“From the first days of World War II, players put away their sticks and picked up rifles to defend America.”
By John Coyne
Special to ARMCHAIR GOLF
WORLD WAR II WAS CALLED the last “good” war and Tom Brokaw wrote of the men and women who fought in it as, “America’s greatest generation.” They came of age during the Great Depression and served their country in World War II.
Many of this greatest generation were golf professionals. Herb Graffis, founder of Golfing magazine, in his history of the Professional Golf Association (PGA) writes how golf professionals served in combat during WW II, and did a hundred other volunteer jobs relating to golf to help the war effort. From the first days of World War II, players put away their sticks and picked up rifles to defend America.
They would not be the first players to fight in a war. At the outbreak of World War II, it is estimated 900 members of the PGA were veterans of World War I. By the end of WW II, 20 percent of the members of the PGA had served in the armed forces, another 15 percent in war production jobs. Eleven pros were killed in action, three more died while in the service.
PGA pros, throughout the war years, were involved in construction, equipping and operating practice putting greens, practice tees, courses and indoor nets at more than 62 armed services hospitals. Professionals and superintendents often got together and built small golf installations at hospitals, and the pros kept going back to instruct patients and maintain the golf playgrounds.
In addition to that work, tournament circuit prize money during the war was in government bonds. In 1945, prize money was approximately $500,000 in war bonds. That year exhibitions by PGA members raised over $100,000 for hospitals, the USO and the Red Cross. According to Graffis, “Those wartime tournaments and exhibitions had a great deal to do with establishing the pattern of today’s tournament circuits, since most of the events have hospitals, boys’ clubs, and other welfare operations as promoters and beneficiaries.”
Not to be overlooked was the celebrity drawing power of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby at golf events. In 1943, Hope and Crosby took to the road for six weeks of exhibition matches with pros and amateurs. Joining them on tour were Sam Byrd, Byron Nelson, Joe Kirkwood, Gene Sarazen, Harry Cooper, as well as early LPGA stars Louise Suggs, Patty Berg and Babe Didrikson Zaharias. Hope and Crosby started at the Dallas Country Club with a gallery of about 5,000 who bought $4.5 million in war bonds and an ambulance for the Red Cross. They finished at the Edgewater Golf Club in Chicago. Bob and Bing paid their own expenses through out the tour, and the PGA gave them money clips as tokens of appreciation.
The war took a toll on the PGA. By the end of 1945, dues-paying membership was down to 1,565. That was 570 fewer members than when hostilities began. When the war was over, there were 4,817 courses in the U.S. and roughly 2,250,000 golfers, but few of these players had ever been to a golf tournament.
But all of that was about to change. Lloyd Mangrum, while training for the D-Day landings, was offered the professional job at the army’s Fort Meade golf course, which would have kept him out of combat, but he declined and went to the front lines in Europe. He would receive from his combat tours two Purple Hearts, and was wounded a final time at the Battle of the Bulge. However, when he was discharged from the army, he immediately won the 1946 U.S. Open, the first Open held after the war.
Other name professionals who served in the army and were back on tour within days of being discharged from service were Tommy Bolt; Jack Fleck who was in the Navy and also part of the D-Day invasion; Herman Keiser; Ted Kroll, who earned three Purple Hearts, and was wounded four times; Ed “Porky” Oliver; and the great amateur Smiley Quick, who won the ’46 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship and then turned pro.
The golf professionals of the greatest generation were home from the war and back on the links. It was the start of the modern PGA Tour that we know today.