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The mystery of 2-time U.S. Open champion Ralph Guldahl

Ralph Guldahl, winner of the 1937 U.S. Open
Ralph Guldahl, winner of the 1937 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills

In the late 1930s, Guldahl, a quiet Texan, seemed to be the heir apparent to Bobby Jones, winning 3 consecutive Western Opens and a Masters to go with back-to-back U.S. Opens, but then everything changed

After 1930, the world of golf was looking for the next Bobby Jones, someone who could dominate the game, provide excitement, make the morning sports page a must read to get the results of the latest tournament, and be a national hero. For a while, Ralph Guldahl was that man, the successor to Jones and to Walter Hagen before Jones. Guldahl won the Western Open, one of golf’s biggest prizes at the time, three years in a row, back-to-back U.S. Opens, the Masters and compiled a perfect Ryder Cup record – all from 1936 to 1940.

But then Guldahl disappeared from golf.

Like many American professionals, Guldahl started in the game as a caddie. At age 11, he was struck with double pneumonia and, in those years before antibiotics, he was lucky to pull through. The family doctor suggested outdoor exercise to regain his full strength and to build stamina, and caddying at Lakewood Country Club in his hometown of Dallas fit the bill.

In 1929, Guldahl won the Dallas City Championship, and he also led his high school team to victory in the state championship. The next year, Guldahl skipped his graduation to play in the Texas Open, finished in 11th place and decided on the spot to take the $87.50 in prize money and turn pro.

Guldahl was playing well with what euphemistically was called a "caddie swing," one that might have some odd movements to it but generally worked well. Guldahl had a very fast backswing, cocked his wrists quickly, made a large shoulder turn, with his right elbow flying, and only a hint of a pivot. His legs and hips moved only slightly. At 6 foot 2 inches and 175 pounds, Guldahl had a strong physique. He wasn’t a long hitter, but he was accurate and excelled at the short game and putting. In other words, his swing wasn’t pretty or rhythmic, but it worked, and he could repeat it.

Sam Snead, who wasn’t in the habit of praising other golfers’ swings, said, “The greatest I ever saw for a grooved swing was Ralph Guldahl.”

In 1933, Guldahl qualified for the U.S. Open at North Shore outside Chicago. He played well, but at the start of the final round, he was six shots back of the leader, amateur Johnny Goodman. Guldahl lost three strokes early in the round to Goodman's fast start, but Goodman began to falter as Guldahl’s game picked up. Guldahl needed a 4 on the last hole to tie Goodman and force a playoff. Guldahl‘s second shot landed in a greenside bunker. He played out, leaving himself a straight, uphill 4-footer, which he missed on the left side of the cup. Goodman won, becoming the last amateur to date to win the U.S. Open.

The missed putt at North Shore did something to Guldahl’s psyche. The golfing public seemed to think that Guldahl lost the Open more than Goodman won it. Guldahl himself thought that he’d lost something with his game.

Guldahl returned to Dallas and took a job selling automobiles. It wasn’t his milieu; he sold just one car … to himself. He and his wife, LaVerne, had a son, Ralph Jr., who was having health problems, so they moved to Los Angeles for a warmer and drier climate. Guldahl had heard that many movie stars were taking up golf and that there was money to be made giving lessons.

Guldahl was trying to scrape by, but he was so short of money that he couldn’t pay his $25 PGA of America dues. He came to the attention of two movie actors: Rex Bell, who was a star in “B” westerns, and Robert Woolsey, who played some comedic roles. Guldahl gave them lessons and played some small money games with them at a nine-hole course in Palm Springs. Bell and Woolsey thought that Guldahl had the game to get back into big-time golf and staked him $100 to qualify for the 1936 U.S. Open at Baltusrol in New Jersey.

Guldahl qualified for the Open and tied for eighth, winning $137.50. The money wasn’t much, but his position in the field was encouraging. Guldahl would go on to win the Western Open with a final-round 64, the Augusta Open (not to be confused with the Masters) and the Miami Biltmore Open and finish second in three other events. Guldahl was back. He won the Radix Trophy for the lowest scoring average of the year, 71.63 per round.

