Friday, February 6, 2015

The Longest Golf Course in History


Two weeks after Hot Springs, New Mexico, was renamed Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, through an election of the town citizens, Ralph Edwards and his crew wanted to pull off one of the most amazing consequences ever performed on the quiz program... and gain loads of free publicity through the Southwest as a result. What would happen if someone was given the consequence of hitting a golf ball from Los Angeles, California, to Truth or Consequences, New Mexico? A golf course was presently under construction in the town formerly known as Hot Springs and publicity for both the town and the radio program would almost certainly be ensured. After ironing out the details (including legals and insurance), Edwards and his men sent out free tickets for his show to golf clubs around the Los Angeles area.

On the evening of April 15, during the course of the warm-up before the show, Edwards asked if there were any golfers in the audience. Four men raised their hands and were asked to come on the stage. Among the candidates was a 43-year-old real estate salesman named Al Baker, selected for both strength and character to participate in a pie-throwing stunt. Little did Baker realize what Providence had in store for him and if he had the gift of prediction, he would have rejected that ticket handed to him days before at Griffith Park. During the program, four men and Edwards were lined up and Baker was told that one of the men on stage had a $100 bill in his pocket. If Baker hit him in the face with a pie, he would collect the money. Baker hit the wrong man. (A trick challenge since it was Edwards who had the bill in his pocket.) Baker was forced to take the consequence.

Armed with golfing equipment is furnished by Wilson Golfing, which included a brand new set of golf clubs, bag, and at least 18 dozen golf balls, Al Baker was told that he had to hit a golf ball from NBC in Hollywood to the town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. The distance was 823 miles (or 1,448,480 yards) and par over this, the world’s largest golf course, was set at 25,000 strokes. If Baker completed the course, he would win a complete set of Wilson clubs, a Columbia Mountaineer trailer, and a brand new Nash Ambassador Airflyte sedan. If he completed the course under par, he would receive an additional $500. Baker was considered a top-notch golfer, a member of Local 47, a member of the Musicians’ Golf Club, a former saxophone player and former member of Abe Lyman’s orchestra, and recently supplemented his income by being a stuntman for numerous films starring Alan Ladd, Donald O’Connor and Ingrid Bergman’s Joan of Arc. Numerous newspapers reported Baker was an “unemployed musician” at the time and if this fact was correct, there can be no question why Baker agreed to the assignment. 



Baker’s travel expenses were paid by the sponsors of the radio program, including all lodging and food. Following the broadcast, the exact route, mapped out by Arch Arnold, was reviewed and approved by Baker. When asked how long it would take to complete the course, Baker theorized it would take about four weeks. Every week along the route, courtesy of NBC local affiliates along the route, Baker, via remote, reported on his progress. The entire trip, as he would eventually discover, would take about six weeks.

            On Sunday, April 16, at 10:15 a.m., Baker hit the first ball down Sunset Boulevard and Vine Street to commence a golfing adventure that had never been experienced by any man since. If he played the course in par or better, he would be richer by approximately $6,000 in prizes and cash. Climbing into the trailer that was to be his home for the next six weeks, the golfer who would make nationwide papers took after his ball.

            Baker was accompanied by chauffeur-escort John Benson, a staff member of Ralph Edwards Productions, who clocked the strokes and verified the authenticity of the game. Baker’s route through California would pass through San Bernardino, Palm Springs, the Coachella Valley and Brawley. Crossing into Yuma, he would pass through Gila Bend, Tucson, Benson, Willcox, Lordsburg, Deming, Hatch and finally Truth or Consequences. When Baker got tired of walking, he hopped on the running board of the car and rode to the next stroke. For relaxation and sleep, he had the trailer, decorated with banners to promote the radio program. Armed with spare golf balls, loose cash, numerous caps and a pair of sunglasses, Baker was prepped with the necessary bullet points for local press coverage along the way.

            The route took Baker through the center of every major town on the map. The turf along the route was the asphalt pavement. On the road, he used a putter so as not to get too much loft on the ball and thus encounter such hazards as windshields. Out in the county along the highways, he used woods and irons.

