Missouri Golf Post

The Phil Cotton Golf Tournament


The beginning:

It was Thursday March 13, 1958.  All of the guys were there to play cards, drink whiskey, and swap lies– as they did every Thursday night at the Columbia Country Club.  Men’s Day at the “Club” started at noon and women were not allowed on the premises after that time.

During the summer, usually from about May 1st to October 1, they played golf, ate dinner, then retired to the card room.  During the winter months, it was dinner at the club about 6:00, then cards.   They usually stayed until midnight or later, depending on who was winning and losing or who wanted to go home.

This was the elite of Columbia.  They were the civic leaders, the most prominent businessmen, many of whom had long histories and family connections in Boone County.  They had two things in common.  They liked to gamble and they could afford to lose.

There was M. Stanley (Stan) Ginn, Attorney and Chairman of the Board of the Missouri Book Store Companies, (also the Republican Power Broker in the state) and his brother-in-law Bud (Buddy) Lucas, President of the Missouri Book Store Companies. Buddy never met a stranger, and was never a stranger to anyone, anywhere.  Buddy loved to play golf. He loved telling the story about teaching Ben Hogan to fly when they were in the Air Force together. Jerry Conner, a physically big man, owned a local service station back in the days when “service” meant doing a lot more than simply selling gasoline.  Louis Vandiver, managing partner of Rollins, Vandiver and Diggs Insurance Agency, was quiet, distinguished and refined.  Truth be told, Louie probably had more influence in City Hall and at the University of Missouri than anyone in Columbia.  Richard (Dick) Barnett, owned Barnett’s Men’s Store on Broadway and never missed a Thursday night card game.   Dick weighed close to 350 pounds, so he didn’t play golf with the guys– but was always there for the cards.

Alex Estes was a partner in Central Office Equipment Company.  Alex played golf, drank whiskey, played cards, (and pursued other things) with reckless abandon that sometimes resulted in huge wins or monumental losses.  Gene Glenn was the dapper owner of Gene Glenn Shoes. Gene was a strikingly good-looking man who was always immaculately dressed–very important for a man who sells shoes to women.  Gene took his golf and cards seriously.  He once got so angry over his golf game that he threw his golf bag (clubs included) into the lake that surrounds the 3rd hole.  He then sat down on a bench, calmly took off his golf shoes and socks, and threw them in after the clubs.  He walked back to the clubhouse barefooted.

There were others. Bob Hulett owned a store called the “Army-Navy” Store.  He specialized in surplus military clothing and equipment.  He played golf left-handed, and there were few safe places to stand when Bob was teeing off.  Marty Sigholtz came to Columbia as a basketball player for the University of Missouri and he never left.  He was the youngest of the group and in the insurance business. Marty loved the club and he loved to play golf.  His natural athletic ability allowed him to be a pretty good player, but he was more interested in bets he made on the golf course than his score.  Hillas Jones owned a local liquor store with a luncheon counter on the “Strollway”– as 9th Street was known back in the day.  Hillas  was the former owner of “Breezy Hill” out on Highway 40 (now known as Interstate 70) which was the last known “roadhouse” in Boone County. Dr. Karl Dietrich, a local physician, was also a regular at Men’s Day card games.  Doc didn’t play golf, but was a respected member of the medical community.   Bud Lucas’s best friend, George Miller, was an attorney whose family dated back many generations in Boone County.  The family owned the other local shoe store that bore their name, “Miller’s.”

The best golfer in the group was Phil Cotton. Phil and his brother Cooper owned Cotton Lumber Company.   Phil competed for the club championship on several occasions and was on the Board of Directors of the Missouri State Seniors Golf Association.  One night Phil came out of the clubhouse and saw a group of caddies putting on the 9th green.  He walked down to those young men and said, “I bet  each of you $5 dollars that I can hit a ball farther with no backswing then any of you.”  They all took him up on the bet and each hit a shot.  Then Phil put his mallet head putter down behind his ball, pressed down hard on the club head, and watched the ball rocket off the club– going far beyond any of the caddies’ balls. Phil’s mallet head had a hidden spring in the face that shot out with great force when released.  He laughed and laughed as the astonished caddies stood there in stunned silence.  Inside, the card players broke up, as they knew what Phil was up to. And the caddies laughed too, but only after they realized that Phil wasn’t planning to collect on his bet.

