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Life in the Front Row

The shock wasn’t in solving this Masters mystery; it was in discovering the remarkable golf life it unearthed.
Tiger Woods Swings During The Final Round Of The 1997 Masters Tournament (Photo by Augusta National/Getty Images)

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Word came on April 6: The Masters was moving to November. With the world in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, it felt as if we needed the springtime rebirth of the Masters more than ever, but we’d have to wait and hope for the fall. To pass the interminable time, my friend Scott and I—along with who knows how many other hopeless golf addicts—turned to YouTube for our fix. 

The Masters YouTube channel features every final round at Augusta National since 1968, and it became our digital balm. We were trapped at home, but the azaleas were in full bloom on our screens. Folks like Scott and I are true connoisseurs; these weren’t our first Augusta National rodeos. We didn’t need to see who won in 1986 or get a refresher on the traditional Sunday pins. We were racking up views for all the glorious little things: the obsolete equipment, the subtle changes in the course’s architecture, the wild and sublime fashion. That’s how Scott noticed him. 

At 7:07 a.m. on April 14, Scott sent me an email with the subject, “Who is the dude in the red vest?” He wrote, “I think this dude has the most screen time of anyone from 1990–2005. He’s in every tee shot on 10 and 15. It’s insane.” Attached was a screengrab of Tom Lehman on the 15th tee of the 1994 Masters. And there he was, in the gallery just to Lehman’s left: tall, regal in his red vest, impossibly blonde for his vintage. Like it did for Chazz Palminteri in the closing scenes of The Usual Suspects, everything suddenly came into focus: I had seen this man too. Many times. Over many years. In so many galleries. 

I immediately dove back into the Masters archives. My first confirmed sighting came from the 1982 telecast: front row on the 10th tee in a red cardigan, so close to the action that his pants were touching the ropes. He became an easy find: usually on the 10th or 15th tee, almost always in red and somehow the center of attention in the most inconspicuous ways. Jack in his green jacket was the only man who looked better in ’86. He looked like the sun against the cloudy background of the 10th tee in ’87. He was literally head and shoulders above Ian Woosnam in ’91. I may never recover from the Notorious B.I.G.–style Coogi sweater he donned for Tiger’s win in ’97. Perhaps his best work came in 2004, when he broke from his usual outposts and slipped into the center cut of a shot of Ernie Els preparing for a possible playoff on the putting green.

Scott and I dubbed him the Golden Patron. With more time on my hands than I wanted, I set about unearthing this man’s identity.

Even among my crazed golf friends, Scott is considered something of a savant. He’s the kind of guy who can tell you who Johnny Revolta beat in the quarterfinals of the 1935 PGA Championship. (“Eddie Schultz, 4&2. Come on.”) But this one stumped him. So, inspired by the documentary Don’t F**k With Cats, I began combing the videos for clues. The first thing that jumped out was that he was wearing some kind of badge or credential. But what kind? This was a potentially huge lead. I turned to my friend Michael Wolf, a golf historian, true Masters junkie and bibliophile of the first order. But he couldn’t help either. There was only one place left to turn: Golf Twitter. 

For those yet to join the party, #Golf-Twitter is like a 3,000-ring circus. You’ve got your gear heads, the rollback alliance, photographers, fitness gurus, historians, agronomists, stat nerds, parody accounts, architecture junkies, you name it. I should have known the wisdom of this unruly crowd would point me in the right direction.

I put together a thread with screengrabs from each of the Golden Patron’s 1990s appearances. The reaction was immediate and intense: Scott and I weren’t the only ones who noticed this cardiganned Augusta yeti. Users responded with wonderful anecdotes about how this mystery man had become part of their Masters viewing traditions.

My buddy Matthew Mollica wrote from Melbourne, Australia: “I would get together every year with my friend Steve McMurray to watch the tournament. Steve thinks he saw him in the ’80s, but I definitely remember seeing him in ’92 when Craig Parry was close to the lead. It was like Where’s Waldo? He was a fixture of the event, and we’d erupt when we finally spotted him on Sunday.”

But no one seemed to actually know him. For a hot minute, the Twitterverse thought he was former General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt. While this seemed more believable than an early guess of Bill Walton, neither was correct. But the hive mind kept buzzing and soon produced the answer.

