Mr. Jack, Augusta and the world of golf

In 2003, Jack Stephens co-authored a book with Dr. T. Glenn Pait of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

The book was titled “Golf Forever: The Spine and More: A Health Guide to Playing the Game.”

A Las Vegas-based writer named Jack Sheehan was brought in to assist Stephens and Pait with the book.

After Stephens’ death in July 2005, Sheehan wrote a piece about a now legendary incident at the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia. I’ve heard various versions of this story through the years, but Sheehan’s telling of it is as good as any, so we’ll let him relate it:

“It seems that in the 1970s, a new member asked to join Stephens’ group on the first tee at Augusta. Jack welcomed the man warmly, and the newcomer suggested they have a little wager.

“Jack replied that they played friendly games for $10 at Augusta, and that would be fine.

“The man hitched up his trousers, and said: ‘At my home club back in Detroit we play for a $100 Nassau with automatic two-down presses.’

“‘My, that’s impressive,’ Stephens said. ‘But we keep our betting to $10 here.’

“The new member grumbled all the way around the course, making comments to the effect that he was hungry for some action and that he expected that members of Augusta National could afford larger wagers than that.

“Jack Stephens just let the grousing go without responding.

“When they had finished the round and adjourned to the members’ card room, the man suggested they have a game of gin rummy.

“Stephens said that would be fine, that the custom at Augusta was to play for a penny a point.

“‘You gotta be kidding me,’ the man said. ‘At my club in Detroit we play for $10 a point.’

“Having listened to this refrain for four hours, Jack Stephens had heard enough.

“‘Mr. Johnson (not his real name),’ Jack said as other members in the room looked up to hear Stephens’ voice raised for one of the few times. ‘If you tallied up all your holdings — stocks, real estate, the whole nine yards — what would you say your net worth would come to?’

“Johnson was taken aback by the question but finally puffed out his chest and said, ‘Oh, I’m probably worth between $15 million and $20 million, I’d say.’

“With that, Jack Stephens took a deck of cards from the table, slapped it on the bar and said, ‘I’ll cut you for it!’

“For the first time that day, the new member was overcome by silence.”

That story says a great deal about the unassuming, dry-witted Jack Stephens that I had the pleasure of being around back in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

On Friday, former President George W. Bush will be in Little Rock to honor Jack’s son Warren and Warren’s wife Harriet for their support of The First Tee of Central Arkansas. The former president will dedicate a garden area at The First Tee complex, which is just off South University Avenue in Little Rock.

Bush now serves as the honorary national chairman of The First Tee. His father had been in that role since the 1997 inception of a program that has reached more than 4.7 million children nationwide.

I was among those in attendance at The First Tee of Central Arkansas complex back in April 2001 when the elder Bush joined the likes of Arnold Palmer, Byron Nelson, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, Jerry Pate, Pat Summerall and Chris Schenkel to dedicate the facility.

“Anybody who has ever spent any time with my father knows that golf is important in Dad’s life,” Warren Stephens said that day. “But to know that you also have to understand that he was somewhat a late arrival to the game. Unlike these young people who will enjoy the Jack Stephens Youth Golf Academy and the opportunities that will come with it, Dad didn’t start playing until he was 36 years old.

“He grew up in a time and a place where golf literally was unthinkable. But I think Dad would agree that golf is a great teacher of life. And that’s why Dad firmly believes in exposing young people early on to golf and to the lessons golf teaches.

“It has been said that golf mirrors the virtues that society desires — integrity, honor, respect, rules, discipline. I think all of those traits can be applied when I talk about my father. And I think all of those traits are what we are exposing young people to when we get them interested in golf.”

Here’s part of what David McCollum wrote in the Log Cabin Democrat at Conway following the 2001 dedication ceremony: “Because of his business connections in building the largest brokerage firm off Wall Street in the country, Stephens was invited some years ago to become a member of Augusta National Golf Club. As part of that, he was invited to a social gathering.

“Stephens was never endeared to a lot of social mingling and left early. As he was walking along the course, he heard a distinctly Southern voice, something to the effect ‘nice evening, isn’t it?’

“Stephens struck up a conversation with the stranger sitting on a porch of a cabin adjacent to the Augusta National course. Not much for partying, Stephens told the man.

“‘Me neither. How about some cards?’ the stranger reportedly said.

“And that evening, Stephens began a friendship with Bobby Jones, lord of golf at the Masters. That relationship led to Stephens eventually becoming chairman of Augusta National. That led to Stephens later becoming a $5 million benefactor to The First Tee program. … Stephens doesn’t talk much publicly. He allows his son to speak for him. But his actions and his motivation speak volumes. …

“Apparently, there are a lot of people who believe that all types of youngsters can learn life lessons from a game that alternately exhilarates and humiliates everyone who plays it. There are many who believe that a youngster learning to hit a good shot or two or even discovering how to recover from a bad lie might eventually prevent a school shooting or a teen suicide. Taking out frustrations on a golf ball is much healthier than taking them out on a human being.”

Sheehan put it this way: “There are those in the world of golf who seem to be front and center at all times. They are the type who cherish the spotlight and are more than willing to reap every ounce of glory they can from the game.

“Then there are men like Jack Stephens. … Jack fully appreciated the most important things that golf offered him — wonderful recreation, breathtaking scenery and the most ideal venue on earth to make friends and strengthen friendships. And he always tried to give back to his sport in equal measure.”

During the 2005 memorial service for Jack Stephens at the Episcopal Collegiate School (which his family’s donation had helped build), Lou Holtz said this: “When people hear about a personal misfortune that happens to you, 90 percent of them don’t care. The other 10 percent are just glad it didn’t happen to them. But Jack was one of those few who care. And that’s just one of the things that made him so special.”

The former president will be in town this week to honor Warren and Harriet Stephens, but he will also be honoring the memory of Mr. Jack.

Cut those cards!

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