In the late afternoon of Friday, Aug. 27, 1954, two men, ages 24 and 43, are photographed as they sit in the cool of the locker room at the Country Club of Detroit in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan. The Havemeyer Trophy, awarded to the U.S. Amateur golf champion, is between them. The following day, they will play 36 holes to determine who will claim the trophy for the following year.
The younger man looks at the 8-pound trophy, which he appears to be eagerly grabbing with his large hands. He is wearing a golf shirt, his happy-but-tired rugged face and unruly hair bearing the sweat and tension of the 39 holes he just completed in his semifinal match across eight hours in temperatures that soared into the 90s.
The older man lightly touches the top and bottom of the trophy’s base. He easily dispatched his opponent earlier in the day, giving him ample time to shower and shave. Elegantly attired in dress shirt, tie, and blazer (silk handkerchief in pocket), his dark curly hair is immaculately combed. He looks as if he is about to attend a society cocktail party. He smiles broadly, his handsome gaze fixed on his competitor the next day.
Both men are military veterans and highly skilled at golf, but that is about all they have in common.
“To look at us side by side, you might well have thought we hailed from different galaxies,” the younger man, a Cleveland paint salesman, said years later. His father was the greenskeeper and professional at an unpretentious golf club in rural Pennsylvania, providing him a venue to learn and hone his game. His talent earned him a college scholarship. An indifferent student, he dropped out to enlist in the Coast Guard.
His name is Arnold Palmer. Soon he would turn pro. With his charisma and swagger, he would transform the PGA tour almost single-handedly from what was once a collection of former caddies and hustlers into a multimillion-dollar enterprise. Palmer was from modest means but was so successful on and off the golf course that, according to Forbes, the year after he died in 2016 at age 87, his estate earned $40 million. He is such an icon that, to some, Arnold Palmer is not just a golfer, but also the iced-tea-and-lemonade drink he favored and endorsed.
The older man, Bobby Sweeny, is mostly forgotten, but his story is even more interesting than Palmer’s. Sweeny was much more than just a golfer. He was an American born into great wealth, schooled at Oxford, a friend to the famous and powerful, a playboy who escorted and married beautiful women, and a war hero. And, by the time he died in 1983, he had spent everything he had.
Robert John Vincent Sweeny, Jr. was born July 25, 1911 in Pasadena, California to lace-curtain Irish Catholic parents. His grandfather, Charles Sweeny, made a fortune mining near Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and founded the American Smelting Corporation with members of the Guggenheim family. Bobby’s father graduated from Notre Dame and Harvard Law School. His mother, Theresa Hanaway, was from a prosperous Scranton, Pennsylvania, family who sent her on trips to Europe. She studied voice at the Boston Conservatory of Music.
The elder Robert Sweeny had a successful Los Angeles law practice, but by 1916, when he was 32, he wanted to pursue the commercial and financial opportunities New York offered. The Sweeny family enjoyed the fruits of Robert’s work and inherited money. According to the 1920 Census, Bobby, and his brother and only sibling, Charles (older by two years), lived with their parents and four servants on East 69th Street in Manhattan. His childhood social circle included Woolworth and E.F. Hutton heiress Barbara Hutton, who was 16 months younger. She later would feature in a significant chapter of Bobby’s life.
The Sweeny boys were close and would remain so as adults. They learned at a young age their family’s wealth and privilege came with a tradition of military service. Before earning the family fortune, grandfather Charles Sweeny ran away from home at age 15 to fight for the Union Army in the Civil War and, when his father caught him and brought him home, ran away again and enlisted under the name of McNulty. He served until Appomattox.
One uncle, Joseph Sarsfield Sweeny, was killed in action at Verdun in the waning days of World War I. Another uncle, also named Charles Sweeny, left home at age 16 to fight in the Spanish-American War, was expelled from West Point, joined the French Foreign Legion at the outbreak of World War I (attaining the rank of colonel), was badly wounded at Champagne, and transferred to the American Expeditionary Forces when the United States entered the war in 1917.
Every summer, the Sweeny clan sailed to Le Havre to vacation at Le Touquet on the northeast coast of France. Just across the channel from England, Le Touquet in the 1920s was a getaway for British royalty and the likes of Noel Coward and P.G. Wodehouse. Bobby had his first golf lesson at age 11 at the Le Touquet Golf Club. He and Charles spent most of their days there and developed into exceptional junior players. Bobby grew acquainted with Edward, Prince of Wales, who later became a friend and golf companion. In September, after touring the Continent (with stops in London, Biarritz and Monte Carlo), the brothers sailed back for the start of the academic year at Canterbury, a Catholic boarding school in New Milford, Connecticut. There, in addition to golf, Bobby played baseball, football, and hockey.
