James Ray Carpenter, a self-professed “redneck from Runnelstown,” did not play a round of golf until he was 33 years old. And yet he rose to become president of the PGA of America in 1987 at the age of 60.
Carpenter did so partly because of his dedication to golf but mostly because of the force of his down-home personality.
He was a Mississippi original, J.R. Carpenter was. He was smart. He was friendly. He was funny. He was authentic. He died Wednesday morning at home in Hattiesburg following a brief illness. He was 91.
When he was the pro at the B.O. Van Hook Golf Course in Hattiesburg, back in the 1960s and 1970s, you were likely to find Carpenter with grease all over him, working to revive an old golf cart, or mowing the greens, or making the pairings for the State Junior Golf Tournament played annually at his course. He was a Jack of all trades, including underpaid baby-sitter for a bunch of kids who spent their summers at his golf course. I was one of those.
Then fast forward to 1986 and one of my first visits to Augusta National and The Masters. I was at the PGA’s big party on Thursday night and J.R. spotted me and motioned for me to come over. He wanted to introduce me to his pals, Arnie (Palmer) and Jack (Nicklaus).
Carpenter became a renowned rules expert and officiated major golf tournaments around the world, including the Ryder Cup. In 1985 he was the U.S. Ryder Cup chairman. And 1985 marked the first time the U.S. team lost the Ryder Cup to Europe since 1957. His friends didn’t let J.R. forget it.
So how, you ask, does one rise from a late-to-golf pro at an humble, south Mississippi public golf course to president of the powerful PGA of America, rubbing shoulders with the legends of the sport?
“J.R. was such a people person,” said Ben Nelson, a long-time PGA Tour rules official who lives in Madison. “He loved people and, boy, did they love him back. People just gravitated to him.”
“J.R. was just so personable, such a good story teller, and it didn’t matter who you were,” said Ken Lindsay, former Colonial Country Club pro who later served at PGA president. “Every time he spoke to somebody he made a friend, and people respected him. He quickly became an officer in the Gulf States Section of the PGA and then just kept rising up the ranks.”
He was funny, J.R. Carpenter was. He seemed to wear a perpetual grin on his often sun-burned face.
An example of his wit came in 2004 when the University of Southern Mississippi made the regrettable decision to close down the Van Hook golf course long after Carpenter had retired.
J.R. decided to celebrate the old course in the best way possible: a scramble golf tournament, one last round and a reunion of so many of us who loved the place. Only, J.R. called the tournament a “wake.” Instead of teams of four, he had teams of six. He called us pall bearers. When the tournament ended, J.R. hit a ceremonial last shot, while far down the fairway, a lone bugler played Taps. We laughed, and a few of us might have cried.
The Van Hook golf course, perpetually under-funded, was affectionately known as “The Ranch” – short for Goat Ranch. But Carpenter made it like a second home for so many of us. The Ranch was integrated before our schools were. J.R. treated all people the same. He culled nobody.
Before he became a golfer, Carpenter was an outstanding athlete at Hattiesburg High and at USM. He was a three-sport (basketball, baseball, tennis) at Hattiesburg High, all-state in basketball. He played basketball for Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer Lee Floyd at USM.
He worked as a high school basketball coach, sold insurance and then sold oil field supplies before being introduced to the game of golf at age 33 at the old Duncan Park golf course in Natchez. Quickly he was hooked.
Carpenter’s rise through the golf ranks was as fast as it was phenomenal. He took up golf in 1959. He became a pro in 1964. He joined the PGA of America in 1969. He became president of the Mississippi PGA in 1973, president of the Gulf States Section of the PGA in 1974, treasurer of the PGA of America in 1983 and President of the PGA of America in 1987.
As the PGA of America’s website Wednesday morning said: Carpenter applied “both homespun wit and counsel to become a respected leader” in golf.
“The PGA of America is saddened by the passing of J.R. Carpenter, a loyal and passionate PGA Professional who followed a simple yet effective formula in life – leave the place better than when you arrived,” said PGA of America President Paul K. Levy. “J.R. mentored so many who went on to meaningful positions in the golf industry. He had a wonderful way about him with down-home humor, but he never lost sight of the mission of the PGA, and what the Association could do for its members. We will miss him and our thoughts and prayers are with his family.”
Carpenter has been inducted into the USM Sports Hall of Fame, the USM Alumni Hall of Fame, the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and the Gulf States PGA Hall of Fame. He is a member of Jack Nicklaus’s Memorial Tournament’s Captain’s Club. On Oct. 4, he will be inducted posthumously into the inaugural class of the Hattiesburg Hall of Fame.
The golf, sports and alumni halls of fame are nice, but if there existed a Hall of Fame of Wit, J.R. would be a charter inductee. One more sample:
This was when Tiger Woods was a rookie on the PGA Tour, playing in the PGA Championship. Early in the week, Paul Azinger was telling Ryder Cup stories to Tiger and J.R., whom Woods knew only as Mr. Carpenter. One of the stories involved Jack Nicklaus and James Ray Carpenter, whom Azinger referred to as J.R. Woods listened, obviously puzzled, and finally asked Azinger, “Who’s this J.R.?”
Azinger and J.R. broke down laughing and Azinger pointed at J.R. Carpenter.
Now then, fast-forward to the opening round of the tournament. J.R. was the starter on the first tee, announcing each player. It came time for Woods to tee off, and, of course, the crowd at the first tee had swelled to the largest of the day.
J.R. Carpenter was ready. “Ladies and gentlemen, next on the tee, winner of three USGA National Junior Tournaments, three U.S. Amateurs, two PGA tournaments, Tiger … (long pause) young man, what is your last name?”
Tiger Woods broke up laughing and pointed at J.R. as if to say, “You got me back.”
Services will be held Saturday at 11 a.m. at Hardy Street Baptist Church at 1508 Hardy Street in Hattiesburg. There will be visitation from 4-8 p.m. Friday and Saturday morning (10-11) at the church. Hulett-Winstead Funeral Home is handling arrangements. There will be a private burial for family following the service.