April 3, 2012
By Nathan Booth
Graduate Assistant, Athletics Media Relations
In 1958 on the Ole Miss campus, a group of elite athletes known as the M-Club was meeting on campus. It was a group consisting primarily of football, basketball, and baseball lettermen—some of the most celebrated athletes in the state.
Into the room walked another athlete, Gene Van Cleve. He was not another football star, nor was he a basketball or baseball player. No, Van Cleve was a member of the golf team. That was a rare sight for M-Club meetings, at the time—in fact, it was a first. Van Cleve was seeking to become the first golfer ever to be initiated into the prestigious organization.
“Walking into a room with boys who played major sports was a little intimidating,” Van Cleve admits. “I knew some probably didn’t want me there. Those other boys had to work all day, putting in blood, sweat, and tears. I think they kind of resented the minor sports. I don't blame them a bit. I probably would have been the same way.”
As a boy growing up in the small Mississippi Delta town of Indianola, two things Van Cleve developed places in his heart for were golf and Ole Miss.
“I started golf at an early age—probably age eight,” recalls Van Cleve. “It is just a game that I love.”
Spending numerous Saturdays on campus for football games as a boy, Van Cleve also developed a love for Ole Miss early in his life. When the time came to select a college to attend in 1953, it was an easy decision.
“There was no other choice, really," says Van Cleve.
Van Cleve did not play on the golf team his freshman and sophomore years. At the end of his sophomore year in 1955, he left school to join the military.
Van Cleve served for two years as a member of the 38th AAA Missile Battalion in Norfolk, Va.—a part of the United States Defense System that helped fortify the East Coast during the Cold War.
When he returned to Ole Miss, he looked to get back to the game he loved. With three years of eligibility remaining, Van Cleve made the golf team, coached by the late Junie Hovious, and earned his first letter for the 1958 season.
Upon receiving their letters, Van Cleve and his teammates were also given the option of joining the M-Club by Hovious.
An organization consisting almost exclusively of athletes from the major sports teams, the M-Club seemed like no place for a 165-pound golfer. Members of the golf team had received letters before, but never had one been initiated into the M-Club.
Nervously, Van Cleve accepted the offer—the only one on his team to do so. He knew the road to initiation would be a rough one.
“Sometimes, I kind of felt a little guilty because I was out there playing and having fun,” he jokes. “But I was asked to join. I worked hard. I had a letter in a sport—just like them. It was just a different kind of sport.”
Van Cleve recalled his initiation in the freezing January temperatures. Initiation activities concluded with the new initiates running across campus covered in red and blue paint—only red and blue paint.
“Fortunately, it was two in the morning and nobody saw us,” Van Cleve laughed.
“I would do it all again,” he adds. “I was treated the same as anyone else after the initiation, and had many friends in the M-Club. It is a privilege to be a part of the M-Club with a university as great as Ole Miss. I’ve always felt blessed to have been invited.”
He would prove himself worthy of being the first golfer initiated into the M-Club. His career was highlighted by a senior season that saw the Rebels post an 8-3 mark with Van Cleve as their No. 1 player.
“We beat Mississippi State twice,” notes Van Cleve. “That was probably the highlight of the season for me.”
After graduating with a degree in business administration, Van Cleve moved back to Indianola to work with his father at the family’s insurance agency. Now 75 years-old, he still works there with his son.
Van Cleve continued to play golf after leaving Oxford, taking part in, and winning, his country club’s annual tournaments. And don’t think that age has kept him from the links.
“I can't shoot like I used to. You lose your distance when you get old. But I shot my age a couple of times this summer,” he noted.
Seeing an indoor practice facility under construction and a beautiful golf course that underwent $3.5 million renovations in 2008 at Ole Miss, Van Cleve can’t help but laugh at how the collegiate game has changed over the years.
This season, the Ole Miss men’s golf team will play in the Carolinas and Florida. The women’s team recently played in a tournament in Colorado.
"We were lucky to get to go to Nashville, Starkville, or Memphis.” Van Cleve says. “But it was a lot of fun. We had some great times," he said.