2004: Baylor School breeds champions
By Graham Elliott
In the lore of American sport, communities sometimes become smitten. Cooperstown, N.Y., has had a long relationship with baseball. French Lick, Ind., adores basketball and Green Bay, Wis., is wild about football.
In Chattanooga, Tenn., a love affair lingers between amateur golf and a local school. The community has produced generations of great amateurs, and Baylor School, a preparatory institution in Chattanooga, has supplied a storied roster of amateurs that dates to the 1930s.
“People here just love the game,” said King Oehmig, the boys’ and girls’ golf coach at Baylor School. “We have a year-round program, and it’s based on four things: academics; game improvement; tournament performance; and having fun.”
The Baylor girls’ team won its record ninth consecutive state championship in 2003, the most team titles of any sport in Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association history. And the boys’ squad won its 10th state title last fall, also the most state golf championships in TSSAA history.
Golf runs in Oehmig’s blood. His father, Lewis (Lew) Oehmig, is one of the great amateurs in Tennessee history. The elder Oehmig’s state and national victories span five decades, and in 1985 he became the oldest U.S. Golf Association champion by winning the USGA Senior Amateur at age 69.
He was a former director of the Southern Golf Association and also served as president of the Tennessee Golf Association in 1948, ’57 and ’67. Oehmig, who died in September 2002 at age 86, is a member of the Tennessee Golf Hall of Fame, the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame and the Southern Golf Association Hall of Fame.
In “Gentleman Champion, Lew Oehmig’s Romance with Golf,” written by Chris Dortch, Sam Snead is quoted as saying, “The best thing that ever happened to professional golfers was that Lew Oehmig remained an amateur.”
During his amateur career, Oehmig faced Snead, Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Arnold Palmer. Bill Campbell, the 1964 U.S. Amateur champion, wrote in the foreword of “Gentleman Champion,” “Nothing bad can possibly be said about Lew Oehmig. . . . In all things he is the essence of civility and etiquette – and yes, proof that nice guys can win.”
In 1994 the younger Oehmig watched his father, a 1935 Baylor graduate, receive the USGA’s Bob Jones Award, amateur golf’s top honor.
“Bob Jones was his idol growing up, not only in his prowess at golf but also in being a gentleman, a scholar and just being an incredible person,” said King Oehmig. “(My father) was a consummate amateur, he loved the game. In my estimation he was the successor to Bobby Jones. He was the gentleman’s champion.”
Jones, golf’s greatest amateur, did not reside in Chattanooga but visited the city on occasion while his son Robert Tyre Jones III attended Baylor (class of ’44). His grandson, Robert Tyre Jones IV (class of ’75), also attended the preparatory school, whose mission is to instill in its students the desire and the ability to make a positive difference in the world.
John T. “Jack” Lupton, a classmate of Jones III, has made several contributions to amateur golf and Chattanooga. Lupton was the man behind The Honors Course, which is dedicated to amateur golf; he was instrumental in the USGA’s creation of a President’s Fund for special golf projects; and he helped the University of Tennessee create a women’s golf program.
Lupton’s brother-in-law, Scotty Probasco, played alongside Jones III on the Baylor golf team. One of his fondest memories was spending a night at Bobby Jones’ house and traveling alongside his teammates to hold the ropes at the 1946 Masters.
“Golf has always been a great sport at Baylor,” said Probasco. “Back when I was there we won the Rotary Interscholastic Tournament, and today they have set a record with how many times they have won the state tournament.”
Probasco married Betty Rowland, a Chattanooga amateur legend. Two of their four children attended Baylor and six grandchildren currently attend.
Betty Probasco’s championships span 39 years, including eight Women’s Tennessee State Amateur titles over five decades. Probasco was selected to the U.S. Curtis Cup team in 1956, and she was Curtis Cup captain in 1982 – the 50th anniversary year. She won the Women’s Southern Amateur and was a semifinalist in the 1955 U.S. Women’s Amateur.
“The thing I am most proud of is a letter that the great Bobby Jones wrote me when I won the Southern Amateur,” said Betty Probasco, who recently rediscovered the letter and plans to give it to the Tennessee Hall of Fame, of which she is a member. “As for Chattanooga, it is just a big, big, big golf town and it has always been a golf crazy area.”
One Baylor graduate, Bill Ploeger, “can’t get a enough of Chattanooga.”
Ploeger, who lives in Columbus, Ga., graduated from Baylor in 1958 and is a member at The Honors Course.
“It was the best year (1958) I ever had at high school or college,” said Ploeger, 1999 USGA Senior Amateur champion and Golfweek’s Senior Amateur of the Year in 2002. “I played football, basketball and golf in the spring. I met a lot of great people at Baylor and it was just a wonderful experience.”
Chattanooga native, Judy Eller Street, is one of four players to win the U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship more than once. Street also won the 1959 NCAA Championship, the Women’s Southern Amateur in 1959 and ’60 and was a member of 1960 Curtis Cup. Both of her children, Gordon Street Jr. and Miriam, are Baylor grads.
“Chattanooga is a wonderful area for amateur golf,” said Street, who like Bobby Jones retired from active competition in her early 30s. “The support for amateur golf is amazing and King Oehmig has done a wonderful job with the golf program at Baylor.”
In a six-week span last year, King Oehmig raised $300,000 for a short-game practice center named in honor of of his father, Lupton and Betty Probasco. The center features six stations for players to hit shots from inside 120 yards. It also has a 3,700-square-foot chipping green with bunkering and there is a 4,000-square-foot putting green.
“King simply has a vision and goes for it,” headmaster Jim Buckheit said. “This course not only honors the great tradition of golf at Baylor, but will help that tradition to continue.”
The tradition not only continues, but appears to be strengthening. In the past two years, Luke List and May Wood graduated from Baylor after putting together careers that rank among the school’s best.
List, who graduated in 2003, won two TSSAA individual state titles (2001, ’02), and after graduating he qualified for the 2003 U.S. Open at Olympia Fields.
“I was at his graduation and three weeks later I am watching him on the practice tee at the U.S. Open, Luke’s on one end and Mike Weir, the Masters champion, is on the other and it looked like he belonged,” said Oehmig.
As for Wood, a 2002 graduate, a three-time Tennessee Coaches Association Player of the Year and TSSAA state champion, Oehmig knows she belongs.
“May was one of our best players both male or female,” said Oehmig, who follows List’s and Wood’s careers at the Vanderbilt University.
In 2001, Wood won the North & South Junior and followed the next year with victory in the North & South Amateur, the first time anyone has won both in consecutive years.
The success of List and Wood is a continuation of an amateur golf tradition that goes back decades. And with a new practice center, not to mention the continuing dedication of a coach and community, the tradition appears safe.