Joe Sullivan

Joe Sullivan
Assistant pro, head pro, and golf team coach

The only photograph of Joe Sullivan in the Athletics Department archives shows a very serious man in a suit and tie. That doesn’t fit the man, about whom great stories have been passed down through the years. He looks more comfortable in the photographs of him demonstrating shots in Ben Thomson’s book, How to Play Golf. Sullivan was twenty years old and already an Assistant Pro at Waterbury Country Club, when his twelfth and thirteenth siblings, twins Robert and Vincent, were born in 1929. Luckily they are still here to confirm some of what we have heard.

Sullivan came to Yale as Ben Thomson’s assistant in 1939. He enlisted his ten-year old twin brothers in the caddie ranks. At the time, Joe Sullivan had a two-seat Model A Ford with a rumble seat and running boards. He drove it to the course from his home across town in Fair Haven, stopping along the way to pick up as many as eight kids plus the twins to caddie. Some told their mothers that they were staying overnight with a fellow caddie, when in fact they slept in the bunker by the ninth hole in order to be first out the next morning and “go double” for thirty-six holes! By the twins’ accounting, the caddies would gather behind a brick wall in the area where the cart barn now stands, waiting to be called for a loop for seventy-five cents. On the other side of the wall was the tempting hot dog stand. New kids who joined the caddie ranks were put through an initiation of being forced to go out on a loop with thick straw wrapped under their shirts and around their bodies, creating a brutally hot, four hours in the sun.

Caddies could play the course on Mondays until noon. Robert Sullivan remembers looping for Ralph Morrell, who had played the course on opening day in 1926 and continued into his 90s. Ralph Sullivan worked at the Peabody Museum and liked to collect snakes during his round. He stored them in a net sack in his golf bag until the end of the round. In addition to caddying, another brother, Tommy worked for Joe “hawking balls” from the lake between holes three and four, as well as running the hot dog stand. On one occasion he remembers Senator Abe Ribicoff tried to get a twenty-five-cent hot dog and coke for nothing because he “was a senator.”

Joe Sullivan (demonstrating the proper setup in “How to Play Golf ” by Ben Thomson)

Joe Sullivan liked to teach, first as an assistant, then eventually as head pro and coach. The lesson tee was located behind the clubhouse and out to the left of the third fairway for full shots. For the short game, the area between the second and fourth greens was used. Chipping practice consisted of tossing balls underhand to the hole. For bunker play lessons, he used the eighteenth hole.

The best player that brother Robert ever saw play Yale was the amateur, Billy Joe Patton of Princeton. Later Patton finished third in the 1954 Masters. Cary Middlecoff was the only player he ever saw who could drive a ball from the first tee across Greist Pond. Gary Player and Ken Venturi also played the course during the Sullivan years.

Though some students had cars, most got to the course on a trolley that stopped at Whalley and Fountain Streets. From there they walked the two miles to the course. Joe’s teams won the Eastern Intercollegiate Golf Championship five times during the nine years that he was coaching. He was quite a good player himself. On five occasions, he started a round with 3’s on the first five holes. He once shot 27 on the front nine, and his best for eighteen holes was 64. Sullivan is also remembered for his ability to hit over the pond to the ninth green — while kneeling.

Because of the financial demands of raising four children, Sullivan left Yale to become Head Pro at Race Brook Country Club in 1955. He retired in 1976 and passed away the next year. Because of his deep affection for the Yale Golf Course, his twin brothers spread his ashes along the fourth fairway and the third regular tee. The fourth fairway was where he had demonstrated shot making for Thomson’s book.

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