In 1937, Guldahl was invited to the Masters for the first time. In the final round, he was in contention on the back nine, but he went for the flagstick cut on the right side of the 12th green, ended up in Rae’s Creek and made a double-bogey 5. On the par-5 13th, Guldahl went for the green in two with a 3-iron and ended up in the creek in front of the green, took a drop, pitched onto the green and two-putted for 6. From there, Guldahl played the final five holes in even par and led by one stroke over Ed Dudley.

But Byron Nelson still was on the course. He had made the turn in 2-over 38 and trailed by four strokes. Nelson made a 10-foot birdie putt at the 12th and an eagle 3 at the 13th, the two holes that Guldahl butchered a little earlier in the afternoon. In those two holes, Nelson picked up six strokes on Guldahl and, instead of being four strokes back, Nelson was two strokes ahead and would go on to win the Masters, with Guldahl finishing solo second.

The 1937 U.S. Open was scheduled for Oakland Hills, near Detroit. Guldahl was cruising along to victory when, as he stood at the 72nd tee, he asked playing competitor “Lighthorse” Harry Cooper what he needed to win, a 5 or a 6. Cooper responded, “Just don’t drop dead. That’s the only way you can miss.” Guldahl made a par 5 for an Open-record 281 total, defeating Sam Snead by two strokes.

Ralph Guldahl salutes gallery at Oakland Hills after winning 1937 U.S. Open
Ralph Guldahl salutes the gallery at Oakland Hills after winning the 1937 U.S. Open.

Guldahl had become a superstar, but he didn’t have an agent to help him secure endorsements, exhibitions and other spoils of victory. In fact, the only golfer with an agent/business manager was Walter Hagen, who had retained Bob Harlow to handle commercial matters. Fortunately for Guldahl, he was a Wilson staff member, and the sporting-goods company arranged for a series of exhibitions with another Wilson staffer, Sam Snead.

Guldahl and Snead were opposites in many ways. Snead possessed a fluid swing, which was a marvel to watch and try to emulate; Guldahl owned an odd swing. Snead always had a funny quip or two for the galleries and the press; Guldahl was rather quiet and serious, and he showed little emotion on the course. Snead said of his exhibition partner, “If Guldahl gave someone a blood transfusion, the patient would freeze to death.”

“The truth is that behind my so-called poker face, I’m burning up,” Guldahl said. “I know they call me ‘the dumb Swede,’ and they say I’ve got no imagination, that I don’t know enough to worry about a golf title. I do know that all that matters in golf is the next shot. Maybe the ‘dumb’ reputation helps me. The others are likely to start pressing if they think I’m not worrying.”

In September, Guldahl would repeat as Western Open champion and be the first person to hold the U.S. Open and Western Open titles in the same year.

In 1938, Guldahl made another run at the Masters title, but final-round three-putts at the 16th and 18th holes left him tied with Cooper at 1-under 287. Henry Picard would take the title at 285. Guldahl had played another outstanding but frustrating Masters, narrowly missing the victory.

Guldahl next headed to Cherry Hills near Denver for the U.S. Open. He shot even-par 284, six strokes ahead of Dick Metz, to take the Open title for the second year in a row. One reporter commented, “The champion is establishing himself as a stretch runner of the Man o’ War type,” referencing the 1920 Preakness- and Belmont-winning thoroughbred.

Guldahl won the Open on a Saturday, but he had to catch an early-morning train from Denver to Chicago and then travel to St. Louis to defend his Western Open title at Westwood Country Club. The tournament started on Tuesday, so there was little time for practice.

A strong contingent of contestants showed up to see whether Guldahl could pull off the “hat trick” of winning three Western Opens in a row. He did it with an amazing final-round 65 for a 279 total and seven-stroke victory over Snead. Charlie Bartlett of the Chicago Tribune wrote “[Guldahl] today brought off the most remarkable golf achievement since Robert Jones’s 1930 grand slam…. So it was this afternoon that the game’s new monarch decided to assert himself in the fashion of kings. Within a space of five days he has accomplished a feat hitherto unmatched by any golfer in the history of the country’s two ranking medal-play shows.”

