Columnist Bisher covered Masters, Kentucky Derby -- and the start of the Heritage

Stop to be thankful for Bisher's 'Purgatory with 18 holes'

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comApril 10, 2012 

The Atlanta Journal may have "covered Dixie like the dew," but the words of its sports editor flowed with the power of the Mississippi.

When Furman Bisher christened the Harbour Town Golf Links as "Purgatory with 18 holes," people turned to stare, like tourists frozen by an alligator.

Bisher's death last month at 93 was noted by many legacies -- more than half a century of taking us around Churchill Downs and Amen Corner, helping bring the Braves to Atlanta, getting "Shoeless" Joe Jackson's side of a haunting story.

But on Hilton Head Island in 1969, Bisher gave credibility to an unusual course in an out-of-the-way place. It's one reason the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing will be played this week for the 44th time.

He joined a bright constellation in making it so. Charles Fraser dreamed it. Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus designed it. Charles Price got players to come to it. Arnold Palmer won it. And Dan Jenkins declared it a classic in Sports Illustrated.

Hilton Head was on the map.

GOLDEN ERA

"Furman was the greatest columnist in the history of the South and I don't mean sports columnist," said Edwin Pope of the Miami Herald. "I mean all newspaper writers. Whatever he said had a huge amount of weight. His opinion was valued and trusted."

Retired Atlanta Constitution editor Jim Minter said, "Over the last half of the 20th century and first decade of the 21st, he put more quality words on American newsprint than any other columnist, sports or otherwise. No one approached him."

Columnist Ron Green Sr., who covered his 58th Masters last week for The Charlotte Observer, said, "Furman seemed to be the master of the house. He didn't bow to anyone. He saw it the way he saw it and said it the way he wanted to say it. He was a very powerful voice in sports, but he had that style -- his writing just flowed."

Bisher represents well the golden era of newspapers, when writers set the scene and told the news to readers who didn't see it on television, or get the tweets on Twitter.

He once wrote about his colleague, columnist Lewis Grizzard, "This was part of his early ambition, to ride the train and cover the Atlanta Crackers to such exciting destinations as Little Rock and Mobile, Ala. There was something about watching the countryside pass in review through a train window, having lunch on a white tablecloth in a speeding diner, seeing little towns fly by and hearing the warning bell sound its urgent ding-ding at crossings, where everything else stood still while your train raced through."

That's how Bisher glided through a great American age, never forsaking the 1948 Royal typewriter he inherited from crusading Atlanta editor Ralph McGill.

"He was a night-owl writer," said his son, Jamie Bisher of Maryland. "His office was right next to my bedroom, and he'd start typing about the time I'd go to bed. It was kind of like the rhythm of an old freight train. It would crank out like crazy for a minute or two, then stop, lurch forward. If they made a recording of that, I could sleep better today."

'PURGATORY'

Bisher wrote about Harbour Town a month before the first Heritage was played over Thanksgiving weekend in 1969.

He called it "the last word in outdoor torture chambers." He said it was the "prime fruition of Pete Dye's philosophy on course designing. 'Golf wasn't meant to be a fair game,' it reads. This is the ultimate achievement in unfair play."

Bisher said the course would also be notorious because it was the first one on which Nicklaus participated as a designer.

He also said: "When he was known as 'Fat Jack,' there would hardly have been enough room for Nicklaus on some of the fairways. 'You couldn't shoot a .22 rifle down some of them,' he said."

Dye laughed like a school child when I read him portions of Bisher's column the other day.

"That's right," he said with glee after every jab. "That's right!"

Bisher wrote of greens the size of a contact lens and trees in the fairway.

"When Dye says rough, he means rough," he wrote. "When you are in trouble here, you may be in need of last rites."

Bisher wondered what the penalty would be for lost players.

He predicted that tourists might not like Harbour Town, but "it is likely to become one of the most talked-about golf courses in the world."

TRUE LOVE

Hilton Head wasn't a passing fancy for Bisher.

For years, he brought his three boys to the island for vacation. He was a single dad with the help of a housekeeper, and Jamie Bisher said they all longed for their time on the island that was still rural. They were like "My Three Sons" at the William Hilton Inn, he said. Furman played golf while Jamie scoured for Civil War relics and his brother, Roger, the engineer, made friends with every maintenance worker. Brother Monte completed the group.

Bisher loved Hilton Head, and he wrote a lot about it for magazines and the newspaper. Fraser even offered him an oceanfront lot at half price: $4,000. But Bisher said he couldn't swing it.

Bisher got the last laugh, though, when he found true love on Hilton Head.

Her name was Lynda Landon. Her father, Lou Landon, came to the island as an early Palmetto Dunes executive. She taught school in the island's first consolidated red brick elementary school. She raised two daughters here, Tixie and Samantha, and was selling real estate when Bisher met her at a golf tournament in Wexford.

She remembers it vividly: "Furman came over and said, 'Young lady, I intend to give you my undivided attention.' That was 27 years ago."

They married in 1991.

BE THANKFUL

Bisher mellowed from the taskmaster he could be as an editor, she said. But he never quit writing. He retired from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2009, then wrote a blog, then a column for suburban Atlanta papers.

"The day he passed, he was writing," Lynda Bisher said. "I saw his notes."

Bisher's yellow Masters hat sat atop a spray of white lilies and tulips on his coffin. He was buried down the coast at Christ Church on St. Simons Island, Ga.

One of Bisher's legacies was his column in the Atlanta paper each Thanksgiving Day, listing things he was thankful for.

Hilton Head should be thankful for Bisher.

We should stop this week, like people in a hurry at a railroad crossing, and let his spirit play through.

"The finishing hole -- now there's a dream," Bisher wrote in 1969 of the postcard view CBS Sports will share with the world this weekend.

"It's 430 yards along the side of Calibogue Sound, which pokes its watery fingers into the fairway at irregular intervals. This is like playing into a wind tunnel at the wrong end of the average day on Hilton Head.

"It is designed to be played in four strokes. Actually, there is only one way to get there when the wind is presiding. You call a cab."

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