Bert Yancey (1938-1994): A Remembrance

by Roy M. Barineau, Ph. D. on August 15, 2011

Roybob’s Book on Golf: The Hucks, A Golfer’s Divine Comedy, and a Religious Philosophy of Golf

Bert Yancey (1938-1994): A Remembrance

As Albert Winsborough Yancey was returning to competitive golf in 1986, an attractive, female, Head Golf Professional at Killearn Golf and Country Club (Tallahassee, Florida) caught his eye, and he would spend a lot of time at Killearn over the next few years. Becky Sauers, the Head Professional, and I were close friends. I spent many hours hitting balls and playing golf with both Bert and Becky. On one occasion, Bert and I were playing with two other friends of mine when he began playing extremely slow and started to give voice to strange political and economic theories. I knew what was happening, and I alerted Becky and Bert’s sister to the situation.

I volunteered to caddie for Bert in a couple of events on the Senior PGA Tour (now, the Champions Tour) during the summer of 1989. I had strict instructions to call Becky or his sister if I noticed any symptomatic behavior, but Bert was fine. We played the Doug Sanders Kingwood Celebrity Classic (Houston, Texas) during the week of June 4, and we played the Mazda Senior Tournament Players Championship (at the Valley Course, Tournament Players Club in Ponte Vedra, Florida) during the week of June 11. We had unremarkable finishes, but the experience was wonderful for me. I shook hads with Arnold Palmer and walked among the ranks of Gary Player, Bob Charles, Bruce Crampton, Jim Ferree, Doug Sanders, Jim Dent, Julius Boros, Billy Casper, Charlie Sifford, and many other of golf’s greats. Bert’s focus was probably not at its height, and he had a tendency to lose the ball to the left. He was a good man, though, with a generous heart and a pleasant sense of humor. I enjoyed his company.

Al, as he was known earlier in life, was born in Chipley, Florida (August 6, 1938). He attended the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York. Al made the Dean’s List, became captain of the Academy’s golf team, and all was going well until his senior year (1960) when some bizarre behavior began to manifest. After sleep deprivation for three nights and four days during one stretch of “beast-barracks training,” Al began ranting nonsensically and asking philosophical questions. He demanded, for example, to know the meaning of truth, the nature of love, and the identity of God. Al was hospitalized for nine months in an Army psychiatric facility in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. He suffered a serious nervous breakdown (“the whole bit,” as he said), and was even subjected to “electroshock therapy.” Al was granted an honorable discharge from the U. S. Army and released.

A tough few months followed. Al went to live with his brother, Jim, in Miami, Florida, but he continued to suffer episodes. While on a plane, traveling to Tallahassee, Florida, to stay with his father for a while, Al became convinced that he was a kamikaze pilot, and he firmly believed that he would not survive the flight. Al thought some grapefruit juice, offered to him by a flight attendant, contained a drug to make kamikaze pilots happy in their final moments. After the plane landed in Tallahassee, however, Al was fine, and the previous months seemed lost in his memory.

The bizarre behavior largely disappeared, and Bert, as he now became known, attempted to find a place for himself on the PGA Tour during the 1962 season. He had very little success and was forced to find other means of financial support. He spent time offering golf instruction, and he took classes in a pre-medicine program at Florida State University. Soon, though, Bert accepted an assistant professional position at Green Valley Country Club in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. There, in 1964, he gained the financial backing of ten wealthy Philadelphians who agreed to fund his expenses on the PGA Tour in return for a substantial share of his potential earnings.

Over thirteen seasons (1962, 1964-1975), Bert won seven Tour events and amassed $688,124.00 in prize money. He won the 1970 Bing Crosby National Pro-Am by one shot over Jack Nicklaus. He also finished in the top five during six major championships: third in the 1967 Masters, third in the 1968 Masters, third in the 1968 U.S. Open, fourth in the 1970 Masters, fifth in the 1973 British Open, and tied for third in the 1974 U.S. Open. Understandably, Bert was obsessed with winning the Masters. He built clay models of the greens at Augusta National and even marked possible pin positions with tiny flagsticks. He attached the models to a large board, and through the models tried to achieve a kind of mystical union with Augusta’s greens. Bert was doing well; he had, it appeared, found his way.

In 1974, though, the bizarre behavior reappeared, and Bert, at various times, found himself arrested, jailed, hospitalized, and institutionalized. While in Tokyo, Japan, for a golf clinic, Bert became concerned about the advance of Communism and was unable to sleep. When he went for a walk, he ran into Motown’s The Temptations and picked a fight with them because he found their name to be sinful. One of the Temptations caught Bert with a karate chop, and Bert was undone. When he returned to his hotel, he pulled down a lobby Christmas tree because it reminded him of his loss to the evil Temptations. He was arrested, and when he was returned to the States, he was committed to a mental hospital in Philadelphia for two-and-a-half months.

