Saturday, March 7, 2009
BERT GREENE - The Rise and Fall of a Middle Georgia Golfer
Bert Greene was a pretty fair golfer in his day. At the age of eight, he was beating some of the duffers at the Dublin Country Club. Forty years ago Greene was in his prime as one the leading collegiate golfers of the Southeastern Conference. Ten years later his PGA career vanished as a result of a freak career ending injury.
Charles "Bert" Greene was born in Gray, Georgia on February 11, 1944. He took up golf at the age of four. In 1950, Bert’s father, Herb Greene, was hired to be the club pro at the Dublin Country Club. Growing up around golf and being the son of a pretty good golfer, Bert was destined to excel on the links. In his days in Dublin the elementary school student outscored several grown men when he finished atop the 2nd flight. The Greenes left Dublin for Jacksonville, Florida for a short time before returning to the Middle Georgia area where Herb worked on golf courses in Eastman, Douglas and Cochran. Bert’s sister Barbara also followed in their father’s footsteps and played for a time on the LPGA tour.
In 1961, Bert, playing for Dodge County High School, won the Georgia AA state championship by nine strokes with a two straight sub-par round total of 136. Later that summer, he captured the Georgia Jaycee’s Jr. Championship. The following year, the Dodge County golfer won the 17-18 year old bracket of the Future Masters of Golf with a three round score of 210. Greene was awarded a full scholarship to play for the University of Tennessee golf team in 1963. That same year Bert was the Tennessee Amateur Golf champion. In 1964, Bert won the individual championship in the Southeastern Conference and garnered All American honors that year as well as his junior season in 1965. Bert played as an amateur in his first U.S. Open in June 1965, but failed to make the cut.
Greene’s first appearance in the Master’s Golf Tournament in Augusta came as an amateur thirty-nine years ago this week in 1966. He qualified for the tournament by finishing in the top eight of the previous year’s national amateur tournament. In his first practice round, he posted a 71 with birdies on 13, 14 and 16 with a 20 foot eagle birdie put on the 15th hole. Bert missed the cut after decent opening rounds of 80 and 77. In the fall of 1966, Bert decided to turn pro. He attended a tour school but needed a sponsor to pay the bills of entrance fees, travel expenses and lodging. Two men in the beverage business signed on to sponsor the up and coming golfer. Greene started out strong in the opening round of 1967 Los Angeles open. He was among the third round leaders of the ‘67 Tuscon Open but fell back to a distant and even par behind Arnold Palmer, the tournament winner. But after a disappointing rookie year when he brought home only $1,702.57 in winnings, Bert was left without a sponsor.
Buck White, a former golf pro, saw a lot of potential in the tall, slim and blonde fellow Tennessee golfer. He convinced an eclectic group of investors to sponsor Bert for the 1968 seasons. The group included a Florida housewife, a lawyer, dean of a Quaker school in Garden City, N.Y., a toy merchandiser and a mysterious man with a funny sounding name. In March 1968, Greene once again soared to the top of the 3rd round leader board. Following an outstanding start, Greene was in 8th place, seven strokes off the lead, six ahead of Jack Nicklaus and nine strokes ahead of Lee Trevino. In The Dural Open, just as he had done a year earlier in Tuscon, Greene fell off the leader board following a poor fourth round. A highlight of the year 1968came in Minnesota when Bert, listed as playing out of Union Point, Ga., scored a hole in one in the Minnesota Golf Classic.
Bert’s fortunes turned for the better in 1969. After participating in the U.S. Open, Bert finished 11th in the Kaiser Open ahead of golfing legends Hale Irwin and Sam Snead. He was an early leader in the American Golf Classic and the Buick Open. His best tournament of the year came in the Western Open, the world’s richest tournament. After blistering rounds in the 2nd and 3rd rounds, Greene drew within one stroke of the leader in the final round. Going for the green in two, his ball found the trap. Still in contention, he missed a putt, which cost him $20,000.00 and his first tour victory. Bert had a great outing when he finished 4th in the Greater Hartford Open on Labor Day weekend. He finished the year 23rd on the money list with $56,878.00 in winnings.
Bert returned to Augusta National in 1970 on an ominous note. During the practice round, one errant shot landed in an empty lunch box. He finished 12th in the tournament with a highly respectable even par four round total of 288. Two weeks later, Bert finished 5th in the Tallahassee Open. He continued to play well during the spring, finishing 3rd in the Houston Championship and 13th in the Atlantic Golf Classic. In one of his first professional victories, Bert captured the Brazilian Open title in June. Fighting bursitis throughout the summer, the lanky power golfer was the first round leader of the Green Island tournament before falling to an 8th place final finish.
Greene got off to a good early start when he placed atop the leader board in the 1971Glen Campbell Open. A second victory on foreign soil came in the Lagostas in Bogota, Columbia in February. For the second straight year, he finished 12th in the Masters. Among his better tournaments that year were the Atlanta Golf Classic and the Kemper and Colonial Opens where he was among the early leaders. His best finish came in the Western Open when he placed 6th.
The year 1972 proved to be a turning point for Bert. He only managed to finish 32nd in the Masters, though he finished ahead of Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino. His best finish came with top ten finishes in the Houston and Greater Milwaukee Opens and a sixth place finish in the Colonial. His career nearly came to an end in the fall when during a round of golf, Bert became frustrated with a bad shot, slammed his club into his golf bag, and caused a pistol inside his bag to discharge. The bullet struck Greene in the foot nearly ending his golf career.
Six years of traveling all over the country playing hundreds of rounds of golf finally paid off for Bert Greene in 1973. Bert finished 5th in the Byron Nelson Tournament in April and the BC Open. In September, he finished 12th in the Heritage Golf Classic. But in was in Raleigh, North Carolina when finally Bert won his first PGA Tournament. After four rounds of regulation play, Bert was in first place in the L&M Open with a score of 68-73-67-70 (278) when on the last hole, Miller Barber sunk a 40 foot putt to force a playoff. On the 5th playoff hole, Bert sunk a twenty-foot twenty-thousand dollar putt to cinch his first tour victory. Back at home in Dexter, Georgia, where his father was the golf pro at Green Acres Country Club, his parents Bert and Kathryn were ecstatic. Just before the tournament, Bert spent a few days for rest and relaxation. "For the first time in his pro career, the pressure is off," his father said.
But things didn’t get better for Bert. A wrist injury signaled the end of his once promising career. He finished last in the first round of ‘74 Masters and missed the cut. Two weeks later he rebounded with a 21st place finish in the Tournament of Champions. His one highlight came when he shot a 67 and was one stroke off the lead of the World Golf Open at Pinehurst in September. In that same tournament a year later, he finished 53rd and took home only $476.00 in prize money. It was one of his last tournaments as a touring professional.
After leaving the tour, Bert Greene became a Mississippi state trooper. For nearly two decades Bert Greene almost abandoned the game which brought him fame and enjoyment, playing an average of only three rounds a year. He was the first PGA tour victor ever to regain his amateur status. At the age of fifty, Bert attempted to join the Senior Tour. He missed the cut and decided to permanently retire to enjoy the things he loved the most, his family and fishing. When asked if he had any regrets, he told a reporter, " I have no regrets. I knock on wood because I have two great kids and a grand boy, Jacob."