The 6 Greatest PGA Tour Legends… (Almost) Nobody Remembers

Cary Middlecoff Golf Masters
Cary Middlecoff won 40 PGA Tour trophies including 3 majors. Credit: AP

In the United States, even those who have never had any interest in stepping foot on a golf course know who Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, and Arnold Palmer are.

Most lightly casual sports fans know the names Phil Mickelson and Tom Watson. A lot of them even know Ben Hogan and Sam Snead.

Ben Hogan - Carnoustie British Open Winners
Winner Ben Hogan walks through the gallery of spectators during the 1953 British Open Championship at Carnoustie, Scotland. Credit: Bob Thomas/Getty Images

Many of those who just follow the big pro golf events are even aware of the legacies of yesteryear stars like Bobby Jones, Lee Trevino, Byron Nelson, and Walter Hagen.

If they were on Jeopardy and were asked a question about Gene Sarazen, they might not be able to tell the tale of his epic come-from-behind playoff victory over Craig Wood at the 1935 Masters, but at the very least, they would probably know that he was a golfer.

As great as those 11 golfers were/are, there are many other stars of golf history who are ubiquitous in the record books, but largely forgotten to the casual fan.

In honor of those players, here is a list of some of the most historically underappreciated golfers:

6. Ralph Guldahl

Ralph Guldahl
Ralph Guldahl was was a 16-time winner on the PGA Tour, including three major championship titles. Photo Credit: Associated Press

Born: Dallas, Texas (1911)
Died: Sherman Oaks, Calif (1987, 75)
PGA Tour Wins: 16 | Majors: 3

Before there was the cautionary tales of David Duval and Anthony Kim to remind professional golfers how quick and sudden the fall from the top can be, there was Ralph Guldhal. Basically the John Rocker of 1930s golf, Guldhal was one of the brightest stars for the better part of a decade before losing his game seemingly overnight.

When he had his head together, he was incredible. Guldhal burst onto the scene at the 1931 Santa Monica Open when, at 19 years of age, he became the first teenager to win a PGA event, something that would not happen again until Jordan Spieth took the 2013 John Deere Classic.

Guldhal played well in the early-mid 1930s, then quit golf in 1935 and got a job selling cars. He came back to the PGA in 1936, and that is when his game completely took off. He won the U.S. Open in both 1937 and 1938, and also took the 1939 Masters after runner-up finishes the two years prior. He also won three consecutive Western Opens (1937, 1938, 1939), an elite tournament at the time that many considered to be a major.

Claim to Fame: Won the 1937 U.S. Open by two strokes over Sam Snead, and then edged Snead again – this time by one stoke – to win the 1939 Masters.

5. Bobby Locke

South African Bobby Locke
South African Bobby Locke won 74 worldwide pro golf tournaments including four British Open titles. Credit: Getty Images

Born: Germiston, South Africa (1917)
Died: Johannesburg, South Africa (1987, 69)
PGA Tour Wins: 15 | Majors: 4

South African Bobby Locke has 74 career victories, yet hardly anyone in the U.S. under the age of 50 knows who he is. To be fair, only 15 of those 74 wins were on the PGA Tour, with the others mostly spread between South Africa and Europe, but in just three years, he left an indelible mark on American golf.

Born Arthur D’Arcy Locke, he was given the nickname “Bobby” due to his infatuation with golf legend Bobby Jones. After a number of successful years playing in South Africa, Locke was encouraged to play on the PGA by Sam Snead who recognized the elite talent when the two faced off in a few U.S. matches.

Almost immediately, Locke became a PGA sensation, winning 11 of the 59 events he entered over three years. One of those wins – the 1948 Chicago Victory National, was by a mind-boggling 16 strokes, a record that still stands today.

He was banned from the PGA Tour later in 1948 under the pretext of punishment for skipping out on some committed tournaments, but the general belief is that the players just wanted him gone.

The ban was lifted in 1951, but Locke rarely played stateside after that. He was still going strong internationally and won four Open Championships (1949, 1950, 1952, and 1957). Unfortunately, injuries from a horrible car accident in 1960 brought an end to his career, but in the short time he played stateside, there was no doubting his dominance.

Claim to Fame: Locke and Australian Peter Thomson dominated The Open during an 11-year stretch, from 1948 through 1958, with the “Commonwealth” duo combining for eight Claret Jugs during this time period.

