About Fred Corcoran

By Judy Corcoran

By the 1950s, Fred Corcoran was known around the world as Mr. Golf. As a child, I knew what he did for a living, but it wasn’t until the past few years, when I started researching his life for a book, that I finally realized all that he did for golf.  I knew he was the first businessman inducted in to the World Golf Hall of Fame and that he managed Sam Snead and Babe Zaharias and other sports stars. I also knew that he started the Ladies’ PGA and ran the International Golf Association where he, essentially, taught the world how to put on golf tournaments. But I never really knew how he sold the world on golf and how he positioned golf to become one of the most successful ways to raise money for charity.

Golf and Charity
Fred went to work for the PGA back in 1937.  His job was to get tournament golf up and running and on the front page of the sports section. One of his first encounters was with Bing Crosby in Los Angeles. Bing had assembled a core of volunteers to help with his tournament and Fred realized that when a golf tournament was connected with a charity, everyone was happier.

To put on a golf tournament, Fred needed a hundred people to act as marshals, scorekeepers and ticket takers. Teaming with a charity brought free labor to the course and the charity itself brought more spectators.  The local businesses were more willing to get on board when a charity was involved because it was good publicity, it made some of their expenses tax deductible, and . . . they got to play golf.

As a result, golf became one of the first sports in America to raise money for charities—hospitals, youth programs, the Red Cross and health issues. Today, golf has probably raised more money for charity than any other sport.

Golf in the Headlines
Back in Fred’s day, he did everything he could think of to introduce people to golf and get golf in the headlines. He took his golfers to football games and staged driving contests at half time. He staged a golf match between Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb. He took Sam Snead to Wrigley Field in Chicago when they unveiled their new scoreboard, which was some 400 feet past home plate. They said no baseball player would ever hit it with a line drive, and incidentally, none has, but Sam Snead hit it with a five-iron.

It was around this time that Fred first got involved with blind golfers. Someone asked him to referee a two-hole match played between two blind golfers. It was played at night and I don’t know whether that was Fred’s idea but that was the kind of thing he thought of.  Regardless, the coaches, caddies and gallery headed out to the match—all with flashlights—which of course, the blind golfers didn’t need.

Fred was amazed at the accuracy of their putting and he told Ky Lafoon, who was a 10-time winner on the PGA tour, about how these golfers never moved their heads when they struck the ball. Laffoon tried it and the next day, won the tournament. Fred wrote the headline for the press:  Blind Golfers Teach Laffoon How to Putt. 

The Growth of Golf
With a true love of golf, a keen eye for publicity, and a courtship with the press, Fred ran the PGA Tour until 1947. By that time, the number of tournaments nationwide had increased from 22 to 45, and the purse had increased some 300%.  He went on to found the Ladies PGA in 1950, and went to work for the International Golf Association in 1955.  Its World Cup tournament preached international goodwill through golf and gave Fred the distinction of having 3-putted in 48 countries.

Golf and Guiding Eyes for the Blind
Fred prided himself of always being where the action was and consequently, met J. Richard “Dick” Ryan, an attorney who represented Augusta National Golf Club, in 1967. They became business partners over the next ten years, representing among others CBS’ Ken Venturi and Argentinian golfer Roberto De Vicenzo, until Fred passed away in 1977.  At that time, Dick Ryan was the Board Chairman of Guiding Eyes for the Blind. [GuidingEyes.org]

Don Kauth, the founder of Guiding Eyes, desperately wanted a PGA tour golf tournament to benefit the guide dog school, but golf was in one of its heydays and tournament beneficiaries needed to stand in line. Instead, Ryan suggested a celebrity Pro-Am tournament that would make blind golfers the “stars” of the event. Jack Ward, a friend of Ryan’s and member of Mount Kisco Country Club, signed on as Chairman of the Golf Committee and worked tirelessly to secure sponsors and financial support for the event.

The Corcoran Cup
At the same time, Dick Ryan suggested they name the trophy for the winning blind golfer after Fred Corcoran, who had recently passed away, and donated the Corcoran Cup trophy. This was an appropriate remembrance for a long-time resident of Westchester and a man who loved an original idea.  The Cribari Trophy, named for Guido Cribari, the long-time Sports Editor of Gannet’s Westchester-Rockland Newspapers, goes to the runner up.

Initially, the blind golfers’ competition was played on a Monday in June, along with the supporters. But after a few years, the BGA (Blind Golfers of America) said that it was difficult for them to compete under such conditions and eventually, the Corcoran Cup competition was moved to a Sunday afternoon, making the tournament a two-day event. The key ingredient for this move was getting the members of Mount Kisco CC to give over their golf course on a Sunday afternoon in June, but thanks to the hard work of Jack Ward and Al Maiolo, they agreed. The tournament’s competition now begins around 1pm on a Sunday in June and takes the rest of the day, and the fundraising outing takes place the next day, along with a ceremonial dinner that night.

Ken Venturi’s Involvement
Still in 1978, Dick Ryan turned to his friend and client, Ken Venturi, and asked Ken to support this cause. While Ken couldn’t make it the first year due to a scheduling conflict, he donated a personal lesson as a raffle prize.  As it turned out, the winner was an Asian gentleman who had never played golf and who showed up the following winter at Marco Island, Florida, Ken’s winter haven, for his lesson—wearing sneakers. Ken cheerfully obliged and converted him to a devotee of the game.

Venturi made it to the second tournament in 1979, where he and Dick Ryan rode around the course, allowing Ken to meet all of the blind golfers. At the end of the day Ken said to Dick, “Just let me know the date of the tournament each year and I’ll be here from now on.” Venturi continued to actively support the tournament for the next 25 years, until his retirement from television broadcasting.

At Guiding Eyes’ request, Venturi became the name sponsor a few years later and the tournament was called The Ken Venturi Guiding Eyes Classic. During those years, Venturi contributed his own time and considerable talents as Master of Ceremonies and Host, and also brought golf pros such as John Cooke, Bob Murphy, Jerry Pate and Curt Byrum to the event and recruited several major sponsors, including Merrill Lynch.

Today’s Tournament
Since 2007, the tournament has been hosted by New York Giant Quarterback Eli Manning and has been supported by major sponsors such as Entergy and Gatorade. Over the past 30 years, the Corcoran Cup and the sponsor-support Golf Classic have raised more than $10 million for Guiding Eyes for the Blind—funds that are essential for the nonprofit school to breed and train its renowned guide dogs and partner them, at no charge to its clients, successfully with visually impaired and blind people and children with autism. 

If Fred were writing the tournament’s headline today, I bet it would say something like: Blind Golfers Raise Millions for Really Smart, Hard-Working Dogs.

For more on the Guiding Eyes for the Blind, visit GuidingEyes.org.