The gentleman sitting back, surveying the sixth hole at Carmel’s Woodland Country Club has lived through the terms of 16 presidents, watched a thing called the automobile make its way into American life, and become a sort of Hamilton County sports institution.
Along the way, he has designed more than 275 golf courses from Ohio to Colorado, won more than 100 tournaments and played an incredible 1,200 rounds of golf with a score below his own age.
And with his 92nd birthday coming up June 7, Bill Diddel is still going strong.
Diddel, born and raised in central Indiana, began his golfing career in 1900 when he was 16, and by 1902 he had won his first golf tourney. Between 1905 and 1912 he won the Indiana Amateur Championship five times, and since then Diddel has won two Central State championships, more than 75 Central Indiana tournaments, and most recently the majority of Senior Citizen tournaments in Florida, where he spends some of his winters.
His 1,200 rounds with a score below his age put him close to the national record, and Diddel reportedly owns a U.S. record because of a 70 he shot when he was 82 years old. There is apparently no other American golfer who can boast of an 18-hole score 12 strokes under his age.
After playing competitively for 22 years, Diddel turned to designing courses in 1922 because, as he recalls, “I had to make a living somehow.”
Today, a Bill Diddel-designed golf course can be found in Dallas, Texas; St. Petersburg, Florida; and Denver, Colorado; and locally has has designed Woodland (his home lies just beyond the sixth green), Brookshire, Sun Blest, Meridian Hills, Riverside and Coffin.
In the beautiful, old log cabin overlooking Woodwand Country Club, Bill Diddel now lives alone. His wife of 30 years, Helen, passed away last year, and Diddel himself was in the hospital for two weeks early this spring with a hip ailment.
Ten days after leaving his hospital bed, however, Diddel was back on the golf course, perfecting his nine-iron and putter.
That’s the type of person he is. When he half-jokingly calls himself a “decrepit athlete who just won’t quit,” he’s half-right. Bill Diddel will never quit in anything he does. But decrepit? Not Bill Diddel. No way.
Hamiltonian: Mr. Diddel, if you go out and play 18 holes of golf around the middle of May when the hip is better, what would you expect to shoot?
Diddel: Oh, I’d expect to shoot somewhere between an 85 and a 90; at least that’s what I was shooting before the hip started to act up. Some of the other folks here at the golf club have had the same kind of operation, and they’ve come back better than ever. So anything under 90 would please me.
Hamiltonian: What in the world is your secret? You surely can’t hit it as far now as, say, 50 years ago.
Diddel: No, no, I can’t hit the ball as far, but if I can’t hit it quite as far, that’s all right. You just have to play as well as you can with what you’ve got, and in my case, I just try to hit it a little straighter to make up for everything else.
Hamiltonian: When you started playing the game around 1900, what was it like for a golfer of that time?
Diddel: I’ll tell you, it used to be embarrassing getting on the streetcar with my golf bag. I think everybody on the streetcar thought I was a little queer when they’d see me carry a bunch of golf clubs on.
But we’d go out into an old stubble-field and where the clover made the field a little greener, that’s where we’d put the greens. But the trouble was, you’d have to hitch up a horse to an old mower and cut the field every two weeks or so. Otherwise, we didn’t have anyplace to play.
Then in 1904 I went to Wabash College, and we didn’t have any golf course in the area, so I helped design one. Finally we got a place to play up there, but I was involved with all sorts of athletics then. Why, I liked baseball better than golf.
Diddel: No, I played baseball for four years in college, and I was captain of the team my senior year. But I haven’t played the game for 50 years, and even then I had to do something in the summer, so I played golf.
Hamiltonian: When you were winning all those amateur golf tourneys back in the early 1900s, did you ever think about turning professional and making the game profitable? Or was there even a demand for professional golfers then?
Diddel: Oh there were some who made a living out of playing golf. I don’t suppose it would sound like much in today’s standards because they might be lucky to make $2,500 or $3,000 a year. But I just didn’t want to do that. I thought the really fun part of the game would be in designing the courses, so that’s what I finally ended up doing.