Sweeny’s father joined the Federated Trust and Finance Corporation of London, and by the late 1920s the family established a foothold in England with a home in Wimbledon. The family regularly crossed the Atlantic between New York and Southampton. Charles was accepted at Yale but opted instead for Wadham College at Oxford. Bobby was not as good a student, but with extensive tutoring passed the entrance exam to follow his brother to Wadham.
Brother Charles wrote in a self-published autobiography, “You might get the idea that life at Oxford in the Thirties was less dedicated to the academic life than to social and sporting activities – and you would be right.” Bobby was as exceptionally suited to both as he was indifferent to his studies. He was one of the few students at Wadham who owned a car. The school was surrounded by a wall, and the only entrance was sealed at night. Bobby defeated this restriction by parking along the wall, climbing on the car’s roof, clambering over the wall, and heading into town to continue his evening.
He approached his adult height of 6-foot-3, which he used to his advantage with a powerful, fluid golf swing that Arnold Palmer later would write was “as smooth as a Rolls Royce engine.” The Sweeny brothers dominated the intercollegiate golf scene, earning status as Oxford Blues. That position allowed them to play weekends and holidays at the best clubs in Greater London, giving Bobby the opportunity to receive tutelage from top pros and to play against high-level amateurs. Bobby also excelled at tennis.
Both Sweeny brothers were blessed with debonair good looks. In 1932, they were summoned to the Ritz Hotel in London by a talent agent for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. There, they were introduced to studio magnate Louis B. Mayer, who – apparently based on their appearance alone, as they did not have any acting experience – offered $30,000 apiece for one year to appear in three films, to gauge whether they had potential.
Charles – the more practical brother – was engaged to be married and knew he had no future in Hollywood beyond getting $30,000 he did not need. Bobby, however, was eager to try his luck. He took the offer to his father. Several years earlier, Robert Sweeny determined his stock was overvalued. He sold most of his holdings before the 1929 crash. Bobby was well aware his comfortable lifestyle was possible only because of his father’s astute judgment. Many of his friends were not so fortunate. When his father stated in no uncertain terms that Bobby would complete his degree, get a real job, and dispense with the foolish notion that he was an actor, the young man declined Mayer’s offer.
Sweeny did not need Hollywood to improve his social status. Despite being American, he blended effortlessly into the highest echelon of British society. He was in demand at debutante balls where the English aristocracy introduced their marriageable daughters to London society. Sweeny, with thick, curly dark hair, had mature charm to match his good looks. Men and women enjoyed his company. He easily made friends with royalty, with whom he attended parties, drank at upscale clubs and spent weekends at country estates. There have been reports of a liaison with Lady Edwina Mountbatten, who was 10 years his senior. His friends included film stars David Niven and Merle Oberon. He gambled at Monte Carlo and skied and tobogganed at St. Moritz. He became one of the few non-British members of the ultra-exclusive White’s Club in London.
After barely graduating from Oxford, Bobby joined his father and brother at Federated Trust and returned to New York, but his real occupation was amateur golfer. With his height and smooth tempo (it is said he was as good a dancer as golfer), Sweeny was exceptionally long off the tee. However, turning pro was never an option.
For Bobby Sweeny, life as a professional golfer would have been a step down from the status to which he had become accustomed.
“He told me his family would have been horrified if he had become a professional golfer,” said his daughter, Sharon Coaten. In the 1930s, top golf pros like Gene Sarazen and Walter Hagen were not college-educated. The purses they played for were meager, and the tournaments often were contested on second-rate courses. For example, the Texas Open was held at a public course near San Antonio, where players teed off of rubber mats like those at driving ranges. When not playing tournaments or exhibitions, pros were required to supplement their income by serving as club professionals, giving lessons to members. At those clubs, pros were looked at as part of the hired help. For Bobby Sweeny, life as a professional golfer would have been a step down from the status to which he had become accustomed.
By the time he came of age as a golfer, pros almost invariably won the world’s two most important tournaments – the U.S. Open and the Open Championship. However, the U.S. and British amateur championships were followed more closely in the press than run-of-the-mill pro tournaments. In 1930, when Bobby Jones won the U.S. Open, U.S. Amateur, and the British Open and Amateur championships in the same year, his feat was regarded as golf’s Grand Slam and earned him a ticker-tape parade down Broadway. Thus, at the time, only amateurs were able to compete in all four of golf’s major tournaments.
As the 1930s proceeded, Sweeny regularly crossed the Atlantic and the English Channel in pursuit of competition. By 1935, he was spending so much time in Europe that an article previewing the upcoming U.S. Amateur described him as one of “five invaders from foreign shores” who would be playing.