4. Paul Runyan

Paul Runyan golf
Paul Runyan won 29 times on the PGA Tour including 16 times in the span of just two seasons (1933 and 1934). Credit: AP

Born: Hot Springs, Arkansas (1908)
Died: Palm Springs, California (2002, 93)
PGA Tour Wins: 29 | Majors: 2

Perhaps the “Rudy” of PGA Tour history, Paul Runyan took the league by storm despite his diminutive stature: just 5’7″ 125 lbs.

Nicknamed “Little Poison,” Runyan may have been the shortest hitter among the golfing greats, but he was deadly accurate and had such an incredible short game that his contemporaries often came to him for lessons.

In 1933, his best year, he won nine times on Tour, and then followed it up with another seven in 1934. The winner of two PGA Championships during the time it was a match play event, Runyan is best known for his outright obliteration of Sam Snead 9&8 in the 1938 finals, despite Snead having a colossal length advantage off the tees (Snead was one of the longest hitters of his time).

Claim to Fame: Runyan won 16 of his 29 career titles in the span of just two seasons (1933 and 1934), which to this day stands as one of the best two-season stretches in PGA Tour history.

3. Horton Smith

Horton Smith Golf
Horton Smith won 32 PGA Tour titles, most famously the inaugural Masters Tournament title in 1934. Credit: AP Photo

Born: Springfield, Missouri (1908)
Died: Detroit, Michigan (1963, 55)
PGA Tour Wins: 32 | Majors: 2

Horton Smith’s name comes up annually, somewhere during the four days of Masters coverage in April. That is because he has the distinction of being the winner of the inaugural Masters in 1934.

Smith, however, was no one-hit wonder. He won the Masters again just two years later, and over the course of his career, racked up an impressive 32 victories (with many of those coming very early in his career) and 37 runner-ups. He also played on five Ryder Cup teams and never lost a match.

Maybe even more impressively, Smith was the last man to beat Bobby Jones before in competition before his retirement. The victory came at the 1930 Savannah Open, in Jones’ Grand Slam season.

Claim to Fame: Smith will always be remembered as the winner of the very first Masters Tournament in 1934. He was also the first of former Masters champions to pass away when he succumbed to Hodgkins Disease at the age of 55 in 1963.

2. Lloyd Mangrum

Lloyd Mangrum
Lloyd Mangrum won 36 PGA Tour titles with one major (1946 U.S. Open), but was also remembered as a two-time Purple Heart recipient. Photo Credit: AP

Born: Trenton, Texas (1914)
Died: Apple Valley, California (1973, 59)
PGA Tour Wins: 36 | Majors: 1

Not only an historically underappreciated golfer, but also an underappreciated personality, Lloyd Mangrum was nicknamed “Mr. Icicle,” both for being amazingly composed on the course, and his aloof demeanor.

It is surprising that someone so inherently calm could suffer 12 heart attacks in their life, like Mangrum did, but it becomes less surprising when it is considered that he chain-smoked during tournaments.

Mangrum had just one major victory, the 1946 U.S. Open, where he defeated Byron Nelson in a playoff, but he racked up an impressive 36 victories total in his career, including 20 in a four-year span (1948-1951). He was also a regular on major leaderboards, famously finishing in the top 10 of 10 consecutive Masters tournaments.

Claim to Fame: In addition to his talent on the golf course, Mangrum – the 39-time PGA Tour winner, was a two-time Purple Heart recipient.

1. Cary Middlecoff

Cary Middlecoff Golf Masters
Cary Middlecoff was a 40-time PGA Tour winner including 3 major championships but nearly pursued a career in dentistry. Credit: AP

Born: Halls, Tennessee (1921)
Died: Apple Valley, California (1998, 77)
PGA Tour Wins: 40 | Majors: 3

Cary Middlecoff, the winningest player of the 1950s, is most famous for his snail-like pace of play, and for struggling with the decision of whether to pursue professional golf or professional dentistry.

He graduated from dental school at the University of Tennessee, and got his DDS, which got him work with the U.S. Army Dental Corps during WWII. However, he eventually gave up dentistry for golf, a decision that looks good in retrospect, given that in 2017 he still is in the all-time top 10 for career wins.

Unlike a few other golfers on this list who were incredible for a short time and then faded, Middlecoff was amazingly consistent. The Dustin Johnson of his age, Middlecoff had at least one victory in 13 of 15 seasons. In three different years he tallied six wins.

Middlecoff won the U.S. Open in 1949 and 1956, and earned his green jacket when he won the 1955 Masters by seven strokes over Ben Hogan.

Claim to Fame: Middlecoff became one of the all-time greats despite having to learn a golf swing with one leg shorter than the other.

Honorable Mention: Leo Diegel, Gene Littler, Henry Picard, Jim Barnes, Julius Boros, Nick Price



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