In addition to their desire to “enjoy a game of chance” at cards and golf, the other common thread among the group was a love of the University of Missouri athletics. They played in the Card Room, an extension of the Men’s Locker Room.  The Card Room was separated from the locker room by a partition covered by a large bulletin board.  In March 1958,  postings on the board included:  the notice of delinquent members, notice of the annual board meeting, and designation of next “Men’s Day” host. Up in the corner there was a slightly worn picture of the 1949 Missouri golf team that won the Big Six Conference golf championship. Three Columbians were in that picture– Jim McKinney, Jimmy Sid Rollins and Lowry Henley.

The weather was typical that March day in Boone County.  It was too cold to enjoy golf, so the guys had dinner downstairs at the bar.  After enjoying good food and drink, they retired to the Card Room to compete at gin rummy for a while, then poker.  The games began with the usual banter of the day:

“What will next year’s football team be like?”

“Who is this Dan Devine that Don (Faurot) just hired to coach the Tigers next year?”  “How come Broyles left after only one year?” “Who’s the speaker at Rotary Club next week?” “Does Sparky (Stalcup) have anyone who can match up with Wilt Chamberlain and the Jayhawks?”

“John Hi (Simmons) sure can coach the baseball team and what a character he is. It’s hard to believe that someone like Don, who doesn’t smoke, drink or cuss, would have someone who does all those things like John Hi on his staff.”   “I think someone said that John Hi coached with Faurot back in the twenties at Kirksville:”

“How good is the golf team going to be this year?” “Isn’t there a Columbia kid on that team?” “Yeah, Noah Martin’s  boy, Bob.”

And on it went into the night– the winners bragging about their skill at cards, and the losers complaining that they had no luck.  Shortly, Phil Cotton left the table where he was playing, “I don’t feel too good” he said.  He went over to a couch and stretched out. Stan Ginn was dealing another hand.  He looked over at Phil lying on the couch and asked, “Are you all right?”  “Not really,” Phil said. “My chest hurts.”  Doc Dietrich’s head snapped up. Doc got up from the table where he was playing gin and went over to Phil.  He checked Phil’s pulse and declared, “My, God, I think he’s having a heart attack!  Quick, someone get him on the bar, get his shirt off.  I’ll get my bag from the car.” As Doc Dietrich ran out the door he shouted over his shoulder, “Call Parker’s for an ambulance – phone is 4153!.”  Ya Soo, the Japanese bartender, swiped the ash trays, dirty glasses, and bottles of whiskey off the bar, and reached for the phone.

The six foot two inch Ginn came over to the couch, slid his arms under Phil’s knees and shoulders and picked him up as one would a newborn baby.  He gently placed him on the bar and unbuttoned Phil’s shirt. The other guys silently stood around in various stages of shock waiting for Doc to return with his medical bag.   Doc came through the door with his stethoscope already out. He checked Phil’s heartbeat, then looked up and slowly shook his head. “His heart is not beating.”

In 1958, an injection of adrenaline directly into the heart muscle was the physician’s last resort in tending to a heart attack victim. Dr. Dietrich pulled out his syringe, filled it, and gave Phil the shot. “It started!” he whispered. And then to himself  muttered, “Son of a bitch. Stopped again.” The  group of men stood by quietly, watching Doc desperately trying to save Phil’s life. A second injection – a brief heartbeat, and again, as Dr. Dietrich listened, the familiar “lub-dub, lub-dub” in the black earpieces of the stethoscope faded away to silence.  “Damn. Come on, Phil.”

