CROUSE––Legendary golfer Clayton Vance Heafner had ties to the southwestern Lincoln County community of Crouse.
According to historian Mona Ramsey of the Crouse Community History and Photo Project, Heafner’s parents came from the rural hamlet. As Ramsey explained Friday, the group now has a lengthy PowerPoint presentation that chronicles this and many other fascinating facets of Heafner’s life and career.
In 1914, the golfing great was born in Charlotte, and he grew up there as the youngest of six children of Crouse natives William Wesley and Loretta Rosa Ramsey Heafner. Mrs. Heafner died in 1923, and William Heafner later married the daughter of Jenny Nolen Cornwell, Sarah Irva Cornwell, also of Crouse. The golfer’s parents are buried in Crouse: William Heafner in the cemetery of Antioch Methodist Church, and Loretta Heafner at St. Mark’s Lutheran.
Clayton Heafner made a lot of money as a golfer. At one tournament in 1938, he won $150––a large sum during the Great Depression. Adjusted for inflation, that’s nearly $3,000 in today’s money.
He was one of the biggest golf stars of his day. According to the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, Heafner won seven tournaments on the PGA Tour.
One newspaper of the time spelt his surname as “Haefner,” reversing the “a” and “e.” Unintentionally, this was actually correct, as this German last name could indeed be spelt that way, auf deutsch.
But the “ae” spelling is usually rendered as “ä” in German-speaking countries. As Ramsey pointed out, the Heafners descend from a Johann Dietrich Haffner, who arrived in what is today Lincoln County some 270 years ago, probably coming down from Pennsylvania, as so many German and Dutch immigrant families did. The name may well have been spelt as “Haffner,” rather like the German writer, Sebastian Haffner, or the prominent Salzburg family of Haffners. Or it could have been “Häffner,” a cognate of the same name, which with the umlaut would be pronounced as “Heafner,” both in English and German, thus making the Anglicised spelling logical.
And wherever northern German immigrants went in North America, they brought the Lutheran Church with them. Hence St. Mark’s and other such churches scattered throughout Lincoln County and the Piedmont.
Also in 1938, Heafner, by then residing in Greensboro, shot an amazing 68 at a golf meet in Houston. He was quite the celebrity in the Lone Star State and elsewhere on the golf circuit.
The following year, Heafner broke the record at Myers Park Country Club in Charlotte. He took part in the PGA National Open in Philadelphia. And he soon became the in-house golf pro at a new country club in Linville that was designed by the famed Donald Ross of Pinehurst.
In 1940, Heafner famously knocked his ball into a small tree’s upper branches. He then proceeded to climb the tree in order to whack the ball back down.
He was also renowned for his unique swinging stance. He never moved his feet, claiming his prowess was down to having “loose knees.”
Also in 1940, he married Mary Allen of Charlotte. Their son, Clayton Heafner, Jr. (known as Vance), would go on to become a famous professional golfer in his own right before his untimely diabetes-related death in 2012. The couple also had a daughter, Donna, and another son, Michael.
The elder Heafner competed eight times at the Masters in Augusta, Ga. His best finish was tying for seventh. And in 1942, he won the Mahoning (Ohio) Open.
He served in the U.S. Army, 1942-46. But that didn’t fully interrupt his golfing career. The army recognized a good thing and allowed him to continue playing. He rose to the rank of sergeant and often played during furloughs. But Heafner did see action, including at the Battle of the Bulge (1944-45), and he earned five Battle Stars. A big man, his military service slimmed him down from 236 pounds to just 200. It also served to curb a famously fiery temper.
“A golf swing is something you don’t lose,” Heafner said of quite literally getting back in the swing of things, postwar. “It’s the timing you lose. And it takes time to get it back.”
In 1947, he won the Jacksonville (Fla.) Open and $2,000: nearly $25,000 in today’s money. The next year, he won the Colonial Crown in Fort Worth. In 1951, he was a member of the victorious American team competing in the Ryder Cup in Pinehurst.
Also in the ’50’s, Heafner was a key player in breaking golf’s color barrier. He played in matches against his black friend and former caddy: fellow golfing great Charlie Sifford. Heafner also gave Sifford good advice, which the younger man carried with him to the end of his days.
Heafner retired in 1954. He bought the Eastwood Golf Club in Charlotte. Off the tour at last, he now enjoyed taking it easy and the occasional informal round of golf just for fun. He was still scoring in the 60’s in 1960. He died that year of undisclosed causes, just 46 years old. His widow died the following year.
Today, Clayton Heafner is a member of the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame. He is also a member of the Greater Charlotte Sports Hall of Fame.