Rives McBee asked his friend Curt Sampson if he would consider writing a book about him. “I think I’ve got an interesting story to tell,” he told Sampson, author of “Hogan.”
“He said, ‘Who in the hell would want to read a book about you?’ ” McBee said with a laugh from his home in Irving, Texas.
Maybe not a book, but to paraphrase a line from a beer commercial, if there were a “Most Interesting Man in the World of Golf,” McBee would be a nominee.
The problem with telling McBee’s story is where to begin. Former holder of a revered U.S. Open record? Owner of a Jack Ruby golf ball? A knack as a younger man for finding himself in Larry David-like situations, including some where he flashed a temper that would make Tyrrell Hatton blush? His friendship with Ben Hogan? Three wins on the Senior Tour? Playing today with hickory-shafted clubs? It’s all too rich, even for a man with 83 years on the planet.
For chronological reasons, let’s start with the U.S. Open. McBee was born in Denton, Texas, in 1938 and attended North Texas State, where he played on the golf team. He was on the seven-year plan, a consequence of being drafted into the Army and economic necessity. After graduating in early 1964, he worked as a physical education teacher in Garland while playing the Texas amateur circuit. He found that teaching gym class interfered with golf, so in 1965 he quit and took a job as an assistant pro at Midland Country Club.
McBee decided to try a professional tournament and thought the 1966 U.S. Open would be as good a place as any to start. He led local qualifiers in Midland, went to Dallas for sectional qualifying and earned one of four spots (Lee Trevino and Don January got two of the others), and set off for the Olympic Club in San Francisco. The 1966 Open is best remembered for Arnold Palmer’s epic collapse on the back nine and eventual playoff loss to Billy Casper. However, for one day, the unknown pro from Texas found his name on every sports page in America.
After the first round, McBee was eating dinner at the hotel where he was staying. A gentleman walked by and, correctly assuming McBee was competing in the championship, asked, “Young man, what did you shoot today?” McBee answered, “Well, I had a 76.” The man replied, “I did, too, the first round of the year I won.” It was Jack Fleck, who beat Ben Hogan in a playoff in 1955, the previous time the U.S. Open was held at Olympic.
Inspired by Fleck, McBee birdied nine holes in the second round and shot 64, tying for the lowest score in U.S. Open history at that time. He finished tied for 13th, earning spots in the 1967 Masters and U.S. Open. His success at Olympic also led him to try the PGA tour.
In several telephone interviews, and in a meeting with a photographer, McBee could not have been more polite and friendly, consistent with most accounts of him during his long career. Nevertheless, there were occasions during his time on tour when his patience was tested and trouble befell him, perhaps at least partly of his own doing. One such instance was when he played the Masters for the only time in 1967. It was, he says, “one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had at a golf tournament.”
When he arrived in Augusta several days early with his wife, Kay, and 15-month-old daughter, Kayla, he learned that there was no record of the hotel reservation he thought he had made at the Holiday Inn. He checked in at the Heart of Augusta Hotel but was told he would have to leave the next morning.
McBee went to Augusta National and played a practice round with Billy Casper, who skipped the Greater Greensboro Open to prepare for the Masters. “He was so nice to me,” McBee recalls. “Billy said, ‘I’m thrilled to death to get to play with you because you were the talk of the U.S. Open.’ ” During the round, McBee encountered Don Wilson, a friend from the North Texas State golf team who was stationed in the Army at nearby Fort Gordon. McBee and his family ended up sleeping on a rollaway bed in Wilson’s quarters during Masters week. “Otherwise, I might have had to go to Myrtle Beach and drive across (South) Carolina every day,” McBee says.
“I would much rather go to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and play in the Magnolia Classic than play in the Masters.” –Rives McBee
On Wednesday evening, after dinner with Wilson and their families, McBee went to Augusta National with Kay and Kayla to practice putting. It was getting dark and there was nobody else around. They were stopped by a Pinkerton guard. McBee would have understood if the guard told him the putting green was closed, but that was not the reason. Instead, it was because, although he and Kay had badges, their toddler daughter did not. Rules are rules.
“I went to the front office, and I said, ‘You better give me a badge before I explode,’” McBee remembers. He finished tied for 42nd. “They care more about the amateurs than they do about the rookie pros,” he said of his experience at Augusta National. And, looking back, “I would much rather go to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and play in the Magnolia Classic than play in the Masters.”