Winning the British Amateur became his paramount goal. He played in that tournament for the first time in 1929, and made a splash at Muirfield in 1932 when he soundly defeated 1923 champion and English icon Roger Wethered in an early-round match. In 1935, he lost a close match in the semifinals to American Lawson Little. By then, Sweeny also was twice a semifinalist at the French Amateur.
The 1937 British Amateur was played at Royal St. George’s, a links course at Sandwich on England’s southeast coast. Sweeny had not played much recent golf before arriving in early May to prepare. Two weeks of preparation nearly was wasted when he played poorly in his first-round match; he won only because his opponent played worse. After that, Sweeny caught fire and breezed through the next rounds.
In the semifinal, he faced Charles Stowe, a former coal miner from the Midlands. By then, Sweeny was widely popular in Britain – but, understandably, the gallery was behind Stowe, whose background was as humble as his foe’s was privileged. Nonetheless, Sweeny easily dispatched Stowe, ending the match after 31 of the scheduled 36 holes.
In the final, with actress and friend Merle Oberon following him in the gallery, Sweeny again had to play the role of the heavy. His opponent was 50-year-old Lionel Munn, who had won the Irish Amateur championship three times, but never the British. Although from Ireland, Munn had lived near Sandwich and was a sentimental favorite. Both played well in the morning round, after which Sweeny led by one hole. In the afternoon, Munn showed his age and he tired. Sweeny pulled away and ended the match by sinking a long putt on the 34th hole. He was the British Amateur champion.
Sweeny during the 1937 Amateur Championship
A Time Of Uncertainty
In 1938, Joseph P. Kennedy arrived in London to serve as United States Ambassador to the Court of St. James. Predictably, given their common Irish-American heritage, Bobby and Charles became friendly with the Kennedy family. Joe Kennedy Jr. was a regular visitor to Charles’ flat in Mayfair. Bobby became friends with John F. Kennedy while JFK was on leave from Harvard to work at the American embassy. Later, they would socialize in Palm Beach, Florida, where they played golf while JFK was president.
Also, in 1938, Sweeny was keeping company in London with Barbara Hutton, one of the world’s richest women. She was petite, blonde, and beautiful, though photographs rarely captured her with a smile. Despite her immense wealth, Hutton had a troubled life and was dubbed by the press as “the poor little rich girl.” Her mother committed suicide when she was 4. As an adult, Hutton was drawn to social-climbing European men with dubious royal titles.
Hutton was legally separated from her second husband, Count Kurt Haugwitz-Reventlow of Denmark, with whom she had a young son, Lance. Sweeny fell in love. When Hutton was laid up for several days with complications from a tooth extraction, he visited and brought flowers every afternoon. In his Dec. 13, 1938 column, New York society columnist Maury Paul wrote “a few months hence, newspapers will be headlining the fact that Barbara will definitely marry handsome curly-headed ‘Bobby’ Sweeny, once she is legally rid of her ‘melancholy Dane.’ ”
On Sept. 3, 1939, Great Britain declared war on Germany. The next day, the passenger ship Athenia was sunk by a German submarine. Ninety-eight passengers and 19 crew members died. In early October, with transatlantic travel from England now perilous, Hutton, her son and Sweeny sailed from Naples, Italy, aboard the Conte di Savoia. Members of the press were waiting when they arrived in New York. As he scampered off the pier, alone, Sweeny was asked about Hutton’s marriage status. “Really, now, old man, I’ve nothing to say at all. Sorry,” he answered politely with a smile. Hutton said their presence on the ship was a coincidence.
Haugwitz-Reventlow, 17 years Hutton’s senior, agreed he would not contest a divorce if she were to give him a settlement in the range of $2.5 million dollars. Sweeny told Hutton he considered this to be blackmail and was adamant that they wait to marry until the matter of alimony was resolved in court.
Although Sweeny was not devout, his Catholic family was uneasy about him marrying a soon-to-be-twice-divorced woman, regardless of her wealth. Nevertheless, through the fall and into the winter, he and Hutton marked time, mostly out of public view. They were photographed impassively watching a tennis match at the Everglades Club in Palm Beach. Sweeny, wearing a tweed jacket and aviator sunglasses, is described in the caption as the “constant companion” of Hutton, who is wearing a fur and smoking a cigarette and icily staring at the camera. Hutton denied rumors that a wedding was imminent.
In April 1940, toward the end of the “Phoney War” segment of World War II, Sweeny returned to London. As the war heated up again with the German invasion of France in May 1940, he received a cable from Hutton. She was not going to marry him. Instead, she intended to marry actor Cary Grant. Sweeny was not going to let her go easily. He immediately bought a plane ticket to Paris. From there, he would take a train to Lisbon, Portugal, where he booked himself on a Pan Am flying boat to New York.
