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Kebo commemorates an eventful century

This picturesque golf course has been the scene of celebrity guests, disasters and remarkable resiliency

By Ernie Roberts
Special To The Globe / August 16, 1988
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BAR HARBOR, Maine—In golf history, William Howard Taft is recognized as the first American president to have an active interest in the game.

In the intimate world of this famed resort town, the portly president is remembered more for scoring a record 23 on the treacherous 17th hole of the Kebo Valley Club in 1911.

The fact that Taft even posted a score after his lengthy and traumatic struggle in the 35-foot-high and 50-yard-long bunker facing Kebo's 17th is a tribute both to his love for the game and the Lorelei qualities of this ancient links.

Kebo Valley once was considered The Country Club North, founded in 1888 by wealthy summer visitors for horse racing, tennis and baseball but eventually developing a beautiful golf course which overwhelmed the other sports.

Set in the foothills of Cadillac and Dorr Mountains, the venerable course is short and scenic. With Kebo Brook wending around and in front of many of the traditionally small, elevated greens, the course record remains 5-under- par 65, established more than two decades ago by former caddie Lew Hersey, now head professional at Glen Eagle in Boca Raton, Fla.

Details of Taft's trauma on Kebo's 17th have been lost. But veterans of that devilish uphill hole -- including this writer, who once had to hole an 8- footer to get a halve in 16 there -- can attest to its potential for disaster.

Now there will be another Taft attacking Kebo Valley's signature hole. William Howard Taft 4th is coming up from Washington for Kebo's centennial celebration Aug. 26-27.

"And as part of our 100th birthday activities, President Taft's great grandson (who is Deputy Secretary of Defense) will wear the golfing uniform of that era (shirt, tie, hat) and blast his way out of the 17th bunker with a wooden-shafted mashie niblick," says Kebo Valley president Cary Swan.

There will be a double celebration at Kebo Valley that weekend. Skip Chappelle has put together a noted celebrity group for a golf tournament and retirement party in honor of former Celtics coach K.C. Jones.

"We have Ted Williams, Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn, Sam Jones, Jo Jo White, Gino Cappelletti, Larry Eisenhauer, Keith Crowder, Derek Sanderson, Walt Dropo, Dave Cowens and Will McDonough," says Chappelle, who just retired as Maine basketball coach.

Kebo Valley's century of history has been punctuated by fires which destroyed its clubhouse twice, defined by two men with the surprising first name of Shirley, and is ending in triumph over financial problems which threatened its status as one of America's 10 oldest courses for continuous operation.

Kebo's first fire occurred on July 1, 1899, the day the club began its second decade of operation. Golf had commenced in 1891, the first six holes completed the following year, the full nine holes by 1896. The clubhouse, designed by noted architect Wilson Eyre, was destroyed by overnight flames. The undaunted members played golf around its ruins all that summer and celebrated the completion of the new clubhouse in 1900 by paying Harry Vardon $250 to play an exhibition. The British star, in America to promote his new golf ball, the Vardon Flyer, was happy to oblige.

Kebo's second disaster was caused by the famous Bar Harbor fire of 1947. This not only destroyed the clubhouse but 135 mansions, homes and hotels in the resort community.

"It placed us in severe financial difficulty because we not only had to build a new clubhouse but our membership dwindled," explains Bar Harbor attorney Bill Fenton, the only remaining Kebo member from those pre-fire days.

"The fire changed the whole character of Bar Harbor. Only one of the grand summer homes in town was restored because of the exorbitant costs. We had a new, more modest clubhouse completed for the '48 season, but our membership had fallen to less than 50."

The financial history of the Kebo Club, with its limited season of basically July 4 to Labor Day and membership restricted mainly to the summer colony, always had been lean. After Mrs. Charles Pike, widow of Kebo's third president, bailed out the club with a $10,000 donation in 1943, a unique plan -- the Honor Roll Fund -- was devised.