Doc looked at Stan and shook his head.  “We can try one more time.”  Everyone nodded as Stan held his friend Phil steady for the Doc. And for the third time in less than 10 minutes, Phil Cotton’s heart was injected with a dose of adrenaline.  There was no response.

The ambulance arrived shortly.  As all of the members of the group stood and watched, Parker’s Funeral Home’s “hospital trained” attendants put Phil Cotton’s still body on a gurney. He was taken to the emergency room at Boone County Hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

Phil Cotton passed away, lying on the bar at the Columbia Country Club, being held by one of his best friends.  He was surrounded by his friends and fellow members with whom he spent many enjoyable hours  playing cards, golf, and just enjoying each other’s company.  He was buried in the family plot in the Columbia Cemetery the following Saturday.

The group, although saddened, continued their Thursday night ritual.  When the weather was warm enough and the course was dry, the golfers played in the afternoons, followed by dinner and cards.  Phil was missed, but life goes on.

Over the summer and into the fall the card players observed the University of Missouri Golf team playing and practicing for their upcoming season.  The Columbia Country Club was their “home” course. The  A. L. Gustin Course was under construction, but would not be open for another couple of years.  Tom Garrity from Kansas City, Don Dupske of St. Louis, Buddy Mercer from Fredricktown, Ira Smith, a Korean War veteran, and Bob Martin from Columbia made up the Tiger Golf team.

One Thursday as the group was starting their card games, they saw the golf team coming up the 9th fairway in the near dark.  A window in the club house looked out onto the green and the card players could see the young Tiger golfers.

“How many of those kids are on scholarship?” Stan Ginn asked his good friend Louie Vandiver. “Golf team doesn’t have any scholarships.” Louie answered. “How does Don (Faurot) expect to compete with Oklahoma State and Oklahoma and the other Big Eight schools if he can’t recruit the good kids?”

Someone on the other side of the room replied.  “Hell, you know Don, he is tighter than a photo finish.  He only gives scholarship money to those sports that provide the Athletic Dept. revenue.  The non-revenue sports like golf and tennis don’t get anything.”   “That’s a shame.” Ginn mused. “I have stores all over the Big Eight and most of those schools at least buy the golf team their textbooks.”

Mr. Ginn mulled that over for a few days, and then called Mr. Vandiver. “Louie, I have an idea.  What would you think if we run a golf tournament next spring?  We could name it after Phil and the proceeds would go to the Athletic Department for a golf scholarship?”  Louie thought a moment. “We would pattern it after that tournament down in Georgia, the Masters.  Make it an invitational and only invite the best amateurs in the state to compete in a championship flight.  You invite your brother- in-law in St. Louis and his buddies at Sunset Country Club, for example. We would have three flights, one for the championship golfer,  one for some with higher handicaps,  and a third for people like us.”

Play it in one day, have a dinner after it is over, and invite the entire Country Club membership to the dinner.”  He thought some more. “Give the winner a jacket like they do at the Masters and a nice trophy– and raise some money for the University.”

There was a brief silence on the other end of the line. “We only have a nine hole course, how are we going to deal with that?” Mr. Vandiver asked.  “We limit the number of entries to 88, 44 in the two flights and 44 in the championship flight.  “Start the 11 foursomes of flight players in the morning and the 11 foursomes of the championship players in the afternoon. We can get everyone around in one day.” Stan replied.

“Now that’s a great idea, Stan, and by including all of the Club members in the dinner, they don’t feel left out. Let’s put a committee together, see if they think some of the better players would come here to play a one day tournament, and put it together.”

Thus was born the Phil Cotton Memorial Invitational.  It was created to honor an old friend and to help the University of Missouri golf team compete against some of the best college golf teams in the country.

Fred Hulse, Jimmy Sid Rollins, Charlie (Sonny) McClaren, Bus Entsminger and Charlie Diggs were the better players who made up that first “Phil Cotton” committee.  Louis Vandiver and Stan Ginn organized the dinner and the logistics of the initial tournament.

