News & Opinion

50 years later, Archer’s signature victory

Fifty years ago, George Archer joined one of golf’s most exclusive and prestigious clubs. He conquered a parade of obstacles in his life to win the Masters, the crowning achievement of a career in which he pocketed 13 PGA Tour victories.

Archer would be equally proud of his legacy off the course. Maybe prouder.

He was illiterate, a lifelong secret that he allowed his wife, Donna, to share publicly only after he died of cancer in 2005. She went one step further, turning that painful, haunting secret into a form of community service.

Today, a half-century after Archer slipped his arms into Augusta National’s storied green jacket, the George Archer Memorial Foundation for Literacy funds programs throughout Northern California, teaching kids to read and write.

Donna Archer has visited these programs at Charles Armstrong School in Belmont, a suburb south of San Francisco, and the nearby San Mateo Public Library. Archer, a sharp and vivacious woman, marvels at the impact on students who have difficulty learning to read and write.

“The key is the teacher training,” she said. “Teachers now learn amazing programs that break through the barriers George experienced.”

Donna sometimes wonders about the public nature of her mission. She revealed George’s illiteracy shortly after his death, in a first-person story in Golf for Women magazine. Donna also spoke to me at length for a San Francisco Chronicle story in 2009, on the 40th anniversary of George’s Masters victory, and again this year to Curt Sampson for a Golf Digest piece.

The headline above Sampson’s story – The Masters champion who couldn’t read or write – felt like a gut punch to Donna, even all these years later. She described it as “stark” to see those words strung together, available for mass consumption.

But then she reminds herself of all the good coming out of this.

“My perception is, by telling this story some people have learned to read and write,” she said.

George Archer had a troubled upbringing (mostly in San Francisco), with a temperamental, hard-driving father who ultimately left the family and a mother who struggled to care for four children. He became a caddie at Peninsula Golf & Country Club in San Mateo at age 13, in part to earn money for his family. George once told Donna that he contemplated suicide at 18 and feared becoming homeless on the streets.

Maybe all of his subsequent physical maladies seemed manageable, given the context. Archer needed seven surgeries during his career, from his wrist and back to his hip and shoulder. He still was remarkably durable, winning 19 more times on what would become the Champions Tour.

And, for 36 years, he had a seat for the Champions Dinner at Augusta National.

Donna tried to help her husband learn to read; they brought in a reading specialist and used Hooked on Phonics, even when George was on the Senior Tour. He would make progress and then fall back. Donna suspects that he would be diagnosed with dyslexia today.

George was too ashamed to acknowledge his reading problems, though he eventually told his daughters, some sponsors and the PGA Tour.

“There’s not anybody who had to overcome what he did to stay on tour for 40 years,” Donna said. “Metaphorically, he walked around life with a concrete block on his head. The fact he won the Masters, it’s mind-boggling. It’s magical, a darn miracle. I’m just awed by what he had to overcome.”

Donna will return to Augusta National for next week’s Masters, as she does nearly every April. She has no special plans to commemorate the 50th anniversary of George’s signature triumph – but she also knows his persistence and savvy still resonate in a distinctive, meaningful way.

“It’s nice to have a gentle spotlight and make him more known,” Donna said, “but it doesn’t mean as much unless it’s directed toward kids who are going through the same thing.”

Ron Kroichick has covered golf for the San Francisco Chronicle since 2005. He also is a regular contributor to NCGA Golf, the Northern California Golf Association’s magazine. E-mail: r.kroichick@comcast.net; Twitter: @ronkroichick