Over lunch from Bossy Beulah’s Chicken Shack – the Queen City’s self-described “best chicken sandwich” – Ike Grainger III smiles at the sight of a young girl barely taller than her golf bag hustling to the practice tee of the Learning Center at the First Tee of Greater Charlotte in North Carolina.
“Now that,” Grainger, 75, says quietly, “is what keeps both me and the game young at heart.”
As he and a friend sit watching from a picnic table in the open air pavilion next to the former pro shop at the Dr. Charles L. Sifford Golf Course at Revolution Park, the young lady quickly tees up a ball and gives it a mighty swat, sending it flying into a pale blue winter sky.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Grainger is moved to say. “We have a lot of great kids out here just like her.”
Charlotte’s First Tee chapter opened in 2003, a year before Grainger was asked by chapter chairman Mac Everett – the corporate dynamo who ran the Wells Fargo Championship for 16 years – to join the board and spearhead a capital improvements campaign. That campaign raised $2.5 million to create a permanent home for First Tee kids at Revolution Park’s renovated clubhouse, where PGA Tour pioneer and Charlotte native Charlie Sifford was once a regular. A few years later, he headed up a similar capital campaign that transformed terrain around the old golf shop into a spectacular full-scale learning area.
“I figured if anybody could help us raise the necessary money to do the project right, and oversee the creation of a great First Tee program, it was Ike,” says Everett. “Not only did he have the construction expertise and understanding of what it would take to make this a first-rate facility, he had the passion and heart to make it happen. Hundreds of generous folks participated, but Ike is the reason this place got built. Service is in his bloodstream.”
The Learning Center with its spectacular dedicated practice areas opened for use in 2009. Not long afterward, as he neared his own retirement from the construction firm where he’d specialized in business development for two decades, Grainger agreed to serve as the chapter’s executive director. Before his arrival, the Queen City chapter served about 350 participants at three facilities across Mecklenburg County. Today it serves more than 3,400 kids at six programming sites across the county, handing out more than a dozen college scholarships annually.
As he watches a dozen other kids – and a few old-timers – practicing their skills on this mild, early winter day, a woman walks over to say hello and share a comment that is fairly commonplace anytime Ike Grainger is spotted on the premises, which despite a surprise blood cancer diagnosis that caused him to retire from the directorship a few years ago, is still part of his weekly routine.
“I just want to say I’m glad there are people like you who care about kids in this city,” declares Hishma Patel, who happens to be the mother of the eager young slugger down on the practice range, 12-year-old Priana Patel. “Golf has become a life-changing experience for us both.”
Grainger, who never fails to deflect praise to the facility’s energetic staff, thanks her for being an active parent-volunteer and wonders if Hishma herself plays the game.
“I grew up playing a little bit because my father loved the game,” she acknowledges. “But I drifted away from it until Priana became so interested. It’s her passion now, but something we share. We were in such a hurry to get here today, my goodness, we managed to forget to bring her favorite golf shoes.”
Unsolicited testimonials like this gladden a First Tee administrator’s heart, especially one whose family roots – and a sense of dedicated service – are as deeply embedded in the game as those of Ike the Third.
What sets the Grainger name and legacy apart, you see, is not titles or trophies but rather a generational sense of keeping the game fair – and available – to all, a quiet passion fueled by something called the “Rule of Equity” championed by his late grandfather, the original Ike Grainger.
Issac Bates Grainger, Ike Three’s grandfather, was born in 1895 to a golf-mad couple in Wilmington, North Carolina, fittingly the same year the USGA was organized.
Young Ike’s mother, Kate Reston Grainger, was the first women’s champion of Cape Fear Golf Club, while his papa, John Victor Grainger, played golf at such a dizzying pace he earned the sobriquet “Hit and Run Grainger” from his wife and playing partners. “By the time my mother finished the fifth or sixth hole,” Ike the First once told an interviewer, “my father would be finishing the ninth hole.”
After Princeton and stint serving as an Officer Training instructor for the Army in Atlanta, Georgia, where he first met 16-year-old Bobby Jones during an exhibition at East Lake Golf Club, Grainger entered the banking business in North Carolina and saved several institutions from insolvency during the Great Depression. By 1943, he was vice president of powerful Chemical Bank in Manhattan and would eventually become the bank’s president. That same year, he assumed the presidency of the Metropolitan Golf Association. A year later, Grainger was invited to join the USGA’s Executive Committee.
His passion was the rules of the game, particularly something he called the “Rule of Equity,” a sense of fairness that governed any situation that wasn’t explicitly covered by the written rules. Grainger served on the USGA’s Rules Committee for 16 years, including several as its chairman. “As the game’s most enduring official,” Bill Campbell once wryly noted in a speech honoring him, “Ike made many critical rulings in big events. He doesn’t so much look for problems as he attracts them.”
During the playoff between Sam Snead and Lew Worsham at the 1947 U.S. Open at St. Louis Country Club, for example, as Snead was preparing to putt for par on the final hole, Worsham suddenly called out for a referee to determine who was away. Visibly annoyed, the Slammer stepped back to wait as the game’s leading rules man stooped and took a measurement, confirming he had the honors. “In photos, you can almost see the steam leaking from my ears,” Snead told a reporter decades later. “My concentration was completely shot.” He missed the critical putt and Worsham made his, depriving Snead of the second of the four Opens that slipped between his fingers – his biggest regret in golf, he claimed.
Three years later at Merion, during a similar playoff at the U.S Open’s Golden Anniversary, Grainger was the official who assessed a two-stroke penalty to Lloyd Mangrum for improperly marking his ball twice, allowing a staggering Ben Hogan to hobble home to immortality.
