PGA – FORMER PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Cary Middlecoff

This article is the first in a new series I am calling: “Former Player Spotlight”. Over the years, I’ve noticed the contributions of many players who may not necessarily be household names, but who left a mark on the sport they played. Today, many of these players are being forgotten as well as the context of how they may have affected the history of sports. With this series, I’m hoping to bring some awareness to these players and/or shine a light on some of the more interesting stories. I won’t focus on any one sport in particular; these articles will be random as they come to me. I hope you enjoy them…

The first player we’ll look at is Cary Middlecoff.

His story is intriguing in a multitude of ways.

First, he was a 26 year-old dentist who decided to ditch his civilian life after World War II and become a professional golfer.

It was a gutsy move, that’s for sure.

His biggest competitors at the time included Hall of Famers Ben Hogan, Sam Snead & Byron Nelson.

Middlecoff was also renowned to have major difficulties with handling anxiety and was plagued with a number of medical issues including a bad back, chronic tendonitis in his hips due to a shorter right leg, hay fever & food allergies, and poor eyesight (while filing a tooth in the army, a chip popped into his eye and an infection developed. His eyesight was never the same).

Despite all of this, Middlecoff knew he was just as talented as his more famous fellow golfers.

World Golf Hall of Famer Tommy Bolt remembered him in 1998: ”He was a long, straight driver and long-iron player, and a great putter.”

Bobby Jones once said about Middlecoff: “I’d give the world to have a swing like that”.

These skills would propel Middlecoff to leave his comfortable life and assured future to turn pro.

So, in 1947, he hung a sign on his dental office door that read “Doctor Out, Playing Golf”.

He never looked back.

EARLY LIFE

Middlecoff was born on Jan 6, 1921 in western Tennessee and was raised in Memphis.

He started to learn golf at the age of 7 with his father as his teacher, a local dentist who was a skilled golfer in his own right and local club champion.

As a boy, Middlecoff earned the nickname “The Ghost” because he was always haunting the town’s country clubs looking for tips on his game.

During this teens, Middlecoff grew to 6’2 and 185 lbs., tall for the era. (The average height for a US man in the 1940’s was just shy of 5’8). It was during this time that he started to understand the tremendous power he could generate due to his size and later, took advantage of this asset during his pro career.

By 17, Middlecoff became more “serious about the game” and earned the crown of Memphis City Champion.

After high school, he attended the University of Mississippi and became that school’s first golf All-American in 1939. While there, he took one collegiate tournament by 29 strokes.

He also won the Tennessee State Amateur Championship four straight years (1940–1943). It’s never been done before or since.

According to Ole Miss’s website, Middlecoff is considered the greatest golfer in the school’s history and “one of the best the Mid-South has ever known”.

He then went on to dental school at the University of Tennessee and while earning his DDS degree in 1944, he continued to play golf.

During World War 2, Middlecoff entered the US Army Dental Corps and in 18 months, he filled 12,093 teeth.

Meanwhile, in 1945, he won a PGA Tour tournament as an amateur (North and South Open) where he defeated Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen.  (He was the first and only amateur ever to win that event when it was part of the the PGA tour.)

After the war, Middlecoff joined his father’s dental practice briefly, but he was not enamored with dentistry. In 1994 he said of the experience: ”I didn’t want to see any more teeth. I just wanted to play some golf.”

At the age of 26, he turned pro.

PRO GOLF CAREER (1947-1961)

Middlecoff was successful on the Tour almost immediately.

At only his 3rd event in 1947 (the Charlotte Open), he tied the course record in the final round and took home a $2,000 winner’s check.  He would finish his rookie year ranked 22nd on the national rankings list.