The board of directors offered a selected list of members, including the families of Sir Harry Oakes and automobile magnates Edsel Ford and Roscoe Jackson, the opportunity to "sponsor" individual holes on the course. A bronze plaque mounted on a granite stone would be placed on each tee, identifying the hole's sponsor, who would pay $1,000 for this honor.

The 18th tee plaque honors Edsel Ford, known nationally for his namesake car which flopped but remembered locally for donating a new Ford truck during Kebo's 1931 Depression emergency. His widow continued the family tradition by donating $1,000 toward a new tractor in 1947.

The Honor Roll funds were not sufficient to cope with higher expenses and fewer members. In the '50s, under the leadership of Robert Ryle, the once exclusive club capitulated to modern reality.

"Year-round residents of Mount Desert Island (where Bar Harbor is located) finally were encouraged to join the club," says Fenton. "Previously, the natives had been limited to playing after 4 p.m. for a small seasonal fee. And tourists now were allowed access upon payment of a greens fee."

He succeeded Ryle as president, and by the end of Fenton's term in 1964, Kebo's membership was up to 174. Today the club's listing, featuring local names like Harding, Paine, MacLeod and Murphy instead of Atwater Kent, John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Joseph Pulitzer, numbers more than 400. Thanks to the active tourist play, the annual dues are less than $300.

The two Shirleys in Kebo's history typify the early character of the club.

Shirley Liscomb was the son of Andrew Liscomb, who built the original Kebo nine and worked for the club for 38 years as course superintendent. Shirley outdid his dad, becoming club pro in 1907 at 19, taking on both professional and greenskeeper duties in 1932 (at $2,000 annually) and continuing for 23 years until his death in 1955.

Shirley Liscomb was there that day in 1911 when President Taft fell victim to No. 17. He was on hand when Walter Hagen established a course record of 3- under-par 67 in '22 and when architect Donald Ross suggested some changes in the now-completed 18-hole layout in 1926. Liscomb was a beloved figure at Kebo, setting a standard for his successors, including Fred McPheters, the current pro and course superintendent since 1972. Liscomb's name is honored in bronze on the third tee.

The other Shirley (which in the early 20th century was a fairly common boy's name in Maine) was Shirley Povich. Like most boys of that era in Bar Harbor, he caddied at the course. And, as with many other Kebo caddies, that became his passport from Maine to success in the outside world.

As Povich recalls those 1920 days in the book "No Cheering In The Press Box," he caddied for Edward B. McLean, who was fascinated with Shirley's ability to locate his errant shots into Kebo's wilderness.

Writes Povich, "I caddied for Mr. McLean all summer, and finally it came to the point where he would come to my house to pick me up in his Rolls Royce with his chauffeur in the back and Mr. McLean and I sitting up front. Everyone was very amused. But some of the old fogies at the Kebo Golf Club didn't like it -- some of the old members who tipped you a dime. The hierarchy at Kebo didn't allow private caddies, or else the biggest tippers would get the best caddies. So Mr. McLean deputized me as his valet and told me with a wink, 'Shirley, they can't say my valet can't caddie for me.' "

When Povich was graduated from high school at 17, McLean, who owned the Washington Post, brought him down there, paid his tuition to Georgetown and made sure he had a part-time job as a copy boy in the city room. Four years later, at 21, Povich was sports editor. Still writing occasionally at 83, Shirley Povich plans to come up to Kebo Valley for the centennial celebration.

As the Kebo Valley Club heads into its second century, its future appears promising and prosperous. A new watering system is in place. The putting green which forms a miniature course on the slope before the clubhouse porch remains the most distinctive and challenging in America. Construction on the clubhouse to add a lower level and double its size probably will start in October. Membership is at an all-time high, and a Preservation Fund, initiated by the club's first woman president, Jane MacLeod, during her '81-83 tenure, has received island-wide support in its fund-raising campaign.

"Yes, things have changed at Kebo," says Fenton. "Shirley Liscomb used to let that rough grow up high. There used to be a lip overhanging that huge bunker at 17 and no preferred lie to let you escape it. The course is easier to play today. On the other hand, you can't saunter down to the first hole at 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning and tee it right up without being in danger of hitting anyone."

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