The 1953 Open Championship at Carnoustie will forever be remembered for Ben Hogan’s victory in his only attempt to win the Claret Jug. There were three other Americans in the field. Amateur Frank Stranahan tied for second. Lloyd Mangrum also made the transatlantic crossing for the only time in his career and finished tied for 24th. Sixty-eight years later, on a crystalline October morning, the fourth American at Carnoustie that year, Don Fairfield, agilely steps on decomposed granite in a backyard near the Indian Wells Country Club. It is the day before his 92nd birthday. Fairfield is directing workers who are in the early stage of installing a synthetic putting green for Palm Spring Greens, a business he owns with his son, Jeff Fairfield, 62. A young man is smoothing the area around an upraised cup that will be sunk into the green later. “Leave it alone,” Don tells him. “We will take care of it.”
Don is in his 75th year in golf, starting in 1947 as an assistant pro in Illinois. Along the way, he played the PGA tour full-time for nine years, winning three tournaments. After his best year in 1964, he stepped away to become the head professional at Eldorado Country Club in Indian Wells, California, a position he held for 33 years until retiring in 1997, when he was 67. Since then, he has been in business with Jeff.
Fairfield was born in Wichita, Kansas on October 13, 1929. As a baby, his family moved to Jacksonville, Illinois, in the center of the state. He lived near the Nichols Park golf course and became a fixture there, hitting hundreds of balls a day. Fairfield also excelled at basketball at Jacksonville High School. However, college did not beckon him. “I knew I wanted to be a golf pro when I was 14 years old,” he says. Right after graduating from high school at age 17 he took an assistant job at a local country club. “You had to be an apprentice for five years to get a PGA card,” he recalls. “The PGA was like a plumbers union in those days.”
In 1949 when he was 19, Don had his first taste of the PGA tour. He traveled to Niles, Illinois outside of Chicago and plunked down $15 to enter qualifying for the All-American Open at the Tam O’Shanter Country Club, part of the two-week annual golf carnival organized by club owner and promoter George May. Don qualified, then made the 36-hole cut. This made him eligible for the so-called World Championship of Golf at Tam O’Shanter the following week, with a then unheard-of first prize of $10,000. However, although Don completed 72 holes in the All-American, he finished out of the money. Because he had spent all of his money to pay his caddie, he had to pass up the World Championship and return home.
“I knew I wanted to be a golf pro when I was 14 years old.” – Don Fairfield
Military service interrupted Fairfield’s golf career. “I was going to get drafted in 1950 during the Korean War,” he recalls. “So instead of that, I joined the Air Force.” Rather than being shipped to Korea, Don was assigned to an Air Force base in Wiesbaden, West Germany, as a radar operator. “I was very fortunate,” he concedes. While there, he used his leave to play in pro tournaments in Europe. That is how Staff Sgt. Donald W. Fairfield was able to successfully qualify for the 1953 Open Championship. “It was the hardest course I ever played,” he states. Fairfield missed the cut but stuck around to witness Hogan’s historic win.
Right after his discharge from the Air Force, Fairfield accepted the position of head pro at the Casey Country Club in eastern Illinois. There, he met his wife, Iris. Don and Iris were married for 65 years until Iris died in 2020. Both of their sons (Jeff and Jim) became golf professionals.
In July 1955, Don ventured to the Meadowbrook Country Club near Detroit for his first PGA Championship. Don shot 68-74 to easily make the 64-player draw for the match play event. He dispatched Walt Romans, Vic Ghezzi, and Brien Charter before losing to Shelley Mayfield in the quarterfinals of the tournament won by Doug Ford.
With his $500 in winnings and confidence from playing well in a major championship, Don decided to test the PGA tour. He had success almost immediately, tying for second with Tommy Bolt (behind Max Evans) at the Long Island Open, then losing in a sudden-death playoff to Al Besselink at the West Palm Beach Open. In March 1956, Don won his first tournament, the Pensacola Open, which earned him an invitation to the Masters. He finished 58th.
Don continued to regularly pocket checks. At the 1959 Kansas City Open, a three-putt on the final hole put him into a playoff with Dow Finsterwald, which he lost. Don won again at the 1960 St. Paul Open, where he beat Billy Casper and Lionel Hebert by two strokes. He was a big enough name to be tapped to play in the 1961 edition of “All-Star Golf,” a made-for-television series of matches. He holed out from a bunker on the 18th hole on Winged Foot’s West Course to beat Art Wall Jr., then won matches against Gene Littler and Bill Collins in Apple Valley, California before losing to Casper.