Middlecoff would win at least 1 tournament almost every year until his retirement, including 3 Majors, the first of which he won in only his 3rd year on tour:

  • 1947 – (1) Charlotte Open
  • 1948 – (2) Hawaiian Open; Miami International Four-Ball (with Jim Ferrier)
  • 1949 – (6) Rio Grande Valley Open, Jacksonville Open, U.S. Open, Motor City Open (co-winner with Lloyd Mangrum), Reading Open, Miami International Four-Ball (with Jim Ferrier)
  • 1950 – (3) Houston Open, Jacksonville Open, St. Louis Open
  • 1951 – (6) Lakewood Park Open, Colonial National Invitation, All American Open, Eastern Open, St. Louis Open, Kansas City Open
  • 1952 – (4) El Paso Open, Motor City Open, St. Paul Open, Kansas City Open
  • 1953 – (3) Houston Open, Palm Beach Round Robin, Carling Open, Ryder Cup Champion Team
  • 1954 – (1) Motor City Open
  • 1955 – (6) Bing Crosby Pro-Am Invitational, St. Petersburg Open, Masters TournamentWestern Open, Miller High Life Open, Cavalcade Of Golf, Ryder Cup Champion Team
  • 1956 – (3) Bing Crosby National Pro-Am Golf Championship, Phoenix Open, U.S. Open
  • 1958 – (1) Miller Open Invitational
  • 1959 – (1) St. Petersburg Open Invitational, Ryder Cup Champion Team
  • 1961 – (1) Memphis Open Invitational

Still, Middlecoff’s early career as a pro was marred with small bouts of inconsistency. He would drive the ball brilliantly and play his long irons with control, but he had a tendency to follow it up with poor putting.

By his third year on tour, Middlecoff seemed to figured out how to bring stability to his overall game through experience.

Legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice said in 1949 that Middlecoff had improved his putting, but it was “his improvement around the greens that has made Middlecoff the golfer he is. I saw him as an amateur, at Baltusrol, beaten by some of the worst putting I ever witnessed.  He outclassed his opponent with wood & long irons – but three-putted almost every other green.  Apparently all the tall and willowy ex-dentist needed was tournament experience – matchplay experience.”

Rice also pointed out that compared with his successful contemporaries of the time (Hogan, Demaret and Mangrum), Middlecoff never caddied for a living before turning pro and lost “two or three highly important years” of development on his game to his war service.

Yet even with a slower start to his career than his contemporaries, during the 1950’s alone, Middlecoff won 28 tour titles, more than any other player during that decade. He also earned more tour prize money than anyone else in that span.

THE MASTERS 1955

Arguably, Middlecoff’s best year was 1955 when he won 6 tournaments at the age of 34 including the Masters.

Winning at Augusta National was a notable win for him that year because he was feeling the pressure of having a 6-year drought between major wins. He said at the time: “I wondered if I was ever going to win another big tournament.”

Middlecoff held his nerve and ended a 4-year monopoly of Sam Snead & Ben Hogan as tournament winners. He beat out Snead by 8 strokes and Hogan by 7, a tournament record that stood for 10 years until Jack Nicklaus won by 9 strokes in 1965 and later, Tiger Woods increased the spread by taking a 12 stroke victory at Augusta in 1997.

Byron Nelson (who won the Masters twice previously in 1937 & 1942) played with Middlecoff during his final 18 rounds at Augusta and called his performance one of the best pressure rounds he had ever seen at the then 19-year-old tournament.

Interesting to note that according to a Pittsburg Post-Gazette article from 1955, Middlecoff once qualified Augusta as a “Waiting Course”. Essentially, he saw it as a place a final round leader can wait (while remaining steady) and let the others beat themselves (or let Augusta National beat them).  He drew from experience, recalling the final round in 1950 when he played with Jim Ferrier who squandered a big lead and lost to Jimmy Demaret.

Still, Middlecoff had an affinity for Augusta. He came in 2nd at the Masters twice (1948, 1959) and 3rd in 1956.  He said in 1994: “I dearly loved playing there.”

US Open 1956

Middlecoff once said his 1956 U.S. Open title at Rochester, N.Y., was “probably my greatest accomplishment in golf.”

Likely, his sentiment for this win came because the course at Oak Hill Country Club did not allow a single under-par 72 round total in 1956, including his. His scorecard that weekend: 71-70-70-70.

And, reports of the time indicated that Middlecoff’s nerves were noticeable. Can’t blame him much since he again was chased by Ben Hogan during the final round when he was just 1 stroke up on him and Julius Boros to start the last day.

