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The best part of writing a golf column for The Brunswick Beacon is the awesome people I meet. This week’s subject is one of the most fascinating gentlemen I have ever had the good fortune to interview.
Dr. William T. Carleton lives in New Bern and visited his son, John, at St. James Plantation last week. Last Saturday afternoon, John Carleton, Dr. William, Kevin Jones and I sat in John’s sunny dining room and talked about golf and life. (Kevin is John’s good friend who moved to St. James from Seattle three years ago and enticed John to follow suit.)
“I am 99.5 years old,” Dr. William said. “I started playing golf at the age of 10, and played ever since until two years ago.”
Wow, that’s 87 years of golf.
Dr. William grew up in Newton Center, Mass., and learned on a six-hole course behind his family’s vacation house at Salters Point.
His dad was an excellent golfer and William followed suit. Best of all, his dad played at Braeburn Country Club. In 1923, the U.S. Amateur was held there. One of his dad’s friends played against Bobby Jones in the first round of the Amateur.
“My dad’s friend was even with Bobby Jones on the 18th hole,” Dr. William said. “They went on to sudden death, and Mr. Jones made a birdie and won.”
(Bobby Jones was the most successful amateur golfer in the history of golf. He won nine PGA Tour events, including the U.S. Open in 1923, 1926, 1929 and 1930 and the British Open in 1926, 1927 and 1930.)
In later years, Dr. William was a member of the Massachusetts Golf Association, and during that time, he played with Francis Ouimet at Weston Country Club. (Ouimet is called the “father of amateur golf” in the United States. He won the 1913 U.S. Open and the 1913 and 1931 U.S. Amateur.)
“We had access to all the great courses in Massachusetts, like Sandwich, Brookline, Weston,” William said.
William attended Harvard Medical School and while there met the love of his life, Isabelle.
“My father had died when I was 25 years old, and as a med student I had no money for dates,” he said. “Young interns were paid a pittance then, so we met at her house for dinner. We’d listen to music and play backgammon.”
During med school, in the summer of 1933, he and three of his friends put their funds together to go to England and Scotland.
“We took a boat to Southhampton, bought an old car for $200 and went all over the British Isles, playing golf at Muirfield, Glen Eagles, Prestwick, Troon, Springdale, Hoylake, and most of the famous courses there,” he said.
“St. Andrews cost us 50 cents for 36 holes, so we played several times. I shot an 82 on my first round there and never came close after that. The double greens, walled bunkers and the constant, changing winds made scoring very difficult. With double greens, you can be 75 yards away and still be on the green!
“On the par-3, 10th hole (140 yards), I hit everything from a 9-iron to a 4-wood, depending on the wind.”
After graduation, the war in Europe was heating up, so William enlisted in the Navy. He was assigned to the Boston Navy Yard for six months, but left three weeks later to join the hospital ship, USS Solace, on a shakedown cruise to Norfolk, Va., and to Guantanamo Bay.
He and Isabelle married, and soon William was off Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
“We went down the coast to the Panama Canal and then to San Diego and to Hawaii. We had been there for a week, when the Japanese attacked. We were the closest ship to the USS Arizona.”
William spent days treating the burn victims of the attack, then there was a calm period and he was able to have Isabelle join him in Hawaii.
“We took the money we had received that was intended for furniture and rugs, and spent it on a ticket for her to come to Hawaii. I could get off every day after duty and we had a wonderful time there, walking around and playing tennis,” he said.
The calm ended soon, and the USS Solace was off to the South Pacific and the Coral Sea. Among other assignments, Dr. William worked with American prisoners that had been released from the Japanese prison camps, men who were close to death from starvation.
When he was stationed in Mandalay, he played golf between 6-8 a.m.
“After that,” he said, “we had to clear the course, so planes could land on it.”
The war finally ended and Isabelle flew home from Hawaii, pregnant with their first son, one of four boys the Carletons would have. They settled back in Massachusetts. Dr. William had a busy medical practice, but he managed to play golf on Wednesday afternoons and on the weekends.
“All the doctors took Wednesdays off for golf,” he quipped. “You did not want to get sick on a Wednesday.”
Dr. William served on several golf committees and leadership positions. He joined the U.S. Seniors.
In 1963, the U.S. Open was at The Country Club in Brookline. Dr. William was an out-of-town member there and chairman of the Golf Committee at Tatnuck County Club, so he was invited to play in the pre-tournament round of the U.S. Open.
“As I got older, I decided to take lessons so I could be more competitive,” he said. “I wanted to learn how to put backspin on my ball, but instead I learned how to get it close from 30 yards away. I won the club championship for six years. I beat guys that were younger and stronger and better than me. They’d get all burned up at losing to an old guy,” he chuckled.
Dr. William can vividly recall many closely contested matches. His eyes gleam and he smiles at the memory of sinking a chip shot from a severe slope behind the green to win a match 40 years ago.
There have been sadness and joy in the life of Dr. William Carleton. One of his sons, Teddy, died in a car crash at age 18. And we can only imagine the horrors of war through the eyes of a doctor on a hospital ship during World War II.
The Carletons took several trips abroad. Dr. William remembers touring Europe and eating at two- and three-star restaurants.
“The difference between a two-star and a five-star restaurant is the décor and the ambiance. Isabelle and I didn’t care about the surroundings, so we enjoyed great food all over Europe at a reasonable cost.”
On one trip, Dr. William played the private course of the King of Morocco.
“It was a fabulous course, built for the king, his cabinet and special guests,” William said. “I was friends with a colonel in the embassy and he invited me to play.”
Isabelle died four years ago, and Dr. William now lives in senior housing at New Bern, near his son Bill. He is quick to explain that it is not assisted living.
“I cook, I put my own dishes in the dishwasher and fold my own wash,” he says proudly.
Golf was over for Dr. William two years ago.
“I was playing nine holes from the forward tees then,” he said. “One day, I shot a 40 with five 4s and four 5s. I three-putted two par-3 greens and said, ‘That’s it. I’m done.’ That was the best I would ever do, so I decided to end it on a good note.”
Way to go, Dr. William Carleton. I raise my glass to you, your wonderful stories of golf courses and contests, and your service to your country.
Elsa Bonstein is a golf columnist for The Beacon. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at facebook.com/elsa.bonstein.