He arrived at Le Bourget Airport near Paris as German bombs were falling on France. He taxied to the Ritz Hotel, where he learned the German army was only 50 miles. The next morning, he took a cab to the train station, where he encountered a mob of Parisians seeking to leave the city. Determining there was no way he could get inside the station, let alone get on a train, Sweeny found a taxi driver willing to drive to Lisbon, more than 1,000 miles away. During a stop in Biarritz, he encountered people he knew and implored them to leave France while they still could.
When he reached Lisbon, Sweeny boarded a Boeing 314 Clipper for the transatlantic voyage. Onboard the luxurious craft, he met Antoine Gazda, an anti-Nazi arms manufacturer form Austria with the Swiss company Oerlikon. Gazda told Sweeny of his plans to build a factory to produce anti-aircraft guns. Upon arriving in New York, Sweeny called his father, who facilitated financing for an arms factory in Providence, Rhode Island. The anti-aircraft guns produced there were widely used on American navy ships and were instrumental to the war effort.
Alas, Sweeny was unable to steer Hutton away from Grant, who became the third of Hutton’s seven husbands (and the only one who did not ask for her money upon divorcing). It was not the last disappointment Sweeny would suffer in his romantic life.
RAF Flying Training Command
To The Skies
As World War II loomed, elements of the British aristocracy favored friendly relations with Germany, even as the horrors of Nazism became known. Sweeny’s friend, the Duke of Windsor, who abdicated the throne in December 1936 to marry Wallis Simpson, visited Germany with his wife in October 1937 as personal guests of Adolf Hitler. Sweeny was contemptuous of such people. He allied himself with those who saw Hitler as a menace who needed to be stopped in his tracks and was disturbed by the general American antipathy towards becoming involved in a European war.
Since the 1918 Armistice, Sweeny’s uncle, Charles, had continued his life as a soldier of fortune. Among his adventures were fighting Bolsheviks on behalf of Poland for Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the Turkish War for Independence, and advising the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War. Along the way, he became a close friend to Ernest Hemingway. After German tanks rolled into Poland, and well before Pearl Harbor, he found a new mission. From England, Col. Sweeny and his nephew, Charles, recruited volunteer American pilots itching to fly and willing to fight on behalf of the Royal Air Force. They were called the Eagle Squadron. Having returned from America, Bobby Sweeny – who first tried to join the RAF as a fighter pilot but was told he was too old (he turned 29 in 1940) – enthusiastically joined his uncle and brother, who had desk jobs. Initially, he was assigned adjutant duties.
Not the type to be affixed to a desk – and having established in his sporting life and romantic pursuits that he was not averse to risk-taking – Sweeny clamored to get his wings, using every connection available to him. In addition to playing golf, making business deals, pursuing women, and gambling, he also found time to accumulate 50 hours of flying time. He may have been too old for dogfighting, but the RAF was in no position to turn away pilots capable of flying bombers.
Sweeny was assigned to fly Boeing Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers purchased from the United States. At the time, their primary mission was to seek out and destroy German submarines that were menacing Allied merchant ships. The B-24 earned the moniker “the flying coffin” by those who flew it. The plane was designed hurriedly just before the war and proved unresistant to enemy artillery. It had only one exit, making escape nearly impossible for the crew in the rear if the plane suffered a devastating hit. The plane was uncomfortable and cold.
While training, Sweeny lived at an upscale hotel instead of at the pilot quarters in Torquay on the southeast English coast, commuting in his Bentley. If his fellow pilots resented any special treatment given to him, they were won over when the Eagle Squadron started fighting. By the end of the war, he had flown more than 50 combat missions and was credited with sinking two German submarines.
On July 28, 1943, a Liberator from the U.S. Army Air Corps sighted a German U-404 – a notorious submarine responsible for sinking 13 Allied merchant ships off the American coast. The sub had returned to France and days earlier had started another patrol. The American B-24’s efforts to sink the U-404 were unsuccessful when the plane’s depth charges failed to release after they were dropped.
Three hours later, when the U-404 resurfaced, the same Liberator returned with another B-24 bomber and encountered resistance. Both released depth charges but could not remain in the area because of engine damage from flak. The sub dove, but its position was known. When it resurfaced again, Sweeny’s Liberator arrived on the scene. The German crew responded, fiercely, but Bobby ignored the barrage and precisely dropped seven depth charges. The U-Boat that had wreaked so much havoc on the Allies sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic, with the loss of all 50 members of its crew.
Before the sub’s demise, one of its shells hit the right wing of Sweeny’s plane, damaging its outer engine. The plane limped away from its vanquished target. The Liberators were unwieldy and difficult to fly under the best of circumstances. Now, Sweeny was required to pilot his with only three engines and unable to gain altitude.
