Long before corporations got into the act and ignited a competition to see which could lavish the most money and luxuries on professional athletes, sports at the amateur level were sacrosanct, almost a religious experience. Sports were not viewed as a means to an end, that end being fame and monetary rewards, but more as a means to contribute to the society in which they lived, as a display of gratitude for facilitating a pleasant existence.
Individual sports, such as tennis and golf, seemed to maintain the amateur ideal of competition for its own sake longer than many team sports, but once they eventually moved to the more mercenary end of the spectrum, they did so vigorously. Now, the top professional tennis and golf players, through prize money and endorsements, command incomes that are nothing short of mind-boggling.
We do not mean to sound critical of this trend. We do not intend to trot out the tired argument concerning how little teachers earn despite their enormous influence on the next generation. Earnings in sports are one of the purest forms of supply and demand. The demand for top-flight professional athletes is not exceedingly high, but it does exceed the supply. Good teachers are constantly in high demand, but there is a steady supply that is greater than that demand.
There is also the issue of uncertainty that plays a role in the compensation someone derives from his or her profession. For every highly paid, famous footballer, there are dozens who have run onto the ground, only to be carried off, never to play again, their entire futures determined by an event lasting only seconds or less. Seldom do you hear of an elementary school math teacher being paralyzed from the waist down in a freak chalkboard accident.
Still, just as are many others, we ourselves are prone to occasional bouts of nostalgia, where we reminisce about earlier times as though something precious has been forever lost, something that was in some way better than the present, despite evidence to the contrary presented by those who have lived both roles, that of amateur struggling for a bite to eat and a place to sleep, and that of pampered, highly-paid professional. Given the chance, we ourselves would skip the first role and relish the second to the maximum extent possible.
As we are presently in the grips of one of those bouts of nostalgia, we thought it would provide to have a look at the life and career of one who many consider Australia’s greatest golfer of all time, James Bennett Elliot “Big Jim” “Undertaker” Ferrier (24 February 1915 – 13 June 1986). Anyone with seven words in their name is obviously great, right?
We choose him for our subject for a couple of remarkable circumstances where it seemed as though history was both repeating the past and serving up a premonition of the future.
Ferrier was compelled to declare his status as a professional before it was his intention to do so, the result of his having written a book of hints for beginning golfers. Ferrier was barred from playing in the U.S. Amateur Championship when the authorities decided that the little book, sales of which are unknown, was a contravention of the sacred amateur code. The past being repeated was due to the remarkable similarity between Ferrier’s minor infraction and that of one of America’s greatest athletes, Jim Thorpe, who was stripped of his Olympic titles by the IOC when it was discovered that he had accepted $6 per week to play semi-professional baseball before competing in the Olympics.
Jim Ferrier supplied a glimpse into the future when, competing in the 1950 edition of the U.S. Masters, often considered by professional golfers to be the most coveted title in golf, surrendered a three-shot lead with six holes remaining on the final nine of the final day. He would have been the first Australian golfer to win the Masters.
The collapse was eerily similar to that which befell Greg Norman at that same tournament in 1996, when the Shark went into the final round with a six-shot cushion, most of the damage coming on the final nine, which began with Norman having a three-shot lead over Nick Faldo and ended with Norman in second place.
It is possible that Ferrier, who died two months after the 1986 Masters, was watching and hoping for Norman to do what he himself had failed at doing.
Earlier, we had raised the potential of career-ending injuries putting an end to the income stream for an athlete creating uncertainty that causes them to approach salary issues with a get-all-you-can-whilst-you can mentality, but in the case of Ferrier, injury had another outcome.
Raised in Manly, he had been taught golf by his dad, who was himself a low handicapper. Jim Ferrier preferred the game of soccer, but a severe injury in his teens forced him out of that game into the slightly less boring game of golf, even though he would walk with a serious limp. He was soon playing scratch golf, even leaving school to spend more time on the course. He was the runner-up in the 1931 Australian Open.
Four years later, he won the Australian Amateur title four times, twice consecutively in 1935 and 1936, and twice consecutively again in 1938 and 1939, also winning the Australian Open those two years. In a nod to practicality, he was working as a golf reporter to earn his way.
He ventured to the U.S. in 1940, thinking to play in the amateur ranks there, when the revelation of his royalties from his golf tips handbook caused him to be banned. Before that came to light, however, he did win the Chicago Amateur and amateur open events in St. Paul, Miami, and Milwaukee, proving that his talent was not a case of inferior competition.
He then joined the PGA, working as a club pro in Illinois. That came as something of a shock to his Australian fans when he gave up playing on the then newly established Australian professional circuit, but from a historical perspective, it would appear to have been a pragmatic decision, as much as anything else. He worked in the Defense industry to earn U.S. citizenship, and served in the armed forces in the last two years of WW II. At the same time, he competed as a professional, giving the immortal “Iron” Byron Nelson a run for his money in one tournament, finishing second, and then won the following week at the Oakland Open.
His next victory would prove to be his most significant, the 1947 PGA Championship, his one and only Major victory, following a previous win in the St. Paul Open. He was the first Australian to win a Major. He won once in 1948, and then boosted his frequency of appearances in the winner’s circle with three wins in 1949, three more in 1950, and no fewer than five in 1951. He nearly added the 1950 Masters to his resume, but for the incident described earlier.
He won the Canadian Open in 1951 and 1952. As much as eight years later, at the age of 45, at a time when that age was considered well beyond a golfer’s prime, he nearly won the 1960 PGA Championship, losing by one stroke to Jay Herbert, in the third PGA after the tournament switched from the match to the stroke play format.
He was the target of critics during his later years for using the lifetime exemption he had justly earned for his PGA Championship win to play in tournaments when he was no longer an effective competitor. The charge was that by so doing, he was depriving younger players of spots in the field, to which we say, “There is no crying in golf.”
Big Jim Ferrier died in Burbank, California, in 1986 at the age of 71. He has yet to be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, despite statistics that equal some of the inductees. Fortunately, the Sport Australia Hall of Fame saw fit to include him in those ranks on 10 December 1985, six months before he died, to which we say, "Well done, Sport Australia Hall of Fame."