Gene Bone, longtime Bay Pointe pro who battled Arnold Palmer on PGA Tour, dies at 89

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
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Gene Bone, who played on the PGA Tour and battled the likes of Arnold Palmer and Billy Casper in the 1950s and 1960s, won two Michigan Opens and two Michigan PGA Professional Championships, and enjoyed a long career as the head pro at Bay Pointe Golf Club in West Bloomfield, has died.

Bone, a native of Pontiac and resident of Bloomfield Hills, died May 25. He was 89.

He was inducted into the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame in 1988.

Gene Bone played on the PGA Tour in the 1950s and 1960s, and won two Michigan Opens.

"He knew a lot of the older guys, and played with a lot of them," said Gene Bone II, one of Bone's three children, and himself a golf pro at Carl's Golfland. "Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Billy Casper, Arnold. When he started, Jack (Nicklaus) was still an amateur back then. I think they played once. I've got clips of (Dad) beating all those guys. It was phenomenal. He just loved the game of golf."

Bone played in 64 events on the PGA Tour, including seven U.S. Opens and four PGA Championships. He never won on the PGA Tour, but came close multiple times.

At the 1957 Houston Open, not far from where he had been stationed after enlisting in the Air Force, Bone was the leader after the first, second and third rounds before finishing tied for fifth. Palmer won that tournament.

In 1963, Bone had a couple strong showings, including a tie for sixth at the Texas Open (won by Phil Rodgers) and a tie for 11th at the old Bing Crosby National Pro-Am, now known as the Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

Bone and his amateur partner didn't make the cut, but Bone did and was paired the last day with Palmer and Casper. He told his son the story about late in the final round, when he hit a 4 wood to 10 feet on the par-3 17th, inside the balls of Palmer and Casper. 

"They putted out (for par) and started walking to the 18th tee, and the crowd was surrounding them. Dad makes his putt and he has honors on the 18th tee, but he can't get through the crowd," Bone's son said, speaking of the famous par-5 finishing hole, with the Pacific Ocean all down the left. "He said he got up there to the tee and had never seen so many people, around the tee, all the way down the fairway.

"He said, 'I was shaking,' but hit a beautiful tee shot right toward the tree on the 18th with a draw. He said, 'I don't even remember swinging, I don't remember nothing.'"

Bone made a par on the 18th to finish tied for 11th. Casper won the tournament.

Bone got his start in golf as a kid in Pontiac, at the city's municipal golf course. He was a star player at Pontiac High before joining the Air Force. It was in Texas, where he was stationed, that he honed his craft, hitting shag bags after his shift. He learned to flight down the ball in the notorious Texas winds.

He made his PGA Tour debut in 1952, at the old Motor City Open, tying for 59th. He played four tournaments in 1956, eight in 1957, nine in 1958 and four in 1959 before deciding the family life, and not the touring life, might be best for him. When he wasn't on the road, he worked at Tam-O-Shanter Country Club in West Bloomfield from 1955-58, and he became head pro at Warwick Hills Golf & Country Club in Grand Blanc in 1959. The Buick Open started at Warwick Hills in 1958, and he tied for 42nd.

In 1962, a group of members at Warwick Hills got together to sponsor Bone, who then went back on the PGA Tour for the 1963 season. Bone suggested they be equal partners, and so he kept track of every penny. His son still has the records.

"He kept meticulous records in two spiral notebooks. He'd write 59 cents for breakfast, $1.75 for gas, and oil change, $5 for caddie fees. Dad wrote down everything," Gene Bone II said. "He wanted to show his sponsors where the money was going."

Bone played 16 tournaments that year, with the good finishes at Pebble and Texas, before returning full-time to Michigan.

He made nine cuts that year, but that was back before the PGA Tour cut a check to every player who made the weekend.

He made $2,395 on the PGA Tour in 1963, or about $20,000 in today's dollars.

"He didn't make enough money to stay out there," Gene Bone II said this week. "It was one of those stories we all hear, born at the wrong time. If he was born at this time, things would be a little different. Plus, he was a big family man. He didn't like the traveling as much, he wasn't a social person, he wasn't a drinker. When guys would finish a round, they'd go to the bar, and that just wasn't him."

After that one full season on the PGA Tour, Bone worked at Southfield's Lancaster Hills, which no longer exists, from 1964-65, before he was hired at Bay Pointe, which wasn't even open yet. Bay Pointe opened in 1965, first with nine holes and later with a full 18, as a private club, and Bone worked there 27 years before retiring in 1992.

The job had changed, to less teaching and more paperwork, he once told The News.

"All I've wanted to do is teach golf, talk golf and make people happy," Bone said in 1992. He taught occasionally at Carl's in retirement.

Gene Bone as he prepared for retirement in 1992.

While working at Bay Pointe, he continued to flourish on the golf course, at least locally. He won the Michigan Open in 1965 and 1966, and the Michigan PGA Professional Championship in 1966 and 1975. In 1966, he was Michigan PGA Player of the Year, and in 1977 he was the Michigan section's PGA Professional of the Year. The only other golfer to win both those awards was World Golf Hall of Famer, two-time Masters champion and Detroit Golf Club head pro Horton Smith.

Family was a priority, too, as much as it could be given his busy schedule of playing and teaching. Gene Bone II remembers when he played football in high school. Dad often arrived late to the games, and his son would know precisely when he showed up by catching a whiff of cigar smoke. Gene Bone II also got to tag along to the 1966 PGA Championship, back when tees and greens were roped off, but fans could walk the fairways. Gene Bone II remembers eating a hot dog, Dad taking a swing, and then wiping the mustard off his son's face with a handkerchief as he strolled to the green.

He even let his son take to school for show-and-tell the golf ball he used when he made a double-eagle on the PGA Tour. The memorable ball had since been attached to an ashtray, and his son lost the ball.

Gene Bone also was a fan of the Tigers, Red Wings, Lions and Pistons, and animals. He had a dog, Mikey, at the time of his death. He last played golf four years ago.

"He had just an unbelievable career," said Gene Bone II, "and was a great father to myself and my two sisters. He was special."

Bone was preceded in death by wife Wilhemina. They had three children, Gene, Lisa and Nancy, and four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984

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