Two months later, at the U.S. Open at Baltusrol, McBee again may have set a tournament record, though unverifiable, by going through at least seven caddies. At the time, players in the U.S. Open were not allowed to bring their own caddies. They were assigned caddies by the host club, and there was not much in the way of quality control. In shooting 76 in the first round, McBee needed three. The first fainted and had to go to the hospital. The second was a spectator who filled in until the third, who had toted the bag for another player earlier in the day, was summoned from the caddie yard.
On Friday, he did not fare better with his fourth caddie, who used water to wash McBee’s grips and quit or was fired when McBee expressed disapproval of the unusual practice. His fifth caddie was a golf writer in the gallery who carried McBee’s bag for three holes until a sixth caddie, who also had finished a loop, was rushed out. McBee managed a 72 to make the cut and guarantee he would require a seventh caddie the next day. He finished tied for 60th.
Three weeks later, McBee was tossed from the 500 Festival, a tournament held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway complex, even before playing a practice round. On Monday, after completing 72 holes at the Canadian Open in Montreal, McBee made a grueling 15-hour drive with his family to Indianapolis. As at Augusta, there was a problem with accommodations. McBee had a reservation in room 101 of the Speedway Motel. He went to a table at the course manned by a volunteer who assisted pros with sorting out lodgings. She informed him that room 101 was unavailable, that the motel could put him up for the night, but in the morning he would have to go to the Holiday Inn.
On Tuesday morning, he met his friend Art Proctor at the first tee for a practice round. McBee told Proctor he could only play 18 holes instead of the usual 36 because he had to deal with finding a place to stay. “Well, I just got a room right here at the Speedway,” Proctor told him. “I said, ‘What room do you have?’ He said ‘101.’ I said, ‘That’s the room I’m in!’ They’re kicking me out of the hotel and putting him in!”
McBee went back to the table to make an inquiry. He recalls stating, “Ma’am, please explain something to me. I gave you my room reservation. You kick me out and send me down the road and the gentleman comes in and you give him my room and he didn’t have a reservation. How can you do that?”
According to McBee, the woman said, “Well, that’s our decision and we’re going to stick by it.” He responded that he would deal with it later and went to meet Proctor for his practice round. McBee believes he was denied a room because he was traveling with a small child, as pros were known to complain about crying children interrupting their sleep.
Before McBee even reached the first green, two tournament officials approached and told him to grab his clubs and go back to the clubhouse because he had been kicked out of the tournament for yelling at the volunteers. His protestations fell on deaf ears. As he was walking across the parking lot, he ran into Tommy Jacobs (who, coincidentally, was a co-holder of the U.S. Open record for low round, with a 64 at Congressional in 1964). Jacobs was a member of the tour policy committee, and McBee explained what had happened. “Well, they did me the same way,” Jacobs told him. “They kicked me out and sent me down to the Holiday Inn.”
Jacobs told McBee to sit tight, that if he could not play, nobody would. Jacobs was able to smooth things out and McBee played. Because McBee was not tabbed for the Wednesday pro-am, he played the course for the first time in Thursday’s opening round. He ended up tied for second behind Frank Beard, his highest ever finish on the regular tour. It made for an uncomfortable encounter with one of the officials who had kicked him out of the tournament, who asked McBee not to bring up the incident during his remarks. McBee kept his mouth shut, accepted the check, and left.
“… Mr. Hogan knocked on the door, with his hat in his hand, and says, ‘Rives, if you got a few minutes.’ I said, ‘Yes, sir, for you I’ve got all the time in the world.’” –Rives McBee
The following May, McBee was attempting to qualify for the Greater New Orleans Open. According to fellow pro Joel Goldstrand, who wrote a golf column, things were not going well. On the par-three 13th hole, he mishit his 3-iron. Disgusted, he smacked the club against the tee marker, bending it. On the 15th hole, after missing a short birdie putt, McBee snapped his putter in two.
McBee was 4-over and looking forward to finishing his round so he could go home to Texas. On the 16th hole, putting with his bent 3-iron, he somehow got down in two from 50 feet for a par. On 17, he sank a 12-foot birdie putt with the broken club and on 18 made birdie from six feet. As a result, McBee’s 73 was good enough to make the field.