The handle @CatholicGolfer replied definitively: “It’s Bill Koeneman.” Soon after, @SavePhares added photographic proof. The evidence began pouring in. Minutes later, Koeneman’s son, Brad, and daughter, Kim, tweeted confirmation. His nephew Chris posted pictures from the Koeneman home. Friends Karen and John Pottoff jumped into the thread to share stories. Within two hours, restless golfers sheltering in place worldwide found our man.

I was thrilled, but it became immediately clear that this case wasn’t closed; it had just begun. There was so much more to this man than I thought; the stories seemed barely believable. So, over the following weeks, instead of teeing it up, I connected with Koeneman’s friends and family. He passed away in 2011, but those close to him painted the picture of a golf life better than anything my diehard friends could have dreamed. Even his actual nickname was much cooler than the moniker that Scott and I had created.

Behold, the legend of Bill “The Count” Koeneman.

Photos courtesy of the Koeneman Family
Photos courtesy of the Koeneman Family

The tweets led to direct messages, which led to phone calls. I first connected with Koeneman’s son, Brad, and was pleasantly surprised to hear he lives in the same corner of Naples, Florida, where I’d spent many a long holiday. The moment he professed his love for burgers at Jimmy P’s, I knew he was good people. He opened up about his father in the way only a proud son can. 

He explained that Koeneman was born in 1931 in Steeleville, Illinois, a town of 1,700 people. When a promising basketball career developed, his father, Bruno, a stoic first-generation German American banker and insurance man, moved the family to nearby Chester—a comparative metropolis of 6,000 residents—where the six-foot-seven Koeneman completed a stellar high school hoops career that earned him induction into the school’s sports hall of fame. 

Koeneman went on to play basketball for St. Louis University and led the Billikens to appearances in the NIT and NCAA tournaments, losing to the 1952 champion Kansas Jayhawks. He would eventually land in the SLU sports hall of fame. After graduation, Koeneman married his college sweetheart, Jo, and enlisted in the Air Force. The young couple reported to Turner Air Force Base in Albany, Georgia, where Bill excelled on the base basketball and golf teams. Upon completion of his service, the Koenemans moved back to Chester to start their family and a wildly successful business, Koeneman Agency Real Estate and Insurance. Among the various prominent community and board positions he held, Koeneman also served as president of Bank of Evansville. In between all of that, he developed an obsession with golf that would eventually land him in yet another hall of fame and lead him back to Georgia.

Brad was Koeneman’s only son, and after his father bought him his first set of clubs, at age 5, they began a lifetime of sharing the game together. Occasionally pausing to collect himself, Brad shared dozens of “You’re not gonna believe this, but…” stories.

“Be sure to talk to Kim,” he added, “because she can tell you all about the movie he was in.”

Excuse me? The movie?

By email, I learned I shared another geographical coincidence with a Koeneman: Kim Koeneman-Knight happened to live near me in Southern California. She adored her father, and, as an author, her stories were stuffed full of wonderful detail. When we got on the phone, the names she dropped during our conversation were staggering: Elvis Presley, Jack Nicklaus, President Gerald Ford, Frank Sinatra, Jack Buck, Whitney Houston, Arnold Palmer, Tony Orlando.

When I asked about the movie, another celebrity name popped up: Sidney Poitier. She explained that the 1967 Poitier classic In the Heat of the Night—which would go on to win five Oscars, including Best Picture—was being filmed in nearby Sparta, Illinois, and the production team needed extras for an opening scene where hunters with hounds chased an escaped suspect. Koeneman, an expert goose hunter, fit the bill. He can be seen at the 27-minute mark, jumping a log with his hounds on a leash in hot pursuit. Koeneman was paid $40 for his services. Koeneman-Knight told me the check was never cashed and still hangs proudly alongside the golf paraphernalia in the Koeneman home.

