Denny Shute – The Forgotten PGA Champion

Denny Shute receives the Wanamaker Trophy for winning the 1936 PGA Championship at Pinehurst.

Denny Shute receives the Wanamaker Trophy for winning the 1936 PGA Championship at Pinehurst. Photo courtesy of the Tufts Archives

 

Denny Shute is a Hall-of-Famer, a 3-time major champion, and won Pinehurst No. 2′s first foray into major championship golf in the 1936 PGA Championship. So why isn’t he remembered among the greatest names in the game’s grand history?

BY LEE PACE

Trivia question on the cusp of the PGA Championship, beginning Thursday at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y.:

Tiger Woods won back-to-back PGAs in 1999 and 2000 at Medinah and Valhalla, becoming the first player to collect consecutive PGA titles since who, when and where?

Since Denny Shute in 1936-37 at Pinehurst No. 2 and Pittsburgh Field Club.

Denny who?

He was known as “The Human Icicle,” a man so reserved and demure in the public eye that he sometimes had his wife Hettie accept a trophy and paycheck on his behalf.

Densmore “Denny” Shute was the son of an English golf professional who had immigrated to the United States and taken a club pro job in West Virginia. The boy began hitting golf balls at 30 months of age and grew into a steady and studious player, not particularly long but accurate and unlikely to make big mistakes. How else could one shoot four straight rounds of 73 at St. Andrews in 1933 en route to winning the British Open championship?

Denny Shute: owner of three major titles, a spot on three U.S. Ryder Cup teams and perhaps the lowest awareness quotient in the World Golf Hall of Fame.

“If he ever had the fever to play tournament golf, he’d have been the equal to me,” fellow Hall of Fame member Sam Snead once said.

“He was a good but hardly brilliant player,” author Charles Price offered.

“He was a well-schooled golfer but a hard person to warm up to off the links as well as on,” said Herbert Warren Wind, another golf historian.

 

 

Shute also served as a humdinger of a footnote to one of golf’s most infamous meltdowns, a wreck that haunted Snead the rest of his life. All Snead needed was a five on the final hole of the 1939 U.S. Open at Philadelphia Country Club, but he made an eight and left Shute, Byron Nelson and Craig Wood to settle it in a playoff, won by Nelson. In time, Snead would win the British Open, PGA and the Masters, leaving the U.S. Open as the lone hole in his career “grand slam” resume.

So here Shute found himself in a battle with Jimmy Thomson in the 36-hole finals match of the 1936 PGA on Pinehurst No. 2. Thomson was described in newspaper reports as burly, wild-haired, red-faced, and a man whose emotional range was as lengthy as his tremendous tee shots. Shute was pegged as being tall, quiet and frail, with wrinkles of concentration and concern frequently creasing his receding hairline.

Despite Thomson often pounding his tee shots 50 yards farther down the fairway than Shute, the latter was 2-up through the 15th hole of the afternoon round. On the 16th hole, Thomson drove wildly into the woods to the right of the fairway, played through the trees to a greenside bunker, exploded past the hole and missed his 15-foot birdie attempt.

Shute, meanwhile, played to the center of the fairway, laced a three-wood onto the green, five feet from the cup, and was conceded his eagle putt by Thomson. Shute collected his 3-and-2 victory and $1,000 first-prize check, but so understated was his personality and golf persona that newspaper reports carried nary a merry comment from the winner’s mouth.

“He’s kind of forgotten, and that’s too bad,” his younger brother, Larry, told The Boston Globe in 2003. “He wasn’t flamboyant, and players of his era—Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen—were better press.”

Pinehurst had been the site of the popular and prestigious North and South events for pros and men’s and women’s amateurs since they were conceived by resort and village founder James Tufts and advertising counselor Frank Presbrey in 1901 as a means to generate publicity and promote the game of golf. Walter Hagen and Horton Smith won early North and South Opens, and Walter Travis and Francis Ouimet collected North and South Amateurs before World War I.

 

The cover to the program for the 1936 PGA Championhsip at Pinehurst.

The cover to the program for the 1936 PGA Championhsip at Pinehurst. Photo courtesy of the Tufts Archives

 

The 1936 PGA was the first time the resort and its No. 2 course had been used by one of golf’s key organizations as the venue for a national championship or international competition. In its first 20 years of competition, the PGA Championship had been held mostly at Eastern clubs, with an occasional visit to the Midwest or West Coast, but the organization selected Pinehurst as its first foray into the South for the 1936 event.

Long-time Pinehurst visitor Tommy Armour applauded the PGA’s decision.

“The man who doesn’t feel emotionally stirred when he golfs at Pinehurst beneath those clear blue skies and with the pine fragrance in his nostrils, is one who should be ruled out of golf for life,” Armour wrote in the championship program. “He is not qualified to enjoy golf or to contribute to its environment.”

And Richard Tufts of the Pinehurst founding family noted that architect Donald Ross had taken Pinehurst’s original courses, dotted with “cross bunkers, chocolate drops and other strange monsters of the past,” into a new world of golf.

“No. 2 is now equipped with all that is most modern to harass and torment the unwary or unskilled,” Tufts said.

Leave it to an unassuming pro of English descent to tame the beast—even if hardly anyone knows the name of Denny Shute.

Lee Pace is a regular contributor to the Pinehurst Blog. His latest book, “The Golden Age of Pinehurst—The Rebirth of No. 2,” is available in all retail shops at Pinehurst.

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