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A great golf character: Gum McClure

In my slow, painful effort at trying to weed out some of the things that have accrued on my desk, in the files and in the attic, I recently came across something I wrote a long time ago. I thought you might like to read it:

James Ernest (Gum) McClure will be buried Sunday. He leaves five golf trophies, some rich lore, a lot of friends and a scar on our consciences.

One of the trophies, undoubtedly the last he won, reads, "1975 Griertown Open." One reads simply "Champion 1969."

We don’t know what he won but we know it wasn’t anything of great consequence. Some say he won a couple of tournaments on the African American golf tour, in Atlanta and Asheville, but even that wasn’t the real thing. When McClure was in his prime, men of color weren’t welcome to any golf tournaments on the pro tour, just their own tournaments and there weren’t many of those.

McClure was in his 70’s when he died last Friday. He had been living with his sister, Mary Lou Bost, for the last couple of years, with that dreadful leftover time to kill after his wife had died and he had become too old to work and felt too poorly to play golf.

McClure raised a family doing yard work and caddying. "We laughed about that," said Mary Lou Bost. "I told him he never held a steady job in his life because he wanted free time to play that golf. They say he was good at it, too."

He was good at it.

Gum caddied for and played with the late touring pro and Ryder Cupper Clayton Heafner many times and Heafner said, "If he had been given the opportunity, he could’ve made it big as a tour player."

Gum, who acquired his nickname for his ever-present wad of chewing gum, started Jim Black in golf and several years ago, Black made it to the pro tour that McClure never knew except as a caddy.

"Jim could’ve been a real good tour player," said Black. "He had more shots than anybody I’ve ever played with, one of the greatest pairs of hands I’ve ever seen."

McClure was also one of the best one-club players anywhere, something he learned as a kid.

"I learned how to play the whole golf course with just one club when I first started out," he said a few years ago. "Back then, there was no such thing as a whole set for us. Somebody would give us an old club and three or four of us would play a round with it. Maybe it would be a putter.

"Then somebody would give us another club and we’d use it to play the whole course. We’d copy the swings of the best players we saw. That’s how I learned to play."

And that’s how Gum came to play the notorious gambler that day in 1965 at Revolution Park here. The gambler had been in town for a few days, playing the local sports. Someone asked him how many holes he would spot an old man and he said none.

Suppose the old man uses only one club, they said, would you spot him half a stroke a hole? The gambler whipped out his bankroll, threw it on the ground and said, "Bring him on."

Gum was summoned from the clubhouse. He ambled down the hillside carrying a putter he had borrowed. Bets were made and the nine-hole game began. Using only the putter, Gum birdied the first hole, played the first five in even par, won every hole and nonchalantly walked in.

He could use the whole set of clubs, too. Although he ordinarily played only once or twice a week, between yard work and caddying, he hung around 68 or 69 pretty regularly on courses like Revolution Park.One day, Black shot a 63 at Hillcrest. Not good enough. McClure shot 62.

His nine-hole scores at Hillcrest and Revolution included 29’s and "a whole gang" of 30’s, as he put it."We got to laughing not long ago about Jim when he was a kid," said Mary Lou Bost. "We lived on a farm and all of us worked it except my older brother Fred. He worked at Charlotte Country Club.

"Every day, Daddy would send Jim to the club to take Fred his lunch and he’d tell Jim to come right back. But every day, Jim would stay at the club and caddy or slip around and play some golf. And he’d get a whupping every evening.

One day I asked him, ‘Jim, why don’t you come on back home? I can’t stand to see you get whupped every day.’"And he said, ‘Now don’t worry about it. It don’t hurt no longer than it takes to do it.’

"He just wanted to play that golf. He was willing to take a beating to do it."

In that respect, he never changed. He labored with his hands and then carried the clubs of men he could beat with just one of those clubs, to make the money to support his family and play that golf.

In another time, he might have been a star. As it is, he is merely a legend.