The state of Arkansas loved Orville Henry for his extensive coverage of Arkansas Razorbacks football, but golf is the sport that ignited his passion.
If most of his working moments were consumed in writing volumes of words about the Razorbacks, the rest of his waking moments were spent on golf. That could be reading, watching or playing the game he learned as a caddie at Fair Park Golf Course.
Henry was 77 when he died in March of 2002 after two years of battling pancreatic cancer, contemplating another round of golf all the way until the end. That's one of the stories I'll tell Thursday night at Pleasant Valley Country Club when he will be inducted in the Arkansas State Golf Association Hall of Fame.
My dad would be thrilled to be going into the golf hall with the John Cooper family, the founder of the vast golf developments at Cherokee Village, Bella Vista and Hot Springs Village, as well as PGA Tour pro Ken Duke, Bev Hargraves and Ginger Brown-Lemm.
There was the day about three weeks before my dad's passing that we visited in Malvern, his home in semi-retirement. We polished his favorite golf shoes and announced that we'd play a few holes at one of his favorite courses, the Arlington side at Hot Springs Country Club.
"We'll leave at 9 in the morning," he said. "We'll have a good breakfast and head to the course."
At that point, my father was too weak to do almost anything. He was starving from the pancreatic cancer. I protested to my stepmother that he was too frail for golf.
"You and I both know y'all are not playing tomorrow," she said. "But it's good for his mental health to think about going to the course. He loves golf so much. Go along with him and polish his shoes."
Dad grew up with seven brothers and sisters in a house at 214 McKinley near where Park Plaza Mall is located now. It was only a par five away from the first tee at Fair Park Golf Course, now War Memorial. He and brothers Ed, Travis, Bill and Howard headed to "the Fair Park" every morning with a sandwich, a candy bar and a nickel for a coca-cola.
"It was the depression and no one had anything," he told the story many times. "We lived at the edge of Hickory Nut Mountain and we'd walk to The Fair Park. We'd make a quarter by carrying a double loop. We'd take that back to my mother. She used that in the budget. Dad was gone selling bread as a traveling salesman around the state."
There were bigger boys that sometimes tried to take the candy bar.
"We opened them and licked them all over," he said. "No one wanted them after that."
Those were the days of sand greens at Fair Park. The course wasn't ever a palace, but it was always held in high esteem in our house. I can remember griping about the greens the first time I played there in the Fourth of July tournament's championship flight.
"Don't complain," he said. "It's the same for everyone. The best players still win every year at Fair Park. Go look at the champions list."
I did complain once about a rocky lie in the Fourth of July event, in the fairway. Dad said, "That's when you pull out your rock club."
"You get a chance to pick your 14 clubs at the car," he said. "Take out one of those woods. You don't need them at Fair Park. Put in an old 7-iron for your rock club. You can use it from the creek at 13 and 18."
His advice on golf was always simple.
"There are a lot of golf swings, but only one grip," he said. "If you are having trouble, ask your Uncle Bill to fix your grip. And turn your shoulders. The rest will work out."
That was his younger brother, pro Bill Henry, inducted in the Arkansas Golf Hall of Fame in 1997. Bill built Western Hills, then operated Riverdale Golf Course when the membership sold to Winthrop Rockefeller to build Pleasant Valley.
Golf was always front and center with Orville, Jr. His favorite times were the break after basketball when he covered the Masters at Augusta National. Some of his readers thought those were the columns where he painted the best picture, even ahead of his Razorback game analysis on Monday morning. Those golf columns made him happy, too. He was also happy hitting plastic golf balls off of a mat into a stairway from the dining room all winter.
Most didn't know it, but he was giving more than his Arkansas readers insight into the Masters. Little Rock native Jack Stephens, a very close friend, always used OH for a prep just before presenting the green jacket. Stephens passed on that tradition to Frank Broyles. He used Orville the same way, to make sure the right questions were asked to the winner. Most times, all three were together in the same room watching the final round.
Masters media badges were numbered according to seniority. By the time Henry covered his last tournament at age 75, he wore media badge No. 2. None of the others knew any more golf, or hit any more golf balls than Orville.
One of his great pleasures was to compete in tournament play, although he battled just as hard with regular 4-some members Harry King, Jim Elder and Paul Eells. He preferred match play and loved the Fourth of July event, the Little Rock Country Club 4-ball or the ASGA Father-Son.
Eells had one of the best lines about golf with Orville Henry. It was one of those Friday mornings at North Hills soon after Eells joined KATV. There's always a feeling out process when someone joins a new game.
"I had always played a second ball off the tee in my regular game in Nashville," he said. "I hit one alright in that first game with Orville, Harry and Jim. But it wasn't my best. It might have been just a little in the left rough.
"I reached for another one in my back pocket. From the back of the tee came Orville, ‘Paul, you gonna play or you gonna practice?' He soon added, ‘We putt ‘em all out, too.' And we did. Then, he said, ‘We can roll it around in the fairways if you want, but that's not really golf.' He loved the true game of golf."
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