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Colossus of Golf

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Robert Henry ‘Skee’ Riegel enjoys a break during
The Masters in 1957.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He once defeated the great Bobby Jones in an exhibition match. He played against and outscored legends such as Byron Nelson, Sam Snead and Ben Hogan. And in 1947 he defeated Francis Ouimet at the British Amateur and won the U.S. Amateur.

At 93, Robert Henry “Skee” Riegel doesn’t play much anymore, and he confines himself to the practice tee when he does. But his career is still legendary, his memory is still sharp, and his praise for the greats is undiminished.

“Byron Nelson always treated me well,” Riegel recalls during a telephone interview from the Skee Riegel Room at Cape May National where he is the Professional Emeritus. “He was a real gentleman. We’re lucky to have had someone like that in golf. I also count Sam Snead and Arnold Palmer as good friends of mine.”

He didn’t fail to mention that he got a card from Jack Nicklaus on his most recent birthday.

Riegel played in six amateurs. As a professional, he played in nine PGA championships and 16 U.S. Opens. He  tied Snead for 10th and 12th place in two of those Opens. He played in The Masters 11 times and was low amateur in 1948. Riegel was the clubhouse leader in the 1951 tournament before Hogan came back to win by two strokes.

A former Radnor Valley Country Club member, Riegel credits his late wife with getting him involved in golf. Five years later, at 28, he won the Florida Amateur. Now he stays sharp by regaling people with his experiences.

“We were coming back on the Queen Mary, fresh from our victory in the 1947 Walker Cup,” he says. “We were all passing the cup around, and I guess I probably had a little too much to drink. I eventually drifted away from the party and fell asleep. Nobody could find me, and they thought I had fallen overboard. They actually stopped the ship in the middle of the Atlantic before they found me sleeping comfortably in one of the life boats.”

Never much of a drinker, Riegel says there was no way he could keep up with the likes of a Jimmy Demaret. He must have come up short as well in some of the famous Crosby Clambakes at Pebble Beach during that tournament’s heyday. He played in 16 Clambakes with celebrities such as Phil Harris, Dean Martin and Jim Brown.

Having retired from competitive golf in the early 1950s (after finishing second in the 1952 Buick Open), Riegel qualified and finished 48th in the 1964 U.S. Open. He again qualified for the Open in 1969 at age 55. In 1999 Riegel was invited to be the keynote speaker for the U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach. Riegel, then 85, went out and shot an 83 on the treacherous course.

While he still considers Bobby Jones the best golfer he has ever personally known, he says Tiger Woods “is the best athlete on the planet.”

Riegel knows that what makes Woods, Nicklaus and Palmer all great, and what had made Riegel himself so successful, is the same thing:

“You need a good wife,” he says, “and I had a good wife.”

 

 

 

 

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