In Memoriam: Irwin Smallwood

Irwin Smallwood was a golf writer, sports editor and managing editor of the Greensboro News & Record, formerly the Greensboro Daily News, where he worked for more than four decades. Smallwood passed away March 9, 2024 at the age of 98. The Wyndham Championship media center was named in his honor in 2004. He spoke in the media center at the 2023 Wyndham Championship and reminisced about his early memories of the tournament in the video below.

Former Greensboro News & Record columnist Ed Hardin wrote the story below for the 2023 Wyndham Championship tournament magazine.

Irwin Smallwood: Sports Savant

By Ed Hardin

As big money continues to whittle down our traditions and values in the world of sports, it still feels like we can always get back to the good old days here in North Carolina. That’s always been the appeal of our state and our region.

And just when we think it’s all out of control, and we can never capture that original intent of games and the people who play them, we can always sit down and sip a glass of sweet tea and listen to the tales from long ago.

Especially if we’re sitting beside Irwin Smallwood.

Now 97, the former newspaper man who helped us tell the tales of the way we were through the years, has always considered sports in and around Greensboro to be a family affair.

From the days of the old Southern Conference and District 26 to the very beginning of the Atlantic Coast Conference, we had Irwin to tell us the stories. He was there, of course, when the ACC was formed inside a small room at the old Sedgefield Inn in 1952.

Literally, he was there.

“It was the proverbial smoke-filled room,” he said, describing the historic event that would change college sports forever. “I remember they finally came out late at night or actually early in the morning, smiling.”

The smiles weren’t because seven former Southern Conference schools had just voted to secede and form a new league right here in Greensboro.

“It was because they knew it was after our deadline,” Smallwood said.

The historic event actually occurred the next day, he remembers.

“Their first meeting, which was the first meeting in ACC history, was in lounge chairs around the Sedgefield pool,” Smallwood said. “It was a casual affair, nothing like the backroom meetings and boardroom meetings you hear about. It was like family just sitting around a pool. I think that’s always, or was, the case with the ACC. And also for Greensboro in general. It’s always been that way.”

The old GGO, our golf tournament which has morphed over the years from a project born of young Gate City businessmen to today’s modern Wyndham Championship, has always kept its cozy feel of neighbors mingling with neighbors. That we also invite the greatest golfers on earth once a year to join us around the pool, so to speak, still holds the golf tournament to its simple, original design.

“It always felt different from the bigger, more recognized tournaments,” Smallwood said a few years ago. “I mean, it holds its own with the rest of the PGA TOUR tournaments, but it has its own history. And a very vibrant history.”

From the earliest days, the tournament made its mark. Three of the first four tournaments were won by the greatest golfers of their time – Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson.

“That’s a pretty good start,” Smallwood said. “Now I wasn’t there in 1938 when Snead won. I’m not that old.”

He wasn’t far away, though.

Smallwood has always been part of the fabric of our community. The media room at both Sedgefield Country Club and the Greensboro Coliseum are named in his honor.

“It’s an honor as long as they don’t make ‘memorial’ the third word on the sign,” Smallwood joked.

He seems ageless and timeless. His memories take us back to a humbler time when our sports heroes were named Arnold Palmer, Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice and Everett Case. A time when this state played college football on a level with the national powers, a time when we played college basketball as no one ever had before and no one ever likely will.

Smallwood was there through it all, from national titles at his alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to tiny Winston-Salem State and Guilford College.

He was there when Charlie Sifford broke the color line in the South in 1961 when Sifford played in the GGO, the first African American to ever play in a PGA event in the South.

Smallwood was among the men who assured Sifford would be treated fairly and would be safe here.

“Then he went out and took the lead in the first round,” Smallwood said, remembering it like it was yesterday. “That was quite a week. He was treated very well here. The people were all rooting for him.”

That’s hard for us to imagine all these years later, when Jim Crow laws were still in effect all over the South, but we made Sifford feel right at home, just up the road from his own home in Charlotte.

We tried to make him feel like family, best we could.

Of course, it was Smallwood who wrote the story that historic day:

Stocky Charlie Sifford, who mutilates par and cigars with equal aplomb, yesterday found a normally ordinary putter a lethal weapon as he cruised around a wind-blown, soggy-wet Sedgefield Country Club golf course in three-under par 68 for the first-round lead in the 24th anniversary Greater Greensboro Open.

In a way, Irwin wrote all our stories.

A little-known fact is that the LPGA was formed in Greensboro, first as an organization known at the WGA (Women’s Golf Association). The second-ever U.S. Women’s Open was played at Starmount Forest Country Club. Not only was he there, but Smallwood wrote the first media guide for the nascent tour.

John Dell, who has written for the Winston-Salem Journal for the past 30 years, considers Smallwood as important as Google for historic facts about the Wyndham Championship or any other sporting event for that matter.

“Whenever I have a question or need to bounce an idea off of someone for a story, I call Irwin,” Dell said. “Every time I call, I learn something new about the history of the GGO (yes, he still calls it that). He’s also one of the nicest human beings in the world, and that means something to me.”

Brian Morrison, the retired associate commissioner of the ACC, said Smallwood is Greensboro’s unofficial “sports ambassador.”

“From breaking the story about the formation of the ACC in May of 1953, to covering and being present at over 70 GGOs, now the Wyndham Championship, he’s been involved with just about every sporting event that this city has hosted post-World War II,” Morrison said. “Some may say 97 years is old, but I think of it as vintage.”

Folks from here to Augusta have stories about Smallwood, from convincing television icon Ed Sullivan to come to Greensboro in 1965 to personally handing golfer Gary Player a telegram on the course informing him that he’d just become a father.

Smallwood’s life and stories help tell our own. The tournament has become our social event of the season, no matter which season it’s being played in, and it seems he’s been there for every important moment along the way.

The thing that strikes him is how, as the tournament has changed and evolved through the years, the constant is the galleries that have flocked to the event no matter who is the in the field.

“It’s not so much about the golf or the golfers, but us. It’s a community of fans, and the Wyndham feels like a family reunion,” Smallwood said.

“It was the thing to do,” he said of the early years of the GGO. “Are you going to the golf tournament? Of course, I’m going to the golf tournament. Doesn’t everybody go? It’s still that way I’m happy to say. It’s the place to be.”

The more our sports change around us, the more we stay the same. Irwin Smallwood is the same loveable fellow we’ve known our entire lives. He’s like fine wine, vintage 97 and counting.


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