Ex-US Amateur Golf Champ Spins Some Tales

By Associated PressAugust 18, 2007, 4:00 pm
US Amateur 2007 ERMA, N.J. -- Robert 'Skee' Riegel spins a tale almost as deftly as he once spun a golf ball.
There's the story about his first golf lesson from a 350-pound chef, and his yarn about a frantic search of the Queen Elizabeth cruise liner when it was thought he had fallen overboard during a victory celebration after the 1947 Walker Cup.
But his storytelling is secondary to his golf. Riegel swept through eight matches and captured the 1947 U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach and had an unbeaten record in two Walker Cups -- all at a time when amateur golf was at its peak.
'He's a golfer that was at his best on great golf courses in a great golf era,' said Bob Mullock, a longtime friend and owner of Cape May National Golf Club, where Riegel is pro emeritus.
As a field of 312 awaits this year's U.S. Amateur at The Olympic Club in San Francisco on Monday, the 92-year-old Riegel believes the championship has lost some luster.
'In those days, it was something,' said Riegel, who treasured the perks of the title, including a place in the Masters field. 'Today, I don't know, because there is all kinds of stuff, junior tournaments, super junior events. It should be a big deal, but I'm not sure it is.'
The Amateur has had its unexpected winners, and Riegel might be the most unlikely because of his unconventional start in the game and improbable 2-and-1 victory over Johnny Dawson in the title match 60 years ago.
Born in New Bloomfield, Pa., outside Harrisburg, Riegel grew up in the blue-collar Philadelphia suburb of Upper Darby. He didn't think much of golf, or those who played it. He favored football and baseball.
Riegel spent time at nearby Merion Cricket Club -- where Bobby Jones won his first U.S. Amateur in 1924 and completed the Grand Slam in 1930 -- trapping turtles or flying model airplanes, not hitting drivers or wedges.
'I had no interest in golf because the guys who were interested in golf were a little strange, I thought, a little weird,' he said.
But years later a $2 lesson changed his thinking and his life. He was introduced to the game at a club in Reno, Nev., at the urging of his wife, Edith. With the regular pro out of the country, a heavyset chef named Ken Johnson gave the 23-year-old his first lesson.
Riegel took it from there.
His time as an Air Force flight instructor at bases in the South during World War II gave Riegel spent plenty of time to work on his game.
He developed a powerful swing that carried him to victory in the 1942 Florida Amateur. Four years later, he was the stroke-play medalist at the U.S. Amateur at Baltrustrol with a two-round total of 136, a mark that stood for more than 30 years.
A year later, he won the USGA's oldest championship. Six decades have passed, yet Riegel remembers all the details.
'It was so foggy at one point I couldn't see the ball,' he said. 'And that was good for John (Dawson) because he knew the course.'
The scheming and long-hitting Riegel, who led 1-up after the first 18 holes, wasn't a fan of 36-holes matches. But he had a plan.
'The first 18, I would let up; I wouldn't hit it far,' he said. 'The second 18, I knew I wasn't tired, and I knew damn well they were tired, and I would slip it by them a bit. It was a little sneaky, but I did it. It was legal.'
Riegel led 2-up with three holes remaining and narrowly missed closing out Dawson on the par-4 16th.
At the 35th hole, Pebble's storied par-3 17th, Riegel purposely left his tee shot short of the bunker, and then chipped on. Meanwhile, Dawson figured Riegel had used two clubs less, and flew the green. Then, he dumped his second shot.
'That was it,' Riegel said.
Riegel turned pro in 1951. He made 11 cuts at the Masters, where he finished as low amateur in 1948 and was second to Ben Hogan in 1951. He was also undefeated in four Walker Cup matches, two each at St. Andrews and Winged Foot.
'I was always nervous,' he said. 'I always had to work like hell for anything that I won.'
His legend grew following the Amateur victory and is well-documented in a mural surrounded by framed photos, news clips and memorabilia on the walls of the 'Skee Room' at his home course of Cape May National, just outside his hometown of Cape May.
Then there's that sail home aboard the Queen Elizabeth following the '47 Walker Cup. One story had Riegel shimmying up a smokestack in the dining room during a formal dinner celebrating the victory. Another had him wandering off and falling asleep in a lifeboat, setting off a desperate search amid speculation he had tumbled overboard.
Asked if the ship stopped to search the seas, Riegel has a standard reply: 'That's what some say, but I don't know. I was in the lifeboat.'
Riegel is now at his best telling stories about golf's treasured past. He was, after all, on a first-name basis with Bobby, Ben and Sam. But Jones, Hogan and Snead were matched in celebrity by Riegel's circle of Hollywood friends, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby among them.
Age and back problems have slowed Riegel's stride and limited his swing. This summer's searing heat cut his time on the range, but he makes daily trips to the course with his constant companion, poodle John Paul.
'I haven't played this year; it's just been too hot,' he said. 'I hate to say it: I'd like to say that I miss it, but .... I got everything that I wanted, and enjoyed it.'
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