In the final round of the 1962 Phoenix Open, Fairfield was paired with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Fairfield and Nicklaus both shot 71 to finish tied for second with Casper and Bob McAllister, 12 shots behind Palmer. “He made everything,” Fairfield said of Palmer. A month later, Fairfield finished second to Doug Sanders at Pensacola.
At the time, the PGA tour was mostly dusty outposts with occasional garden spots like Augusta National, Cypress Point and Doral. Don and Iris often traveled with a trailer for sleeping quarters attached to their car. Other times, Don went on the road with fellow pros. Once, he shared a room with Billy Maxwell. “He snored like an elephant,” Don remembers. “I had to go sleep in the car.” More often, he traveled with his friend Bob Goalby, the 1968 Masters champion who was from southern Illinois and who, according to Don, “drove like a maniac.”
In December 1960, Goalby won the Coral Gables Invitational, the final event of the year. He and Fairfield climbed into Goalby’s 1957 Chevrolet to drive to their Illinois homes for the Christmas holiday. “We’re going through Alligator Alley,” Fairfield recalls. “We got started late, it was dark. He’s going about 80, 90 miles per hour. There’s water on both sides. If you go in the swamp, you’ll be eaten by alligators. Goalby hollers ‘Holy shit!’ I look up and there’s a horse right in the middle of the right lane. And he swerved to the left. The horse moved to the left. He swerved back to the right. And we brushed by that horse by inches. If we’d hit that horse we’d have ended in that swamp, for sure. Where that horse had come from, that was most unusual.”
Fairfield was one of the most well-liked players on the tour, which earned him a place on the policy board. He helped with securing television rights for tournaments, which resulted in increased purses. In 1960 or 1961, a local station approached the tour about paying $1,000 for the right to televise the weekend play at a tournament. “We were happy with it,” he says.
“I loved Don,” says former pro Frank Boynton, 85, now a financial adviser in Texas. “He did one of the nicest things.” Boynton explained that in 1962, he and Fairfield played in the Memphis Open, which had a purse of $40,000. The following week was the Thunderbird Classic Invitational in Clifton, New Jersey, which had a then-astronomical $100,000 purse. Because it was an invitational, the Thunderbird did not have open qualifying on Monday. Unless invited, only those players who were in the top 60 on the money list the previous year, or those who made the cut at Memphis, could play.
At the halfway point in Memphis, Gary Player led the tournament with a score of 131. Fairfield was at 142. Boynton was at 143, one shot below the cut line, along with several other players. As a top-60 player, Fairfield was in the Thunderbird. Boynton was not. At the end of the day, Fairfield looked at the scoreboard. He knew he was not going to win and was unlikely to earn a big check. He determined that if he withdrew, the cutline would move, and Boynton and others could play in the Thunderbird. “I decided to withdraw and take the weekend off and allow these men a chance to play,” says Fairfield. Boynton tied for 14th in New Jersey and earned $1,590, a hefty amount at the time. “I never saw [Fairfield] and his wife at a restaurant that I didn’t send over for the check,” says Boynton.
“He couldn’t putt at all from two feet away,” Fairfield says of the then 50-year-old Hogan. “He would freeze over the ball, maybe for one or two minutes. He couldn’t get it back. It was pathetic. But he could still play at that age.”
The following year, 1963, Fairfield played at the Thunderbird, this time at the Westchester Country Club. Ten years after watching Ben Hogan win at Carnoustie, Fairfield was paired with him in the opening round. “We started on the tenth tee that day,” Fairfield recalls. “It was a par three, about 180 yards, and I was up first. I was nervous as hell. I stuck it right by the hole. He looked over at me and said, ‘Nice shot.’ And that is all he said that day.”
Fairfield remembers Hogan hit all 18 greens, but still only shot 71. “He couldn’t putt at all from two feet away,” Fairfield says of the then 50-year-old Hogan. “He would freeze over the ball, maybe for one or two minutes. He couldn’t get it back. It was pathetic. But he could still play at that age.”
Fairfield had a good year in 1963. After the Colonial Invitational, Don was looking forward to a week off at home. His friend, fellow pro Ernie Vossler was promoting the Oklahoma City Open. “All the guys seem to be taking off,” Vossler told him. “I got to have some guys here for this tournament. I can get you a free motel room.” That was enough to convince Don to go to Oklahoma City. He won by one stroke over Julius Boros for his final tour victory. In 1964 he had five Top-10s and 13 Top-25s and earned $22,839, the most he would ever make on the tour.
