PARAMUS, NEW JERSEY | The Ridgewood Country Club is acclaimed for its A.W. Tillinghast golf courses, all 27 holes of them, as well as for the important competitions it has hosted over the years, from the 1935 Ryder Cup to this week’s U.S. Amateur. Just as significantly, this 122-year-old institution was where one of the great club professionals in PGA of America history gave lessons; made and repaired clubs; mentored young assistants, Byron Nelson among them; nurtured junior players (in part by conducting free clinics for them on Saturday mornings); and ran tournaments. A slight fellow who nonetheless hit the ball a long way, he was also good enough to have qualified for the 1923 U.S. Open – and to have been asked to play in the first Masters, which was then called the Augusta National Invitation Tournament.
His name was George Jacobus, and in addition to holding the top job at Ridgewood for nearly half a century, he also ran the PGA of America as its president 1933 to 1939. Decades later, the association inducted him into its Hall of Fame.
Born in the summer of 1898 on his grandmother’s farm in Brookdale, New Jersey, just a dozen miles southwest of Ridgewood and on property that soon would become the site of the Upper Montclair Country Club, Jacobus received his first taste of golf as a caddie. As a young teenager, he went to work in the golf shop at Upper Montclair for his uncle Joe Mitchell, the head professional. When Mitchell took a similar position at Ridgewood in the fall of 1914, Jacobus followed him to that retreat, serving as an assistant club maker and also caddying on occasion. He turned professional in 1917, and two years later, at age 21 and after his uncle had moved on to another Jersey club, Jacobus took over for Mitchell. Known for often wearing a blazer and an ascot on the job, he worked there until his death, at age 67.
After running the New Jersey Section of the PGA from 1929 to 1933, Jacobus became president of the entire association. He was only 33 years old and the first native-born American to lead that organization as well as the first former caddie to do so.
His list of achievements is extensive. Early on, Jacobus distinguished himself at Ridgewood for his support of junior golf, which was born out of a belief that the success of golf as a sport in America was dependent upon getting the next generation to play.
After running the New Jersey Section of the PGA from 1929 to 1933, Jacobus became president of the entire association. He was only 33 years old and the first native-born American to lead that organization as well as the first former caddie to do so. And it was in that role that he advocated for his club to be the site of the fifth playing of the Ryder Cup, in 1935. By all accounts, Ridgewood turned out to be an exceptional venue, and Jacobus liked telling the story of how playing captain Walter Hagen and U.S. team member Gene Sarazen slept in rooms above his golf shop during the matches while the rest of the American squad commuted between the club and a Manhattan hotel.
One of Jacobus’ assistants during the Ryder Cup was a young golfer whom he had recruited at the 1935 Masters. Then president of the PGA, Jacobus was friendly with Ed Dudley, the first head professional at Augusta National, and told him that he was looking to hire a “playing assistant” for his staff at Ridgewood. Dudley recommended a lanky Texan who was competing in that spring’s event. And after watching him play the opening round, Jacobus approached 23-year-old Byron Nelson with a job offer. Knowing the prestige that came with a club job in metropolitan New York and appreciating Jacobus’ position in the game, Nelson accepted. Soon after finishing ninth in that year’s Augusta event, he packed up his car and headed to the Garden State. His salary: $400 for the summer and half of what surely were meager lesson fees. The son of a preacher and a one-time caddie, Nelson won the New Jersey Open that summer and served as a rules official at the Ryder Cup matches in the fall. That experience, he later allowed, inspired him to work harder on his game so he could make a living solely as a tour professional.
Nelson stayed at Ridgewood for two seasons, winning in 1936 the Met Open at another Tillinghast course at Quaker Ridge. That was considered a major championship at the time, and the victory helped convince Nelson to go on tour full-time. Which is exactly what he did the following year, with his first triumph in his new role coming in the 1937 Masters. He would go on to capture another 51 tournaments on the PGA Tour before retiring in 1946 at age 34. And Nelson never forgot what his days at Ridgewood meant to him, once saying: “That period … I spent with Jacobus was the most important of my career.”
Jacobus made another hire around that time, only this one in his capacity as PGA president. And that entailed giving Tillinghast a job as a golf course “architect-consultant” and having him advise clubs around the country on how to maintain and improve their courses as they suffered along with the rest of the country through the Great Depression. The service came free of charge and was a boon to those places and their PGA professionals, as they were always looking for ways to add value in the eyes of their employers. It also helped out Tillinghast, for his design business had all but dried up during that stretch.
Jacobus stepped down as PGA president in 1939, devoting most of his time from that point on to his members – and their guests – at Ridgewood. Few things made him happier than teaching, whether juniors just starting out or senior golfers trying to get better or single-digit handicappers looking to win the club championship. In 1960, the PGA’s New Jersey Section named him its Professional of the Year. Three years later, Ridgewood members honored him with a gala celebrating his 50 years at the club.
Two years after that, Jacobus was gone, felled by a heart attack at age 67. But even in death, he remained close to the club he served so well for so long, having been interred in a cemetery to the right of No. 4 on the Center nine at Ridgewood.
Competitors might think about tipping their hats to him when they play that hole in this week’s U.S. Am. It would be a fitting and well-deserved tribute to a true professional.
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