Southern Hills Country Club is the host of this year’s PGA Championship and one of the most prestigious in US golf.
It’s hosted seven majors and is regarded as a quintessential American country club.
However, many golf fans, and a host of the players due to play this week, are most likely unaware of the Tulsa venue’s dark past.
That is because in 1981, it was the scene of one of the notorious murders in Oklahoma’s modern history.
Roger Wheeler was a successful local businessman. The chairman of Telex Corp, he also owned a gambling enterprise called World Jai Alai.
Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger and fellow gangster Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi had been embezzling money from World Jai Alai for some time. They had been taking around $10,000 per week; but when Wheeler discovered the thefts, Bulger’s whole operation threatened to collapse.
For he and his crew, that meant they had to act. The mobsters were aware of Wheeler’s Wednesday routine, which involved a round of golf with friends followed by a drink in the clubhouse.
On May 27, they struck. As he sat in his car, the businessman was shot between the eyes. At 55 years of age, he left behind five children.
The man who pulled the trigger was eventually identified as John Martorano, a member of the Winter Hill Gang. It took two decades for justice to prevail; Martorano confessed to 20 murders, including Wheeler’s, in 2001. He served just six years and was freed in 2007.
However, for the gang, their web of secrecy began to unravel much earlier. Flemmi and Bulger gunned down a former henchman in 1982 after he threatened to come forward about Wheeler’s murder.
In the same year as Martorano’s confession, Flemmi pled guilty and was sentenced to life in prison.
It took another decade, but 16 years after he was first linked to the killing, Bulger was arrested in California. He was found guilty in August 2013 on 31 counts – including 11 murders. As Wheeler’s son David told of the impact his father’s murder had had, Bulger turned his back. He received two consecutive life sentences.
Despite the murder, Southern Hills hosted the PGA Championship the following year. The likes of Greg Norman, Raymond Floyd, Fred Couples and Tom Watson teed it up; it isn’t clear whether they knew of the club’s dark recent past.
The incident has become something of a legend, with a movie – Black Mass, starring Johnny Depp, was released two years after Bulger’s sentencing.
Bulger himself was beaten to death by fellow inmates hours after being transferred to a new prison in October 2018. Wheeler’s family continue to try to come to terms with his death.
And for Southern Hills, the world of golf, star names and major championships continues; but those close to the incident will always remember its dark past.
Photograph: Pelican Pub/Tulsa World