In Thursday’s first round, McBee shot a 1-under par 70, presumably with repaired clubs. McBee could not recall Goldstrand’s account of Monday qualifying but does remember that during the round he jammed both of his wrists trying to extricate his ball from a cypress root. Per his doctor’s instructions, he had his wrists taped before playing on Friday. By the 10th hole, he noticed his fingers were twice their normal size. “I took the tape off, and on the 11th hole, a par five, I was right in front of the green in two,” McBee recalled. “I went completely around that green with shanks. I mean, right, right, right. I was back in the same spot lying nine as I was in two. I said, ‘Guys, I’m through.’ I withdrew.”
McBee had recovered by August when he played at the Westchester Classic, which had the richest purse on the tour. After an opening round 69, McBee shot 66, two shots out of the lead. It also put him in a Saturday threesome with two immortals, Jack Nicklaus and 48-year-old Julius Boros (fresh off his victory in the PGA Championship a month earlier).
McBee bogeyed the first hole and double-bogeyed the third. He visibly was seething. Boros, a quiet, kindly man, walked over and, according to McBee, said, “Young man, you played too good to get to this point. Don’t throw it away, settle down. Make some birdies from here to the clubhouse and see if you can’t get it back.” Nicklaus told him about the same. “I made five birdies from there to the clubhouse and shot, I think a 70, and I could have shot 90 if they hadn’t come over and patted me on the back and told me to calm down,” McBee said. Boros would win the next day. McBee tied for sixth, earning $9,000 of the $15,003 he would win for the year.
In early 1971, McBee was offered the position of pro at Las Colinas Country Club in Irving. He was tired of the life of a tour rabbit and wanted to spend more time at home and watch his two girls grow up, so he accepted.
This brings us to his friendship with Ben Hogan.
“When I was an assistant pro in Midland, my sponsor, John Cox, was a good friend of Mr. Hogan,” McBee said. “He would fly us into Fort Worth from Midland. Royal Hogan (Ben’s brother) would pick us up and take us to Shady Oaks. We’d have lunch with Mr. Hogan and then we’d go out and play 18 holes of golf and then we’d come in, have a libation after playing and then we’d be on our way to fly back to Midland. We’d be back by seven o’clock.”
“I collect balls, clubs, bags. You name it, I collect it. I’ve got four storage sheds full of stuff, and I’ve got my two-car garage that I can’t park a bicycle in.” –Rives McBee
In about 1974, McBee renewed his acquaintance with Hogan: “One day, I was sitting at my desk paying bills and Mr. Hogan knocked on the door, with his hat in his hand, and says, ‘Rives, if you got a few minutes.’ I said, ‘Yes, sir, for you I’ve got all the time in the world.’”
Hogan asked McBee for a tour of Las Colinas. “He said, ‘I want to see everything. I want to see your clubhouse. I want to see your cart barn. I want to see your maintenance barn. I want to see all 18 holes, and then go through the kitchen and talk to the kitchen people.’ I spent four and a half hours with Mr. Hogan that day. It was the most enjoyable day I’ve ever had in my life. One of my idols and I’m getting to spend time with him.”
Hogan had sought McBee’s advice in connection with his commission to design the course and clubhouse of the Trophy Club outside of Fort Worth, from which Hogan ultimately withdrew his support after a disagreement with the founders.
While at Las Colinas, McBee was able to satisfy his competitive urges, playing in local PGA tournaments and pro-ams, and the occasional PGA Tour event. In 1973, he won the PGA National Club Pro Championship. It was during this time that McBee started accumulating an impressive collection of golf memorabilia. “I collect balls, clubs, bags. You name it, I collect it,” he said. “I’ve got four storage sheds full of stuff, and I’ve got my two-car garage that I can’t park a bicycle in.” He has 22 plastic cases, each one housing 80 golf balls. “I’ve got a little bit of everything all the way back to Vardon Flyers. I’ve got several Bobby Jones balls.”
Las Colinas had water on 13 of the 18 holes. “I had this diver who would clean these balls up and bring them to me,” McBee said. “I’d put the good balls on the counter and discount them.” He kept one for himself. “The gentleman who shot Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby, played a lot of golf in the Dallas area and I found a Jack Ruby golf ball. It came out of a lake at Las Colinas,” he said. He keeps it in a case that contains balls bearing the names of golf-playing presidents.
“Jack Ruby was just vain enough to want his name on a golf ball,” McBee said. “Of course, he was one of the nightclub owners in downtown Dallas and did a lot of golfing during the day because he worked at night. It’s a unique ball and I’m pretty proud of it.”
