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The King of the Amateurs

Brownell Dominated Local Golf Scene From '30s to the '50s

By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 21, 2005; Page D09

It seems only fitting the putter Ken Venturi used to win the 1964 U.S. Open at Congressional is displayed side-by-side in the trophy case at Burning Tree Golf Club in Bethesda with a similarly well-worn putter used by native Washingtonian Bobby Brownell to win amateur titles as a local schoolboy in the 1930s.

"I've probably played more rounds of golf with Bobby than anyone else around," Venturi said in a telephone interview from his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. "I'd go over to Burning Tree, we'd get in a cart, and there were days we'd play 36 holes, sometimes 45 if we could. A man couldn't ask for a better golf partner, or a better friend."

District amateur champion Bobby Brownell, from left, Henry Picard, Gene Sarazan and Ray O'Brien in 1952. (Del Vecchio -- The Washington Post)

Brownell can no longer go such distances on a golf course. At 86, his hips and other infirmities are bothersome enough to curtail the hours he spent on the practice tee at Burning Tree or joining another old friend and golfing companion, Jack Mills, for a round of hopscotch golf, avoiding backups on the course by steering their cart to the closest open hole.

Mills, 84, is legally blind and doesn't play anymore, but he derives pleasure in talking about Brownell's accomplishment.

Most of them came during a bygone era when local amateur golf often drew respectable galleries, top players from the East Coast and the occasional sports page headline at significant District, Maryland and Virginia tournaments.

"Bobby's too modest to tell you how good he was," Mills said the other day over a crab-cake lunch at Burning Tree, with Brownell sitting next to him. "But let me tell you. He was a very special player."

In 1934 and 1936, Brownell won the D.C. junior golf championship while attending Roosevelt High School. In '36, at the age of 17, he also won the first of his 11 Washington Metropolitan area championships, including 10 straight from 1946 to '55. Brownell had a record streak of 57 straight matches without a loss in that event, and also was a five-time champion of the Middle Atlantic Amateur.

With the late Ralph Bogart, his partner in a highly successful insurance company they founded in 1948, Brownell won the prestigious amateur Belle Haven Four Ball seven times and won the Anderson Memorial Four Ball at Winged Foot in New York five times.

He played college golf at Duke and was captain of the team in 1941, winning the Southern Conference title and the Southern Intercollegiate championship that year as well as the Maryland Open. On consecutive Sundays in 1950, Brownell set the course records at Columbia Country Club with a 62 and Manor Country Club with a 63 in an era when the lively ball, graphite shafts and titanium club-heads were decades from changing the way the modern game is played.

No Regrets

Venturi and many others who saw him in his prime said they had no doubt Brownell had the talent to play professionally. But Brownell said he never really wanted to at a time when purses were minimal and players essentially became vagabonds, driving three and four to a car and sharing hotel rooms to cut down on their expenses.

"I just decided to stay an amateur," Brownell said. "I had a wife and children, and that kind of life never really appealed to me. I never regretted it, not once. And being in the insurance business, my golf always got me past the office secretary to talk to clients. People liked to talk about golf, and I was always happy to do that."

Brownell started playing golf at age 10. His father, James V. Brownell, was also a talented player and an executive with the Underwood typewriter company in Washington. The family belonged to the old Indian Springs Club in Maryland, where Bobby and his older brother, Jimmy, played during the week and caddied on weekends. His father arranged with an assistant golf pro, George Diffenbaugh, to give the boys lessons, paying him $100 for the summer to keep his eye on the brothers.

"I was a little short fella," Brownell said, "and I had a very flat golf swing. Dad wanted to be sure my brother and I didn't get into any trouble, so he gave George $100 and asked him to help us with our golf games and told him to let him know when that ran out. That was a lot of money in those days, and he really improved our games."

Brownell's father essentially dictated his college choice. On a business trip in the Raleigh-Durham area in North Carolina, James Brownell was speaking to well-known amateur Roger Peacock, who arranged for him to meet the Duke golf coach, Dumpy Hagler, also an assistant coach for the Duke football team under Wallace Wade.

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