As I detailed in part 2, legendary golf instructor Mike Austin probably had a very blue collar upbringing in a small house in the middle of Atlanta. It is doubtful he attended any colleges and instead, probably worked menial labor for most of his early adulthood.
He must have had some exposure to golf though – his father and older brother Joe were likely regular golfers.
DID MIKE AUSTIN BECOME A TRICK SHOT ARTIST AND WIN MONEY OFF MOBSTERS IN FLORIDA?
Mike’s Florida stories were epic! He claimed to have invented Trevino’s ‘taped up Coke bottle’ trick, as well as getting down in 3 from a buried lie in a bunker with just a driver.
But the best was the claim that he had wagered against Capone’s Chicago mobsters who would winter in Florida. Mike said when he tried to collect they pulled a Tommy gun on him and threatened to shoot off his fingers.
It was during this period that Mike said he would have golf courses set up matches for him for any amount of money. Eventually he claimed he had gotten so good that nobody would play him. So he had to get bets playing left handed, and eventually with his right handed clubs turned upside down! And he had to come up with many other gimmicks. His nickname was the ‘Golfing Bandit.’
However, in my many hours of research I have yet to come across any true corroboration that Mike every played golf for money in Florida. At this point it is probably forever unknowable – so we just can’t say either way.
Could he have been an employee of a golf course somewhere in Florida? Very possibly as his golf swing must have been developed somehow before he left the East Coast.
There are some aspects of Mike’s story that make it more believable. Capone and his henchman did spend winters in Florida, often in the city of Valparaiso near Pensacola. Because of all the illegal gambling halls that sprung up during the 1930’s, it was dubbed ‘Little Las Vegas.’
Capone was probably using the waterways in this part of Florida to smuggle alcohol coming in from Cuba during Prohibition.
Valparaiso is just a few hours drive from Atlanta. And Capone and his boys were notorious bettors on the golf course. Though they lacked skill, they would wager on everything, like which direction the ball would go in.
The Eagle course in Valparaiso is listed as the ‘Chicago Country Club’ by none other than the United States Air Force, who have Capone as the major driving force in the construction of the place. It is now part of the Eglin Air Force Base.
The clincher that makes Mike’s story plausible is that there is no official record that Capone’s crew was ever leisuring in this part of Florida. There were stories from caddies and residents but nothing in the newspaper. They were in essence ‘laying low.’ This isn’t a story you would have read about – you had to have been there.
Though many of Mike’s stories fall into the ‘unlikely’ category, this one has a bit of meat on the bone. So Mike may have crossed paths with the Chicago Mob.
The 1940 Census lends us the most evidence of what Mike’s life was like during this period. Mike lived with his older brother Joe, Joe’s wife, their mother and father, and Mike’s baby nephew Joseph, and niece Diane. All seven Austins were packed into one tiny one story house with no more than 3 bedrooms.
At this time Mike was 25 years old and was working as a drink salesman at a bottling plant. It is unclear what his job description was, but could have been something as simple as restocking soda machines.
Mike’s older brother Joe was the head of household at age 26, and was a salesman at a cotton brokerage.
The census has their annual salaries at $550 and $500 respectively – the average annual salary for the country in 1940 was just under $2000. Minimum wage was $0.30 an hour during this era; and doing the math it is likely that both Joe and Mike worked for around minimum wage.
1940 was the tail end of the Great Depression, and both brothers probably felt pretty lucky to have a job at all.
President Roosevelt was one of Mike Austin’s biggest heroes, which is reflected in his book of poetry shown to me by his nephew Joe. Mike credited FDR with saving the country. It is likely that Mike and his family benefited from one or more of the president’s socialized ‘New Deal’ programs to help keep them afloat during the 30’s.
FDR was a part time Georgia resident and won over 90% of the Atlanta vote in 1932. He was a hero to them all.
In the next installment, Mike heads west for Hollywood, with a few notable stops along the way.