Among the myriad golf items, there are two letters. The first, dated April 1, 1997, is from Margaret Mitchell, captain of the Senior Ladies Association of the Royal Johannesburg Golf Club. It’s addressed to then–Augusta National Golf Club chairman Jack Stephens, and reads in part:

“Dear Mr. Stephens,

At this time of year I doubt that you will even have time to read this letter. But, maybe, after the ‘Great Celebration of Golf’ you will have a moment to give my request a little thought.…I now have ‘last day’ tapes dating back to 1986 and on every one of them a particular man stands out.…This lengthy diatribe is just to ask one small favour. I would dearly love to know this man’s first name.”

A representative from Augusta knew exactly who Mitchell was talking about and replied back, giving her Koeneman’s address. The second letter is from April 11, 1998, in which Mitchell writes Koeneman directly: 

Mr. Koeneman

Having watched your enthusiasm over the years I know that you will appreciate that I have a hankering to be just that little bit closer to the event than just watch- ing it on T.V. I have had a ‘date’ WITH YOU every year since 1988. And that has given me a lot of added pleasure. May we watch and enjoy many more Masters…together.”

An even more intimate Masters connection blossomed from Koeneman’s fortunate hunting expertise: a decades-long friendship with six-time champion Jack Nicklaus. Brad explained that southern Illinois is a hot spot for goose hunting, and that in the 1970s, George Walsh, a native of the area and a PGA Tour employee, received a call about it from his friend Charlie Nicklaus. Charlie was looking for some land where he and his famous son could hunt, and a guide who could show them the ropes. Walsh knew just the man.

The younger Nicklaus and Koeneman hit it off immediately and developed a friendship that would last until Bill’s passing. While their bond was borne of hunting, they played golf on multiple occasions and shared plenty of family time together. According to family lore, Koeneman even helped Nicklaus with his wardrobe when he signed an endorsement deal with clothiers Hart Schaffner Marx. On more than one occasion during the Memorial tournament up in Columbus, Ohio, Nicklaus would have Koeneman to his home for breakfast. “They would visit every Masters behind the ropes for five or 10 minutes,” Brad recalled. “They had a lot of memories. It was a real friendship.”

There was a reason Koeneman would’ve given Nicklaus fashion advice: He was a man of undeniable style. When Brad and Kim connected me with their mother, Jo, she said, “Everybody always thought Bill was a movie star or celebrity of some sort.” He had a colorful arsenal of bespoke clothing, very much in the same league as the PGA Tour’s “Dapper” Doug Sanders.

“When we went into my dad’s closet after he passed, we found over 200 pairs of golf shoes,” Brad said. “He had every color you can imagine: pink, green, silver. Everything.” 

His sartorial prowess was not limited to the links. Koeneman’s longtime running mate, “Papa” John Pottoff, and I had a terrific conversation after connecting on Twitter. He regaled me with a story about a trip in 1982, when Pottoff and his wife, Karen, went to Game 6 of the World Series at Busch Stadium in St. Louis with Koeneman and Jo. Koeneman’s hookup for tickets was Buck, a longtime friend and legendary radio and television voice of the Cardinals. (Famous friendships were something of a Koeneman specialty.) During a rain delay, Bill and John went up to the press box to say hello.

“We were standing there with Bob Costas, Dan Dierdorf, Reggie Jackson and Al Michaels, and this kid comes up with a pen and pad, looking for an autograph,” Pottoff said. While new to the Count’s lore, I could see where this was going. “Bill’s wearing an all-white suit with a red ruffled shirt underneath, a red scarf and white leather shoes,” Pottoff continued. “The kid walks straight to him and says, ‘Sir, may I please have your autograph?’ All four of them lean forward as the kid hands the notebook to Bill—and Bill signs it for him! The kid walks away, and Costas looks around and says, ‘It must be the clothes.’ We about died laughing. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The story aligned perfectly with Brad’s crack that “my dad kind of made his own luck.” Chester Country Club is perhaps the best example of it. Chester, Illinois, is home to the Menard Correctional Center—a maximum-security prison where infamous serial killer John Wayne Gacy spent his final days. In the 1960s, the facility was run by Ross Randolph, who also happened to play golf regularly with Koeneman. Brad said that sometime in the late ’60s, Koeneman shared a vision with Randolph for a patch of land adjacent to the prison: a nine-hole golf course, constructed by inmates. Warden Randolph approved. Chester Country Club, a fine nine-hole facility that Koeneman helped design, launched in 1970 and remains open. 