            By the second day, April 17, Baker made his way Northeast to Pasadena, avoiding the major freeway, Route 210. Much to the amusement of motorists, Baker was knocking the ball eastward along Walnut Street, which ran parallel with the 210, while off-duty Motorcycle Sergeant Gerald E. Wright tried to untangle traffic jams. The Pasadena Star-News reported the earliest statistic: 221 golf strokes from Hollywood to Pasadena. Baker lost seven balls down sewers. By April 18, in the heat of afternoon, Baker went through Monrovia via Foothill Blvd. to the wide-eyed amazement of many local residents. Stating he got his second wind along about the time he arrived in the city, Baker told reporters to sit back and relax and follow the reports weekly on the quiz program. “Be thankful you are not in my shoes,” he told reporters. “I hope to eventually take home the prizes offered.”

Progressing East from East Foothill Blvd to Huntington Drive and to West Foothill Blvd, Baker worked his way to Azusa. On April 19, the Azusa Police Department cooperated in entertaining the visitors on the Civic Center Lawn. Azusans gaped while tired and grateful contestant Baker leaned back in an armchair under a beach umbrella and gulped refreshing orange juice, resting momentarily before continuing his long journey down “the Main Street of America” that led him to fleeting fame and probably a lot of blisters. Under the supervision of Chief Kendrick, a detail composed of Captain Fred Williams and Policeman Bob Torrance, conducted Baker as he putted down Foothill Blvd., through the center of town. Opposite the city jail, the police surrounded the perspiring golfer. They provided him with an easy chair. Chief Kendrick personally poured iced orange juice for him. Captain Williams personally guarded the ball so no souvenir seekers would steal what would become a valued piece of memorabilia. Policeman Torrance produced a towel to wipe the sweat from Baker’s brow. Lucky Lager, a local brewery, produced a couple of cases of thirst quencher for the desert roadway. (Perhaps Azusa wanted to get a plug over the airwaves as a result of their hospitality.) Scotty Maxwell and Cliff Wynn of the Wynn Oil Company, local manufacturer of Wynn’s Friction Proofing Oil, provided Baker with the new Nash Ambassador sedan that the golfer would receive as a partial reward if he completed the trek. On April 20, Baker was seen whacking a golf ball down the middle of Highway 66 behind the police escort. It was reported the number of strokes totaled 777. Staying on Foothill Blvd., he passed through Fontana around 8:15 a.m., playing golf towards San Bernardino and Colton.

            By April 22, Baker had progressed southeast, avoiding the San Bernardino National Forest, bidding goodbye to Redlands, headed for Palm Springs. Capt. Frank Freeman of the State Highway Patrol also kept his eye on the ball. Baker was reportedly going along Highway 99 at a speed that averaged between two and three miles an hour. Over the next four days, he progressed through Riverside where local residents lined the curbs on Highway 99 to watch Al Baker. (It took him approximately 1,200 shots from Los Angeles to Beaumont.) On the evening of April 22, Baker reported in via remote on Truth or Consequences, letting the public know he was just reaching Palm Springs.

Caddies enroute were being provided by the States of California, Arizona and New Mexico in the persons of Highway Patrolmen who escorted the party for safety reasons along the road. Sometimes the official police vehicles, sometimes a motorcycle, sometimes the familiar white-painted patrol car, followed Baker as he chopped away uphill along Highway 99 from Redlands Friday afternoon, reaching a point about 3 ½ miles west of Beaumont before stopping for the night, resuming his journey Saturday morning enroute to Palm Springs. The group stayed at El Rancho in Beaumont overnight after digging their way through steak dinners at the Rusty Lantern. Baker said the greatest difficulty to date was the backwards progress he constantly encountered either when his uphill shots did not carry to the crest of the grade or when a truck or car coming Westward socks his little white pill closer to the point of starting than from where he had teed off. One of the more sensational features of the gag, according to John Benson, was that very few people along the route paid much attention to what was going on. Southern Californians, he said, appeared to accept even the most unusual incident during a day as commonplace and not noteworthy.

He drove through Indio on April 24, Monday morning, clipping his 2,000th stroke in front of Roosevelt School just before 5 p.m. The photo in the newspaper showed him ready to tee off just at the city limits on Highway 111 and Monroe, while John Benson held a parasol above Baker to shade him from the sun.

