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1950 U.S. Open changed his life

That Open at Merion got Jack Whitaker on path to TV career

Former sportscaster Jack Whitaker in his Devon home. (Eric Mencher/Staff Photographer)
Former sportscaster Jack Whitaker in his Devon home. (Eric Mencher/Staff Photographer)Read more

FOR EAST Germantown's own Jack Whitaker, the 1950 U.S. Open turned out to be his career-altering experience. Even though he was never within 50 miles of Merion's East course that historic week.

The North Catholic and Saint Joseph's graduate ("I'm almost a Quaker," he quipped), who'd just turned 26, was working at Allentown radio station WAEB. Which for whatever reason isn't even listed in his Wikipedia bio. Nevertheless, he did pretty much "everything" there that needed to get done, from disc jockey to newscasts. "If I had to put the mayor on, I put the mayor on," he said. "If I had to talk to a clergy man, I talked to a clergy man." It was his second job, and his salary was $35 a week. Which, as he quickly pointed out, was still $3 more than he had been making at his previous gig in Pottsville.

"The studio was right down the street from the Yeungling brewery," he said, chuckling at the recollection.

Which brings us to the Saturday of the national championship, June 10, which back then still meant playing the final two rounds in the same morning and afternoon.

"I had just come in from lunch," Whitaker explained. "And I was thinking what a beautiful day it was. I had nothing to do. I was living at the YMCA. There was a little TV monitor there, and I was watching Bobby Cruickshank [who would finish 25th, 16 years after he nearly won the first Open there] putting out on the 18th at Merion. And I went, 'That's what I should be doing . . . I should be back in Philadelphia, my hometown, working there doing golf.'

"And Monday morning, I resigned my job there and came down to Philly. I knew TV was coming. It was a dead end of radio for me. And I was lucky enough, by September, to get a job at WCAU in TV. And about a year and a half after that, I met George Fazio [the Norristown native who'd finished third in the 18-hole playoff with Ben Hogan and Lloyd Mangrum]. We didn't talk much about that [championship]. But Frank Chirkinian [who would later bring Whitaker to CBS with him] got together and put George on a show every Wednesday night. I had more mail from that then I ever got in my life, including the network. He was giving lessons. It's why Golf magazine's so popular. But the mail kept pouring in. In 1953, golf was really starting to come on. That was Hogan's great year where he won three majors, and [Dwight] Eisenhower was in the White House. So it was great times."

After a decade working alongside another Hall of Famer, John Facenda, Whitaker took his considerable talents national. First with CBS, and later ABC. He, of course, is the guy who got banned from Masters telecasts by the folks at Augusta National after he referred to a gallery as a "mob" during the 1966 tournament.

Whitaker became a Merion member in 2004. He lives in Devon, but spends about 4 months each year in Palm Springs, Calif. He looks back now and understands that maybe certain things do indeed happen for a reason.

"I wasn't going anywhere up there, so it was a good move," Whitaker said. "I didn't even have a TV set then. I didn't know much about golf. Just what I read. Of course, the great 1 iron [shot by Hogan on the 72nd hole], Mangrum picking up his ball [in the playoff and incurring a penalty stroke]. I have the Hogan picture hanging in my office. Doesn't everyone? Oh, yes, good memories . . .

"I never really thought about [how fate intervened on his behalf], until people mentioned it. But it's true. The 1950 Open came at just the right time for me."

Not a bad moment to have your professional path forever linked.

"I had just started playing golf a few years before," said Whitaker, who was a longtime member at Whitemarsh Valley Country Club, which hosted the PGA Tour's IVB Classic from 1963-80. "When I started working at 'CAU, there was a marvelous Italian restaurant on Chestnut Street. I can't remember the name of it. I can't remember a lot of things these days. But the owner lived in one of the houses adjacent to Merion. [WCAU] used his house to do the radio broadcasts in 1950, when they couldn't get the rights to be on the course. Anyway, he helped get me my job in TV, which made me. I'll always be thankful for that."

And now the toughest test in golf is returning to America's sixth-ranked course for the first time in 32 years. Only Whitaker will be monitoring this latest chapter from the first shot on.

"It's a little inconvenient for the members, but we're delighted to have them back," he said. "I think it's going to be very interesting. I think before we write it off as being too short for the modern golfer, let's wait and see. I'm sure they're going to love it.

"They've narrowed the fairways, so there's going to be a premium placed on accurate driving. I'm going to try and see how difficult it is, or how easy it is. I'll probably go down one of the practice days. Otherwise I'll probably stay home and watch."

On his own TV.

Who knows? Maybe this Open can inspire him to consider one more journalistic move.

"It might," he laughed. "Maybe I'll do that."

It sure worked out once. For him, and his many fans. All because the 1950 U.S. Open was held on 110 acres of the best piece of real estate Ardmore has to offer.

Today on CBS announcer Jim Nantz on why he is a member at Merion.