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Golfing Gangsters: Al Capone's Chicago outfit would have loved the Ryder Cup

By Will Tidey, for CNN
September 27, 2012 -- Updated 0317 GMT (1117 HKT)
American gangster Al Capone was far more lethal with his machine gun than his golf clubs. According to his former caddie, Tim Sullivan, Capone needed 60 shots just to clear the front nine. American gangster Al Capone was far more lethal with his machine gun than his golf clubs. According to his former caddie, Tim Sullivan, Capone needed 60 shots just to clear the front nine.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Infamous gangster Al Capone and his associates were keen golfers
  • Capone oncet eed off by hitting the ball off the chin of an associate
  • Capone traveled under a false name to play golf in Scotland
  • He died at the age of 48 from cardiac arrest

(CNN) -- As Chicago prepares to host all-out golfing war in the form of the Ryder Cup, there is more reason than you might think to remember the city's most infamous son.

"Scarface" Al Capone was not a man to be in competition with. The murderous mob boss ruled Chicago to the rattling sound of heavy machine-gun fire in the 1920s and took out anybody -- make that pretty much everybody - who stood in his way.

But it was not all bootlegging and brutality for the life of Capone.

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Away from the bloody battles of prohibition-era America, it turns out he loved nothing more than a good walk spoiled and target practice of a very different kind. As unlikely as it seems, the gangster was a golf nut.

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"Al Capone was an avid golfer," John Binder, academic and author of The Chicago Outfit: Images of America, told CNN. "Some of the guys around him were, too.

"The hoods loved sports. Capone and a few others managed some fighters, and they went to baseball games together a lot, too."

Capone liked golf, but that is not to say he was very good at it.

"At first, he seldom broke 60 for nine holes; he eventually elevated to 18 holes though there is no evidence he was anything but a hacker on the golf course," wrote Luciano Iorrizo in Al Capone: The Biography.

Iorrizo continued: "His rounds were devoted to having fun with his gangster friends who drank plenty each hole, gambled recklessly on the stroke of a ball and carried loaded weapons in their golf bags for use in emergences."

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During his 1920s heyday, Capone was a regular at Burnham Woods golf course - a facility 20 miles south of Chicago that is still in operation today, though Capone's memory has long since been erased.

It was there he hosted regular games with his associates and acquired the services of a wide-eyed, eight-year-old caddie named Tim Sullivan.

In a 1972 article for Sports Illustrated, Sullivan recalled his first round on the bag for Capone.

The stakes were $500 a hole and Capone was partnered with "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn in a foursomes match against Fred "The Killer" Burke and Jake "Greasy Thumb" Guzik.

McGurn and Burke were both implicated in the 1929 St. Valentine's Day Massacre -- the gangland hit on his mob rivals that made Capone a household name. Neither faced charges, but McGurn -- a talented golfer -- was assassinated almost exactly seven years later in a suspected revenge attack.

Burke was convicted of the murder of a policeman in 1931 and died of a heart attack in prison. Guzik was the Chicago mob's lawyer of choice.

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You might call them the original 'group of death'. And there were we thinking Europe's Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell were a frightening pairing to come up against.

"Capone teed off first," said Sullivan. "He fetched the ball a whack that would have sent it clear down the fairway, only he hooked it and it curved way off to the left into a clump of trees.

"I scrambled around on all fours for about 10 minutes trying to find it, scared to death Al would lose his temper and hit me or maybe shoot me, but all he did was grin, pat me on the head and call me Kid.

'It's O.K., Kid, So we lose a stroke, that's all. Just gimme another ball.' And I thought: 'He can't be as mean and rough as he's cracked up to be.'"

Sullivan paints a picture of wild, booze-fuelled matches where cheats prospered and arguments frequently spilled over into violence.

There was the time Capone accidentally shot himself in the foot by setting off a revolver in his golf bag as he rummaged for a club.

And the time Guzik, maddened by his inability to escape a bunker, ran after Sullivan wielding his driver and ready to use it. This was golf the way gangsters play it, with etiquette very much afterthought.

"There was a crazy game called Blind Robin," Sullivan wrote.

"One guy would stretch out flat on his back, shut his eyes tight, and let the others tee off from his chin. They used a putter and swung slow and careful. Otherwise they would have smashed the guy's face. On the putting greens they'd throw down their pistol holders -- clunk - and hold a wrestling match."

Taking the first tee on day one of the Ryder Cup suddenly does not seem such a nerve-wracking proposition after all.

Phil Mickelson won't be armed and we won't see Sergio Garcia swigging whisky and ready to beat his caddie over the head with a hybrid (at least we hope not).

There will be bodyguards, though, especially surrounding Tiger Woods.

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But to disregard Capone's golfing exploits as drunken folly is to do his infatuation with the sport a disservice.

According to a new book written by the mobster's niece, Deirdre Marie Capone, her uncle was so hooked he escaped under a false name and made a golf pilgrimage to Scotland during the height of his reign -- traveling with a caddy who doubled as his bodyguard and buying a handmade set of clubs, which he had engraved with his initials.

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"He was in love with the game and with Scotland,'' Mrs. Capone told the Daily Express newspaper.

''I remember seeing his bag of clubs in the house in Miami. He told me they'd been made for him in Scotland.''

Capone, with his crime syndicate bringing in an estimated $100 million a year at the peak of its operation, had no problems funding his habit

According to Billy Kay, author of The Scottish World: A Journey Into The Scottish Diaspora, Capone's Chicago outfit saw golf as yet another avenue for making money.

Most people paid to play, but -- as with everything with Capone -- golf found a way of paying him.

"Every city had gangsters but the country clubs were built and financed by the social elite and gangsters were not allowed near," Kay told the Daily Record in 2009. "But Chicago was a unique set-up. Al Capone and his gang ran the golf clubs in Chicago.

There, mobsters like Capone, drew protection money from the country clubs and they had access to the golf courses."

Binder has yet to find evidence Capone used golf to make money. He does accept, though, that criminal activity was likely in the planning on the fairways. "Golf was a pastime for them (the Chicago outfit)," he told CNN.

"It wasn't until the 1950s and 60s that the mob in Chicago started controlling golf clubs. But if they're on the course and nobody's around, they're talking business. Many normal people in the business world use golf that way."

The one thing Capone could not control was his game. He died in 1947, aged 48, and having never mastered how to hit a straight drive or sink a putt.

There is just not a racket to get you from tee to green, it seems, which goes to show there really are some things in life that money cannot buy.

If he was still with us there is no doubt Capone would have scored VIP Ryder Cup passes for his golfing buddies.

Watching on with cigars in mouth, hipflasks in hand and guns at the ready, the Chicago outfit would have been in their element at Medinah Country Club.

They would, quite literally, have owned the place.

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