Before They Were Masters

Before men were masters, they were champions at Pinehurst

THE GREAT DAN JENKINS wrote the line.

“The North and South was the Masters before there was a Masters.”

Jenkins, perhaps sportswriting’s greatest satirist and certainly one of the great golf historians, has the credibility to make that claim stick. He’s referring to the North & South Open, Pinehurst’s first entry into professional golf that came half a century – and more – before any of the U.S. Open championships Pinehurst No. 2 today is so well known for.

PLAN YOUR VISIT TO PINEHURST

It’s a tournament that sometimes gets lost in the annals of pro golf, and honestly, even lost in the lore of Pinehurst itself. Every day in the clubhouse’s hallowed hall, guests and golfers stop and marvel at the North & South Open wall of champions, there next to the more well-known North & South Amateur wall, trying to place the tournament’s legacy in their memories. Often, though, it’s not there.

But as the arrival of April and azaleas harkens the dawn of another Masters, a studious glance of that North & South Open wall reminds those of us with Pinehurst ties that, many times in golf, before men were masters, they were champions at Pinehurst.

Here is a look at five of the greatest players the game has ever known and what they won at Pinehurst before donning their first green jacket, with a few honorable mentions thrown in.

THE HONORABLE MENTIONS

NOT EVERY PLAYER ON THIS MASTER LIST below has a North & South Open championship to his name – the tournament did end its run in 1951, after all, just 17 years after the birth of The Masters – but it is striking how many giants of the game competed in the event in its 50 years. To wit:

Horton Smith, who won the first Masters in 1934 and again in 1936, won the 1929 North & South Open, the first of two Pinehurst triumphs (he also won the North & South Open in 1937). Smith won 36 times professionally…

Cary Middlecoff won The Masters in 1955, but 10 years earlier – and as an amateur – he won the 1945 North & South Open. Middlecoff won 40 times professionally, including three majors …

Henry Picard won the North & South Open for the first time in 1934 and again just two years later in 1936. Picard won the 1938 Masters and won the PGA Championship in 1939. Picard is credited with working with Ben Hogan in the 1930s, eventually convincing Hogan to weaken his grip. Hogan dedicated his first book, “Ben Hogan’s Power Golf,” to Picard in 1953. We’ll get to Hogan in a moment…

Jack Burke Jr. didn’t win the North & South Open, but he did prevail in a sense at Pinehurst before his Masters win in 1956. Burke was a rookie on the 1951 Ryder Cup team at Pinehurst, helping the United States to a 9 ½-2 ½ romp with a 2-0 record. Burke remains one of just two living participants of the 1951 Ryder Cup, joining legendary Pinehurst caddie Willie McRae…

A few final notes on the North & South Open: Walter Hagen won the event three times (1918, 1923, 1924). Alec Ross, Donald Ross’ brother, won the most North & South Opens, with six. Donald Ross won three. Byron Nelson won the North & South Open in 1939, and won two Masters, in 1937 and 1942.

Now, a look at the five best players in history to win at Pinehurst before they won The Masters.

Reservations

5. BEN HOGAN

WHEN BEN HOGAN ARRIVED IN PINEHURST for the 1940 North & South Open, the story goes he had $30 in his pocket, four bald tires on his car and was very close to going back to Texas to be a club pro. He had toiled on the PGA Tour for seven-plus years without a victory, and was close to quitting professional golf.

Then came Pinehurst, and after two brilliant opening rounds of 66 and 67, he held on to beat Sam Snead. “I won one just in time,” Hogan said at the trophy ceremony. Nine majors and 68 more professional wins – including two more North & South Opens – followed.

4. ARNOLD PALMER

RANKING THE GAME’S GREATEST PLAYERS is tricky, especially when major championships are factored in. But perhaps no player has had as great an impact on golf than Arnold Palmer. But his win at Pinehurst is a difficult one to find. It’s not the North & South Amateur, which he laments, and where he lost twice in the semifinals. Palmer turned professional in 1954, so he missed the North & South Open, and he was past his prime for the PGA Tour events at Pinehurst in the 1970s and the U.S. Senior Open in 1994.

But there is a win at Pinehurst in the Palmer ledger, and he recalls it fondly. While at Wake Forest, Palmer won the 1948 Southern Conference Championship – a precursor to the Atlantic Coast Conference – over North Carolina and North & South Amateur rival Harvie Ward, who nearly holed out from the fairway of 18 to tie Palmer. “It would’ve dismayed me quite a bit,” Palmer says now of Ward’s shot. “It was a great shot that scared me to death, let’s just say that.”

Palmer won The Masters four times, the first coming 10 years after his lone win at Pinehurst (1958, 1960, 1962, 1964).

Donald Ross

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3. SAM SNEAD

AGAIN, WE’RE SPLITTING HAIRS trying to rank the greatest of the greats, and it wouldn’t take much to move Palmer up this list.

That said, Snead won 82 times on the PGA Tour, with three of those wins coming in the North & South Open. After finishing as the runner-up in Hogan’s big breakthrough in 1940, Snead returned to Pinehurst and won in 1941. He followed that with North & South wins in 1949 and 1950. Snead won The Masters three times, the first in 1949 (and in 1952 and 1954). He is the only player in history to have won the North & South Open and The Masters in the same year.

2. TIGER WOODS

IT WASN’T THE NORTH & SOUTH AMATEUR. It wasn’t either the 1999 or 2005 U.S. Opens (although he came very close), and Woods did not appear in the 2014 U.S. Open.

But Woods is a Pinehurst champion.

“It’s just at some tournaments. It hasn’t been nationwide. I’m not that big yet.” -Tiger Woods

In what seems like a bit of quaint history, two years before he became the youngest at the time to win the U.S. Amateur, Woods won the “Big I” on Pinehurst No. 7. The tournament’s formal name was the Independent Insurance Agents Youth Golf Classic, and at the time it was one of the elite junior tournaments in the world.

Tiger was 17, his largest gallery was about 75 people and at one point, he was inadvertently knocked to the ground by a woman who grabbed his shirt while seeking an autograph. Woods had an ice pack on his wrist afterward, and speaking to reporters, said, “The price of fame, I guess.”

Woods was asked about his notoriety, even then. “It’s just at some tournaments. It hasn’t been nationwide. I’m not that big yet.”

Yet.

1. JACK NICKLAUS

JACK NICKLAUS HAS WON AT PINEHURST almost as much as he’s won at Augusta.

Before The Golden Bear won the first of his six Masters in 1963, Nicklaus has won the 1959 North & South Amateur, shooting well over par to edge Gene Andrews 1-up.  Nicklaus won the 1975 Hall of Fame Classic on No. 2 and had a win of different sorts when he watched his son Jackie win the 1985 North & South Amateur, becoming the only father and son duo to have won the prestigious event. Nicklaus contended in the 1994 U.S. Senior Open, but a few months before that, defeated Arnold Palmer in a made-for-TV match on No. 2.

Masterful.

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