Chet Zelenski enters the room with a bounce to his step, a bright smile and a gleam in his eye that makes one think he has the keys to Fort Knox and is on a first-name basis with the guards.
He shakes my hand, removes his cap and takes a seat at a table at the Southampton Country Club in New York, where he has been a member uninterrupted since 1943 – that’s 73 consecutive years if you’re counting. Chet will be 93 in June.
When the course is open he plays 11 holes every Friday, but spends a good amount of his time at the only golf club he has ever belonged and where he holds a special place in the hearts of his fellow golfers and club staff. He was made an honorary member a few years back.
On his golf bag Zelenski proudly displays his USGA membership tag, the first one he ever had, from back in the mid-1970s. He has remained a USGA member since.
In themselves, these facts make Zelenski a rare and remarkable man, but his story gets better.
“I caddied for the first four winners of the U.S. Amateur,” he states.
Beginning in 1932 at the age of nine, Zelenski toted clubs for nine years at the National Golf Links of America founded and designed by Charles Blair Macdonald, arguably the most important person in the history of American golf and the winner of the inaugural U.S. Am in 1895. Over the years, Zelenski was also on the bag for Macdonald’s great friend and son-in-law H.J. Whigham, who won in 1896-97, and Findlay Douglas, winner in 1898 and a former USGA president. Whigham and Douglas were also founding members of National Golf Links, which opened in 1911.
“He was a nice man,” Zelenski said of Whigham. “The second and third amateur champion, [at] Shinnecock and Chicago [Golf Club].”
Zelenski is one of the few remaining direct lines to the earliest days of golf in the United States.
“You know how they swung?” he asked when I showed him a photo of the young Douglas, taken the year he won the Am. Zelenski hopped up from his chair, took a wide and open stance, and while holding an imaginary club, waggled his hands. “All wrist.”
A lifelong resident of Southampton, his first loop was for Macdonald, “The Bull,” as they called him in the caddy yard. It was the only time Zelenski had the task of working for the notoriously ill-tempered Macdonald whose playing days were just about over by that time.
All that Zelenski remembers from that day is Macdonald topped his tee shot on the first hole and it came to rest somewhere in the long grass short of the fairway. Before Zelenski even arrived at the general location of where it should be, Macdonald was barking at him, wanting to know if he had located the golf ball.
Zelenski recounts the tale of an early golf pro at National Golf Links, Alec Girard, who denied caddies playing privileges, claiming it was the club president who made the rules. When a caddy threatened to ask the president, in a letter, if that was true, Girard gave caddies permission to golf and they have ever since.
“That son of a &%*$^ wouldn’t let us play the course,” Zelenski said, his voice rising, still angry all these years later, “and we loved golf.”
Zelenski worked in the aircraft industry on the east end of Long Island, but he also had time to hone his game. He played in the finals of the Southampton club championship 16 times and won 13 of them. His prowess caught the attention of members at National and the bordering Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, and he was invited to play in many events at both. He has multiple trophies from each, attesting to his success.
“I’d kill them with my short game,” Zelenski said, adding that his brother, Jay Zelenski, who moved to the New Haven area of Connecticut, was the better player of the two.
In 1987 and 2001 Chet had open-heart surgeries. After the first operation, when he was able to get out of the hospital bed, he says he stood up and made the motion of swinging a club just to make sure everything was in order.
Time has taken a bit of a toll on Zelenski, but not enough to make him stop teeing it up at Southampton and occasionally at National.
“My legs are good so I still play,” he said, flashing a grin.