Pro golfer George Archer made a big splash in the final round of the 1969 Masters. His second shot on 15 into the drink. Afterward, he said, "I thought I hit a real good shot. But it went in the water. And I felt like I was in the water with that ball."
But George Archer knew how to get out of a tight spot. His pro career spanned five decades. His wife Donna and their two daughters often joined him on tour. They were a close family. And they needed to be. Because George Archer had a secret they all had to keep.
It starts like a great American story. The boy from the wrong side of the tracks shows up at the swanky country club to make a few extra bucks as a caddie.
“George had a very rough and tumble childhood,” says Mike Jamieson, who was a teenager when he first met George Archer in San Mateo, California.
“He lived near the Peninsula Club. And his neighbor said, 'Hey, let’s go over to Peninsula Club and earn some money caddying.' And George said, 'What’s caddying?' "
George took to caddying. He liked bringing home the extra cash. On Mondays, when the course at the Peninsula Club was closed to members, he played golf with the other caddies. He took to that as well. But Caddie Day conflicted with Monday afternoon basketball practice at San Mateo High.
"So he chose to go to Caddie Day at [the] Peninsula Club and play golf," Jamieson says. "So that’s why the 6-foot-6 George Archer played golf instead of basketball."
It was a good choice. When George graduated high school in 1958, he was already one of the best amateurs in the state. And golf helped him meet his wife Donna in 1960. George was playing in an amateur tournament.
"I knew who he was, and I just wanted to go out and watch him play," Donna says. "Because he was really tall."
I ask Donna if she liked his game.
"Oh, yeah. I liked his game a lot," she says with a laugh.
Donna and George chatted across the ropes on the 13th fairway. They met up again when he finished the round. He asked her out. The first date went well. The next ones even better. George was sweet and kind and funny. He was a great golfer. Sure, he had his quirks. One night ...
"We were kind of driving around, and a police car came," Donna says. "We got pulled over, and when we stopped, it was dark. And George said, 'Trade places with me.' And so I didn’t question it. I just did it. Because you’re kind of scared when you’re 17."
Donna asked him about that afterwards.
"That’s when he told me about the reading. That he didn’t have a driver’s license."
George Archer had always struggled in school. Even now, at 21, he couldn’t read or write well enough to pass the written test.
"He wasn’t completely unable," Donna says. "He was about third to fourth grade level."
Donna was a bit surprised. But she wasn’t at all discouraged.
"I wanted to help him and take care of him. And I wanted to help him with his career," Donna says. "He didn’t have much help in his own family, so I thought I could save him and teach him how to read. I was 17 years old. So I had a lot of illusions."
'It's Not Something To Be Ashamed Of'
About a year after they met, George asked Donna to marry him. At least she thought he had.
"We used to walk to my house from the bus station. And, as we were walking home, George said to me, 'I wonder what our kids will look like?' I took that as a proposal, whether he meant it or not," Donna says.
They married a month later and moved into a modest San Francisco apartment near a public golf course.
"Well, the putting green was right across the street from our apartment," Donna says. "A lot of times he would go out and meet his buddies out there, and they would putt with their car lights on. They played for dollars or quarters or something. Every once in a while, he made enough money for us to go out to dinner. Instead of having spaghetti for dinner every night."
George did well on the amateur circuit and won several tournaments. In 1964, he, Donna and two-month-old daughter Elizabeth packed up the family car and set out on the pro tour. The couple decided to keep George’s reading problems a secret.
"He was always ashamed of it, which was really sad," Donna says, "because it’s not something to be ashamed of."
George won his first pro tournament in 1965. Then he won some more. In January 1969, he won the Bing Crosby Pro Am at Pebble Beach. The long nights on the putting green were paying off.
But the reading and writing work he did with Donna wasn’t.
"We had a tutor at one time," Donna says, "but he would reach a point where he was so impatient about it. He would say, 'I have a mental block,' and that 'It feels like driving a race car into a cement wall. I can’t get through that cement wall.' "
On the tour, to keep his secret, George Archer had to find a way around that wall.
"I don’t know if you’ve seen the massive leaderboard at a PGA golf tournament, but it’s huge. And George knew that his name was on the left under the 'A's, and his friend Larry Ziegler’s name was on the right under the 'Z's," Donna says.
When he needed money…
"He had a prototype check with him, and it had a certain amount of money on it. And he would copy that," Donna says. "And then if he needed more, he would call, and we would go through the writing of the check together."
And at restaurants…
"George didn’t eat that many varieties of foods," Donna says. "He knew what he wanted and he would ask [for] that. Early on in the tour, when you have a family and you have limited funds, we ate in a lot of cafeterias. He didn’t need to read that menu, did he?"
In April 1969, the family pulled into Augusta National in Georgia for the Masters.
"George was sick," Donna says. "He got the flu. And so he wasn’t even sure by Wednesday that he would be able to play in the Masters."
But he did play. And took a three stroke lead into the final nine. But that lead soon evaporated. Then, on 15, George hit his second shot into the pond. He hit a gutsy wedge shot over water. But that still left him with a tough 12-foot putt to save par.
"And George told me that there was what he called a little 'holiday' that ran from his ball into the cup," Mike Jamieson says. "I said, 'George, what’s a "holiday"?' And he says, 'Well, if you can imagine, the greens mower at the time had left this little tiny ridge when they mowed the greens that happened to run from where my ball was into the hole.'
"So I don’t know whether they really missed something, or [if] George was so highly focused he saw the line so perfectly. But, anyway, he made that putt."
Archer won the 1969 masters by a single stroke. After the match, in the Augusta National Clubhouse, he struggled to stuff his 6-foot-6 frame into the club’s fabled green winner’s jacket.
"I’m amazed they have one my size," Archer said amid the applause.
