Written by Bill Fishburne | Photographs by Anthony Harden
The story of Sherwood Pinkston, born in 1924, and his success at Golf Associates is almost too good to be true. Only in America could a young boy rise from selling soft drinks and popcorn at baseball games, to founding a printing company that grew to become the world’s largest producer of golf scorecards.
Along the way he became a genuine World War II hero serving in pre-invasion landing parties that scouted out Japanese held beaches in the South Pacific.
Pinkston, an Asheville native, grew up in the Great Depression of the pre-war 1930’s. Times were hard. Everybody worked including little kids. Sherwood and his first cousin, Joe Swicegood (profiled in our Sept./Oct. 2012 issue), found a way to make a little money at local baseball games. “Just follow me around,” Swicegood said. “I’ll sell the popcorn, and they’ll need a soft drink from you to balance the salt.”
And thus two little kids became entrepreneurs who could earn up to $10 each per week in a time when their fathers were making $40. Pinkston also collected bottles for 1¢ each. “On a good day when I had a nickel I’d get a hot dog,” Pinkston says with a smile. Neither he nor Swicegood ever forgot the lessons they learned working when they were kids.
Golf Associates didn’t arrive on the scene until the late 1960’s. In-between 1930 and 1968, Pinkston fought in the war, attended college, married Faye and had three children. He founded two other successful businesses, learned to sleep in the back seat of his car and personally visited nearly every golf course, public and private, between Mississippi and Miami. “I learned to love Saltines and Vienna sausage,” he says. “I had to go meet with the golf pros and club managers. These weren’t expense-account trips.”
Yeah. This entrepreneurship deal’s easy. Everybody should try it.
Pinkston’s military career should have been the end of him. As a Navy invasion scout his job was to go ashore before a landing to find and mark, move or destroy beach obstacles that would destroy the fragile Higgins Boats used by the Navy to carry infantry assault forces ashore.
“I wanted to join the Marines,” Pinkston remembers during a conversation in his office at the old Emma Air Park. “I was just 17 when the war broke out on that Sunday. The next day I went over to the Marine Corps recruiter and got some papers my Mom had to sign to give me permission to go in early. My sister saw them, got scared and tore them up. I had to wait until I was 18.”
At that point, having volunteered for the draft, Pinkston was assigned to a branch of the service according to the needs of the military. He wound up in the Navy where he was trained to be a beach party team member. “We went into the area to mark the hazards before the troop boats arrived,” Pinkston says. “Then we stayed on the beach to direct traffic until they pulled us out and headed to the next invasion. I was in a bunch of them.”
“At Leyte [the Philippines] in 1944 we were the first ones on the beach. They had asked for 5,000 volunteers but only 212 of us actually stepped forward. I was on the beach in my foxhole with Freddie Beligni when a Japanese plane came in and dropped a 500 lb. bomb on the 155mm artillery piece that was right next to us. It was the biggest explosion you could imagine. It left a hole 30 feet across and there wasn’t one piece left of that big 155mm gun. Freddie and I were both blown 15 feet into the air. It blew my pants legs off on both sides and burned all the hair off my legs. It never grew back. I had shrapnel all through my back and shoulder. It made me deaf in my left ear and I only have 15 percent hearing in my right. But I was OK, and so was Freddie. That was in October, 1944.”
“I had a megaphone, and my job was to get the guys off the beach. There were Japanese planes strafing us and I jumped into a hole. Somebody jumped in beside me, and I looked at him. It was Fred Martin from Asheville. He came back and became the Buncombe County Superintendent of Schools. He said, ‘You son of a bitch, what are you doing here?’ After we came home, for 50 years after that, on Oct. 17, the anniversary of the Leyte invasion, Fred would call me and ask if I still remembered what happened to us that day.”
Pinkston happened to be on the beach at Leyte after the battle when General Douglas MacArthur came ashore, fulfilling his famous “I shall return” promise made after his evacuation from Bataan in 1942. “I saw a lot of commotion going on and just walked on over there,” he said. “It was quite a deal.”
Wounded and sick with malaria (he suffered 18 attacks), Pinkston came home and attended Asheville-Biltmore College (now UNCA) at its old Merrimon Ave. location. In 1948 he used his own money plus some borrowed from his mother to buy a small café on Brevard Rd. in West Asheville. He renamed it the “Steak House.”