McBee is a member of the Golf Heritage Society, whose mission is “to foster friendship among its enthusiasts throughout the world, including golfers, writers, historians and collectors of the game’s artifacts and memorabilia.” He travels to trade shows and has an eagle eye when it comes to adding to his collection. One time he purchased a ball purportedly signed by Ben Hogan. “It was a fake golf ball,” he said. The seller asked how he knew. “I said, ‘Because the ball wasn’t made until after Mr. Hogan died.’ The guy swore up and down he saw Mr. Hogan sign it when he was a kid. Well, that ball was made long after that guy was a kid.”
In addition to the items in his garage and in storage, McBee’s den is full of memorabilia. He may have been inspired by Arnold Palmer, who he counted as a friend. “He never gave anything away,” McBee said. “He never threw anything away. He kept everything.”
What do his wife and daughters think of his collection? “They’re used to it, bless their hearts,” McBee said. “They’re good as gold. The best one of all is my bride. We’ve been married going on 61 years. She has not complained one bit. She’s never said anything bad about what I bring in.” McBee laughed and added, “She just says, ‘Don’t bring any more.’”
After working as a teaching pro through the 1970s and most of the 1980s, McBee turned 50 late in 1988 and decided to try the PGA Senior Tour (now PGA Tour Champions). He qualified for the U.S. Senior Open in June 1989 and finished 21st but then failed to qualify in the next three senior events. Five weeks later, he qualified for, and won, the Bank One Classic in Lexington, Kentucky, to take home $45,000. By comparison, his total earnings from the years he regularly played the tour came to only $56,368.
In October 1989, at the RJR Championship in Clemmons, North Carolina, the richest senior event of the year, McBee missed an 18-inch putt on the 16th hole of the final round and finished second by one stroke to Gary Player. He was not too distressed, as second-place money was $145,000. “I won more money for second place than I won for all three of my wins,” McBee said.
McBee’s other two senior wins came in 1990. He sank a 4-foot sharply-breaking putt on the final hole to win by one stroke over Lee Trevino and Don Bies at the Showdown Classic near Park City, Utah. McBee enjoyed playing with amateurs twice every week. “They’re the ones who put the money up for us to play for,” he said.
His victory in Utah was popular. “McBee made friends all week by giving balls to boys and talking freely and friendly with everyone,” the Salt Lake Tribune reported. Three weeks later, he repeated in Lexington.
As his 50s rolled on – and as with most pros not named Bernhard Langer – McBee could not sustain his initial success on the Senior Tour. He gradually scaled back his appearances. He found a new competitive outlet.
“I’ve been a member of the Hickory Golf Association and I associate with the Society of Hickory Golfers,” McBee said. The organizations sponsor events where participants play with hickory-shafted clubs, which were the norm from golf’s inception in the 15th Century until made obsolete by the introduction of steel shafts in the 1920s and 1930s.
“I got into hickory golf basically to play in tournaments where I could play in the scrambles,” McBee said. “I didn’t want to play my own ball anymore. I didn’t need glory or anything like that. I was just doing it for camaraderieship and getting to play with different people. Win, lose or draw, it doesn’t make any difference. I’m just out there to have a good time.”
As one would expect, balls hit with hickory-shafted clubs do not go nearly as far, and the clubs are less forgiving, but the golf still is interesting and fun. “Most of the scoring is done on the green anyway,” he said. “I’ve got my favorite hickory putter that I’ve had for years and years. It’s one I picked up because I like the looks of it. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t have been afraid to putt with that on the tour. I know Jack Nicklaus used a hickory-shafted putter for many years as an amateur.”
Some hickory golfers take tradition one step further and use balls that are replicas of the gutta percha variety used well over a century ago. “Randy Jensen played with a mesh ball he had made for him by McIntyre Golf,” McBee said. “I think he was seven-time national hickory champion.”
McBee says he still occasionally plays with modern clubs. “I’m about ready to wind everything down,” he said. “My age is catching up with me.”
From his clear, pleasant manner of speaking, it does not seem as if his long, interesting journey is going to end anytime soon.
“The game has been good to me,” McBee said. “I try to tell kids to take up the game. Look, I’ve been playing golf since I was 11 years old and I’m 83 and I still enjoy walking onto the golf course. I still enjoy swinging the golf club.”
Top: Rives McBee at his home in Dallas (Photo: DEEPA BOWINPALLY)
© 2022 Global Golf Post LLC
If you love great journalism like this, you will love GGP+. Click here and subscribe for just $48 (20% off).
We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!
Tell us how we can improve this post?