By April 28, 11 days and 2,024 strokes later, reached Brawley, California. While in town, Baker was one of the guest speakers at the Soroptimist club meeting at the Planters Hotel. Other guests included John Benson of the radio program, Dick Andrus of the Pittsburgh Paint company, Maxine Dottson and Zella Clayton of Brawley, Irene Bradford was chairman of the program and Neil Eldridge, acting president, presided. Baker told of several amusing incidents that have happened to him since leaving Los Angeles, of the minister who met him on the highway with a card with three scriptures written on it for him to look up in the Bible, a woman who baked a cake in the shape of a golf ball, a little boy who brought his ball back to him and the dog that ran off with the ball.

He crossed the Arizona border and reached Yuma on May 2, 17 days and 4,205 strokes after starting the game. He drove his ball over the Colorado River bridge in the early morning, and stopped over in Yuma to have his car serviced before continuing his game.
            
            On May 12, Baker arrived in Tucson, staying at the Westerner hotel, with 542 of his 823 miles completed. His score was presently 7,472. Fred Briggs, manager of the Westerner Hotel, heard about Baker’s up-coming arrival and provided free hotel accommodations for both Benson and Baker, and took advantage of the publicity by posing for a comical photo with the manager bathing the feet of Al Baker. By this point Baker was on his 11th dozen golf balls. He was still averaging three hits per mile. 

            Baker remained in Tucson for a couple days to recoup from the desert heat, appear on the Saturday night (May 13) broadcast via local NBC affiliate in Tucson, meet up with a new caddy from the quiz show, and partake in a scheduled golf tournament at the Randolph Park Municipal Golf Course. Played against 18 Tucson opponents on May 14, selected by the Chamber of Commerce, for an 18-hole route. The competition began 9:30 Sunday morning. Caddies were furnished by local High School beauties from The Sunshine Model Club. The match at the Randolph was arranged through the co-operation of Dell Urich, pro at the municipal course.*

* Seventeen of the eighteen players named to compete against Baker: Ed Conway, Col. Lawrence M. Thomas, deputy commander at Davis-Monthan Air Base, James F. Houston, James C. Grant, Billy Bell, Jr., Charley Lamb, Harry Chambers, Jack O’Dowd, Eddie Belton, Ricki Rarick, Fred Gerletti, Joe Niemann, Max Klinger, Tom Valdespino, Mac Beaudry, Jack Eyman and Steve Ribble.

By May 18, Baker had already passed through Riverside, Palm Springs, Indio, Coachello, and El Centro, California; Yuma, Gila Bend, and Tuscon. From Benson the last part of their journey would go venture East to Willcox and across the New Mexico border. On Saturday, May 20, Al Baker and John Benson arrived in Lordsburg, New Mexico, where they were greeted by a parade with a high school band taking part. Progressing East, they arrived in Deming on Monday, May 22, where they were entertained at an exclusive dinner. Working north towards Truth or Consequences, they arrived in Hatch shortly before noon on Wednesday, honored with a dinner by the Valley Chamber of Commerce. Baker was greeted by signs reading: “Hatch, N.M., the friendly little city of trees and flowers welcomes Al Baker on route to our neighboring city, Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.” Hatch, by all accounts, went all-out to extend Baker a welcome. “Baker’s cross-county trek was telling on him yesterday as he plodded between Deming and Hatch,” reported the Associated Press. “To that time, he used 10,480 strokes and 16 dozen golf balls. Chet Iden, president of the Truth or Consequences County Club, plans to challenge him to a nine-hole game. Then he can rest.” Hatch was located 38 miles south of Truth or Consequences.

