the golf shop and work?’ Most of the kids were winos or something like that, and they gambled, and I didn’t want to be like that. I wanted to go a little higher if I could. He put me to work in the shop. I quit a $25 a week job to go work for $5.”
Ferguson left home in his early teens. “My father had gotten a divorce, then got married again,” Ferguson explained. “There were four of us, she had three kids and then they had another one. It was more than they could handle. None of us got along. So, when they moved to Fort Worth, I told them I wasn’t going. I was 14 and didn’t have any money, but I knew that I could make it because I was a good caddie.”
Ferguson had very little education. Although college never entered the picture, he wound up with a master’s degree in people. “In my lifetime, I’ve met an awful lot of good people,” Ferguson said. “I looked forward to going out (to Lincoln Park) every day, just to see how many people would play – all the way up to 750 a day. People would look at you and they’d smile. People don’t go to the golf course to fight. They go out there to have a good time. I’d go to work every day for the friendship.
“Teaching is the most fun. You could take a person like (Dallas Cowboys coach) Barry Switzer and have him completely under control. He’s no dummy, not by any stretch of the imagination. He was in one of those O.C.-TEX tournaments. He said, ‘I need some help. Give it to me.’ He’d listen carefully and he went around in 77 or 78 (strokes) that day.”
Barry Switzer did that?
“Heck, yeah. I was caddying for him,” Ferguson said with a wide grin.
Ferguson’s house in Oklahoma City is a Wall of Fame. It begins in the foyer, flows over toward the pool table, suffocates the main hallway, and spills into each bedroom. There’s not nearly enough wall space. Lined up neatly on the floor of a hallway closet are at least 50 additional framed pictures.
“To Mr. U.C. Ferguson: Best Regards, Arnold Palmer.”
They also come from Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Charlie Coe, Horton Smith, Dave Marr, Patty Berg, and the like. There are photos of Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman from the 1988 PGA Championship at Oak Tree Golf Club, where Ferguson served as honorary starter.
Next to the television is a picture of Mickey Mantle from the 1950s. “He played at Lincoln Park a couple times,” Ferguson said proudly.
The inscription reads: “Had a good time. Sorry I missed the course record. Your friend, Mickey Mantle.”
There is the mounted putter previously used by Bobby Jones with a label which also includes Hogan and Walter Hagen signatures. There is the driver which Ferguson protege Susie Maxwell Berning used to win three U.S. Opens (1968, 1972 and 1973).
These days, Ferguson bums around with some rather legendary company. They include basketball coach Abe Lemons, former Oklahoman writers Frank Boggs and Ross Goodner, plus Buddy Leake, J.D. Roberts, George Brewer, Jim Wade, Jerry Potter, Hoot Gibson, Mike McGinnis and the newest member, 1969 Heisman Trophy winner Steve Owens.
“We meet once a month for lunch,” Ferguson said. “We call ourselves ‘The Lunch Bunch,’ but some people call it something else.”
“The Dirty Dozen,” Lemons offered.
“The Over-The-Hill Gang,” Goodner countered.
Each gang member couldn’t be more pleased about Ferguson’s upcoming induction.
“He came up the hard way, that’s for sure,” Lemons said. “He probably knows a bigger variety of people than anybody. You can’t go anywhere without somebody knowing him. They’ve either played at Lincoln Park, worked there, or both. Through the years, golf has been one of the most popular sports for all people, and Fergie just keeps adding to it.”
“Anytime anybody wanted to get something done to promote golf, they went to him,” said Goodner, who met Ferguson in 1949, left The Oklahoman in 1962 and returned to Norman in 1993 after 31 years at the New York Times, GOLF Magazine and Golf Digest. “He had boundless enthusiasm and boundless energy. He never quit working for the game. He put in untold hours.”
Ferguson maintains a keen interest in GOLF, Inc., which helps benefit junior golf. He hangs onto a dream of someday making the old Lincoln Park clubhouse (behind No. 2 green on the West Course) into a Golf Hall of Fame and GOLF Inc. headquarters.
“One thing about Fergie,” Lemons said, “he’s always fired up about something, always trying to get something started. He’s still that way.”
Two of the more prized products out of Lincoln Park are former touring pro Mark Hayes and Berning, a 1991 Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame inductee.
“He would come in here and beat any kid of that age at any time,” Ferguson said of Hayes, a three-time winner on the PGA Tour. “He’d practice, go to school, practice again, then go home. Boy, he could play. He could chip and putt like a madman. He worked for me, made 50 cents an hour. He once told me those were the best years of his life. He learned a lot then.”