In 1939, Guldahl won four tournaments, including the elusive the Masters, where he had finished runner-up in the two previous years. Because of poor weather, the final two rounds were played on Sunday before a crowd of 8,000, the largest to date for the Masters. At the end of the third round, Guldahl held a one-stroke lead over Sarazen, and two over Snead, Billy Burke, Lawson Little and Byron Nelson.

In the afternoon, Snead went off early and was in the clubhouse with a brilliant 68 and a Masters-record 280 score. Guldahl finished the front nine with an even-par 36 as the rest of the contenders dropped away. He needed a 33 on the back nine to beat Snead. Guldahl birdied the 10th, then made two pars. At 13, he hit a poor drive and had a sidehill lie and a 230-yard carry to the green. He’d had a similar shot two years before and dumped his ball into the creek fronting the green, leading to bogey and a loss to Nelson.

Guldahl studied the possibilities for five minutes, then pulled out his 3-wood. His ball started on line and stayed there, settling 6 feet from the cup. Guldahl made eagle, played the rest of the holes in even par and signed for a one-stroke victory over Snead.

In 1940, Guldahl won twice, including the Inverness Four-Ball partnered with Snead, and he was a semifinalist in the PGA Championship.

Then he disappeared. As Fred Corcoran, who ran the tour, commented, “[Guldahl] was the greatest golfer in the world, and he lost it overnight. He woke up one morning, and it was gone. In one year, he went from who’s who to who’s he?

There are many theories about what happened. First, World War II broke up the tour in the early 1940s. Then, there was Guldahl’s apparent loss of interest in tournament golf. He’d been at the top for five years, which involved a lot of stress and pressure, especially with a wife and family at home.

Guldahl’s wife and son had their own theory. In 1939, Guldahl was asked to write a book on how he played golf. Most golfers in his position would have hired a ghost writer, but Guldahl decided to write the book on his own. He locked himself in a room for several months, working away on how he executed his shots, his swing theory and the like. The book, “Groove Your Golf,” featured an introduction by Bobby Jones.

The book was a “flicker” book, with photos of his swing in action. The reader would flick through the pages, and there was Guldahl’s swing, just like a movie. Guldahl’s son said the photographer had lined up the camera so the golf ball appeared to be farther forward in the stance than it actually was. This caused his dad to change his stance to match the photo, and his game never was the same.

Others thought the whole process made Guldahl second-guess everything instead of just playing the way he always had. Perhaps he’d never tried to analyze his swing.

In 1948, Guldahl took a job as head professional at Medinah near Chicago. As a three-time winner of the Western Open, two-time U.S. Open champion and a former Masters winner, Guldahl could have kept the job for life. But his wife said the Chicago climate adversely affected her hay fever, so they returned to California, where Guldahl sold insurance.

Then, in 1961, he took a job as head professional at Braemar Country Club in Tarzana, Calif., in suburban Los Angeles. He was well-liked by the members, who encouraged him to accept his invitation to play in the 1964 Masters as a former champion. Guldahl returned to Augusta and played respectable golf, but he missed the cut. He had a wonderful time seeing old friends, attending the Champions Dinner and holding interviews with reporters who had not seen him play. He’d never sought the spotlight, but it was on him again as one of the game’s dominant players of an age gone past.

Guldahl continued returning to Augusta for the Masters every year except one through 1973, when he was no longer eligible for the tournament itself. However, he still played in the Wednesday Par 3 Contest, to be welcomed by contestants and recognized by appreciative galleries. Guldahl stayed on as pro at Braemar and, upon retirement in 1978, was made professional emeritus. He continued to play golf with members and give lessons until his death at age 75 in 1987.

Not a bad way to finish a career for a man who, during a golden era in golf, was perhaps the best in the game.

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