The Arrival
A delegation of citizens from Truth or Consequences with signs on their cars welcoming Al Baker to Highway 85, first met the golfer at Hatch. He worked his way north towards the village of Williamsburg, adjoining Truth or Consequences, where he and John Benson met with a delegation in celebration. John Benson later recalled how every town along the route gave them police protection voluntarily. (In San Bernardino, the police inspector thought the idea of driving the ball to Truth or Consequences was a great idea and asked Benson if he could get on Ralph Edwards’ program sometime.) Some of the best police protection along the entire route of Baker’s cross-country golf game was attributed to the Sierra County Sheriff’s Posse, John Benson told a reporter for the Hot Springs Herald. They met up with the Posse twenty-three miles out of Truth or Consequences, down the highway on Thursday afternoon and there were six Jeeps along the route to help retrieve the balls. Stock was getting low and Baker was aware of the risk of a delay if he needed to acquire additional golf balls. The Sheriff’s Posse was divine as the road was lined with thousands of cars and many enthusiastic spectators were trying to grab a ball for a souvenir. They were prevented from doing so by the men in uniform. According to Benson’s recollection, not a single ball was lost within town limits (although one souvenir hunter almost got away with one). As a kind gesture, one of the Sheriff’s Posse offered to get them a fresh box of golf balls, at his expense, if the call of duty was needed.

Arriving in Truth or Consequences on Thursday evening, the golfer celebrated in traditional fashion by enjoying a bath in the hot springs, eating local food, receiving fre drinks in local bars and resting for two days before officially concluding his long-distance game on Saturday afternoon, for the radio broadcast.

Saturday afternoon, people lined the route Baker took through the city, escorted by the Sierra County Sheriff’s Posse, in completing his course through the downtown streets from atop Carrie Tingley Hospital hill, out Date Street and then west to the Country Club (now presently located along Ralph Edwards Drive). Through traffic was re-routed over other streets and traffic halted at the west end of Main Street was only delayed for five minutes while Baker was traversing the distance between Carrie Tingley Hospital and the Broadway-Main intersection. On each of his drives through the city there were loud cheers to greet and congratulate him on his accomplishment, and a spontaneous rousing welcome greeted him when he made his last drive onto the country club green.

Golf Course as it stands today.

On the afternoon of May 27, at 5:00 p.m., exactly 42 days since he teed off from Hollywood, California, Baker arrived at the Truth or Consequences Country Club. Five thousand people were lined up along the streets, waving flags and displaying signs of congratulations from their porches, and along the ninth fairway and the surrounding green waiting for Baker to make that last shot. The golfer played up to the green and was on ten feet from the pin. By this time, the program was on the air and Baker had to stall for a while as he had lines to read on the broadcast. Finally, at a signal from the announcer, he stepped up to his ball and dropped the ten-footer to complete the longest golf course in history – both for time and distance. Instantly, a tremendous roar and cheer came from the gallery – a great ovation to a tired and gallant golfer. The goal was the first hole of the new Truth or Consequences golf course overlooking Elephant Butte Lake, and the course was dedicated when Baker arrived. At 5:42 p.m., live on the air, with a perfect putt he sank his ball in the cup of the 9th hole of the new country club golf course. (The ninth hole on the course was the closest to the parking area, road and clubhouse, which is why this particular hole was chosen. Sandwiches and cold drinks were sold at the club house. Hole number one was located on the opposite side of the golf course. While advance publicity cited hole number one, for practical purposes, hole number nine was chosen instead.)

The broadcast included also the official welcome of the city made by Dr. T.B. Williams, mayor, who told Baker the city was his and the mayor hoped Baker would stay for a long while and enjoy the fine mineral baths they were known for, as well as some lake fishing. Senator Burton Roach, manager of the Chamber of Commerce, likewise gave his greeting of welcome and expressed appreciation for the fine publicity Baker, in carrying out his consequence assigned him by Ralph Edwards, had given the city.

Panoramic view of the golf course today, still in operation.

Al Baker, a muscular outdoorsman of slightly more than five feet was in top notch physical condition upon his arrival. After about 36 hours rest after his arrival and some relaxing indulgence in hot mineral baths, was also in top-notch spirits, having earned his right to a real celebration. Also partaking in the celebration was John Benson, and Dick Gottlieb, production director for the radio show; the latter of whom flew to Truth or Consequences on Thursday to meet Baker and Benson and prepare for the broadcast Saturday evening. NBC producer Greiner and engineer Joe Kay handled the technical hookups. Gottlieb had charge of the six minutes of the broadcast that was made from the country club. Others in town for the broadcast were Carl Gruener, NBC producer, Joe Kay, engineer and Norma Hambay of the Gila Bend Trading Post, Gila Bend, Arizona. Taking part on the radio program were Mayor T.B. Williams, who officially welcomed Baker and dedicated the golf course; Burton Roach, manager of the Chamber of Commerce; Dick Gottlieb, Al Baker and John Benson.

