Book on Red Coat history brings TPC alive

Book on Red Coat  history brings TPC alive
The Red Coats at a Glen Kernan gathering

THE PLAYERS Championship 2020 at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach – March 10-15 – marks nearly six decades since the creation of the tournament by a small group of avid golfers who met regularly at San Jose Country Club back in the 1960’s.

THE PLAYERS 2020 also marks the launch of a big, beautiful book that pays tribute to that small group of pioneers and their predecessors whose tournament has resulted in over $100 million donated to local charities.

The book, entitled “The Honorable Company of Past Chairmen, The Volunteer Spirit of Our Community,” chronicles the evolution of a local golf tournament with a $50,000 purse – the Greater Jacksonville Open (GJO) in 1965 – to a major globally recognized PGA Tournament, THE PLAYERS 2020, with a $15 million dollar purse!

The written history of the tournament’s volunteer chairmen, who are called the Redcoats, begins with an eloquent introduction by longtime Jacksonville sportscaster Sam Kouvaris. Noting how “golf brings people together,” and how, through the tournament, “a sleepy stretch of beach called Ponte Vedra, framed by Butler Boulevard to the north and Sawgrass Country Club to the south, was transformed into a vibrant, growing community,” Kouvaris calls the book “a love story.”

A love story, indeed, there is a common thread that weaves itself through the story of every Redcoat … a spirit of generosity and caring that transcends the game of golf. Each member of the Honorable Company of Past Chairmen, including THE PLAYERS 2020 Chairman, Andy Carroll, is a community leader in his or her own right. Each Redcoat, past and present, has impacted thousands of others through charitable donations engendered by the tournament, and all of the Chairmen have volunteered tirelessly for something bigger than themselves.

Among the many fascinating stories in the book is that of San Marco resident John Tucker, the first Redcoat and chairman of the 1965 GJO, whose main claim to fame in the 1960’s was that he worked for Southern Bell and could make all the long-distance phone calls he wanted. In those days, long distance was used primarily for emergencies. At no cost, Tucker could call big-name golfers across the nation and invite them to Jacksonville. He eventually became friends with several pros.

Tucker and Jack Niklaus used to go on father-son hunting and fishing trips with the late John Montgomery (1967 GJO Chairman). “The deal was that the first day of either hunting or fishing, you couldn’t take your own son; you had to take one of the other boys,” recalls Tucker. When Nicklaus played the TPC at Sawgrass in 1978, he had thousands of people following him when he stopped to speak to Tucker’s 14-year old son, Clay. “I’ve got some pictures for you from our duck hunt,” he told Clay. Remembering, Tucker smiles. “The whole world stopped while Jack dug in his bag and found the pictures to give to Clay. Then he walked on and won the tournament. That’s the kind of man Jack Nicklaus is.”

Another great Nicklaus story came from Kevin Gay, whose Dad, the late J. Thomas “Tommy” Gay, chaired the first Tournament Players Championship (TPC) at Sawgrass Country Club in 1977. An average golfer, Tommy Gay nervously walked up to the practice range between Johnny Miller and Jack Nicklaus, took a practice swing and hit the bucket of balls by mistake. “All the balls rolled out through Nicklaus’s legs and in between his feet,” said Kevin Gay. “Everybody froze. Nicklaus turned around and said, ‘Tommy, I’ve played a lot of golf, but this is the first time I’ve been hit on the practice range.’” Kevin Gay, CEO and founder of Operation New Hope, volunteered at the tournament throughout his boyhood and notes that his Dad never forgot the grace with which Nicklaus handled the practice range situation.

Golf irons abound at THE PLAYERS, but how about ironies? The late Don Davis, who served in the Florida House of Representatives and held many other civic and community positions, was the 1988 Chairman of the Mazda Senior TPC. Ironically, the first golf game Don Davis ever played was in Coronado, California at a high school match between Gene Littler and Billy Casper’s golf team and Don’s fledgling team. Many years later, golfing great Billy Casper won the tournament Don Davis was chairing!

Don Davis’s son, Robert Davis, Jr., chaired the 2013 PLAYERS Championship, won by Tiger Woods. “The tournament has been a part of my life since I was a kid. I grew up in it,” recalls Robert. “I remember when we used to make and sell cardboard periscopes with a mirror on the bottom and on the top and sell them to the spectators … that was before the stadium course was built, giving everyone a great view of what was happening.”

The Red Coats in 1980
The Red Coats in 1980

Davis is a legacy Redcoat, as is Kevin Robbins, the 2004 PLAYERS chair, who followed in his father, GJO 1975 Chairman Frederick Robbins’ footsteps. Fuller Tresca, Jr. was the 1983 TPC Chairman and his son, Tim Tresca, chaired the 2007 PLAYERS Championship. Many of the past chairmen have children who have volunteered at the tournament for years and may someday follow their parents’ lead.

Rufus Dowell of San Marco married John and Ewo Tucker’s daughter, Angel, and learned about the art of volunteering from his father-in-law. “Watching John Tucker for many years,” said Rufus. “I’ve seen the way he works with and treats people. Volunteers need to respect you, don’t ask them to do anything you wouldn’t do.” All of the Redcoats, including Dowell, credit the volunteers with making the tournament successful, from the GJO’s volunteer force of 500 to today’s 6,000 plus volunteers at THE PLAYERS.

Anne Nimnicht of Lakewood, widow of the late Billie Nimnicht of the Nimnicht Family of Car Dealerships, was the first Lady Chairman of the TPC. Having volunteered since 1975 purely for the love of the tournament, Anne said it was a big surprise when her brother-in-law, Ed Nimnicht (Chair of the 1978 TPC), asked her to come to the San Jose Country Club and talk to the Redcoat’s selection committee. As she rose up the ranks of the Vice-Chairmen (Bluecoats) for the next five years, Anne was singled out by newspaper headlines such as “Fore! Woman on Board!” Today, Anne’s son, Lee Nimnicht, is a Bluecoat on Chairman Andy Carroll’s 2020 Leadership Team, working toward a possible legacy chairmanship.

Then, there’s the story of Lester Varn of Ortega (1968 GJO Chairman) and Arnold Palmer (the golfer and the dog), and the story of the late Marc Smith (2003 PLAYERS Chairman) and his famous rendition of Jeremiah was a Bullfrog … the stories are rich, and as Kouvaris indicated, filled with love.

There is a section in the book that is dedicated to the Professional Golf Association’s (PGA) Commissioners, Deane Beman (1974-1994), Tim Finchem (1995 – 2016) and Jay Monahan (2017 – present) who have helped make the tournament what it is today. Beman played the Greater Jacksonville Open in 1968 as a professional golfer, and in 1977, as PGA Commissioner, brought the TPC to the Sawgrass County Club. Beman wanted a permanent PGA Headquarters and he remembers “Richard Martin [1971 GJO Chairman] and I rented a helicopter and looked west to Green Cove Springs and north to the Georgia border and between here and St. Augustine … We convinced the Fletcher brothers that if they would sell us enough property – 415 acres – for $1.00, it would be to everyone’s benefit.” Beman kept the $1.00 check, and his prediction definitely came true.

Ed Nimnicht, who still holds the distinction of being the youngest Redcoat at age 34, said, “If I was a professional golfer today, I would have a picture of Deane Beman and Arnold Palmer on my mantel. Palmer had the magnetism to get endorsements. He was the one that led all the athletes of today. Beman had the incredible vision.”

By Susan D. Brandenburg
Resident Community News

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