Walter Curran drove a Jaguar, wore a gold Rolex, and picked up bar tabs all over town. He was the socializing stockbroker who used the Oakley Country Club as an office and promised clients 20 percent returns.
Over nearly a decade, he fleeced more than $2 million from investors, primarily from fellow members at Oakley, gaining their trust through many rounds of golf. When clients got onto Curran, he tried to disappear, but authorities caught him at the Canadian border with more than $100,000 stuffed in plastic bags. The con man pleaded guilty to fraud and spent a few years in prison.
That was 1989, and a quarter-century later, the Watertown club finds itself back in the headlines — in the middle of another money scandal that has tongues wagging on fairways across the state.
Last Friday, the SEC accused Oakley member Eric McPhail of insider trading, saying the champion golfer gleaned sensitive information about a public company from another member who was an executive at Devens-based American Superconductor Corp.
McPhail, who forged a friendship over golf and drinks, allegedly traded on illegal tips and passed them along to a group of buddies, most of them competitive amateur golfers. Together, they made $720,000 in illicit profits over a two-year period on AMSC stock, according to a federal indictment.
It was the second time this spring that the authorities have turned their attention to greed on the green. Phil Mickelson,three-time winner of the Masters, has reportedly been questioned by the feds related to an insider-trading investigation of transactions he made in shares of Dean Foods.
Some clubs — and golfers — frown upon business being conducted on the course. It should be about the sport and building relationships. Leave the deals for the clubhouse afterward. But for others, it is a game for the moneyed who want to know how to make more money.
“The truth is a tremendous amount of business gets done on the golf course,” said John Spooner, a Boston wealth manager who has written a book on golf. “You have a captive audience for five hours. Tongues get loosened with the sport and the camaraderie.”
And maybe a few drinks at the 19th hole.
Bernie Madoff, one of the biggest Ponzi schemers of them all, used to raise money through country clubs, capitalizing on the idea that you’ll listen to friends. One of his foot soldiers, Bob Jaffe, used to find investors at his club, Pine Brook in Weston.
These days, Curran’s crooked ways are ancient lore at Oakley, but not to Joe, one of his golfing buddies who lost more than $1 million. He never recovered all of his money, and for years he avoided the stock market. While he and his family survived financially, does anyone really get over something like this?
“You don’t,” said the 81-year-old retired lawyer in a phone interview, who asked that his last name not be used because he didn’t want to relive the ordeal with others.
Despite what happened, Joe has remained an Oakley member — going on 45 years. He doesn’t know McPhail, but he knows his club.
“Oakley is in the news, and I don’t like it,” he said. “It’s not fair. What some individuals do is clearly not indicative of the quality of all the people there.”
If The Country Club in Brookline is known for exclusivity, Oakley is anything but stuffy. The Watertown club, founded in 1898, attracts a middle-class crowd and is known as a place where doctors, lawyers, and bankers play alongside plumbers and construction workers.
“It’s consciously unpretentious,” said club president Peter Miller, who was kind enough to give me a tour Thursday.
Legendary golf architect Donald Ross designed the urban course, where from the ninth hole duffers can enjoy vistas of Boston’s skyline. The club has about 500 members, and while many live in the suburbs, new ones tend to come from the city because it’s a 15-minute drive from the Back Bay.
Boldface members include super lobbyist Tommy O’Neill and former attorney general Tom Reilly, who can be found there almost every weekend. “It’s a wonderful place with great people,” said Reilly, now a private sector lawyer. “I’m a lousy golfer, but I love it.”
He’s not being modest. His handicap is 22.
Perhaps what happens on the course should stay on the course. Otherwise, you can end up in the rough.