American Joe Louis was arguably the greatest boxer of all time. His professional career spanned a period of seventeen years from 1934 to 1951. His record is impressive, 68 professional fights, 65 wins (51 by knockout), and only three losses. His other sporting love was golf at which he was a fair performer. He was instrumental in the colour bar, which existed in the American golfing scene at that time, being lifted, when in 1952, he was invited to play in the San Diego Open on a sponsors exemption, the first African-American to play in an American PGA event. In 1942 he enlisted in the United States army and became a touring celebrity giving exhibition bouts and helping to improve the morale of the troops in various parts of the world.
Closer to home, a fondly remembered member of Douglas Park was Bruce Swadel, at that time the Sports Editor of the Scottish Daily Express. Bruce wrote much of the early draft of the book “AHistory of Douglas Park Golf Club.” In the course of his work he was in contact with visiting celebrities in the world of sport and often brought them out to play at Douglas Park as his guest.
From 9th to 13th July 1944, Joe Louis was in Glasgow to give some exhibition bouts in St. Andrews Halls which were situated next to the Mitchell Library. Confused by the name of the venue, Joe concluded that there might be time for a little golf as they were in St. Andrews, ‘The Home of Golf’, and his ambition was to play the Old Course. Disappointment came when he eventually realised that the ‘Home of Golf’ was 75 miles away in Fife. Bruce, when he heard this, came to the rescue and arranged for Joe to come for a round at Douglas Park. Bruce could not play that day but he told Joe that he had arranged for him to play with the Douglas Park Clubmaster, Jimmy Luke. Joe duly arrived and reported to Jimmy in our upstairs lounge, conversing through a hatch in the wall measuring about one square metre which in those days represented the bar counter. One can imagine that Joe was wondering what he had let himself in for, especially when Jimmy slid back the hatch, greeted the guest, the reigning world heavyweight boxing champion, and sent him off saying, “on you go then lad, I’ll just shut up the hatch and I’ll see you on the first tee.” Jimmy eventually joined the entourage on the tee, which consisted of Joe plus his large black Master Sergeant caddie, and numerous army personnel resplendent in their uniforms. One can only guess what Joe was thinking when Jimmy appeared on the tee clutching a small pencil bag containing a few whippy shafted clubs. Some members recall that they were hickory shafted although accounts differ on this point. What is agreed is that they were nothing like as grand as Joe’s state of the art American sticks, and they were very whippy indeed. By all accounts, Joe quickly came to realise that this was not just an ordinary Clubmaster he was playing with. In fact, Jimmy had a notable career as a professional golfer and he was a long hitter with his whippy shafts. He had been the Professional at Windyhill Golf Club before coming to Douglas Park as Clubmaster.
Sadly, no detailed account of this memorable match survives, except for what happened at the 4th. The story goes that Joe hit a nice drive down to the corner. In those days there were no trees on the right. In reply, Jimmy whipped his drive across the corner near to the green, pitched close, and holed for a birdie three.
A day or so after this memorable visit, Past House Convener Bill Mackinlay, who was a junior member at the time, was playing at Douglas Park when he found a golf ball. It was a Spalding and had the words “Bomber” stamped on it. Was this a ball specially produced by Spalding for Joe Louis or was it just a variety with the name of a type of war plane ? A recent enquiry to Spalding at their HQ in Chicopee, USA, produced the answer “we don’t know” in reply. We will therefore probably never know for sure, but the ball can be seen in the golf memorabilia display cabinet in the hallway.
Joe never did get to play golf at St. Andrews, although he probably could have had the time to do so. To his great credit he chose to spend his remaining time in Glasgow visiting war wounded troops being treated in Glasgow hospitals.
14th March 2010
I am grateful to Past Captain Nicol McLean and Past House Convener Bill Mackinlay for their help in preparing this account, and for Bill’s donation of the ball to our collection of historical items.