A short time later, more relevant to the game we play today, as USGA Rules Committee chairman in 1951, Grainger played the central role in hammering out what the first president George Bush called “the most important golf event of the 20th century” – establishment of the Uniform Code of Rules between the Royal and Ancient and USGA in 1952, by which the game has been played worldwide ever since. Joe Dey called Grainger no less than “the architect and spiritual guide of the modern rules of golf.”
Ike Three points out a little-remembered footnote from that seminal negotiation: how his grandfather refused to leave the proceedings until he’d convinced the R&A to rescind its prohibition against use of the mallet-headed Schenectady putter in competition. Club manufacturers everywhere rejoiced.
During those years, Ike Grainger stood front and center with golf history. He sat beside Ben Hogan during his ticker-tape parade up Broadway following the “Wee Ice Mon’s” victory at the 1953 Open Championship at Carnoustie. One year later, while serving as the USGA’s 33rd president, he presented a charismatic young paint salesman named Arnold Palmer his first national championship trophy at the U.S. Amateur Championship – and Babe Didrikson her last one for winning that summer’s U.S. Women’s Open Championship. In 1955, he also presented the USGA’s first Bob Jones Award to Francis Ouimet.
In his spare time, Grainger helped another well-known Ike, a fellow member of Augusta National – his friend, President Dwight D. Eisenhower – to design and build the White House’s first putting green.
On Easter Sunday at the 1968 Masters, as vice chairman of the rules committee for Augusta National, just four days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Grainger was once more cast into the role of Solomon by confirming the devastating fate of Roberto De Vicenzo, who on his 45th birthday incorrectly signed a scorecard that cost him a shot at a green jacket, a moment many regard as the most agonizing rules decision ever in golf.
In 1988, Grainger himself became a recipient of the Jones award, at that time the oldest living member of Augusta National and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews.
Finally, during the Centennial year of the USGA – and Ike Grainger’s own 100th birthday – the USGA created the Ike Grainger Award to honor volunteers with service of 25 years or more.
Not long before his passing at age 104, then a resident of a retirement home in his hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina, Grainger told a visiting reporter, “The thing I’m most proud of is my family and after that the Rule of Equity – which essentially means, in any situation where there is not a clear answer or governing rule, always do the fair and equitable thing.”
“That’s how he lived his life – dedicated to his family and the Rule of Equity,” confirms his grandson, as he watches young Priana Patel swat balls into the winter afternoon sky.
“We called him Big Daddy because he was so successful in the worlds of business and golf. He was a fine player – down to a 2 handicap at one point – but was really known for his love of the rules and making the game available to everyone. That was his passion.”
Not surprisingly these are Ike Three’s enduring passions as well, embodied by his years of dedication to Charlotte’s First Tee.
He’s quick to point out with a laugh, however, that his father – Ike Jr. – and younger brother, Jim, seemed to get the lion’s share of the Grainger golf skills.
Three’s father, a North Carolina textile industry executive, was a 4-handicapper known for his competitiveness on the course and gentility off it, while brother Jim, 11 years his junior, boasts an outstanding amateur record that includes 10 club championship titles across the state, a trio of state four-ball championships, a Carolinas Golf Association Senior Amateur title, and five consecutive N.C. state senior amateur runner-up finishes to perennial state champion, Paul Simson.
“I think my best handicap was a 12 or 13,” Ike Three admits with a coy grin. “But I did at least have a hole-in-one. A pretty exciting one, too.”
It happened during a tournament at the Blowing Rock Golf Club in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Ike was playing in a foursome with his longtime pal, Everett.
Grainger’s playing partner picks up the tale from here: “We were at the sixth hole, an uphill par-3. I hit my shot about 2 feet from the flag. Ike pulled his shot left into a bunch of pines on the hill. His ball bounced out of the trees, however, and trickled downhill through the rough and ran across the green like it had eyes – dropping into the hole. One of the guys in our group got so excited he picked up Ike and hugged him. It was absolutely hilarious.”
Recently, to keep the tradition going, Three’s own son, Ike IV, scored his first ace. Grandson Reston, who is now 13, he adds, made a pair of aces when he was just 8.
Ike Three’s finest playing memories are distinctly private in nature.
They include winning the Met Golf Association’s Three Generations golf tournament at Garden City in 1973; a round at Augusta National in the late 1970s with his grandfather, brother Jim, and their father; he and Jim having drinks in front of the grandfather’s locker at the Royal and Ancient following a round on the Old Course; and caddying for brother Jim at the U.S. Senior Am at Kinloch in 2011.
Among these memories, he also counts caddying for the first youngster from the Charlotte First Tee chapter at the annual Pure Insurance First Tee Tournament at Pebble Beach. He stays in touch with the young man to this day.
“I wasn’t destined to be a great player,” he sums up as young Priana Patel approaches the pavilion (whose picnic tables are named in Ike’s honor), now on her way to the putting green. “I enjoy the beauty of the game, and the way it brings people together of all ages and skills. That’s been my place in the game, helping kids fall in love with golf.”
Right on cue, as he says this, young Priana Patel pauses and looks his way.
“Hi,” she chirps. “Aren’t you, like, the founder or something? That’s so cool.”
Grainger blushes. “Not really. I’m just glad you seem to like the game.” He asks what she likes about the First Tee.
“I love the coaches. They’re so nice. Even when I mess up.”
“They don’t mind,” he said. “That’s how you learn to play the game.”
She grins. “I know. I’m practicing for my test tomorrow.”
“Good luck,” Ike Grainger says. “I know you’ll pass with flying colors.”
“Thank you,” she says, moving on. “Enjoy your lunch.”
Jim Dodson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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