Hogan at the time, had long since cemented his golfing prowess & was one of the most celebrated golfers in the world. Middlecoff was well aware that the legend was on his toes.

During the final round, Middlecoff struggled, missing 8 fairways, landing in 4 traps and he bogeyed 16 & 17. But, he managed to recover and nailed a 4’ putt for par on 18.

When he finished his round, Middlecoff went to the locker room and waited an entire hour to see what would happen, still clinging to a 1 shot lead. Hogan & Boros each had a chance to tie the lead at 18.   But, they both missed their birdie putts and ultimately gave Middlecoff the championship.

Elated after his victory, Middlecoff famously said “Nobody wins the Open. It wins you.”

 

Legacy

Eventually, back problems (he was born with an extra lumbar vertebrae), allergies, and anxiety took their toll and brought Middlecoff’s career to an end in the early 1960s.

His reputation for nervousness alone is legendary.

Will Grimsely of the St. Petersburg Times wrote in 1955: “On a golf course, Dr. Cary Middlecoff is as fidgety as a worm on a cookstove. He yanks his trousers.  He tugs at an inevitable white visor.  He leaps.  He jumps.  He squirms more than a tyke in a dentist’s chair, which, incidentally the tall Tennessee doctor abandoned to try filling a new kind of cavity with gold.”

In response to this, Middlecoff said “You have to let your feelings go. In studying dentistry, I learned enough about anatomy to know that if you try to hold your feelings inside, they’ll eat your guts out.  So I show my nerves.  But, what the heck, I think it helps me.  I’ll last longer.”

And, the amount of time he took a shot is still being talked about: “One of the main reasons I took a lot of time over the ball was that I couldn’t see very well,” Middlecoff would explain. “The hay fever was part of it, and the problem with the left eye was also a factor.”

Alas, he went on to television and did commentary for CBS (including the Masters 1965-1979) for 14 years and also authored several books, including the very popular and acclaimed 1974 book “The Golf Swing”.

In 1986, he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. He also is a member of the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame, the Mississippi Hall of Fame and the Ole Miss Sports Hall of Fame.

His 40 Tour wins were bested by only Sam Snead (82), Tiger Woods (79), Jack Nicklaus (73), Ben Hogan (64), Arnold Palmer (62), Byron Nelson (52), Billy Casper (51), Walter Hagen (45) and Phil Mickelson (42).

All told, Middlecoff won the same number of Majors (3) as Vijay Singh, Payne Stewart, Hale Irwin and Nick Price, and more than Ben Crenshaw, Retief Goosen, Zach Johsnon, Bubba Watson, Greg Norman and Johnny Miller.

Context in History

Maybe I’m just a sucker for an underdog story, but I love that Middlecoff voluntarily took on a huge amount of risk and hard work just to play golf.

Besides the obstacles of his own nerves, stiff competition, health & emotional pressure, was the likely realization that life for pro golfers in the 1940s & 1950s was not easy.

Most of the golfers of the time drove themselves to events in their own cars, clocking at least 50,000 miles a year.

Also, players of Middlecoff’s era were on their own.  They didn’t have the help of swing coaches, nutritionists, physios, sports psychologists, assistants, technology, etc. that players have today.

In addition, golfers had to play nearly every event of the year “just to make a living”.

It’s no wonder that Middlecoff asked Bobby Jones what he thought he should do before he turned pro. Jones’ advice to Middlecoff? Stay a dentist.

Yet, he didn’t listen to him. Or anyone else.

Because Middlecoff simply wanted to make a living doing what he loved and compete with the best.

He could have easily stayed on the leisurely road already paved for him by his successful dentist father and 2 uncles. Instead, he chose to walk down an unfamiliar path full of obstacles he’d have to tear down in order to be successful.

We should applaud that and remember Cary Middlecoff for the wonderful golfer he was.


Sources :

World Golf Hall of Fame: http://www.worldgolfhalloffame.org/cary-middlecoff/
NY Times Obituary: http://www.nytimes.com/1998/09/03/sports/cary-middlecoff-77-dentist-who-became-top-pro-golfer.html

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