Koeneman was a certified menace on the southern Illinois golf circuit. Nobody knows for sure how many tournaments he won, but according to local legend, the total approaches 200. He and Brad also won multiple St. Louis Father & Son Championships, the last of which when Koeneman was 66 years old. He was a legit scratch for decades. It was no surprise when he was inducted into the Southern Illinois Golf Hall of Fame in 1997. 

He also served on the board of directors of the Chicago District Golf Association for 20 years and was its radio voice for many of them (more on that side hustle later). 

Whenever Koeneman played at Chester Country Club—which still hosts the annual Count Classic in his honor—he demanded that something be on the line. “It wasn’t gonna be a game without action as far as the Count was concerned,” Koeneman’s good friend and lawyer, Eddie Fisher, told me from his home in Hot Springs, Arkansas, where—no surprise—he dabbles in horse racing. “We weren’t playing for Michael Jordan stakes, but definitely enough to make it fun and more interesting.”

Koeneman-Knight and Pottoff said I absolutely had to speak with Fisher, and they were right. He told me about one evening at Chester Country Club when a marginally famous barnstorming trick-shot artist and country-club hustler named Count Yogi barreled into the parking lot looking for a mark. 

Yogi’s real name was Harry Frankenberg; he was a journeyman pro from Chicago who worked his way to Hollywood, playing regularly with entertainers Mickey Rooney and Hoagy Carmichael. He was a showman, so he took his golf skills on the road, performing across the country.

“I see this big maroon Lincoln Continental roll into the parking lot, and this guy gets out,” Fisher said. “He’s wearing this long-sleeve white shirt with big cufflinks and pink pants, and he comes up to me and says, ‘I want to play the best male and female players at this club.’ I pointed and told him, ‘The best male golfer is coming up No. 9 fairway right over there.’ Then Yogi says, ‘I want to take him on.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ So I go over to Bill and say, ‘You better handle him.’”

They settled on a three-hole match for serious money. They ended up tied, so the match moved to the putting green.

“It got pretty crazy, but Bill won,” Fisher said. “I remember the stakes were so high that Yogi couldn’t pay the bet. He probably didn’t have any money to begin with, but Bill wouldn’t let him pay.”

They ended up having a few drinks after the round. By this point, Koeneman also owned a hotel in town named the Royal. He called over and gave Yogi a free room and dinner.

“That’s the kind of guy Bill was,” Fisher said.

For all of their adventures, neither Pottoff nor Fisher could quite pin down how Koeneman ended up with his nickname. For that, I needed his daughter. And I should have known he had a hand in it. “Back in the 1970s, there was a star pitcher for the San Francisco Giants named John Montefusco,” Koeneman-Knight said. “And they called him the Count. My dad liked it and just adopted the name.” 

Wonderful as these stories were, I began this inquiry with Augusta, and I needed to know more about how Koeneman showed up on telecasts for all those years. As with so many other triumphs, Brad said his father made it happen with a smile on his face.

“My dad first went to the Masters in 1982,” Brad told me. “He didn’t have a ticket, he didn’t have a place to stay—he didn’t have anything. But he figured out that a lot of the people with press passes were really bogus. Anyone at a TV or radio station could get a press credential, so that’s what he did.”

Koeneman connected with tiny radio stations WHCO in Sparta, Illinois, and KSGM in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, and, sure enough, Augusta National approved his media application. He kept that credential active from 1983 through 2011. And it wasn’t a façade: Koeneman did updates and interviews every day, and even pitched in some audio work for the Chicago District Golf Association. Brad’s voice swelled with pride telling me about his father’s most memorable interview. After witnessing his poor first-round 79 in 1986, Koeneman politely interviewed a beleaguered Nick Price. Two days later, Price set an Augusta course record with a blistering 63. The media swarmed Price after his round, but he remembered the tall gentleman from WHCO in Sparta, Illinois, and gave him the first interview from that historic day.

Starting in 1983, the Koenemans began what would become their traditional Masters itinerary. Bill befriended Bernard Doris, a local jeweler who was a member at Augusta Country Club, and he hosted the Koenemans every year. “We’d play Augusta Country Club in the morning and then go over to the Masters in the afternoon, and Dad would get in his spot,” Brad said.