With his life – and the life of his crew – in peril, Sweeny rejected the safe option of landing in Spain, where he and his crew likely would have been interned. Instead, he gambled the riskier alternative of heading towards his home base, RAF St. Eval in Cornwall, 400 miles away. As he struggled to maintain altitude, he ordered his crew to jettison everything not attached to the aircraft, including guns and lifeboats, but still was unable to rise more than a few hundred feet above the ocean. Moreover, the only path he could take with the limited fuel onboard was along the French coast, well within range of German fighters.
The one thing he had going for him was cloud cover. However, when he broke out of clouds over the Brest Peninsula, Sweeny suddenly encountered a German two-engine fighter bomber only 50 yards away. He maneuvered into a cloud before the German plane could fire and was able to cloud hop from view until the plane gave up the chase. He successfully steered the crippled plane back to Cornwall.
In September 1943, Sweeny was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by King George VI at Buckingham Palace “in recognition of gallantry displayed in flying operations against the enemy.”
By 1944 he was suffering from ulcers, a condition that stayed with him the rest of his life. He was grounded and detailed as the RAF liaison officer to the Free Dutch Forces, led by Prince Bernhard. Because the Netherlands was still under German occupation, the Free Dutch Forces were headquartered in liberated Brussels, Belgium.
The Dutch Resistance discovered that their agent, Christiaan Lindemans, a liaison officer with the Dutch government in exile who regularly visited Prince Bernhard’s headquarters, also worked for the Germans. He was known as “King Kong” because of his hulking size – 6-foot-3 and approximately 250 pounds. He always wore two pistols and several hand grenades on his belt. Lindemans had alerted the Germans of the Allied campaign to retake the Netherlands at Arnhem in September 1944, which was unsuccessful. This treachery prolonged the war and resulted in the Soviet Union, not the Allies, retaking Berlin, thus reshaping post-war Europe.
It was arranged to invite Lindemans to a party on Oct. 28, 1944, hosted by the prince and attended by Sweeny. Lindemans arrived late and headed to the men’s room. Thinking quickly, Sweeny followed him and suggested the prince would be uncomfortable with him wearing weapons at a dinner party. Bobby asked him to remove his belt and leave it in the bathroom, saying they would be undisturbed. Lindemans complied and was promptly arrested by Dutch MPs without incident. In 1946, he avoided execution by committing suicide.
Not Quite Domestic Tranquility
In wartime, Sweeny had proved himself able to leave behind his opulent lifestyle to support a cause he believed in, risking his life by volunteering for dangerous assignments. By VE Day, he had contributed to the Allied victory and had a medal so show for it. But when 1946 brought the return of golf to the British Isles, Sweeny was eager to return to his first love. The Amateur Championship was played for the first time since 1939. The war had deprived Sweeny of competition from age 28 to 34. At Birkdale, England, however, he knocked off any accumulated rust, advancing to the final before losing to 26-year-old Irishman Jimmy Bruen.
Shortly after missing the 36-hole cut in the Open Championship at St. Andrews, Sweeny was ready for a change and returned to the United States. He was not politically active but was upset when the British electorate voted out Winston Churchill and the Conservative Party that had governed Great Britain through its darkest hour. Also, because of rationing he missed the creature comforts more available in the United States.
He settled in Palm Beach, Florida. He kept an apartment in New York but visited Europe as well and continually saw his name in society pages. On two continents, he was seen in the company of Sylvia Ashley, a former English model and actress. Seven years older than him, she had been married to Douglas Fairbanks Sr., two members of royalty, and would later marry Clark Gable. That liaison was short-lived.
At a party in Westbury, New York, in September 1948, Sweeny was introduced to Joanne Connelley. At 18, she was less than half his age, the child of a Texas oilman who was physically abusive to her mother, a former Manhattan debutante. The mother left the oilman, remarried a minor society figure, and worked at an East Side dress shop. She saw her daughter as a meal ticket back to high society. While Connelley was still a girl, her mother hired a press agent, who saw to it that Joanne was photographed at 21 and the Stork Club. Joanne was tall, blonde and striking. Plans were made for her to make her debut in December 1948 at New York’s Cotillion and Christmas Ball.
Sweeny fell as hard for Connelley as he had for Barbara Hutton. He bought her a 20-carat diamond and proposed several times before she accepted. On Oct. 29, 1948, the Spokesman Review (in Spokane, Washington, the original hometown of Robert Sweeny Sr.) reported the engagement and said Connelley would forego the ball. Instead, a wedding ceremony was scheduled for December at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. In preparation for marriage, Connelley went on a shopping spree – undoubtedly financed by Sweeny – during which she purchased 42 pairs of shoes and about 100 handbags.
