Masters champion Art Wall Jr. was both an outstanding golfer and a genuinely nice man
While Honesdale isn't the biggest of towns in the Commonwealth, it boasts more than it's fair share of famous folks.
From baseball great Christy Mathewson and General Lyman Lemnitzer, to billiards Hall of Famer Ruth McGinnis and World War I flying ace David McKelvey Peterson, the “Maple City” has made is presence felt on the world stage more than a few times.
This weekend, with Masters Mania in full swing, it seems only fitting to pause and remember one of Honesdale's favorite sons...
The Green Jacket
Art Wall Jr., shocked the professional golfing world in 1959, posting five birdies on the final six holes to steal the Green Jacket from none other than Arnold Palmer.
It was the culmination of a remarkable links career, one that began at the Honesdale Golf Club.
Art was born on Nov. 25, 1923 and began playing golf at a very young age. He was a well-rounded athlete, also playing basketball with his brother, Dewey, on the Honesdale High School team.
Art served his country in World War II, then headed off to Duke University to continue his links career. He graduated in 1949 with a business degree before turning pro as a golfer.
Outside of Honesdale, Art is obviously best known for his Masters title. However, he was far from a “one hit wonder.”
Wall won a total of 14 PGA events. He also received the Vardon Trophy as Player of the Year in 1959. Art was a member of three Ryder Cup teams as well and notched multiple wins on the old Caribbean Tour.
Additionally, he was listed in the Guinness Book for many years as the world record holder for verified holes-in-one. A famously soft-spoken, polite man, Art never liked to talk about those amazing shots
His son, Douglas Wall, who now lives in Colorado, remembers the best reply Art ever uttered when pressed on his penchant for aces...
“Dad was getting razzed by his fellow pros during a practice round after he hit another hole-in-one. He just looked up and said: 'Fellas, I'm aiming at the hole every time.'”
Doug and I played on the same Honesdale Little Baseball Association team in the early 1970s, the Murray Company Giants.
We became friends back in those halcyon days and still keep in touch via social media. I reached out to Doug on Thursday … Day One of the Masters … and asked him to share a few words about his father.
“What I can say about my Dad is he not only had an amazing 40-year career, but was a humble man who, as he would say, 'Did not toot his own horn.'
“He didn't seek or want the limelight and in my opinion has slipped under the radar for this reason.
“He was always willing to take time out of his day to help someone with their game, many times it was a young golfer struggling on the driving range.
“He was the consummate gentleman, loving husband and father.
“We, as his family, could not be prouder of him, what he accomplished and how he went about his business (golf) and daily life.”
I’m honored to say that Art Wall Jr. and I became friends over the final five years of his life.
I first met him at HGC’s gala 100th Anniversary celebration back at the turn of the millennium.
Art had arrived behind the wheel of a shimmering blue Jaguar. The tall, handsome gentleman emerged from his car, paused for a moment, then strolled over to meet the Maple City masses.
When we sat down to chat on the porch, I could sense his reluctance. In my entire life, I don’t believe I’ve ever met a more private man.
“I have many heartwarming memories of Honesdale and this golf course,” he told me in an exclusive interview, the first he’d granted in 15 years.
“My mother and father played here in the summer. When my brother (Dewey) and I were about 10-years-old, we caddied for them. That’s how we became interested in the game. It was just a delightful place to spend a summer’s day.”
Art played and won tournaments all over the globe, yet never forgot his beloved hometown.
“I always tell people what a little gem this place is,” he said. “It’s a pleasure to come home.”
Art avoided members of the media like the plague.
He’d lived most of his adult life in the spotlight … and, quite frankly, he hated it. The only things he wanted in his golden years were to play a little golf, to enjoy his family and to slip quietly off into the sunset.
However, HGC had always held a special place in his heart. And so, when it came time for the Centennial Celebration, Art made an exception. The little 9-hole course up on Golf Hill meant a great deal to him … and, well I guess he just had to tell someone.
Our initial talk started a bit awkwardly. I introduced myself, shook Art’s hand and tried to find a bit of common ground.
“My grandfather used to play here all the time,” I told him. “Maybe you remember him. His name was George Baxter...”
Art regarded me with sudden interest. “George Baxter?” he asked, a smile creeping across his face. “I remember him well. You’re his grandson?”
Art drummed his fingers on the tabletop and considered my face. Then, he began to talk.
At first, I’d hope to steal five or 10 minutes of Art’s time. What I eventually came away with was more than a half hour of happy, easy banter … a gold mine of priceless conversation.
One of the very first things I learned about Art was that he loved sports.
He and his brother Dewey had both played basketball and baseball at Honesdale. Art was a lifelong Yankees fan who had once dreamed of being a major leaguer.
“You’d better put down that I played baseball in quotation marks,” he quipped, a twinkle in his eye. “I liked the game an awful lot, but my playing days didn’t last too long.”
While his focus was always on golf, Art loved baseball and basketball, following both sports closely to the end of his days. We sat together at several high school basketball games and it was obvious how much he still enjoyed it.
In the End
What do I remember most about Art Wall Jr?
Without question I remember what a quiet and dignified man he was. I recall how his eyes twinkled when he smiled.
He never forgot me, going out of his way on many occasions to shake my hand, say hello and ask after my parents.
Sure, I remember that Art is the ’59 Masters Champion and one of the greatest athletes ever to emerge from NEPA. But, even those distinctions fail to encapsulate the man.
Art Wall Jr. was that rarest of things in these uncertain times: an absolute gentleman.