And there it was. The caddie from the rough side of town. The self-taught guru of the green bagging golf’s most prestigious prize.
It should have brought him greater fame, big sponsorships and endorsements. But it didn’t. There was too much risk — and embarrassment.
"He was working under contract for Bullet Golf, and they were going to film some commercials in Southern California," Donna Archer says. "And he could not sleep a wink that night because there was a script that he had to memorize. So when we finally went out to the golf course to start the filming of the commercials, he just told them, 'I’m not gonna read this script. I’m going to improvise.' And it took 33 takes for him to get through the commercial."
In the fall of 1971, a few days before Mike Jamieson left for college, he asked George for a signed photo. George had spent hours with him, helping him with his game. Jamieson thought a signed photo from a Masters champion would impress his college golf teammates.
"And George said, 'No, I’m not gonna do that.' And I said, 'Come on, you’re the Master’s champion.' He says, 'No, no , no.' So, we argued about it for a while. And, finally, when I got to school, he finally sent me a photo. And it said, 'Study hard. George Archer.' And I thought, 'Great Scott! That’s the best he can come up with? "Study hard"?' "
None of George’s friends knew his secret. Only his family. Daughter Lyn remembers when she found out.
"I think I was in fourth grade," Lyn says. "We were laying in the afternoon on the bed, in front of the TV, and I had my book for school with me. So I was laying next to my dad, and I gave him the book and said, 'Oh, here, Dad. Read to me.' So I passed him the book, and he started to read and was just stumbling like a kindergartner. And I was so, like, just shocked. And I remember going 'Come on, Dad! Quit joking around. Read the book.' And he kept trying. And he just said, ‘I can’t.’ ”
As she grew older, she saw how much her father dreaded signing autographs.
"I could feel his spine straighten up. Or the hairs on his back — like a cat — stand up," Lyn says. "That was kind of an underlying current throughout the growing up years. Like, 'When is that scary thing gonna happen, when will someone be embarrassed? How can we avoid the shame, the secret?' When you have a secret that you’re really embarrassed about, it takes a lot of courage to be such a public person."
George played pro golf for nearly 50 years, notching 43 PGA and Senior wins. He won his last Senior tournament in 2000.
"George was ill for about a year," Donna says. "And, toward the end, I asked him about considering revealing his learning difficulty, if we might be able to do some good with that revelation. He was a bit reluctant. But then he said, 'If you think you can do some good, then go ahead and talk about it after I’m gone.' "
Archer's Secret Revealed
In 2005, a few days shy of his 66th birthday, George Archer died of lymphoma.
Six months later, Donna wrote a magazine article to share what she and her daughters had long known: George Archer was dyslexic — undiagnosed and untreated.
He’d repeated second grade three times — his teachers finally moved him into the fifth grade only because he was so tall. Donna’s magazine article stunned many of George’s closest friends, including Mike Jamieson.
“Because I had known George from 1969 until the day he died. I had played golf with him, I practiced with him, I caddied for him," Jamieson says.
Looking back, Jamieson saw he’d missed so many signs. At breakfast, when friends offered George the sports section, he’d say, "No thanks. Just tell me if the Giants won." And that photo George sent him his freshman year in college signed "Study hard. George Archer."
"George didn’t write that," Mike Jamieson says. "Donna wrote that."
He understands why George kept the dyslexia to himself. Imagine if the secret had come out during a tournament back in the '60s or '70s.
"There were some players who were pretty hard-nosed players and would have used any trick in the book to try and get inside of George’s head — or anybody’s head — if they could," Jamieson says. "Like saying, 'Hey George, how are you gonna read this putt?' "
"The arc of his life is his courage and his persistence."Donna Archer
Jamieson even thinks George’s learning disability might have helped him focus on the greens. Like that “holiday” George saw on 15 at the 1969 Masters.
"Because sometimes people with learning disabilities, especially reading disabilities, do visualize things. And, in putting, if you can visualize the ball going into the hole, you have achieved 90% of the goal of good putting. And he was able to do that," Jamieson says.
A week or so after Donna’s article appeared, she met Jamieson for lunch.
"And I said, 'Well, Donna, what are you gonna do the rest of your life?' " Jamieson says. And she said, 'Michael, I don’t know.' And I said, 'Well, you need to start a foundation, we need to raise money for literacy.' And, for me, it’s always been like a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney kind of moment. Like, 'Hey, kids! Let’s put on a show! We’ll have a tournament right here. We’ll do it right at Peninsula Club where George was an honorary member, where George started out as a caddie. And we’ll raise money for literacy. Let’s do it.' "
Daughter Lyn is a special education teacher. She says her father’s life might have gone differently if he were growing up today.
"He would have been identified as being dyslexic, he would have had intervention that’s very specific," Lyn says. "I’m working with a student now who probably is just a reincarnation of my dad — the grasping for the letters, the trying to get the ‘p’ and the ‘b’ straight. It makes me feel connected to him, in fact."
Strokes of Bravery
Donna Archer founded the George Archer Memorial Foundation in 2007. Apart from their family, and his 1969 Masters win, it's her husband’s greatest legacy.
We know that people with dyslexia often perceive language and stories through pictures. But some people, like George Archer, also paint pictures with their lives. Pictures painted with perfect strokes. Strokes of bravery says Donna Archer. And compassion.
"The arc of his life is his courage and his persistence," Donna says. "And so that’s a major lesson. That every person you look at probably has a secret, or a goal, or a talent, or something that the world doesn’t see. So it’s important to know that about people. And be kind."
On Oct. 14, 2019, The George Archer Memorial Foundation For Literacy held its 12th annual Pro-Am tournament at the Peninsula Club in San Mateo, California. The Foundation has raised more than $1 million since its inception.
This segment aired on December 21, 2019.