“I got up to 75 cents my last year, and I thought I was pretty fortunate,” said the 46-year-old Hayes, now a successful golf course designer living in Edmond. “I was 13 back then, and I was looking for a place to play without having to pay for it. He (Ferguson) required us to learn every facet of that whole pro shop. We were washing dishes, cleaning out toilets, sweeping, working behind the counter. We were starters, doing the carts, selling green fees, selling merchandise. It was really a good learning experience for me.
“He was good to me. Of course, we had to work awfully hard. I remember getting up at 4:30 in the morning many a weekend to get starting times for the next week. We’d start answering the phone at 5 or 5:15. It was a good environment for any kid to be around. It was pretty hard work sometimes, but it was at a golf course and that’s kind of like not working.”
(Hall of Famer Labron Harris of Stillwater was Hayes’ primary teacher. Ferguson also shared a few tips, with a bunker lesson and some help with the driver. Hayes’ brother, Larry, worked as an assistant pro for several years at Lincoln Park.)
As for Berning, Ferguson said, “I fell in love with her, as everybody else on the course did. She practiced all day long. She practiced her short game an awful lot. She earned her success.”
“He’s like my father,” said the 54-year-old Berning, who now lives in Hawaii. “He’s done so much for golf in Oklahoma City – in Oklahoma, period. He was simple with the golf swing. He never made it complicated. Every time I went to see him with a sick golf swing, he went back to basics. I never heard Fergie teach a theory. He taught the individual. Fergie had a beautiful, fluid golf swing. He learned his from Hogan, almost. He taught us how to swing the golf club, not hit the golf ball. That was the secret. He definitely was the instigator in my career.”
What Berning recalls most, as do many people, was Ferguson’s work with junior golfers.
“He took care of the kids,” said Berning, a three-time state high school champion and the first woman to receive a golf scholarship at Oklahoma City University, where she was a member of the men’s team. “If they didn’t have a golf club, he made sure they got one. He was always there regardless of who you were. He treated everybody the same.”
At times the past few years, Ferguson has become a bit of a recluse. “I was on quite a bit of medication and my mind just kind of went goofy on me,” he explained. “I didn’t want to say something I shouldn’t be saying and hurt somebody. I don’t like hurting people. If I said something that would hurt somebody’s feelings, that would bother me, you know.”
In 1969, Ferguson lost his wife of 31 years, Rose Marie, to pancreatic cancer. In June of 1987, he lost his 38-year-old daughter, Nancy, to complications of the same ailment. In 1971, Ferguson remarried. But after just 3½ years, he got a divorce from wife, Bettye. They remain close friends to this day. “I think he’s just wonderful,” Bettye said.
Ferguson stepped down as Lincoln Park’s head pro on Oct. 31, 1989, at age 75.
“I think he might have stayed on too long, but he just didn’t want to let go,” Goodner said.
“I quit because I was out of gas,” Ferguson said. “I didn’t have any more energy. I’d leave the course, and fall asleep driving home. I was lucky that I never had a wreck. I bumped a few people in the rear end, though.”
“I’m usually his driver now,” the 73-year-old Lemons said. “But it’s gotten to where he stays awake and I go to sleep. He went to sleep one time down at 63rd and May. A lady pulled up behind him, woke him up and told him to move on. But the last two times we went out he didn’t even doze off. I don’t know what his secret is. He must be on some kind of machine.”
Occasionally, Ferguson will lose his train of thought. But like a tee shot that barely misses the fairway, he finds it again.
“He has his good days and his bad days,” said his 46-year-old son, Scott, who has been his father’s roommate the last three years. “When he gets his sleep is when his mind is sharpest.”
Stuck with a 50-year-old back ailment and a curvature of the spine, Ferguson literally is shrinking. Once 5-9½, he now stands 5-6. But his stature in the golf business remains as tall as ever.
“I don’t think people want to read about that crap,” Ferguson said.
But people want to know how you’re feeling, Fergie.
“Tell ’em I feel great,” he said. “I hurt once in a while. You won’t see me jumping up and down too often.”
Ferguson’s induction was supposed to be kept a secret, but word spread fast.
“He got mad somebody told somebody else,” said Lemons, who is on the veterans committee. “I told him the vote was against him 100 percent until somebody did some lobbying. He was really humbled by that (his selection). He was almost broken up over it.”
“When Abe left for that job at Pan American (1973-76),” Ferguson said, “he dropped by the clubhouse and said, ‘You’re one of the reasons I hate to leave this town. One of these days I’ll write you a long letter explaining why that is.’ You know, he never did write me that damn letter.”
What does he miss most about working in the business?
Fergie glanced down at his PGA membership card, smiled and whispered, “All of it.”