By GARY LARRABEE
Forty years after taking over as both Salem Country Club liaison to the United States Golf Association and general chairman of the 1977 USGA Senior Amateur, Ollie Cook is preparing for the upcoming 38th United States Senior Open at his beloved Salem Country Club with mixed emotions.
It’s been a wonderful, rewarding experience all these years,” Cook, 77, a prominent Peabody attorney and longtime Beverly Farms resident, said. “Working with my fellow Salem members, with the USGA, with the terrific amateur and professional players who came to Salem for these national championships, it’s been the best. But it was time a few years ago to step aside and turn my golf responsibilities over to my good friend and law practice colleague Bill Sheehan.”
Cook, an Ohio native and former Salem CC president and club champion, enjoyed overseeing the rain-marred ’77 U.S. Senior Amateur as general chairman so much that he stayed on as USGA liaison and general chairman for two more wildly successful USGA championships, the 1984 U.S. Women’s Open and the 2001 U.S. Senior Open.
The Salem-USGA courtship reached such an embracing level that there was no doubt, following Bruce Fleisher’s dramatic 2001 U.S. Senior Open victory over several rivals, including Jack Nicklaus, that a second U.S. Senior Open was in store for Salem Country Club.
Cook stepped aside for Sheehan, a Rowley resident, as negotiations moved forward, however he has gladly offered input whenever Sheehan asked for it over the past few years, with Championship Week quickly approaching.
“Bill has done a great job as chairman and I’m certain he and his executive committee will receive rave reviews right up until the final accounting months after the Senior Open wraps up,” said Cook.
“I’ve learned from the best,” Sheehan said as the countdown continues for the sixth USGA championship overall for which Salem has served as venue. It all started with the 1932 U.S. Women’s Amateur, won in lopsided fashion by Virginia Van Wie, 10 and 8, over Glenna Collett Vare. That was followed by the heartwarming 12-stroke victory by the cancer-stricken Babe Zaharias in the 1954 U.S. Women’s Amateur, Dale Morey’s 4 and 3 title match win over defender Lewis Oehmig in the U.S. Senior Amateur in 1977, Hollis Stacey’s narrow victory in the 1984 U.S. Women’s Open and Fleisher’s 2001 U.S. Senior Open win by one stroke (Nicklaus finished two back after being tied with Fleisher and three others with four holes remaining).
“I loved every minute of the job for all those years, especially the memorable competitions,” said Cook, who was groomed by the legendary Lionel MacDuff, a two-time Salem president and former Massachusetts Golf Association president, to take over from him as general chairman when ever the USGA returned to Salem after Zaharias’ historic third Women’s Open success in ’54.
“Lionel took a liking to me. I was interested anyway and I stayed involved for more than three decades. It’s been an honor and a privilege to represent the Salem membership and work with the USGA for three outstanding championships on our marvelous Ross course. Now I look forward to staying out of the way and just watching the action this time around.”
It should come as no surprise that golf has been a vital part of his life since growing up in Steubenville, Ohio, and summering in Gloucester. He surely has had the playing genes. His father, Cal, qualified for three U.S. Opens and one British Open as an amateur. An uncle on his mother’s side played in five U.S. Amateurs. Ollie has always had game. He qualified at Salem for the 1955 U.S. Junior played at Purdue University and won by Cotton Dunn, who would become Kernwood pro.
Ollie liked the North Shore so much that he moved here in the early 1960s, joined Salem CC in 1966 and has practiced law here since 1964. He struck it rich in those earliest years when he married Cape Anner Sharon Love, the noted area writer/illustrator.
“I was a little nervous chairing my first USGA event here, the ’77 Senior Amateur,” Cook recalled. “Lionel kept reassuring me it’s a low-key event and so forth. But when we got drenched with rain most every day and had to cancel one day of play, I wondered if I was a jinx. But it turned out the USGA was most impressed with the way we ran that event under difficult conditions and even more so how well the course played despite all the rain – thank goodness for Donald Ross’ raised greens — that they soon were talking to us about a much bigger event, a Women’s Open. Three Opens later it’s all worked out just fine for us and the USGA.”
That’s an understatement. The 1984 U.S. Women’s Open drew record crowds and Salem got national TV exposure with the matchless ABC-TV pair of Jim McKay and Dave Marr.
The club’s first U.S. Senior Open, starring Nicklaus, Gary Player, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson and eventual winner Bruce Fleisher, recorded the earliest sell out to that time in U.S. Senior Open history and a terrific four-day competition that included local amateur hero Steve Swedberg of Beverly.
“Operationally, 2001 was light years beyond 1984,” Cook, elected a Salem CC life member in 2016, remembered, “but our people, staff, volunteers, and USGA staff, did a spectacular job all week, and we had NBC-TV with Johnny Miller to boot. It was a great week for the club, for the city of Peabody and golf.”
And a fantastic way for Ollie Cook to, as it turned out, say farewell as general chairman and USGA liaison.