Then, the marriage was postponed until March. Connelley made her debut at the Waldorf after all. She and her friend, Pamela Curran, were named the “Queen Debs.” On Jan. 10, 1949, Joanne’s photo graced the cover of Life magazine.
Sweeny married Joanne on March 30, not at St. Patrick’s but at St. Edward’s Catholic Church in Palm Beach. They spent their honeymoon in Augusta, Georgia, where Bobby played in the Masters (he finished next to last), during which time they conceived their daughter Sharon. Eighteen months later, a second daughter, Brenda, was born.
Sadly, but unsurprisingly given her young age, Connelley proved ill-suited to marriage or motherhood. Sweeny did not help matters as he continued his pursuit of golf, leaving Connelley and the girls at their Palm Beach home. She had no interest in golf, or seemingly anything for that matter except perhaps for shopping (in 1950, Sweeny and Connelley sailed from England to New York on the Queen Mary with 28 pieces of baggage in the hold). With no education beyond convent school, his wife was deemed boring by Sweeny’s friends. She became bulimic, developing a dependence on alcohol, barbiturates and amphetamines. In 1953, after Connelley was seen in a hotel room with Porfirio Rubirosa, a Dominican polo player and race car driver, Sweeny immediately filed for divorce. The divorce was quickly finalized, and Sweeny received custody of his daughters.
Arnold Palmer, 1954
Challenging A Soon-To-Be King
At the start of the 1954 U.S. Amateur at the Country Club of Detroit, the 43-year-old, newly single father had no reason to be optimistic about his chances. Three weeks earlier, Sweeny had been ousted in the third round of the Metropolitan Amateur on Long Island, a tournament with a much less select field. He decided to play in Detroit only after a business deal in Texas fell through.
In addition to college-age hotshots, the U.S. Amateur field included a new generation of American amateurs, who, like Sweeny, were well-heeled and able to devote time to golf, but who were a decade or more younger. They included Billy Joe Patton, a gregarious bespectacled North Carolina lumber executive who in April had almost won the Masters; Bill Campbell, who ran a West Virginia insurance business; and Frank Stranahan, the handsome, vainglorious son of the founder of the Champion spark plug company.
Sweeny got as hot as the steamy weather in Detroit. Only one of his first six matches made it to the 18th hole. He benefited when Patton and Campbell were upset in the third and fifth rounds, respectively. In the semifinals, Sweeny demolished Ted Lenczyk, a dentist from Connecticut, 5 and 4, to set up the match in the final with Arnold Palmer, who had derailed the more heralded Stranahan in the fifth round.
Sports Illustrated described the 36-hole final match as “a battle of the classes.” It was that, as well as a clash of generations and an intersection of eras. Early in his career, Sweeny competed against American amateur Francis Ouimet, who won the 1913 U.S. Open, and late in his career Palmer would play with Tiger Woods, whose most recent of 15 major championships came at the 2019 Masters. Thus, the Sweeny-Palmer match would be a link that covered almost the entire history of American golf.
In his book A Golfer’s Life, Palmer recalled that on the fourth fairway “a beautiful girl following Sweeny suddenly came through the ropes and out onto the fairway and waltzed right into his arms, giving him a real double-feature kiss.”
For the ambitious Palmer, it was the opportunity of a lifetime, a chance to escape his $10,000-a-year job as a paint salesman. “I want to win that National so much I can taste it,” he said before the tournament. For Sweeny, a win would just be more icing on an extraordinarily rich cake, the chance to add another decoration to his trophy case. More important, it was another opportunity to play a high-pressure golf match, which he loved more than women, money or anything else.
Saturday morning could not have started better for Sweeny. Although the younger, more powerful Palmer easily was outdriving him, Sweeny’s putter was hot as he sank three long birdie putts to go 3 up on Palmer after four holes. In his book A Golfer’s Life, Palmer recalled that on the fourth fairway “a beautiful girl following Sweeny suddenly came through the ropes and out onto the fairway and waltzed right into his arms, giving him a real double-feature kiss.”
Walking down the fifth fairway after the players hit their drives, Sweeny – with his typical grace and charm – put his arm around his demoralized foe. “I just can’t help it, they keep going in,” he said modestly. “At least, you know this can’t last.” His words were prescient, as Palmer won Nos. 8, 9 and 10 to square the match. But then Sweeny made a difficult 12-foot putt to halve the 11th hole, and then snaked in a 30-foot downhill putt to win the 13th. When they broke for lunch after 18, Sweeny was 2 up on Palmer.
