Southern Hills' secret history: 'Whitey' Bulger and the murdered businessman

That the Southern Hills parking lot remains one of Bulger’s crime scenes sparks macabre fascination every time a major championship returns to Tulsa
Southern Hills' secret history: 'Whitey' Bulger and the murdered businessman

TULSA, OKLAHOMA - MAY 18: Southern Hills Country Club on May 18, 2022 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

The inconsistency of the sand traps have garnered a few gripes – as if they’re not supposed to be hazards, after all. A couple of awkward bottlenecks created occasional pile-ups in play, though it’s a small price to pay for such a well-designed playing field. Strong gusting winds ruined more than a few rounds this week.

All in all, there’s not really been much for players – notorious gripers, especially on major stages – to complain about at Southern Hills. Nothing that happened to anyone this week could compare to the day Tulsa businessman Roger Wheeler suffered on May 27, 1981.

The 55-year-old Wheeler had just finished playing a round at Southern Hills that day and was getting ready to get into his Cadillac and head around the corner to his home when Johnny Martorano – at the direction of infamous mob hitman James “Whitey” Bulger’s – pointed a gun at Wheeler’s forehead and killed him with a single shot between the eyes. 

A poor young girl getting ready to dive off the board at the adjacent swimming pool witnessed the whole thing.

Perhaps only the late Hubert Green, who won the 1977 U.S. Open at Southern Hills despite playing under death threats, can understand that level of terror on Perry Maxwell’s golf course.

Bulger escaped justice from 1994, when he fled Boston and disappeared, until 2011 when a neighbor in the beach town of Santa Monica, California, recognized him after seeing an episode of “America’s Most Wanted.” Bulger was finally convicted in 2013 of numerous murders, including Wheeler’s, and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences. At age 89, he was beaten to death using a padlock-filled sock in 2018 during a prison transfer.

That the Southern Hills parking lot – right outside the PGA Championship media center and where a stunned Stewart Cink once tried to explain his putting mental lapse that cost him a place in a 2001 U.S. Open playoff – remains one of Bulger’s crime scenes sparks macabre fascination every time a major championship returns to Tulsa. Along with the par-3 course at Augusta National where Masters co-founder Clifford Roberts killed himself and the famous “Duel Hole” at San Francisco Golf Club, people love to tell dark tales that take place at such serene locales.

The Southern Hills episode was resurrected in the 2015 movie “Black Mass” in which Johnny Depp wore a bald wig to play the role of Bulger. A recent Golf Digest story on the recurring tale noted a 2015 “Voices of Oklahoma” radio program in which Tulsa police detective Mike Huff said the Southern Hills murder “took a part of this community away. It was like a bomb in this city. The fallout continued for years, literally.” 

“I get why readers enjoy it. I understand why people are intrigued by it,” Cary Cozby, Southern Hills director of golf, told Golf Digest.

Wheeler was a respected Tulsa businessman who was the chairman of computer giant Telex Corp. His fatal mistake was purchasing a jai alai (a ball game of Basque origin played in a three-walled court with a hard rubber ball that is caught and thrown with a cesta, a long, curved wicker scoop strapped to one arm) business which Bulger’s “White Hill Gang” and others had been skimming millions of dollars from for years. 

The closer Wheeler got to cutting off the siphon, he worried that he was in danger.

He was right. Bulger decided the best course of action was to eliminate Wheeler, so he hired Martorano for $50,000 to do the job. He brazenly did it on a bright sunny afternoon in front of everyone swimming and paying tennis at the club.

Years later in a plea deal that targeted Bulger, Martorano admitted to killing 20 people, including Wheeler. He offered details in court (the “Caddy” refers to Wheeler’s car, not who carried his golf bag).

“We spot his Caddy, but remember, I’ve never seen this guy,” Martorano testified. “So we park a few rows closer to the club. I’m in full disguise – we’d picked up that stuff at a theatrical store in Tulsa. Full beard, sunglasses, a baseball cap. Finally, I see a guy coming down the hill from the club to the parking lot, might be Wheeler. 

"I let him walk past our car, then I fall in behind him. If he gets in the Caddy, I clip him. If he goes to another car, just keep walking. But it’s him, he’s getting in the car. He doesn’t hear me; he’s about to close the door but I grab it to keep it open. He jumps back in the seat, startled, and I let him have it: one shot between the eyes, .38 snub nose.” 

Martorano also murdered World Jai Alai president John Callahan in connection to the same case. Like Bulger, he went on the run for 16 years before being captured in 1995 and subsequently giving up the details that brought down Bulger. Martorano, now 81, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for his 20 confessed murders and was released in 2007.

Forty-one years later, the folks at Southern Hills might not feel like justice was served. But the club plays on.

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