A 21-year-old nobody from Dallas surprised the sports world on Jun. 8, 1933 by coming within a single stroke of grabbing golf’s biggest prize – the U.S. Open Championship.
Ralph Guldahl was born in Big D in 1911, a year before two legendary lions of the links – Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson – also drew their first breath in the Lone Star State. By age 11, the son of Norwegian immigrants was caddying at Lakewood Country Club, and in 1927 he captained the Woodrow Wilson High School golf team to the state title.
As the wheels started coming off the national economy in 1930, Guldahl decided to earn his living playing the game he loved. The raw rookie showed a flash of precocious potential by becoming the youngest qualifier for the U.S. Open.
Guldahl needed a birdie on the 72nd hole three years later to win the most important tournament in America but lost control of his putter. After missing the mark by four feet on his first attempt, he went for the par that would have tied him with Johnny Goodman and forced a play-off. But he blew that putt, too, and had to settle for second place.
Instead of finding encouragement in his strong showing, Guldahl let his mental meltdown get to him. His confidence was so completely shattered by the embarrassing experience that less than a year later he quit golf altogether.
Guldahl returned to Texas and tried his hand at selling cars, a poor choice of occupations during the Depression. (He sold just one – to himself!) However, a job laying out a nine-hole course rekindled his interest in golf, and with borrowed money he gave the professional tour one more try.
The time off had done Guldahl a world of good. In 1936 he won his first major event, the Western Open, as well as the Radix Trophy awarded to the pro golfer with the lowest average round.
At Oakland Hills Country Club outside Detroit in June 1937, the tall Texan claimed the prize that slipped through his fingers four years earlier. Calm, cool and collected, nothing seemed to rattle him.
On opening day, snap-happy shutterbugs caused Guldahl to miss a short putt. A freak accident cost him a stroke in the second round, when a picture-perfect drive struck an official in the back and bounced into the rough. Not even an attack by a swarm of bees could stop him from making a birdie putt in the third round.
Fifty thousand dollars in prize money and commercial endorsements were at stake, when Guldahl reached the 18th green on the final day. Secure in the knowledge he could three-putt the last hole and still emerge victorious, he combed his curly hair – a nervous habit that helped him to relax – and sent the little white ball scooting across the manicured grass to within two feet of the cup.
Guldahl’s second putt dropped out of sight to the deafening approval of 10,000 spectators. His score of 281 was a new record for the U.S. Open and two shots better than runner-up Sam Snead.
In their rematch the following week at the Western, Guldahl and Snead started the decisive 18 in a dead heat. The Texan picked up two strokes on the hillbilly sensation on the front nine and then blew him away with five pars, three birdies and an eagle on the back nine to win by 11 shots.
Guldahl was in the driver’s seat at the Masters until disaster struck on the final round. He knocked his tee shot into a creek on the 12th, landed in a shallow stream on the 13th and wound up wasting 11 strokes on the two holes.
Byron Nelson, almost as much of an unknown as Guldahl had been at the 1933 Open, took full advantage of the front-runner’s self-destruction. He birdied the 12th and eagled the 13th to gain six strokes on Guldahl and take a two-shot lead he never relinquished.
Refusing to let that awful afternoon at Augusta knock him off stride, Guldahl played truly superb golf throughout 1938. He pulled off a rare repeat at the Open, won his third Western in a row and came in second again at the Masters.
While Snead was basking in the glow of his apparent victory in the 1939 edition of the Masters, Guldahl was vanquishing the ghosts of ’37. He carded an amazing three on the par-five 13th hole to pull the rug out from under Slammin’ Sam.
But for reasons no one ever understood, Guldahl never won another major tournament. His game suddenly came apart, and he could not figure out how to put it back together.
Guldahl’s wife and son had always traveled with him, but in 1945 they stayed in San Diego while he went on tour alone. He got as far as Los Angeles, caught the next train back home and never played another round of professional golf.
At 34 Ralph Guldahl’s best years may have been ahead of him, but that did not matter to the devoted husband and father. Everything he wanted was right at home.
“Murder Most Texan” is a must read for fans of true crime and Texas history. Order your copy for $24.00 by mailing a check to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393.