Photo: Sonny (brother), Millie (mother) and Leo Fraser
One of the most ambitious and innovative golf leaders in New Jersey’s history, NJSGA Hall of Fame inductee Leo Fraser made an immeasurable impact on the game. Born in 1910, his golf career spanned parts of seven decades, and his local and national contributions were countless. Fraser’s reputation was known nationwide as a leader whose mission was always to do whatever was good for the game. This commitment was a driving force behind his success as a nationally recognized golf administrator and longtime owner of Atlantic City Country Club in Northfield, NJ.
The story of Leo Fraser’s career began as a caddie in his teenage years at Seaview Country Club in Galloway, NJ, followed by his relocation to Michigan in the late 1920s where he worked at Saginaw Country Club. He joined the Tour in 1929, and played in various events in the early 1930s. In 1935, Fraser made his return to New Jersey when he was hired as the golf professional at Seaview Country Club – where his father, ‘Jolly’ Jim Fraser had served years earlier before his passing in 1923. He continued in that role until he moved to the Baltimore area in 1938 – where he met his wife, Doris Hinton, who he married in 1942. Leo and Doris married just before his deployment in the U.S. Army, where he would serve during World War II.
A decorated member of the service, he was promoted from private to major and won the Bronze Star for bravery. He served in North Africa, Italy, and the Battle of the Bulge with General George Patton’s army and was among a unit cited for valor. He was also awarded five battle stars for his service in the Army, a time in his life which would shape him immensely.
“He was a retired Army Major and he was a big, strong man we called ‘Maj.’ If Leo wanted you to understand something, he’d put his hand on your shoulder and look you in the eye. I was very fortunate to listen and learn from him,” said Bob DeMarco, an assistant professional at Atlantic City in 1974-75.
“Leo was the best – he always made himself available, whenever he had a chance. He was a giant among all the golf pros I knew,” said DeMarco, who left Atlantic City to become the head professional at the Reading Country Club in Pennsylvania. Later, DeMarco was the head professional at the Links Golf Club in Marlton, NJ from 1986-2002.
AN IMPACT THAT SPANNED GENERATIONS
One of the legacies of Leo Fraser was his role in settling the long-running dispute between club professionals and touring pros regarding the distribution of television money. In 1968, during his presidency of the PGA of America, Fraser brokered an agreement among tour professionals, including Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Doug Ford, Gardner Dickinson and Frank Beard. This group – among many other tour professionals – was prepared to leave the PGA. It was Fraser’s diplomacy and loyalty to his constituents that saved the PGA of America, and redefined its existence as it is known today.
“The agreement between the tour Professionals and club Professionals worked because of my dad’s friendships with Jack and Arnie – and because he could negotiate in good faith. There was a mutual trust among the group”, said Doug Fraser – Leo’s son.
Nicklaus wrote in his book, My Story, that, “Leo’s honesty, openness and goodwill toward all involved, plus his clear disinterest in personal advancement, were major contributors to the settlement that was finally achieved.”
Fraser received the Richardson and Gold Tee awards from the Golf Writers Association of America and the Metropolitan Golf Writers Association, largely for his role in the settlement. “I admire the work he did for the PGA members. I’m certain that if it wasn’t for Leo, we wouldn’t have gotten half of what we did get. Leo had an allegiance to the club pros – that’s what made him unique. He wanted every club pro to have a chance. He was diligent in that respect. He wanted you to have the opportunity that you deserved if you did a good job. He was an unbelievable person,” DeMarco added.
The PGA partnership that Fraser fostered would also bring about the beginnings of the Senior PGA Tour only a decade later. In 1980, the first tournament of the Senior PGA Tour (later the Champions Tour) was held at Atlantic City with Don January claiming the $20,000 winner’s check.
AFFINITY FOR GOLF BUSINESS, LADIES GOLF
According to Doug Fraser, his father may have lacked formal education – leaving school after sixth grade – but no one knew more about the golf industry. “In the past 100 years, nobody has known more about the golf business. As a former military guy, he was tough on his family. It made us stronger. When my father was the President of the PGA, my brother (Jim), my sister (Bonnie) and I ran the club. He gave us the tools, and said ‘Go do it,’ ‘’ Doug Fraser stated. Leo had purchased Atlantic City Country Club in 1945, which he managed until his death in 1986.
Another large part of his legacy was his affinity for ladies golf and in bringing three U.S. Women’s Opens (1948, ’65 and ’75) to Atlantic City C.C. Always the perfect tournament host, Leo Fraser was also the chief promoter and general chairman at these events.
“I think he liked women’s golf more than he liked men’s golf. Golf was always big for men, but for women it was slow. It may have been a challenge to him. He thought he could do something for women’s golf, and he did,” Fraser’s daughter Bonnie Siok said in the book Birth of the Birdie, The First 100 Years of Golf at Atlantic City Country Club.
The U.S. Women’s Open in 1948 is a perfect example. Although it was a small field of only 40, it featured the biggest star of the era, Babe Didrikson Zaharias. A rare multi-sport athlete, she won two gold medals in track and field at the 1932 Olympics. In golf, she won the U.S. Women’s Amateur in 1946 and the British Ladies’ Amateur Championship in 1947. She won the first of her three U.S. Women’s Opens at Atlantic City by eight shots and drew a large following to the event.
In 1965, the U.S. Women’s Open at Atlantic City was the first to have the final round of the championship televised nationally. The audience saw the victory go to Carol Mann, a future World Golf Hall of Famer. Two years later, Marge Mason of Ridgewood won the 1967 U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur at the club, where NJSGA Hall of Fame member Maureen Orcutt (who won the championship in 1962 and ’66) was among the competitors.
When Atlantic City hosted the U.S. Women’s Open in 1975, it became the only club to have hosted the event three times. Sandra Palmer of Texas beat the notorious blustery winds and a field that included legends JoAnne Carner, Judy Rankin, Kathy Whitworth and 18-year-old Nancy Lopez, who finished fourth. “Leo loved women’s golf. He always made you feel welcome. And he loved Atlantic City Country Club,” Lopez said.
After Leo’s passing in 1986, his children – Jim, Doug, and Bonnie Siok – along with Bonnie’s husband, Don, continued to run the club until it was sold in 1998. The family also owned the nearby Mays Landing Golf and Country Club until the family left the golf business with its sale in 2015, after 53 years of ownership. In total, Leo Fraser’s family owned and operated golf courses in the Atlantic City area for more than 70 years.
Today, photos of celebrities, commemorative plaques and displays featuring many of the notable events in club history adorn the clubhouse at Atlantic City Country Club. In many ways, these mementos are a tribute to Leo Fraser, whose vision, hard work, and dedication define him as one of the greatest contributors to the game of golf.