“Our first day we did $3.39 in total sales,” Pinkston recalls. “I kept at it and in a year and a half we were doing $750 a day selling hot dogs and hamburgers. It was a good business. I sold it and started a dry cleaning business (Mayflower Dry Cleaners) because I heard dry cleaning was one of the most profitable businesses in the country.”
Pinkston’s memory is razor sharp. He recalls the first day he heard about the golf scorecard business was in 1968 when he and Don Burleson played a round at Beaver Lake Golf Club with a fellow named Wally Hopkins. “I told him I was in the dry cleaning business,” Pinkston says. “He said he had just gone bankrupt trying to sell golf score cards. He told me that he started his company in California and was selling advertising on his score cards. I thought that was a pretty good idea, so I went to see Ross Taylor, the course pro at the Black Mountain Golf Course. He let us sell advertising if we gave him the cards. I had a local printer print them up and hired some salesmen.”
Pinkston went on to form a relationship with Tom Reese at Hickory Printing Company which made it economical to print relatively small batches of scorecards. “Tom showed me how he could fill a four-color sheet with someone else’s print job and have room left over for our score cards,” Pinkston says. “That helped him fill up his press runs and gave us a top-quality product at a very low price. Everybody else was using scorecards printed in black and white, or all red or blue. We offered a superior product and if they would take the advertising it didn’t cost them anything.”
Golf Associates developed two lines of business. One, primarily for municipal and public courses, placed advertising on the cards and provided them at no cost to the golf pros. The second business, for country clubs and other private courses, offered extremely high-end cards that are sometimes so artistic they became prized souvenirs to both members and their guests.
Pinkston’s second stroke of genius in the scorecard business also came after a round of golf at Beaver Lake. “I was playing on a Sunday morning,” he recalls, “and I asked the fellows I was playing with to meet me in the clubhouse after our round for a business meeting. I told them about driving around to the golf courses and how hard it was, and yet what a great product we had. Someone asked if I had considered starting a mail order business. I said no, but I did have a book with the names and addresses of all the North Carolina golf courses in it. I went home, dug up the book and got started.
“I mailed my first batch of materials on a Friday. The first telephone call I got was from L.B. Floyd, Raymond Floyd’s father. He was the chief pro at a course in Fayetteville. He asked if my offer was for real. I assured him it was, and he ordered 100,000 scorecards for one golf course. We got some other orders from that first mailing, and I was encouraged. I got some more mailing lists for courses in Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Ohio, New Jersey and some other states. As soon as I could I sent my mailer to five of those states, and we got 132 orders.
“I didn’t have an art department. I didn’t have a printing press. I didn’t have any way to get the new orders produced. I hired Tom Crawford then worked out a better arrangement with Tom Reese. He looked at what we were doing and said he was amazed that all the printers in the country didn’t do it.
“We didn’t know much about pricing. I figured we could do OK if I charged about five times what we were paying for paper. It worked out real well.”
Through the years Pinkston has grown the business to include his wife, Faye, and his sons Edward and Michael. Edward interrupted his full-time college career to come in as an account manager helping his father work with customers. Michael became director of the sales group and eventually founded his own advertising company, Golf Skor, Inc. The youngest son, Joey, passed away several years ago. Another son, Ralph, is not in the business.
As the business grew, Pinkston bought his own presses and machinery. He now does everything in-house including artwork, layout, printing, folding and high-end die cutting of heavy card stock. He even has a machine that prints gilded edges for some of the world’s most exclusive clubs.
Everything that Pinkston has accomplished, from his family to his business and his extensive network of friends, he credits indirectly to a Navy Corpsman from Queenstown, New York.
“Our last invasion was Darough in the Southern Philippines,” Pinkston recalls. “We drove 120 miles in the dark in an Army weapons carrier through Japanese territory to get to the beach we’re going to invade. We started at 2 a.m. and drove the whole way with no lights. We were on that beach for seven days, and I was sick with malaria. I’d had 18 attacks, and I was so sick and tired that I would just as soon die. I was treated by a medic, Martin C. Towne. He knew the situation I was in, and he wrote me a poem. It inspired me and I still have it. It changed my life. I want to share it with you.” (see facing page)
Life is funny. You never know how it will work out for you or who will come along to change it, even when you are in your darkest moments, on the staircase to hell.
Just ask Sherwood Pinkston.