The Committee selected the first Saturday in June 1959 to play the initial tournament.  Early June was the best time play a golf course that had no watering system.  Nature had provided lush fairways, difficult rough and fast greens.  (The tournament has been played on the same date ever since. This year’s 55th Annual Phil Cotton is June 1-2.

The first tournament:

Invitations were extended to the best amateurs in the State.  Two of the best players accepting invitations  were Jimmy Jackson and Jim Tom Blair- both from St. Louis.

Jackson was on two US Walker Cup Teams, qualified for the Masters five times, played in 18 US Amateurs and two US Opens.  He was low amateur in the US Open, played in the British Amateur, and won the Trans-Mississippi twice.  In addition, he won the Missouri Amateur four times, the Missouri Sr. Amateur Championship twice, and the Missouri State Seniors Championship twice.


Blair won the Missouri Amateur three times, qualified for the US Amateur 10 times, the US Open three times, and the British Amateur three times.  Jim Tom was considered by many the best amateur player in the country during the 50’s.  He led a PGA event after 54 holes, and came within an 8 foot putt of shooting 59 in a local inter-city match.


From around Central Missouri, Francis Hagen, who would become a legend in Columbia golf, accepted his invitation. So did perennial sand green champion Ken Lanning from Rolla.  Jim McKinney, who played on Missouri’s 1949 Championship team came back to Columbia from Illinois.


In addition to these great players, several current and former Missouri golf team members returned to Columbia to play in this inaugural event.  Invitations were also accepted by some of the best players in the Kansas City area. And three high school students were invited– Topper Glass, Rich Poe, and Jim Colbert.  Glass and Poe would go on to play for Missouri. Jim Colbert, who played college golf at Kansas State, would have a successful career on the PGA Tour, and become one of the founding members of the Senior PGA tour.


And, Noah’s boy, Bob, along with the other members of the Mizzou golf team, also received invitations.


June 6, 1959 was a beautiful spring day in Columbia, and perfect for golf.  The smell of cut grass and the flowers of spring were everywhere.  Most of the Columbia Country Club course could be viewed from the veranda surrounding the second story of the clubhouse.  It had been built on the highest point of the property, with the golf course spread out down below.


At noon the golf course was full of players. To complete an eighteen hole competition it was necessary to play the nine holes twice.  There were only nine greens but eighteen tee boxes.  The morning wave of flight players were finishing their rounds and signing their score cards.  The tournament committee gave them the designations of  “Governor’s Flight” and “President’s Flight.”  I didn’t know which was which, but I did know they were the lucky ones.  They got to have lunch, shower and get ready for the dinner.  Those of us in Championship flight had to rush to get to the dinner on time.


When I got there to check in, Mr. Vandiver gave me my rules and pairing sheet, a bag tag, and asked if I was staying for dinner -and did I have a guest?  He said that my Mom and Dad had already signed up for dinner.  I was paired with one of my Tiger teammates, Ira Smith, and a couple of high school kids, Rich Poe, from Rolla and Topper Glass from St. Joe.  They were both being recruited, or more properly said, “encouraged”, to come to Missouri and play for the golf team.  There were no golf scholarships, so a high school player of some talent was asked to come out for the golf team once they decided to attend  Missouri.


Ira and I had just come off the second most successful season the Missouri golf team had enjoyed since they won the 1949 Big Seven championship.  We played the Big Eight ( the conference having added Oklahoma State) Championship in Norman, OK at the Golf Course on the South Base. The team finished second behind Oklahoma State. Our teammate Tom Garrity finished second by a stroke, and I finished sixth.  Don Dupske and Buddy Mercer from Fredricktown were our other two team members.


When I looked over the pairing sheet, I thought the Committee had done a really good job pairing the players.  Jimmy Jackson was paired with Doug Weaver, an MU coach, Robert Willits from Kansas City (a former State Am winner), and Sonny McClaren from Columbia– another good player.