Hamiltonian: I would guess that designing golf courses probably gave you more pleasure than anything else you did in the game. Would you go along with that?
Diddel: I suppose everybody has to have an ambition and follow some path, and that was mine. I made a living for so many years by designing golf courses all over the place, and I met a lot of friends along the way. But we all have to put some value on the work we do for the general public, and when we don’t produce something worthwhile, it just doesn’t seem like we’ve accomplished anything.
I’m sure I would have felt different if I had worked in some office and done everything the boss wanted me to and kept all my figures just so. I could never have been just part of the machine, where I had to make sure all my figures and numbers added up just right at the end of the month.
But I feel like in my own way I’ve done something a little constructive and maybe made something a little more pleasure-producing for the people who use my product. It doesn’t matter if it’s in golf or tennis or something else, just so it helps other people.
Hamiltonian: You mention golf and tennis. Do you feel like there is something special about sports, or could someone in another profession be just as constructive?
Diddel: Oh, that could apply to any profession. A lawyer or a doctor or anyone could do the same thing. Anytime you change the medium in which you work and make it a little more helpful to people, well, that’s when I feel it’s constructive.
Hamiltonian: You’ve designed courses in places like Dallas and I think you’ve got one or two in Montana. How in the world does a golf course designer from Carmel end up building courses in Texas and Montana?
Diddel: I helped design one in Great Falls, Montana, for example, because a man from the Chamber of Commerce or something like that came out to the cabin for dinner that looked over this place (Woodland) and decided to hire me to do the job.
And I’ve had acquaintances in places like Wichita who wanted me to help them design a course. So I suppose it’s just a matter of knowing some people along the way.
And I’ve made some trips to Scotland, Norway, England, Japan and even went to China to look at other golf courses and get some ideas.
There were some times, though, that kind of got hard. I bought this farm (now Woodland Country Club) in 1931 and we were going to build the course on it. But then came the Great Depression in 1932 and nobody, but nobody, was building golf courses. There was a ten-year stretch there where I didn’t have one job in designing a course, other than what the Public Works Administration gave us.
Hamiltonian: What did you do for those 10 years, just what the Public Works had available?
Diddel: I worked some out here on the farm and when Public Works gave us a course to put together, we did it with a shovel and a wheelbarrow. They made those jobs just so we didn’t have to stop eating, and when you go out and build a golf course with nothing but a shovel and wheelbarrow, you’re working for a long time.
Hamiltonian: If you had all these 91-plus years to do over again, would you do anything differently?
Diddel: That’s a long time to go without thinking I would have liked to change a couple things. But I certainly have no regrets of any kind. I’m glad I picked golf as a career or profession or whatever it should be called because I think people involved with this game enjoy life a little bit more. I’ve always been out and about and I think people like me are a little more enthusiastic sometimes. At least I know I’ve always loved golf and I suppose it’s even kept me going a little longer than I normally mould have.
And as soon as this hip gets a little better, I want to get out there and play again. Until then, I guess all I can do is pluck out all the dandelions that are growing up around this place.
Hamiltonian: I’ll give you a question you’ve probably never really thought of. It doesn’t involve golf, necessarily, but is there one event in your lifetime that has really made an impact on you?
Diddel: I don’t suppose it would mean anything to anybody else, but I still remember when my father took me downtown to see President Harrison in about 1891 when I was seven years old. He was back home from Washington at that time, and my father took me down to the First Presbyterian Church, where the Post Office is today, because he thought I should see a United States President in person. I even got to shake hands with him.
Hamiltonian: Mr. Diddel, you’ll be 92 years old in June, and you certainly haven’t shown any signs of letting up. But you’ve probably thought about that day when you just won’t be able or won’t want to play golf. Will you be able to accept that?
Diddel: I really don’t believe the day when I don’t want to play golf will ever come because I just don’t think I’ll get over wanting to play the game. It’s worth the time it takes, and I think I’ve enjoyed a fuller and more pleasant life because of it. But if the day comes when I can’t play the game, then that’s the way it will be. But I’m not ready to think about quitting. I’m just an old duffer, but I’m not going to give it up yet.