HERSHEY, Pa. -- The shuttle to Hershey Country Club dropped Howell Fraser and his wife, Linda Lee, off at the front door to a clubhouse, a facility that embraces golf history and once was home to forrmer club professionals turned World Golf Hall of Famers, Henry Picard and Ben Hogan.
Fraser, the inaugural PGA Professional National Champion in 1968, recalled the impact of his first national title on a sun-splashed afternoon in Scottsdale, Ariz. That year, The PGA of America and Tour professionals officially made their split to separate entities, but Fraser's victory was not overlooked.
"After I won, they really looked upon what I won as like a Tour event," said Fraser. "I was treated like a Tour player for one year and was exempt for one season. I know that has changed. I do know that I would love to be competing here this week for the trophy."
As Fraser toured the National Championship site, he saw a crystal Walter Hagen Cup, which also was vastly different from the hardware he picked up in 1968.
"The Walter Hagen Cup at that time was a big silver handled cup with a heavy base," said Fraser. "I have a smaller copy at home. We didn't know what was to come after that Championship, but looking around here it's evident how far this has come," said Fraser, now 71, and a resident of Panama City, Fla. Fraser's visit to Hershey, Pa., was his first appearance at a PGA Professional National Championship since 1992, the last time he pushed a tee into the ground to compete against his peers and the last year that he sat down with his fellow Champions at a dinner.
Fraser's performance chart in the National Championship includes 14 starts, making nine cuts in four separates decades. When he triumphed in 1968 at age 28, a field of 207 competed for a total purse was $50,000 and Fraser pocketed $8,000. Today, the Championship is presented by Club Car and Mercedes-Benz, and 312 entrants duel for a total purse of $550,000, with the Champion earning $75,000.
"You can see right away the big change that has come about through the years – the setup of the courses, the shuttle cars, the help from the host club. It's a tremendous difference, like night and day," said Fraser. "I was fortunate to have played well that week in Arizona. There were a lot of great players in the field – Bob Rosburg, Tommy Bolt, Mike Souchak, Gene Borek, Manuel de la Torre, and on and on."
The National Championship, broadcast by Golf Channel and with walking scorers relaying hole-by-hole information, keeps media, spectators and browsers online updated minute by minute.
"There were no leaderboards to help us in 1968 and I didn't know how I stood until I finished each round," said Fraser, now a PGA Life Member. "In the final round, Don Bies came up to me at the 15th hole to offer encouragement. He didn't want to let me know exactly where I stood. I remember him saying, 'You're doing well. Keep it going.' Those were the words of encouragement I needed."
Fraser went on to post a 14-under-par 272 total for a four-stroke victory over Chuck Malchaski of Rosemont, Ill., and former PGA Champion Rosburg. Then-PGA of America Vice President Leo Fraser (no relation) presented Howell with his first-place check.
Fraser, a 1963 graduate of Louisiana State University, where he met his future wife, was a member of the 1961 LSU Southeastern Conference individual championship team and won the individual league title. He also was a member of LSU's 1960 SEC title team with Don Essig III, a PGA Golf Professional Hall of Famer and respected PGA Rule official.
The Hershey ties continue for Essig, as he won the 1957 U.S. Public Links Championship on the former Hershey Park Golf Course.
"Don is a great friend and a great player still today," said Fraser. "It is something to be visiting the town where he won his national title."
Fraser took his National Championship exemption to the Tour in 1969 and finished seventh in Los Angeles Open and shared 14th in the former Kaiser International Open. He played on Tour for three more years, making 63 career starts with his best finishes a pair of fourth-place performances in the 1967 Azalea Open and Robinson Open Golf Classic. Fraser's competitive résumé includes seven PGA Championships, featuring a career-best share of 59th in 1969; six Senior PGA Championships (finishing T-58 in 1990); the 1965 U.S. Open at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis and four Senior British Opens.
"I caddied for Howell several times in the Senior British Open," said Linda Fraser. "I was lucky, because all I had to do was pull a trolley."
Though his National Championship competitive days have passed, Fraser isn't idle. He and his wife had owned and operated a popular gift store, The Mole Hole, in Panama City for 29 years. Fraser said that he has found time to practice his game and occasionally plays in Dixie PGA Senior events.
"I have been pretty fortunate, and once I left Tour golf have enjoyed the opportunity to keep up with Section events as much as possible," said Fraser, who was born in Pensacola, Fla., but has spent most of his life in Panama City. After his stint on Tour, Fraser served 10 seasons as PGA head professional at Bay Point Yacht & Golf Club in Panama City.
"Things did not work out in the job after I had reached 10 years and my wife and I have worked well together. She's the brains of the team," said Fraser. "We have been fortunate to have a successful business."
On June 25, Fraser stepped to the podium at the Champions' Dinner, reflecting about his victory 43 years earlier, a triumph that has allowed him a lifetime of pleasant memories and exemption to dinner among an elite fraternity.
"It is wonderful to be invited back and to get to meet some players that I have followed over the years," said Fraser. "A lot has changed, but it is all for the better."