He still was 2 up after six holes of the afternoon round, but Palmer won Nos. 7 and 9 to even the match as they turned for the final nine. With five holes left, they remained tied. On the 32nd hole, Palmer took the lead for the first time when Sweeny bogeyed, and Palmer extended the lead when he sank a 10-foot birdie putt on the next hole. With his strength advantage, Palmer was hitting irons on his approaches while Sweeny was using woods, offsetting the elder man’s superb putting. After they halved the 34th hole, Palmer was up by two holes, with two to play. Sweeny did not go quietly, even after hitting his second shot into a greenside bunker on the 35th hole, while Palmer was safely on the green in two. He blasted to within 8 feet and sank the putt for a par. When Palmer missed a 3-foot par putt, the match went to the 36th hole.
On 18, Sweeny sliced his drive into the right rough, behind a tree. If Palmer was shaken by his short miss, it did not show. He drove straight and long into the fairway, and then put his approach 25 feet from the cup. Sweeny hit out of the rough, then pitched to within 7 feet. When Palmer putted to within 6 inches, Sweeny conceded. “Congratulations, Arnie. You win,” he said as he warmly shook Palmer’s hand. Palmer later wrote that Sweeny was “one heck of a nice man.”
In the clubhouse afterwards, Sweeny was disappointed. “I think I would have preferred being beaten in the first or second round,” he said. “Coming this close and then failing just makes it tougher.” His caddie cried inconsolably. It is unsurprising the young man was so emotionally invested in the outcome. “He was very good with people of all classes,” Sweeny’s daughter Sharon recalls. “He treated all people pretty much the same.” In an article published after the 1954 Amateur in a newspaper in Binghamton, New York, Harry Rezmerksi, a golf enthusiast, talked about playing with Sweeny while they were briefly stationed together near London at the end of the war. “He’s a wonderful guy,” said Rezmerski, an enlisted man born in the Bronx who sometimes borrowed Sweeny’s clubs. “He may be a millionaire, but he sure is a great fellow, too.”
Sweeny was unique in that he maintained footholds in both the United States and England but was not firmly entrenched in either place. He toyed with becoming a British citizen in the late 1930s but changed his mind when he courted Hutton (who had given up American citizenship when she married a foreigner; if she married an American, she would regain it). Sweeny had what daughter Sharon called a “Middle Atlantic accent,” referring not to the American eastern seaboard but to the ocean. “English people thought he was American, and American people thought he was English.” His dual loyalties probably prevented him from playing for the United States in the Walker Cup, a premier biennial amateur competition against a team from the British Isles. This was a source of disappointment to him.
“Dad was very sweet and kind,” recalls Sharon. “But he had no idea how to look after two little girls.” Sharon and Brenda sometimes accompanied their father on his trips to tournaments, but more often were left in the care of a nanny, who also traveled with them overseas when visiting their mother in Lucerne, Switzerland. Brenda had a particularly difficult time. Sharon believes she was born addicted to the drugs her mother was taking. “She cried and cried all the time,” Sharon said. “Poor Brenda really didn’t have a chance.” Drug problems plagued Brenda almost all her adult life; she died in 2000 at age 49.
In July 1957, Connelley died in Switzerland at age 27. The cause of death was listed as heart attack. Two months later, Sweeny, 46, married Pam Curran – Connelly’s friend and co-debutante at the 1949 cotillion – who was 27 and an aspiring actress. There was a strong physical resemblance between the two women. Curran had small roles in B movies such as The Blob, and later in numerous 1960s and 1970s television shows including I Dream of Jeannie, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Love, American Style.
To Sharon, Curran represented a household tornado. She insisted on firing the nanny who had raised the girls, a woman who Sharon regarded as a mother figure. Curran also demanded Sharon and Brenda be sent to a boarding school, without demanding the same with respect to her two boys from her previous marriage. When they were only 7 and 8, they were sent to the Convent of the Sacred Heart in England, a strict Catholic girls’ school. It was a traumatic experience, particularly for Brenda, who struggled academically.
Again, Sweeny’s marriage failed. According to Sharon, a happy day in her life was when she was about 10 and home with her father. He announced, “Your stepmother left. Let’s open a bottle.” He would not marry again.
Lion In Winter
Throughout his life, Bobby was tied to his older brother Charles. Although both brothers enjoyed the social life at Oxford, Charles was the more serious student and had to prod Bobby to complete the work required for him to graduate. Charles also was a promising young amateur golfer but was surpassed by Bobby. If Bobby was the better athlete, and the more charming and handsome of the two, Charles was smarter and more responsible. In his book, Charles related that in late 1945, when their father was dying of cancer in London, he called for him.
“Charles, I’m not worried about you,” said Robert Sweeny Sr. “You’ll take over the business and do very well, but promise me you’ll take care of Bobby.”