In 1975, when he was returning from a tournament in Westchester, New York, he climbed to the top of a painter’s ladder in a terminal at LaGuardia Airport. He wanted to announce to everyone that Howard Hughes had signaled him, while playing golf, to funnel all of the Hughes money to the American Cancer Society. He proceeded to order all of the “white” people to one side of the terminal and all of the “black” people to the other side. He, then, began to preach against racial prejudice. He was arrested and taken to a quiet room where he began spitting on a light bulb, believing that the different colors and shapes emanating from his burning saliva would reveal the cure for cancer.

From the airport, Bert was taken to Payne Whitney Hospital (in Westchester) where he came under the care of Dr. Jane Parker. Dr. Parker, as Bert reported, saved his life. She successfully diagnosed and treated his mental illness. Bert was diagnosed as “manic-depressive,” an illness referred to as bi-polar disorder today, and he was prescribed with lithium. The lithium controlled the episodes to a large degree, but the doses resulted in hand tremors that put an end to his competitive golf. In the winter of 1976, he quit the PGA Tour to establish the Bert Yancey School of Classical Golf at Hilton Head, South Carolina. During an episode in 1977, he was arrested at Hilton Head for indecent exposure, voyeurism, resisting arrest, and destroying government property (he tore up the seats in the back of a police vehicle).

In 1984, at the age of forty-six, a different medication, Tegretol, was prescribed, and Bert, it appeared, would be able to play competitively once again. In 1986, he played the Florida mini-tour, winning $500.00 in the Tallahassee Open, his first paycheck since 1975. He joined the Senior PGA Tour (now the Champions’ Tour) upon reaching the age of fifty (1988). Bert had a special desire to win on the Senior PGA Tour. Winning would make his comeback complete and, perhaps, aid the cause of treating mental illnesses. Unfortunately, success did not follow.

Having recently reached his fifty-sixth birthday (August, 26, 1994) and having recently scored his first hole-in-one, Bert suffered a heart attack. The attack occurred in a scorer’s tent just minutes before he would walk to the first tee at the Franklin Quest Championship in Park City, Utah. Tom Weiskoff, of whom Bert spoke very fondly, won the Park City tournament, his first Senior PGA win, and dedicated his victory to Bert. Wieskoff graciously asked that both of their names be engraved on the trophy. Bert was also memorialized with an inscription on a granite slab at the Park Meadows Golf Club where he died. He is buried, however, at Oakland Cemetery in Tallahassee, Florida.  An Annual Bert Yancey Memorial Golf Tournament is held in Augusta, Georgia in the fall of each year.

If there were an opportunity for Bert to speak at a tournament, he might tell his story about the origin of golf. He would say,

Long ago, somewhere in the hills and dales of Scotland, on a chilly, foggy morn, a shepherd spied a small rock and gave it a whack with his crooked staff. Not satisfied with the direction or distance of his hit, the shepherd, with his sheep bleating, tried again. In the distance, the shepherd spotted a rabbit hole, and the thought occurred to him that he could hit the rock into that rabbit hole. The shepherd honed his skills and challenged others to hit rocks into the rabbit hole with less hits than he. The game of golf was born, and its mystical inclinations have enthralled humanity ever since.

Roybob’s Book on Golf: The Hucks, A Golfer’s Divine Comedy, and a Religious Philosophy of Golf

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

b keith vipperman June 18, 2012 at 10:14 am

I was the locker room attendant shoe shine guy, sometimes course marshal when Becky was the pro. some of the fondest memories i have of my life are the years I was an employee of the club… the only time in my life free from the one calamity after the other., They treated almost like a member, I played a lot of golf , met a a lot wonderful people… I was homeless when I fist started working there, I’m not sure becky knew that but she knew I loved my job .. and Bert was fun to be around , and on the practice range he could put a golf ball any where he wanted it to go .. He could even run off birds just to see if he could do it and he could…. life imitates art maybe or ….or perhaps art imitates life…. oh and I would love to have seen the cancer cures in the saliva on the light bulb… if he had had only had a camera….. and oh by the way the guy that figured out DNA was a double helix … was stoned out of his mind on LSD when HE conceptual the correct….. shape ….. there is a fine line between genius and ……. 😉 I’m glad the the world had Bert yancy

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Ian Dews September 26, 2017 at 1:04 pm

Bert Yancey was a great golfer in my early days of playing golf in Australia. May he rest in peace & playing golf above Heavens with the other famous golfers of his past. R.I.P Bert as you are the best golfer for ever. God willing.

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