Clinton F. Russell, 1895 – 1961, Blind Golf Champion

From the Duluth Public Library slide collection

Clinton Francis Russell was born in Duluth on October 8, 1895. His parents were Newell F. Russell and Isabelle J. Russell. Newell was born on a farm near Rush City, Minnesota, on July 16, 1869, and moved to the Duluth area in 1888. In that year, he founded, along with Henry Bridgeman, the Bridgeman-Russell Co. Isabelle came to Duluth from Michigan about 1890 and she and Newell were married in November of 1891. They had three children–Earl C., Clinton F., and Myrtle. They lived at several addresses in Duluth–309 Mesaba Avenue, 453 Mesaba Avenue (Munger Terrace), 5518 London Road, and 4440 London Road.

Clinton attended public elementary schools in Duluth and Duluth Central High School. In 1916, he began studies at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York. At the outbreak of World War I, Clinton enlisted in the Army. Following the war, he returned to Syracuse to resume his studies. Clinton married Marion Ruth Jones, who went by Ruth, in Port Byron, New York, in 1920. They moved to Duluth and lived at 2132 East Fifth Street. Clinton worked at various jobs for the Bridgeman-Russell Co.

Clinton lost his sight around 1924 in an accident in which an automobile tire exploded in his face as he was repairing it. He didn’t play golf for several years after the accident, but tried it again when he was visiting relatives in California. He began playing at Ridgeview Country Club in Duluth and started taking lessons from the pro, Sammy Belfore. He began to count on his caddy teeing up the ball, adjusting his stance for direction, and lining up the club face. Some of his caddies at Ridgeview were Jim Koehler Sr., Dick Kohlbry, Bruce Schwartz, Jerry Weld, and Bob Hammerstrom.

In August of 1938, a match was set up between Clinton and another blind golfer, Dr. W.H.K. Oxenham of England. The match, scheduled for August 20 in Duluth, was billed by Robert Ripley of Believe-it-or-not as the world’s blind golf championship. Ripley provided a trophy for the winner. Locally, the match was sponsored by the Duluth News-Tribune and Duluth Herald and radio station WEBC.  Played on the Ridgeview Golf Course in the Woodland neighborhood, the match drew a large crowd of spectators as well as writers and photographers from as far away as Chicago. The play-by-play of the match was broadcast live on WEBC Radio.  Clinton beat Dr. Oxenham six up with five to play.
Clintons next big match was on August 24, 1941, at Northland Country Club in Duluth.  In that 18-hole match, which also received a lot of media attention, Clinton defeated Marvin Shannon, a blind attorney from Fort Worth, Texas, two up. In a rematch between the two golfers, Shannon defeated Clinton eight up with seven to play on October 26, 1941, on the Rockwood golf course in Fort Worth, Texas.
In 1946, Clinton won the title of champion blind golfer in a tournament against four opponents in Inglewood, California. The next year, Northland Country Club of Duluth again hosted the tournament. Five participants played the three-day event on July 25-27, 1947. The winner was Charles Boswell of Alabama, who had lost his sight in World War II and only started golfing in 1945. He defeated Clinton in the final match, two up with one to play.
Clinton worked for most of his life with Bridgeman Russell Co. He became president of the company in 1940, and retired in 1945. Clinton and his wife, Ruth, had two daughters–Jean S., born March 24, 1921, and Phyllis Ruth, born June 2, 1923.
Clinton is credited with being one of the founders of the United States Blind Golfers Association in 1948. He was named to the initial group of that organization’s Hall of Fame in 2007. He received the Ben Hogan Award from the Metropolitan Golf Writers Association in 1957 in New York. The Ben Hogan Award recognizes people who have continued in the game of golf despite a handicap. And he was the thirteenth person named to the Duluth Arena Sports Hall of Fame in 1975. Clinton died on September 24, 1961, in Duluth.

This is an excerpt from the book Forgotten Duluthians, which is available for sale at all Duluth Public Library locations for $14.95, with all proceeds going to the library. Copies may also be ordered online from the library’s gift shop.

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