In the 1950s, Bobby Sweeny was dividing his time between a 5,000-square foot home at 598 South County Road in Palm Beach and a London flat at 60 South Audley Street in Mayfair. Bobby had the ground floor and Charles the second. When Bobby and his daughters were in residence, the brothers frequently clashed. Charles handled the family trust, so Bobby depended on him for living expenses. In Bobby’s business dealings, the heavy lifting generally was left to Charles.
Thus, when they were in their 40s, Charles worked while Bobby played. Also, Bobby seemed to grow more arrestingly handsome as his hair turned gray, while Charles did not. Charles interjected himself into Bobby’s business and personal affairs.
“They used to argue a lot,” Sharon remembers. “Charles often would tell him what to do.” Although the arguments were heated, they would make up and be friends again, as there was deep love and affection between the brothers that continued throughout their lives.
Sweeny’s health worsened in 1961, the year he turned 50. He had been a heavy cigarette smoker since he was young and enjoyed drinking. In addition, he was fair-skinned but rarely wore a hat on the golf course, even in the Florida sun, and developed skin cancer. He learned he had 32 stomach ulcers. To save his life, much of his stomach was removed. He recovered, felt better, and resumed competitive golf.
At the 1964 British Amateur, he was back in form. “A bit of sentiment crept into today’s quarterfinals of the British Amateur Golf Championship,” the Associated Press reported. “One man was responsible – Bob Sweeny, 52, of Palm Beach, Fla.– the last American in the tournament. … The tall, graying wealthy sportsman made the last eight of this year’s tourney with two victories on Thursday.” Although he lost the next day, Sweeny proved he was still relevant.
At the 1969 British Amateur, when he was 57, he recounted his battle with ulcers. “Now I’m feeling great and I still enter this championship because I think I can beat most of them – at least in the early rounds,” he said. “I like competition. I thrive on it.” In 1971, when he was a month shy of 60, he made the semifinals of the French Amateur. In 1974, he made his final appearance at the British Amateur, 45 years after his debut.
One month before Sharon’s wedding in 1975, Sweeny underwent surgery to remove a malignant blockage in his intestine. It was successful, but his life would never be the same. No longer was he able to walk golf courses, his accustomed style even in rounds with friends. By then, he lived almost exclusively in the Mayfair flat. Sweeny had finally found steady female companionship in Serena Sheffield, sister of Sir Reginald Sheffield and aunt of Samantha Cameron, the wife of future British prime minister David Cameron. They never married, but Sheffield provided Sweeny with the lasting love and attention that others were unable to give.
By then, Sweeny’s wealth was dwindling. His decades of spending on multiple homes, worldwide travel, bespoke clothing, dues at clubs around the world, lavish gifts on women, and a myriad of other expenses incurred in maintaining his luxurious lifestyle were not offset by any appreciable business income.
Gambling was always a part of the rich pageant of his life, going back to his trips to Le Touquet, Biarritz and Monte Carlo in his youth. Throughout his golf career, he was happy to take on all comers willing to play for money. In the late 1930s, he won $6,000 from fellow members of White’s Club across several days (more than $100,000 in today’s dollars). Golf immortal Ben Hogan decamped to Palm Beach every spring to sharpen his game before the Masters. He and Sweeny played high-stakes matches at Seminole Golf Club. Charles Sweeny wrote that one year his brother and Hogan played six times. Sweeny won five of the matches, never shooting higher than 67. Hogan shot 63 for his lone victory.
Towards the end of his life, without amateur golf tournaments or high-wager matches to stoke the fierce competitive spirit upon which his existence depended, Sweeny spent afternoons in the living room of his Mayfair flat watching horse races on the Independent Television Channel. He lodged extravagant bets. Unlike golf and flying a B-24, he had no control over the horses and usually lost. Charles, who had monitored Bobby’s finances for most of his life, also was a serious gambler and was unable, or unwilling, to intervene. In his last years, the younger Sweeny dissipated his remaining wealth.
“I think he was most proud of his war record,” Sharon said, at a time when “very few Americans stood up and actively did something to help Great Britain.”
By 1983, the cancer returned, and this time, there would be no recovery. Sweeny was 72 and in full possession of his faculties. As he lay dying, he could think of the golf championships, the beautiful women, the society parties. But most likely, he drew comfort from his service to both countries he called home and loved.
“I think he was most proud of his war record,” Sharon said, at a time when “very few Americans stood up and actively did something to help Great Britain.”
Bobby Sweeny died on Oct. 11, 1983, in London. Whereas his long-ago romantic adventures were above-the-fold copy on society pages, Sweeny’s passing was noted in one- or two-paragraph wire service obituaries, if at all. He is buried at Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey, England, where his simple gravestone reads:
Beloved father of Sharon and Brenda
Dearly Beloved Brother of Charles
A Great Gentleman and a Fine Officer and Athlete
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