Koeneman left little to chance when it came to his gallery placement. Over the years, he built strong relationships with the press corps and several Augusta members, who were happy to help him. He would scout the CBS camera positions and know where to be and when to be there—and, most importantly, how to act. “He wasn’t like the John 3:16 guy,” said Brad, dismissively referring to the man who famously disrupted the 1991 Masters during a Nicklaus backswing.

Over the years, his act would take on the kind of life that can happen only at Augusta. “Our country club in Waterloo, Illinois, had a ‘Count Sighting’ pool each year to see who could guess the closest time that he would be spotted at the Masters,” Karen Pottoff told me. “The screaming in the clubhouse was deafening when he was spotted! The winner of the pool usually had to buy drinks, so they didn’t come out ahead.”

Eventually, fans began to recognize him.

“One year, Dad was a little late getting to his spot, and the gallery was already three or four people deep,” Koeneman-Knight remembered. “Suddenly, a short man who was right on the ropes started waving to him. ‘You are here! You are here! Come stand with me!’ he said. Turned out he was a doctor from Argentina. ‘My family is in Argentina and they watch the Masters every year for you,’ he said. ‘They celebrate when they see you. I told them I would stand by you so they could see me. Please, may I stand next to you, sir?’ This kind of stuff happened all the time to my dad. He was so touched and happy to oblige.”

Of course, Koeneman’s old friend Fisher also had a story: “I’m at the Masters with the Count in the early ’90s, and here comes this distinguished-looking older couple. The gentleman says, ‘My wife was just saying there’s her boyfriend! She watches the Masters solely to look for you, and here you are!’ They joined us for lunch, and it turned out they were members of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club. They invited us to the British Open, but we never went. That was when I understood how much he meant to the people who watched for him.”

And he was always easy to find. “My dad never left the house without looking perfect,” Koeneman-Knight said, and I could hear her smiling through the phone. His movie-star sunglasses, gold medallion hanging from a rope chain, custom wardrobe and red Rolls-Royce golf cart with air-conditioning and television only confirmed that our man liked to shine. And what better place to show out than Palm Springs. “He thought the [Coachella Valley] was the greatest place on Earth,” she said with a laugh.

He became something of a fixture at the Bob Hope Classic in its heyday of the 1970s and ’80s. No stranger to figuring out how things worked, he quickly began to draw the most incredible pairings from the supposed blind draw, including Nicklaus, Palmer, Lee Trevino and Gary Player.

How’d he do it? Among the hundreds of photos from his golf adventures are several with Brigadier General William Yancey, who also happened to be the Bob Hope Classic tournament director for a time. “My dad just somehow became buddies with General Yancey,” Brad said. “Total home cookin’.”

Brad had the Hope details, and Knight-Koeneman further blew my mind with the story of her father’s desert date with President Ford. 

In the summer of 1979, Koeneman and Jo met Ford’s daughter, Susan, on a trip to Vail, Colorado. They made such an impression that she invited them to her wedding in Rancho Mirage, California. The event was a who’s-who of society and celebrity. As Tony Orlando and Dawn played the hits, Koeneman and Jo danced the night away, living out their Hollywood dream. To top it off, they shared a table with one of Koeneman’s heroes, Frank Sinatra. Not a bad draw for a kid from rural Illinois.

It was impossible to find a negative word about the man. And, despite all his collisions with fame and a life of good fortune, he was also somehow humble. “Bill thought he was normal,” Pottoff said. “I told him, ‘Bill, I’ve never met anyone like you.’”

Jo lovingly told me stories of the legendary parties the Koenemans would throw at their massive home in Chester, where she still lives. Apparently the Count poured a Bloody Mary you could read the morning paper through. She transported me right into her card parlor as she remembered his final day: “I was hosting my bridge club, and Bill came into the room where we were playing and he took our drink orders.” This was standard operating procedure, she explained. “Then he left to make the drinks and he had a stroke and died.” The call went quiet as she remembered the love of her life. Images of him watching over the 10th and 15th tees at Augusta flashed in my head, and, for a moment, I imagined the Count standing there beside her.