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Ned Baber: Seven Decades of Golf Championships

Ask Roanoke golfer Ned Baber what his secret to winning golf championships centers around and he answers with a hearty chuckle, “Longevity.”

That may be the understatement in state golf circles considering Baber began winning high school and college matches in the 1950s, won the VSGA Men’s State Amateur Championship in 1960, and most recently captured the VSGA Grand Masters Championship with his win in 2017.

Along the way there have been four more VSGA championships, numerous Roanoke Valley Golf Association titles, and if you’re a betting man like a former employer of Baber, too many $1 Nassaus on his home course at Roanoke Country Club to count. And, Baber has run across some very interesting golfers along the way that provide unique stories from his golfing past.

Baber, a native of Lynchburg, had two things going for himself as a foundation for golfing success; family talent and location.

His mother was a player in the VSGA Women’s ranks and the family lived across the street from Lynchburg’s early iconic course, Oakwood Country Club, now only a links memory after being developed with homes over a decade ago.

“I watched my mother play, but I guess you could say I was self-taught,” Baber recalled of those early days. “I could walk across the street and just start hitting balls around Oakwood. I hit a lot of shots, but I had to keep finding the balls to keep hitting more shots. I also caddied at Oakwood, earning $1.25 for carrying a bag 18 holes.”

Baber attended Virginia Episcopal School where, as a freshman in 1952, he was a member of their first golf team.

“We played our first matches against the only two other area private schools that had golf teams in those days, Fishburne Military and Woodberry Forest,” Baber said.

In 1954, Baber was selected to play in the most prestigious junior golfer tournament in the country at that time, the Jaycee National.

“That was a big deal and a huge honor,” Baber remembered. “Players were selected from each state, and the tournament was in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I got to play with Deane Beaman and Al Geiberger while I was there. But, one of the things I remember most was our group drove all the way there in a Nash sedan with no air conditioning. Quite a trip.”

After graduating from VES in 1955, Baber attended Washington & Lee in Lexington, playing on the Generals golf team where he lettered four years and was captain his senior year. In those days W&L was a member of the Virginia State Intercollegiate Association, playing matches against the likes of Virginia Tech and William & Mary. He graduated from W&L in 1959, and in January, 1960, Baber began a financial career with First and Merchants Bank.

Four years later, Baber went into the life insurance business, where he was hired by James Smith Ferebee, a former Chicago stockbroker and financial entrepreneur who had one of the most interesting stories in the history of golf.

A Virginia Beach native, VMI student and University of Virginia graduate, Ferebee had moved to Chicago in 1927 looking for riches, a career, a wife, unparalleled challenges and the spotlight (Not necessarily in that order). Ferebee got his opportunity when a co-investor in a 296 acre Virginia plantation, Fred Tuerk, agreed to a challenge that Ferebee could not play 144 holes of golf at Chicago’s Olympia Fields Golf Club in one day, walking every step, teeing the ball himself, finishing by midnight and not shooting more than 95 in any 18-hole segment. Ferebee could be accompanied by a caddy and a doctor. Up for grabs was the plantation.

Despite being hampered by blisters and thunderstorms, Ferebee won the bet, shooting 90 or below in every round. But, copy-cats came out of the woodwork to question the difficulty of his feat that had become a national sensation. Ferebee had the answer, and the second bet against Tuerk was quickly on the table. Tuerk would get the plantation back if Ferebee failed and Fuerk would pay Ferebee $20,000 if he succeeded.

Baber conducting an interview after one of his early Roanoke golf tournament victories.

In September, 1938, Ferebee agreed to play 600 holes of golf in eight cities, from Los Angeles to New York, over four consecutive days. Other bets piled on, making the marathon worth $100,000, or well over $1 million today.

Using a chartered airplane, flares, fire truck floodlights and fore caddies, and despite blisters, a leg injury and attempted drugging by a gambler during a meal, Ferebee again limped home the winner in the marathon many deemed totally insane, if not impossible.

“J. Smith Ferebee was the most dynamic person I’ve ever met,” Baber noted of his former employer. “I’ll never forget the first thing I requested when I started working for him was a day off… play golf. He laughed and said ‘go ahead and play.’ It’s a good part of the reason I stayed in the life insurance business all my life; the flexibility and being able to make your own schedule to fit with your golf.”

That strategy obviously has worked. Baber won the VSGA Amateur in 1960 over Wright Garrett, who had just graduated from GW High School in Danville. The match, played in Hot Springs, is still the longest match in that championship’s history, taking 39 holes to crown the winner. He followed with the VSGA Four-Ball Stroke Play titles in 1968 and 1969 with partner and Virginia golf icon, Vinny Giles.

After winning the VSGA Grand Masters Championship in 2007, Baber added a pair of VSGA Super Senior Amateur Championships to his resume in 2010 and 2017. A total of six VSGA championships spanning 57 years. Ironically, Ferebee won the VSGA Senior Amateur in 1962.

“Ned was one of my idols when I was growing up,” Giles, who has 15 VSGA titles under his belt, said in a 1982 interview. “I remember he beat my brains out in the Lynchburg juniors. Ned is an avid supporter of golf, and I can think of no one who is more willing to do anything he can to promote golf.”

Baber moved to Roanoke in 1967. On the local golf scene Baber was inducted into the Roanoke Valley Golf Hall of Fame in 1982. He won the Hall of Fame men’s championship in 1988, senior championships in 1994 and 2004, was Senior player of the year in 2002, 2003 and 2004, then became the Super Senior player of the year in 2007 and 2008. Baber was awarded Hall of Fame Certificates of Merit in 1991, 2007 and 2010.

Ned Baber lines up the winning putt in the 2015 Roanoke Valley Match Play Championship Grand Masters Division played at Ballyhack Golf Club.

He’s also captured wins in the Roanoke Valley City-County in 68 and 69 and has won in the Roanoke Valley Match Play Tournament as a senior. Today, he is on the Hall of Fame’s executive committee, an organization that oversees over $70,000 in golf scholarships annually, while promoting golf throughout the region with 5 tournaments.

Baber has won club championships at Boonsboro in Lynchburg, Roanoke Country Club and Hermitage CC in Richmond. He has shot 64 at Hermitage and a round of 65 at RCC.

“The Hermitage offered the best competition in the state of Virginia in 1960,” Baber noted. “It was key to me winning the state amateur that year.”

Baber still loves the game.

“I guess I’m a natural. I practice and play a lot, 5-6 days a week doing one or the other. You can find anything you want in golf. Exercise, social life, competition and relaxation. Golf is really a reflection of life. You play a round and see it all. You learn to take the good with the bad; you get good breaks and get some bad. You just have to take what comes your way and do the best with it.”

Now 81, Baber says the keys to him still playing competitive golf are threefold.

“The field is shrinking, I enjoy practicing and my health is good.”

Like J. Smith Ferebee, Ned Baber is a marathon man in his own right.

Bill Turner

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