What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done to win a bet? If you’re of a certain age, perhaps you swallowed a few too many goldfish or marathon danced for hours on end.
For J. Smith Ferebee, a 32-year-old Chicago stockbroker in 1938, the bet was to play 144 holes – eight rounds – on Olympia Fields’ four courses in a single day, walking the whole way with a caddie.
(Olympia Fields originally had four courses, but now has two.) Even for the athletic Ferebee, who was known to breeze through rounds in 90 minutes despite often struggling to break 90, the wager seemed beyond the pale. But on Aug. 5, 1938, Ferebee completed the task, starting at 5:05 a.m. and finishing at 8:12 p.m.
The accomplishment, chronicled by Jim Ducibella in “King of Clubs,” became big news in Chicago and even nationally, with Ferebee appearing on Robert Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” radio show. Then a funny thing happened: Everybody started matching or exceeding Ferebee’s feat, including Josephine Baltrusis, a Chicago housewife who zipped through 154 holes on Aug. 24, never shooting higher than 90 over 18 holes.
Before rushing home to make dinner for her husband, she said the feat was “easier than housework.”
Fred Tuerk, Ferebee’s friend, had seen enough. Tuerk had instigated the original bet, which cost him the title to a Virginia plantation that he co-owned with Ferebee. Suddenly, he realized he had been had.
He sent Ferebee a note: “We need to talk.”
So in September 1938, Ferebee took on a far grander challenge: He would play 600 holes over eight consecutive days, in eight cities, starting in Los Angeles and ending in New York. Even with a financial backer who sped up the trip by requisitioning a modified DC-3, Ferebee faced long odds.
But Ferebee “didn’t back off nothing,” said Art Caschetta, Ferebee’s favorite caddie at Olympia Fields. Ducibella describes Ferebee as being “lean and Hollywood handsome, with piercing blue eyes and thick, dark-blond hair.” But Ducibella also says Ferebee was “a wack” who never quit at anything.
Given that, it probably wouldn’t spoil the ending to say whether Ferebee successfully completed his golf marathon. He persevered, despite incurring a leg injury and being drugged by a Philadelphia bookie who was betting that he would fail.
This story has been told before, but never in such rich detail. Ducibella fills his narrative with fascinating characters, none more so than Ferebee, who during World War II became the country’s oldest naval aviator and survived a near-fatal crash in 1945. Ferebee recovered from his injuries, and later settled in his native Virginia. Perhaps nowhere was his innate doggedness more evident than in golf, which he eventually learned to play not just fast but well. In 1962, he won the Virginia Senior Amateur Championship.