- King of Clubs: The Great Golf Marathon of 1938 by Jim Ducibella
Journalist Jim Ducibella’s King of Clubs is a fine and quick read. Taking just over 100 de facto pages to tell the tale of J. Smith “Smitty” Ferebee’s ninety-six-hour, 600-hole, cross-country golf marathon of 1938, Ducibella’s recounting moves as jackrabbit-quick as its undersized, over-achieving protagonist Ferebee, the “Hercules of Golf” with an outsize ego to match.
Sports historians will be both delighted and disappointed by the tale Ducibella tells here—delighted because the author, a sportswriter at the Virginia-Pilot for nearly three decades, proves himself not only an effective and economical storyteller but also a dogged amateur sports historian. In his chapter-length “Author’s Notes,” Ducibella discloses and deconstructs his efforts to follow the frustratingly incomplete paper trail of the Ferebee golf odyssey, efforts that led him to conduct site visits at several of the well-known courses that hosted Ferebee’s madcap golf venture, including Chicagoland’s Olympia Fields, where Ferebee was a longtime member. The author also avails himself of a handful of interviews, though in the end his efforts turn up Ferebee caddie Art Caschetta as “the only truly knowledgeable person” (p. 127) with firsthand knowledge of the long-mothballed publicity stunt.
The lack of primary and secondary research available on what was a fleeting episode in sport history would have dissuaded many writers and publishers from tackling this project, and as a book-length treatment it suffers from the get-in-quick, get-out-quicker ethos that made Ferebee’s trek a checkered success. Still, Ducibella is a skilled enough [End Page 339] reporter to transform archival research trips to the Virginia Military Institute (where Ferebee studied from 1923 to 1925 before being expelled in an alleged hazing incident) and to the Library of Congress into a compelling narrative distinguished by the author’s ability to capture the aerobic pace of the golf marathon with the kind of fit, muscular writing for which good journalists are known. At times Ducibella’s laconic style seems to draw as much from hardboiled crime writer Dashiell Hammett as from sports writing greats like Paul Gallico and James T. Farrell, as when he writes of the pre-dawn ambience of Philadelphia’s North Hill Country Club: “Philadelphia at dawn was encased in a dense curtain of fog. It was chilly. The few folks on the property wore sweaters to ward off the first cool morning of early fall” (p. 89). In his “Author’s Notes,” Ducibella credits his local writer’s group in Williamsburg, Virginia, as well as a hometown editor for the polish of his prose, and it is true—the editing here is as ruthless as it is first-rate.
Despite the more-than-competent writing and determined gumshoeing, King of Clubs suffers as a literary venture precisely because its fly-by-night protagonist proves hard to know and even harder to like. Ferebee’s quintessential American grit and pluck make him admirable, but not sympathetic, as his huckster personae and playboy penchant for non-stop gaming dissuade deeper reader affiliations, while his peripatetic movements mean he is never in one place long enough to earn out lasting affection. A reader debating the worth of Ferebee’s exploits is likely to arrive at the kind of fraught regard they might have for, say, Sinatra’s Rat Pack—impressed by their chutzpah and joie-de-vivre, perhaps, but simultaneously turned off by their back-slappy, boys-will-be-boys exploits.
While to his credit Ducibella keeps his account taut and muscular, the 600 holes he describes ultimately dissolve into a displeasing kind of chiaroscuro made worse by the fact that frequent time crunches forced Ferebee to play some of his golf by night. Even the most careful readers, then, are likely to find themselves confused by the who-what-when-where-why questions begotten of the frenetic timetable of Ferebee’s airplane-powered, Los Angeles...