Upon his arrival Thursday evening, Baker, John Benson and Dick Gottlieb were guests of honor at a covered dish dinner given by the American Legion in the new Legion Hall. Each of them gave short talks expressing their warm thanks for the kind reception they were receiving in Truth or Consequences. Baker mentioned, “I hear some of you still calling the town Hot Springs. Isn’t this the town that I knocked a golf ball to – Truth or Consequences?” His answer from the audience was a resounding applause. Legion spokesmen agreed with him. “It takes a lot of courage to knock a ball all the way from California, especially when there is so much desert to cross, so hats off to Al Baker, for the fine job he did of it.”

Baker was extravagant in his praise of people encountered all along his route, stating that he never knew people could be so wonderful. He expressed particular appreciation for the full cooperation and courtesy extended him by the State Police of California, Arizona and New Mexico. “All along the route people were wonderful and demonstrated real hospitality,” he explained. For many people along the route, Baker posed cheerfully for pictures, as well as local photographers. It was estimated that he shook hands with more than 1,000 people – half of them during the last day of the course.

“The people of Truth or Consequences seemed to be more sincerer in their reception than any other town. But, I think I was just about as proud to see them as they were to see me.” Baker admitted in the Hot Springs Herald that the contest was a grueling affair and that he was proud it had been completed. “I cannot begin to thank the people of Truth or Consequences for what they have done for me. I appreciate so much the many compliments they have given me.”

Hole No. 9, Al Baker's destination
Looking back at the adventures Baker and Benson had during their trip, the men were greeted by Gov. Dan Garvey of Arizona. In Brawley, Baker finished third in a moonlight golf tournament. In Tucson, he beat 18 different members of the golf club 2 up. (He beat the president of the club 3 up.) During the first week, Baker became alarmed at the loss of seven pounds of weight. However, he gained that amount back later which he attributed to the fine steaks along the route. Then he added that he got the best steak on the entire trip in Truth or Consequences at the Ritz. “My biggest trouble was people and dogs picking up my golf balls,” Baker remarked. “One afternoon an owl swooped down and picked one up. Everybody wanted those balls and each time I lost one, it cost me a stroke. We figured out that I lost over 100 that way.”

Baker’s trailer was another center of attraction in Truth or Consequences, as the thousands of spectators looked it over, noting the multiple thousands of signatures that had been inscribed on the big sign that told who and where it was going.

Al Baker won the $500.00 in cash, a complete set of Wilson clubs, a Columbia Mountaineer trailer, and a Nash Ambassador Airflyte sedan. Estimated total was $6,000. He also made many friends. He was made honorary Deputy Sheriff of Yuma County; and in the days that followed he received mail from all over the country.

The final score? Al Baker went the distance of 11,469 blows, bettering par by 13,531 strokes. He was on his 19th and final box of golf balls when he arrived in Truth or Consequences; having used up a total of 222 golf balls, beat, strayed or stolen, and having a reserve of but six balls when he finished his assignment. Seconds after Baker sunk the final ball on the green of the course, some spectator made a dash for his ball hoping to acquire a souvenir, but Baker was too fast for him. Grabbing it from the cup, Baker announced emphatically, “That one is mine.”

Following the broadcast on Saturday evening, the guests were entertained by city and Chamber of Commerce officials which included an outdoor barbecue. On Sunday, Dick Gottlieb, production manager for Truth or Consequences and liaison officer between the show and the city, was escorted on a fishing trip up Elephant Butte Lake by Robert B. Smith, president of the Chamber of Commerce, who demonstrated the three methods of fishing practiced on the lake.

Only after the conclusion of the golf game did it become known that Al Baker was a real estate dealer, not just an unemployed musician as previously referenced, and just before his golfing trek sold 20 new homes in Lakewood, California, a new community near Los Angeles. The town was composed of 35,000 acres and already had churches of all denominations, schools, country club and all other things that go to make up a good town. A press release claimed that Baker’s real estate business was in connection with the large G.I. project that was now under construction in that state. Baker told reporters that he might event write a book about his experiences. If he wrote of his six-week adventure, it was never published.


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