Legend of golf writer Furman Bisher will not be forgotten

March 19, 2012
Larry Dorman, PGATOUR.COM

Furman Bisher wrote about golf the way he wrote about every sport fortunate enough to have him in the press box -- his way. And his way was pretty near the best there was for the 71 years he made his living as a newspaperman.

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He was indefatigable, seemingly indestructible, sometimes irascible and always reliable, and when word came Sunday that he had died from a massive heart attack at the age of 93, the news was greeted with some disbelief amongst those who knew him well.

"We all knew this day would come, but somehow we never believed it would," said Glenn Sheeley, the former golf writer at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where Bisher was the sports columnist for 59 years. "I was told a week or so ago that Furman was going to have back surgery and he was going to miss the Masters and he was kind of down about that.

"That's why I was shocked. If he was going to have back surgery, obviously they must have thought he was OK to get through that. Now I'm ticked off that I didn't call him."

It would no doubt amuse Bisher that his death at age 93 would shock some of his friends. He reveled in his reputation as golf journalism's Iron Byron, and he was just that -- from the consistently high quality of the more than 10,000 columns he brought to Atlanta Journal-Constitution readers, to the seemingly boundless energy he brought to every event he covered.

When he was at a golf tournament, he would get out there and walk the five miles of course inside the ropes, no matter the heat index, topography or length of the rough.

Even a total knee-replacement several years back did not keep him from his appointed rounds. There is a 5-year-old photograph of Bisher at the 107th U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club, loaded down with binoculars and a shooting stick, tramping though the heavy rough after Allen Doyle, the 6-time Georgia State Amateur Champion.

Bisher was a sprightly 88 years old at the time. Sheeley, now is the marketing head at the Golf Club of Georgia, covered 20 Masters and eight British Opens alongside Bisher and recalled Monday just how vibrant the ageless columnist was throughout the decades.

"He had more energy than anyone I've ever known," Sheeley said. "He had the same amount of energy in his 70s and 80s as some young reporter who was trying to impress the boss."

There was the time at the 1994 U.S. Open at Oakmont that Bisher read the riot act to the bosses at the newspaper over plans to give short shrift to first-round coverage of Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, who were near the lead after the first round. Bisher was on the phone back to Atlanta, loudly demanding that his column and Sheeley's game story be started on the front page.

"Judas Priest," Bisher yelled, his favorite substitute for cursing, "this is the U.S. Open and Nicklaus and Watson are the story. When's the last time that happened?" To loud cheering from many of the scribes in the press tent, Bisher went all the way to the editor's office with his demands, refusing to be put off.

Bisher's news judgment was spot-on, of course. The answer to his question about the last time Nicklaus and Watson had been the story together in a U.S. Open: 1982, when Watson famously holed the chip shot at the 17th . He won his first Open, Nicklaus was denied his sixth.

And '94 was the last time either of them finished in the top 10. Watson tied for 6th , Nicklaus tied for 28th That literally was the last time the two greats shared the spotlight for any round at the Open. They faded, but Bisher didn't.

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He already had writing awards and honors piled up like a cord of wood at his home outside Atlanta, where he lived with his wife of 21 years, Lynda. The Associated Press Sports Editors' Red Smith, the William D. Richardson from the Golf Writers, the Atlanta Sports Hall of Fame, the International Golf Writers Hall of Fame, and the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame to name a few.

As for accolades, well, in 1949, "Shoeless" Joe Jackson gave Bisher and Sport Magazine his only interview, 30 years after he was tossed out of major league baseball in the "Black Sox" scandal. Not one to rest on laurels, but someone who knew history and his place in it, Bisher put a photo of Shoeless Joe on his Facebook page.

Every one of the columns Bisher wrote throughout a career in daily sports journalism that began in 1938 at the Lumberton Voice in North Carolina and ended in 2009 with his last column in Atlanta Journal-Constitution, featured Bisher's pointed takes and a uniquely Southern voice that resonated throughout the country. He ended each of them with the word "Selah," which is found in the book of Psalms in the Old Testament.

Asked what it meant, Bisher once told a writer, "I have no idea. Your guess is as good as mine."

The word means, "Pause and think of that."

He knew what it meant. He wrote more than 10,000 columns at the AJC, and he poured as much of himself into the last as he did into the first. And when he "retired" from writing at the AJC, there were those who were skeptical about his intentions.

Nicklaus, who was among Bisher's biggest fans among the pros, said, "I guess you could say that when it comes to the last column or writings of Furman Bisher, I will believe it when I don't see it."

Nicklaus knew Bisher well. Furman wrote his last column about golf 12 days ago. It ran in the Rockdale Citizen.

May as well read it, because now there really won't be any more from Furman Bisher. And that is a big loss. Selah.