At the Bob Hope Desert Classic, Fairfield met a board member of the Eldorado Country Club in Indian Wells, California. They were looking for a head professional. He flew out for an interview and was offered the job. “I had played nine years,” he recalls. “I had a boy [Jeff] who was five years old. He had been traveling with me and my wife most of the time. I was kind of tired of motels.”
He took the job at Eldorado and stayed for 33 years, retiring in 1997. “When I left the tour, I really didn’t play that much afterwards,” Fairfield states. “You lose the sharpness. That’s all there is to it. When I was playing, I was thinking about playing most of the time, even at night time. That was my job.” Between 1965 and 1969 he played in six to 12 PGA events a year and never finished higher than a tie for 16th at the 1966 Buick Open. Even when he was eligible to play the forerunner to the Champions tour, he seldom participated.
Don and Iris were very happy to settle in Indian Wells. “I’m located one-quarter of a mile from Eldorado Country Club,” he says. “I moved there 57 years ago. I’m still in the same house.” After he retired, he was given a lifetime honorary membership. “I’ve watched this area grow from just a few thousand people to over 500,000 people in this valley now. When I got out here there were five golf courses. Three 18-hole and two nine holes. Now, we have about 130 golf courses in the valley.”
At Eldorado, Fairfield gave lessons to members Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Greer Garson. Former President Dwight Eisenhower asked him for a putting lesson. Fairfield took a look at his putter. It had Eisenhower’s name engraved on it – a memento given to him at an event. Fairfield did not view it as suitable for use on the golf course and told Eisenhower to buy a new putter. That did the trick because Eisenhower gave Fairfield the trophy putter. He still has it.
After retiring from Eldorado, Fairfield was playing a little golf, but was looking for something to do. Don and Jeff Fairfield founded Palm Springs Greens in 2006. Don enjoys the creative aspect of building synthetic greens. “I do a lot of the grunt work,” Don claims. “Jeff comes in and finishes it.” As a golf professional, Jeff Fairfield was good enough to qualify for the 1989 U.S. Open and the 1993 PGA Championship. “I wish I could hit the ball like him,” Don says wistfully, adding that Jeff “could not putt worth a lick.”
The size of a typical green is 400-600 feet, at $15 per square foot, so a 500-square-foot green will cost about $7,500. A larger project Palm Springs Greens undertook, a horseshoe shaped green that surrounded three sides of a house, stretched out to 1,400 feet. Don and Jeff claim to be able to beat their competition on price because, according to Don, “I work for nothing. I don’t need the money.”
Don is 6-foot-1, 175 pounds, or about the same build as when he played the tour six decades ago. His attire (blue visor, tan slacks and white golf shirt) likewise is similar. He holds a sample tuft of artificial grass that will be used for the fringe of the putting green he is installing. To make an understatement, it does not resemble the unnatural surface that passed for the backyard lawn in The Brady Bunch. From a distance of two feet, the product is barely distinguishable from a well-manicured Bentgrass lawn one might see in Greenwich, Connecticut. Who would imagine polypropylene could look so good?
Sections of the artificial grass, one-inch high, are laid out on the base and infilled with sand (seven pounds per square foot) to one-quarter of an inch, then rolled for several hours with a 1,000 pound asphalt roller until the Stimpmeter reading is ten or eleven. According to Jeff, a green will last 20-25 years with minimal care.
Regular turf lawns account for one-third of all residential water use. California is subject to drought with recurring restrictions on the use of water. Moreover, even with liberal watering, grass does not grow well in the desert. Thus, for those who desire a putting green on their property in the desert, a synthetic green is the only realistic option. If one of the many touring pros based in Southern California and Arizona have a practice putting green on their property, it probably is synthetic. For purposes of practicing, a synthetic green will more than suffice.
Even after 75 years in the game of golf as a player, club pro and businessman, Don retains youthful enthusiasm. “The longest-living athletes are golfers,” he asserts, citing a study he read. “And the reason is because golfers walk more than other athletes.” Don does not play any more but stays fit by walking several miles each week around the backyards of the greens he installs. “It’s what keeps me alive,” he says.
“All in all, I’ve had a very full life, and a wonderful life in the desert.”
Top: Don Fairfield in 1962 (Augusta National, Getty Images)
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