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These original USF golfers saw the birth, and death, of ‘The Claw’

Three Golden Brahman golfers recently paid their last respects to the school’s public golf course.
 
Original USF golf team members (from left) Mike Curtin, Rick Lehman and Jim Britt stand on the tee box of the notorious 14th hole at the university public course, known universally as "The Claw." After 56 years of existence, the course shut down for good on Labor Day.
Original USF golf team members (from left) Mike Curtin, Rick Lehman and Jim Britt stand on the tee box of the notorious 14th hole at the university public course, known universally as "The Claw." After 56 years of existence, the course shut down for good on Labor Day. [ JOEY KNIGHT | Times ]
Published Sept. 12, 2023|Updated Sept. 12, 2023

TAMPA — The septuagenarian former golfers sit in a shaded area of a desolate parking lot on a morning mercifully light on humidity.

Age has left them tattered in some areas and scarred in others.

Just like the course directly behind them — the one whose birth they witnessed and whose wake they now attend. In a previous life, this old track afforded them moments of triumph and misadventure, slapstick and conquest. At various junctures, they hailed its pristineness and cursed its perplexity.

“It was an impossible golf course,” 76-year-old Mike Curtin says.

“The Claw” has been put out to pasture, and on this day it looks like one: unkempt, frayed, weedy and neglected. USF’s public golf course, opened in 1967 next to a forest preserve on the campus’ northern fringe, closed for good on Labor Day. School officials said it had been hemorrhaging money for years.

On this day, it hemorrhages memories.

Rick Lehman, a member of USF’s inaugural golf team (1965-66), has brought a treasure trove of black-and-white photos, USF yearbooks, even a green-and-gold USF letterman’s sweater to commemorate the occasion. Curtin and Jim Britt, also charter members of the golf team (then known as the “Golden Brahmans”), also have arrived to pay their last respects.

A sad occasion? Sure. These guys were here when earth movers broke ground on the course, and Lehman has a photo to prove it.

“But we’re also celebrating it,” says Lehman, 77. “Because of all the memories and good times out here.”

Their arrival at the school actually predates the course. USF fielded its first golf team in 1965, and Curtin — raised in Toledo — was among its first recruits. His dad, Jim, who later became a founding father of Innisbrook Resort, sent letters to numerous college golf programs on behalf of his son. Spafford Taylor, listed by the school as its first men’s golf coach, responded.

“So I came down, and (Taylor) and I played Quail Hollow,” recalled Curtin, who enjoyed a prosperous career in the real-estate sector and remains a consultant for home builders. “It was raining, it wasn’t a very good day, and I shot the best round of my life, because I wasn’t very good. I shot 73, and I got a scholarship almost right then and there.”

USF fielded is first golf team in 1965, two years before the school's public course ("The Claw") opened. Front (left to right): Mike Curtin, Rick Lehman, Bobby Stricklin. Back (left to right): Bob Oblinger, Bob Sitch, Rick Ragnitt, Jim Britt, Bill Dykeman
USF fielded is first golf team in 1965, two years before the school's public course ("The Claw") opened. Front (left to right): Mike Curtin, Rick Lehman, Bobby Stricklin. Back (left to right): Bob Oblinger, Bob Sitch, Rick Ragnitt, Jim Britt, Bill Dykeman [ Photo provided by Rick Lehman ]

Upon returning home, Curtin informed longtime buddy Lehman — then a University of Toledo freshman desperate to escape the northern-Ohio winters — about USF’s fledgling program. Lehman wrote his own letter to Taylor.

The pair eventually joined roughly 20 others, including Britt — a Chamberlain High alumnus — for de facto tryouts at a north Tampa course that ultimately became Carrollwood Golf Club. While Taylor — also a tennis coach at USF — officially was listed as coach, the players recall that first team being overseen by Dick Bowers, who eventually became Bulls athletic director.

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“(Bowers) didn’t know really anything about golf,” recalled Lehman, who also spent most of his adulthood in real estate aside from a stint as a marine electrician on the West Coast. “He may have played golf, but he wasn’t really a true coach in the sense of somebody who could give you a lesson. ... But he did his best.”

Soon after the inaugural team took shape, so did the inaugural tee boxes. The university’s first public course, designed by prominent course architect Bill Mitchell, was completed in 1967. For its era, it was deemed innovative, and infuriating.

Mounded, narrow fairways with swampland on either side. Foreboding bodies of water. Greens with all the resistance of concrete, some of which featured ruthless slopes.

The signature hole, which spawned the course’s nickname (more on that later) was No. 14: a 538-yard par-5 with a double dogleg and towering cluster of trees at the initial dogleg’s first tip. But darn near each hole was a test of precision and patience.

“If you hit it on the side of a fairway, you bounced into a swamp,” recalled Britt, a retired contractor and Baptist preacher.

“And the greens were like, on pedestals,” Curtin added, “and they were rock-hard.”

Rick Lehman, captain of USF's first golf team, sits atop a tractor as teammates commemorate initial groundbreaking of the school's public course, known universally as "The Claw." The course opened in 1967 and closed for good on Labor Day.
Rick Lehman, captain of USF's first golf team, sits atop a tractor as teammates commemorate initial groundbreaking of the school's public course, known universally as "The Claw." The course opened in 1967 and closed for good on Labor Day. [ Photo provided by Rick Lehman ]

Curtin recalls setting a course record with a 70 in a match against Rollins in the first or second year of the course’s existence. He also remembers a player shooting a 69 the following year on Day 1 of a four-day tournament, only to shoot in the 70s on Day 2, then the 80s on Day 3, and the 90s on Day 4.

“That’s how hard the course was,” Curtin said.

Other memories emanate as morning segues to afternoon. Lehman recalls hitting into high grass on a lakeside hole, only to encounter a large gator while trying to retrieve his ball. He also remembers he and several players arriving to the course in tuxedos the morning after a fraternity formal and changing in the parking lot.

Gil Happel, who joined the team in 1967, recalls the course being briefly submerged.

“One time, I don’t know whether we had a hurricane or what we had, but the Hillsborough River came up and flooded all that area down there,” Happel, a 77-year-old retired commercial pilot, said by phone.

“They had to row a boat out to the green to cut the greens. They somehow got a mower on a plank and towed it out there, and there was a damn gator sitting right out there in the middle of the green.”

Dates and minor details are sketchy as other memories spawn, but one on which all (including Happel) steadfastly concur: How the course got its legendary nickname.

It came from Bill Dykeman, another charter team member. Curtin takes it from here.

“Bill was like our fifth or sixth man,” he said. “And he goes around the front nine, goes around three or four holes on the back nine, he’s got a really good score going.

“He gets to that (No. 14) hole, and he makes a 10 or 11. And he’s walking to the next tee, and he used some choice language, but he said, ‘You know, no matter how good you’re doing, ‘The Claw’ will reach out and grab you.’”

Reached at his Kentucky law office, Dykeman, 76, mildly downplayed his role in the course’s history.

“There really was a limb hanging over the first turn on the left (of No. 14) that looked like a claw,” he said. “It would catch many a good shot and send it wherever. But I think what some of them are saying is, it became kind of a nom de plume for the whole course, because it would get you somewhere along the line.”

In more than a half-century, “The Claw” grabbed some by the throat, or psyche.

On this occasion, it grabs these guys by the heartstrings.

“I’m sad to see it go,” Dykeman said. “I guess all things must pass.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

Related: The Claw's closing at USF reminds us of other area sports venues we miss

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