News & Opinion

'Handsome Johnny' would shine in bronze

In the south Florida house where the late Johnny Farrell and his wife, Kay, once lived, and where Johnny’s daughter, Peggy McGuire, still resides, a guest entering the living room can’t help but view a beautiful crystal trophy atop a custom-made stand. Farrell’s 1928 U.S. Open trophy was stolen many years ago, but his Hall of Fame crystal lives on, given to Farrell in 1961 to commemorate his entry into what then was known as the PGA Hall of Fame.

Certainly, Farrell was deserving. Golf had been his life. He beat the great Bobby Jones in a 36-hole playoff to capture the ’28 U.S. Open at Olympia Fields near Chicago, was credited with 21 other official PGA Tour victories (though he won more) and was a factor in several other major championships. He dressed with style and cut a dashing figure (“Handsome Johnny,” the fans called him) and cut his competitive days short to be home with the wife whom he loved, chasing tournament trophies, soon to be replaced by chasing sons and daughters. Farrell, who died in 1988, went on to be the club professional at famed Baltusrol in New Jersey for nearly four decades.

Johnny Farrell

Golf’s hall has moved through the years: to Pinehurst, N.C., in the 1970s, and in 1998, it transitioned into a beautiful facility in St. Augustine, Fla., just down I-95 from the PGA Tour’s headquarters. But through those years, and those moves, not everybody made the trip. Though once honored as a Hall of Famer, Farrell isn’t recognized as a member of the current World Golf Hall of Fame, which is set to announce its 2019 class on Wednesday.

Farrell has been a regular on the list of finalists for years, but he isn’t among the 15 being considered this week. No offense to this year’s four nominees in the Male Competitor category – Retief Goosen, Graham Marsh, Corey Pavin and Hal Sutton – or to Calvin Peete, an inspirational player nominated in the Veterans Category, but Farrell has better credentials than any of them.

It won’t happen this week, but by 2020, the hall should right a longtime wrong. Look down the list of all-time PGA Tour victories, and one by one, those near the top of that historic scroll have been granted entry into the hall. There are two glaring omissions: Macdonald Smith, who won 24 times, including three Western Opens, at the time regarded as one of the game’s biggest titles to hold; and Farrell. Somehow history has left these two behind, and nobody on the hall’s 20-person Selection Sub-Committee nor the Selection Commission that will gather in Florida and vote this week has stepped up and fixed the problem.

“No question that Johnny Farrell should be in,” said Martin Davis, a noted historian of the game who has contributed many history pieces to Golf Channel. “His playing record is superior to half of the people already in the hall. He played on three Ryder Cup teams, and also was named to the 1926 team that played for the Ryder Trophy. By the end of the ’20s, playing against [Walter] Hagen and [Gene] Sarazen, Johnny Farrell was the No. 1 player in the world.”

For the better part of 20 years, members of Farrell’s family have tried to remind those with a connection to the hall of Johnny’s many contributions to the game. There was hope that his profile might rise in 2003, when the U.S. Open made its way back to Olympia Fields on the 75th anniversary of his victory. The road has not been easy. Farrell was a very humble man, not the type to trumpet his own accomplishments. His family has tried to follow that model, quietly touting him, though clearly there is frustration over his being left behind.

“It’s so strange this year, because he’s always been on the finalist list,” said Mary Kay McGuire-Wilson, Johnny Farrell’s granddaughter. “It’s very disheartening. It’s frustrating. This is a system gone wrong.… We try to be respectful of the process. We just wanted his record to speak for itself. But who’s paying attention?”

That’s a fair question. If anyone cares to, he ought to weigh this: Farrell was named Best Professional Golfer of the Year in 1927 and ’28, the equivalent of today’s PGA Tour Player of the Year. He placed second in the British Open and the PGA in 1929. In 1927, he played in and won eight consecutive events, which was then a record. (Years later, in 1945, when Byron Nelson was on the way to 11 in a row, he didn’t recognize his streak as the record until he passed the mark set by Farrell, whom Nelson knew.)

Farrell played in 25 major championships and finished in the top 10 in 18 of them. He stepped away from a competitive golf career after only 11 years to become a club pro and instructor and family man. He socialized with boxer Jack Dempsey, singer Bing Crosby, comedian Bob Hope and baseball great Babe Ruth. He gave lessons to five U.S. presidents, and while at Baltusrol, established pioneering instructional programs for women and juniors. He was one of the first pros to do a TV show dedicated to instruction.

“His entire life was golf,” McGuire-Wilson said. “Golf is all about tradition, and integrity. Yet I can’t think of another game that ignores its history the way that golf does.”

Johnny Farrell is a man whom golf, inexplicably, has forgotten.

Golf needs to remember those who paved the way. Two years from now, when another World Golf Hall of Fame Selection Sub-Committee puts forth nominees, and another group sits down to vote, let’s hope those holding power are far more versed and educated about Farrell and his many contributions to the game.

And dedicated to fixing something that clearly needs fixing.

Jeff Babineau is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America who has covered golf since 1994, writing for such publications as The Orlando Sentinel, Golfweek and Golf World. Email: Twitter: @jeffbabz62