A Major Match
Remembering the historic PGA Championship of 1936 in Pinehurst
By Lee Pace
Where have we heard this before? A significant makeover of the renowned No. 2 golf course just prior to a major championship coming to Pinehurst. Technical infrastructure overhauled and updated to handle the massive demands for communicating the scores and developments in the competition. An undercurrent of excitement and energy crackling through the Village as the golf world turns its sights to the Sandhills.
Yes, indeed. It was the PGA Championship. And it was 1936, 81 years before the next PGA is held within the boundaries of North Carolina, at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte this very month.
“The year-old grass greens, replacing the long-used sand putting surfaces, are small and fast,” an Associated Press dispatch said the week of the mid-November gathering of the top golf pros in the nation. “They’ll be still faster later in the week when they are due for a trimming.”
(That’s quaint and a little hilarious when you think of today’s practice of double-cutting and sometimes rolling the greens twice a day the week of the U.S. Open.)
And from another dispatch: “Eight thousand feet of telephone wire will be strung to keep tabs on the tournament, connecting with booths located at salient points around the course.”
The championship magazine touted “sophisticated entertainment” at Club Chalfonte, one mile from Pinehurst on Aberdeen Road, and encouraged visitors to “Stay at the Manor, a livable hotel that reflects the atmosphere of a fine home.” Four miles away in Southern Pines, the Pine Needles Inn sought to lure guests with a special amenity: “Directly in front of, and adjoining the stately Tudor hotel, is probably the finest eighteen-hole grass putting course in the world, patterned after, but much superior to, the putting course at St. Andrews.”
It was the first big-time, outside event to come to Pinehurst, this 19th playing of the PGA Championship. Of course, the top players and golf universe considered the annual playing of the North and South Amateur and Open Championships at Pinehurst the equal of any competition. The North and South Open, populated mostly by the touring pros, gave Pinehurst and its singular mix of golf-centricity and ambience (it had seven courses by the mid-1930s) a distinct place in the minds of golfers everywhere.
“I can’t help it, Pinehurst gets me,” Scotsman Tommy Armour said. “From morning firing practice on Maniac Hill, to vespers at the movies, Pinehurst is the way I’d have things if it were left to me to remold this sorry scheme of things entirely . . . It’s the last in the vanishing art of fine living.”
The 1936 PGA was particularly significant to architect Donald Ross and his prized No. 2 course because it marked the unveiling of a course with Bermuda grass greens and two new holes — the current fourth and fifth. Since No. 2’s opening in 1907, golfers navigated square putting surfaces made of sand with a clay base. Pinehurst was thought to be too far north for Bermuda greens, but by 1934 Ross and greens superintendent Frank Maples had experimented and found a strain of Bermuda that could survive during the resort’s high season, which ran from October through the spring.
Gone were the flat sand/clay surfaces that caddies had to sweep with a broom and in their place were expanses of the native sandy soil sculpted with furrows, bulges, rolls and hollows, structures similar in Ross’ mind to what he knew from his native Scotland. Now, if a golfer’s approach missed the green, he was faced with the variables of terrain, distance, angles and bounces — and thus was borne the chipping element that has made No. 2 a test for the ages.
“No. 2 has always been a pet of mine,” Ross said. “In building these fine new greens, I have been able to carry out many of the changes which I have long visualized but only now have been able to put into practice.”
“If you haven’t been to Pinehurst recently, you will get a shock next week when you go over to the PGA tournament,” one press dispatch read. “Those famous courses, there for decades, have undergone a miraculous transformation. The Sahara-like greens are no more on No. 2 and No. 3. The sand has been replaced by grass as green as the foliage in the background. As distinctive as those sand greens were, golf on sand is not so pleasant as golf on grass.”
The resort in the mid-1930s had four 18-hole courses and a nine-hole course used by employees and caddies that ran over ground to the east of the No. 2 course and that now is home to the No. 7 course. Ross took the first and ninth holes on that course and made them the fourth and fifth holes on No. 2, and abandoned two holes that existed between the current 10th and 11th.
“I don’t see how a course could be any harder, but at the same time this course is the most pleasant course to play that I’ve ever seen,” defending PGA championship Johnny Revolta said. “You have to play with your head as much as your hands.”
The event marked the first time the PGA Championship had been held at a Southern resort. In its 20 years of competition, the PGA had been held mostly at Eastern clubs with an occasional trip to the Midwest or West Coast. Pinehurst management left no stone unturned in preparing for the event. Ross and Maples laid thousands of pounds of rye grass seed over the fairways of No. 2 to ensure a green and lush turf in the late autumn months, and they and Pinehurst President Richard Tufts agreed to delay the season opening to members and guests until after the tournament. The course opened for practice the week before the championship and was listed at 6,879 yards.
A field of 121 players convened for two rounds of stroke-play qualifying beginning Nov. 16, followed by six rounds of match play for the low 63 qualifiers — plus Revolta, the defending champion who was exempt from qualifying. Joining Revolta as favorites were reigning U.S. Open champion Tony Manero, who had won that summer at Baltusrol, along with Armour, Gene Sarazen, Walter Hagen, Paul Runyan, Leo Diegel and Craig Wood.
Hagen and Byron Nelson were casualties of the qualifying rounds. Falling aside in the first two rounds of match play were Revolta, Sarazen, Runyan and Armour. The three biggest names left in the quarterfinals were Manero, 1933 British Open champion Denny Shute and 1931 U.S. Open champion Billy Burke. Jimmy Thomson beat Wood 4 and 3 in the semifinals, and Shute beat Bill Mehlhorn 1 up.
Shute, 32, was born in Ohio, raised in West Virginia, and at the time was the head professional at Brae Burn Country Club outside Boston. He weighed only 140 pounds and was described as “frail” in one news report. His strengths were an agile short game and deadeye putting stroke — witness his one-putting the first 10 greens in beating Al Zimmerman in the second round. And he was rarely in trouble. “He just kept nailing low, wind-boring irons and whistling woods straight down the middle,” an Associated Press account said of his efforts at Pinehurst.
Shute held a 2-up lead over Thomson through 33 holes of their finals match, and with Thomson beached in a greenside bunker in two shots on the par-5 16th, Shute was certainly in control. He struck what he would later say was the finest shot of his golf career — a 3-wood second shot that settled 5 feet from the cup. Thomson had to at least halve the hole to extend the match. When he blasted out and missed his putt for birdie, there was no point in playing any longer. Thomson conceded the putt to Shute for eagle.
The champion collected a check for $1,000 following his 3-and-2 victory and second of three career major championships (to go with his British Open and the ’37 PGA).
It was perhaps apropos that Shute won at Pinehurst. Thomson consistently outdrove him by 50 to 60 yards during their championship match, proving even in the early days that patience, course management and a deft touch around the greens are the important tools on Pinehurst No. 2. PS
Chapel Hill-based writer Lee Pace is the author of a dozen books on golf history, including The Golden Age of Pinehurst—The Story of the Rebirth of No. 2.