Francis Hagen was in the group right ahead of us with two of Kansas City’s premier players, Irl Oliver and George Sinderson.  The fourth member of their foursome, Dennis Davidson from Hannibal, was one of the nicest guys to play with.


The premier pairing was right behind us.  Ken Lanning of Rolla was playing with the best player in Kansas City, Tom Stephenson.  Jim Tom Blair and Jimmy Sid Rollins, the best player in Columbia, made up the rest of that foursome.


We teed it up at 12:35 and off we went.  The golf course was playing fast and greens were slick.  Those little greens built back in 1926 had a bunch of subtle little breaks that were hard to read, so having grown up on them gave me a “home course” advantage.  The high school kids struggled.  Rich shot an 81 and Topper 84.  Ira had a respectable 75 and I had rounds of 37-35 for 72.


After I signed my score card and turned it in, I went over to the leader board to see how everybody else had done.  I saw that I was tied with Jimmy Jackson and Francis Hagen at 72 and we were the leaders in the club house.  There were still some very good players on the golf course and many, but most especially, Blair, were capable of “going low.”  Jim Tom was in the group right behind me and very shortly his score was posted.  He joined Jackson, Hagen and me (gulp) at the top of the leaderboard.


There were several groups still on the course, so the four of us stood around and tried to stay loose.  I hit a few putts on the practice green and swung a club to make sure I didn’t start to tighten up.  The last group was coming up the par-5 18th fairway.  Don Fehlig from St. Louis, Dave Collins of Macon, MU golf coach Chauncy Simpson, and a little guy from Kansas City, Glen Oatman, were in the final group.  Glen almost didn’t get in the tournament because he had to work that morning. He got to the golf course just in time to put his shoes on and tee off.  He told me later that he didn’t tie his shoes until the second tee.


When they reached the green, Jim Tom asked their scorer how everyone stood.  She told him “if they get up and down for par, Coach Simpson and Don Fehilig would shoot 75”. Dave Collins had two putts for 74 and Oatman is putting for birdie 4 and a 71.


Glen didn’t take much time,  just stepped up and knocked that 15-footer in the back of the hole for a 71 and the first “Cotton” Championship.


Mr. Ginn walked over, looked at the four of us, and said, “We’re going to have a playoff for second.”  This was something new.  We all had been in playoffs to win, but for second?  What the hell, it’s a new tournament, new tournament officials, and it is their tournament.  So we said, “Let’s go do it.”


Francis Hagen grew up in Columbia.  As a kid he caddied at the Columbia Country Club and was considered the best golfer around.  World War II came and Francis entered the service. He got married while in the service, and started a family after his discharge.  A group of the members from the Club went to him and suggested that he could make a living on the PGA Tour and that they would back him if he wanted to try.  He turned them down, saying that he had a family and that the Tour was no life for a family man.  So he went to work in the construction industry.  There are some who still believe that Francis would have made a good living as a professional golfer, but instead Francis went to work, and in his free time won every sand green tournament in the area.  He and Ken Lanning were considered the best sand green players from these parts to ever play the game.  Francis designed the L.A. Nickell municipal course in Columbia and became a local legend in golf circles.


Francis went first and striped one down the middle.  With that short back swing and those powerful arms, (he was a brick layer by trade) he was about 150 yards from the green.  Jimmy Jackson was second.  He had an unorthodox  swing, but man, could he play! His drive was in the middle about 140 yards from the green. It was said that after watching this young amateur from St. Louis with the funny swing play in the Masters, some of the tour players were very concerned that Jimmy was going to come out on tour and win some of “their” money.   One year at the Masters, Sam Snead approached Jimmy and told him that his unorthodox swing would not hold up under the strain of so many professional tournaments and that if he expected to win out there he needed to make some basic changes.  And he suggested some.  Jimmy never played as well again.


I was third and hit a good one in the fairway and about 145 yards from the hole.  Jim Tom was last to play, and did what Jim Tom does… He just “air- mailed” all of us to about 100 yards from the green.


Many years later I played a tournament in Palm Springs, CA. At dinner I was seated at a table with Dr. Ed Updegraff, considered by many at the time as the “Best Amateur in the World.”  A local newspaper described him as “the quintessential amateur golfer, a man who left a trail of friendships on golf courses everywhere.”  Dr. Updegraff, who was 85 at the time, turned to me and asked, “Whatever happened to Jim Tom Blair? Man, was he good.”  Such was the reputation of Jim Tom Blair.  Jim Tom was known for his long driving, knowledge of the swing, and his ability to shoot a really low score when he was “on.”


Francis hit his second shot to about 25 feet and two putted for his par.  Jackson got it inside 20 feet, but missed the putt and took 4.  I stiffed it from 145 yards to about 6 feet, and Jim Tom hit a wedge to inside 10 feet. Jim Tom’s birdie putt was right in the middle.  If this playoff was going to go on,  I had to make a tricky little 6- footer with just a little right to left break.  I read it right and knocked it in.


Jimmy and Francis returned to the club house, and Jim Tom and I went on to the second extra hole.  It was starting to get dark when we got to the tee.  I had the honor and I hit it down the left side of the fairway.  The second green was guarded by a giant oak tree whose branches hung out over the right side of the green.  Directly below the overhanging limbs of the tree was a sand trap.  The committee had put the pin on the right side of this tiny green, so any shot to the right of the middle of the fairway had go through the tree to get anywhere near the pin.


Jim Tom unloaded on another one, but he cut it just a little and even though he was fifty yards closer to the hole than me, he had to contend with that tree.  I hit my second to the middle of the green about 20 feet from the hole. Jim Tom had two options:  He could hit it to the left middle of the green and have a putt a little outside mine. Makeable, but a little tricky. Or he could hit a punch shot that would have to go under the tree branches, a little short of the green and jump up on the green for a shorter putt at birdie.  Jim Tom, never one to back off a challenge, hit the punch shot, but his ball flight was a little higher than he wanted and his ball hit a tree limb and dropped into the trap.


The Club put new sand in the traps that spring and it was soft and fluffy.  Jim Tom’s ball fell straight down out of the tree and left him with a “fried egg” lie with half the ball down in the sand.  This is a tough shot for even the best  players, and the pin was on his side of the green.  It was a short but difficult bunker shot. He blasted it out, but couldn’t get any spin on the ball out of that lie and was left with a 25-footer for par.  He missed, and when I two-putted for par, I had 2nd place all alone.


Many years passed before I realized what I had done.  Back then my immediate thought was, “Damn, I didn’t win the tournament—just got 2nd.”  Years later it dawned on me that I had played head- to-head against two of the finest amateurs in the country during their prime– and against a local legend that many felt should have taken his opportunity to play on the PGA Tour. And I had come out on top. Holy Cow!


That first year, 1959, the Committee put together a very strong field.  Of the 84 entries, 44 broke 80. 22 shot 76 (4 over par) or better.  10 players were within 2 shots of the winner at 73.

Today the format has changed from 18 to 36 holes medal play.  The venue has moved from the Columbia County Club, to The Country Club of Missouri, and now to A.L. Gustin.  But what has not changed is the quality of the field.  The best amateur players in the state look forward to the “Phil Cotton” every year.  And more importantly,The University of Missouri golf team continues to have a golf scholarship provided by the proceeds from the tournament.  Even though none of that gang of card players who were there that night in March 1958 at the Columbia Country Club are still with us, their friend and colleague’s name continues to be honored.  Their two goals have been achieved, and a legacy has been created.  58 years later, the name Phil Cotton is fondly remembered by all who knew him.


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The Missouri Golf Post is a monthly digital magazine that “celebrates the people who play the game.” Each monthly issue contains several “feature” stories on golfers, golf courses, and/or major tournaments of interest statewide. Each issue contains a number of regular departments on topics such as Tournament Summaries, Fitness, “The Superintendent’s Corner,” Instruction, and Rules.


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