At the 1956 Western Open, hosted by the picturesque Presidio Golf Club in San Francisco, Herb Deesen of nearby Berkeley, California, shot 74 in the first round, the same score as notables Al Geiberger, Tommy Bolt and Ed Furgol and six behind leader Billy Casper. Deesen followed that up with a 76 to make the cut on the number
In the third round, Deesen ballooned to a 16-over-par 88 on the not-very-difficult Presidio course. He improved to 81 on Sunday to finish at 319, 35 shots behind Mike Fetchick, Doug Ford, Jay Hebert, and Don January (Fetchick won the playoff). Among those who made the cut, Deesen was dead last by four shots and earned $110.
Remarkably, the 1956 Western Open was the highlight of Deesen’s career as a self-styled professional golfer. He was not as bad as Maurice Flitcroft, the English crane operator and subject of the 2021 biopic “The Phantom of the Open,” who shot 121 at qualifying for the 1976 Open Championship and was banned from future competitions. But among those who have seriously pursued professional golf for an extended period, Deesen, hands down, is the worst of all time.
The athlete most comparable to Deesen is Joe Shlabotnik, who, per Baseball-Reference.com, compiled a batting average of .004 over an entire season (his one hit in 250 at-bats being a bloop single) and distinguished himself by making “spectacular plays on routine fly balls.” Alas, Shlabotnik was a fictional character created by Charles M. Schulz for the Peanuts comic strip. Deesen, on the other hand, was all too real.
It may seem harsh at this late date to resurrect Deesen’s long-forgotten name (he died in 2002, childless, having never married). However, Deesen’s hubris, self-absorption, and selfishness justify the telling of his story. Like Shlabotnik, no photos exist of Deesen playing his sport, simply because he never did anything on the golf course to give a member of the media reason to take his picture. All he left in newspaper archives is a litany of scores in the mid-to-high 70s and 80s, and WDs.
Herbert Charles Deesen was born in Brooklyn, New York, on June 16, 1923, to German-American parents. In the 1930s, his family moved to Berkeley. His father, Ralph, worked as an executive assistant for Southern Pacific Railroad. A photograph in the 1937 Garfield Junior High School yearbook (where he was treasurer of the Honor Society) depicts Herbert as a serious 13-year-old.
According to his 1942 draft registration card, Deesen was 6 feet tall, weighed 160 pounds and was employed by the Blue and Gold Cab Company in Berkeley. During World War II, he served as a bombardier in the Army Air Corps, flying 32 missions over Europe and attaining the rank of second lieutenant. By then, Deesen had taken up golf. A March 1944 article in the San Francisco Examiner identified him as a service member who had dropped by the Olympic Club while on leave.
After the war, Deesen embarked on his pro golf odyssey. In 1948, he entered qualifying in San Francisco for the U.S. Open and was unsuccessful. This was a ritual he would continue almost every year at least through 1964, without ever advancing. In August 1949, Deesen traveled to Chicago for the All-American tournament at Tam O’Shanter. The tournament had a then-hefty purse of $20,000 and was open to anybody willing to pay the $15 entry fee. In a 2021 interview, Don Fairfield (a three-time winner on the PGA tour from 1956 to ’63) reported that he was paired with Deesen. “He didn’t come close to breaking 80,” Fairfield recalled. “Maybe 85 or 90. He was just out there messing around.”
Deesen “didn’t swing like a golfer. He didn’t look like a golfer. He wore long-sleeved dress shirts. He looked like a professor.” –Don Fairfield
Nevertheless, Deesen’s resolve is evidenced by the 1950 census, listing his occupation as “Professional Golfer.” He was still living with his parents in Berkeley. In 1951, Deesen entered the Rio Grande Valley Open and did not post a score. At the St. Petersburg Open, he shot 78 in the first round and did not return for the second. In St. Paul, he shot 78 in the first round and withdrew. In Sioux City, he opened with an 82 and withdrew. He entered the Western Open in Davenport, Iowa, but did not post a score. At the Blue Ribbon Open in Milwaukee, he shot 41 for his first nine and withdrew.
That he was able to enter professional tournaments with a skill set that would not even win a club championship is a testament to the rules in place at the time governing eligibility to play in PGA tour events. There were two ways a player could enter tournaments. One was to be a member of the PGA, through which the pro generally would work as a club professional. Any PGA member could attempt to qualify for tour events. In the normal course, this would have required Deesen to serve an apprenticeship as an assistant pro for several years.
This was not a viable option for Deesen. “He didn’t swing like a golfer,” 93-year-old Fairfield recalled recently. “He didn’t look like a golfer. He wore long-sleeved dress shirts. He looked like a professor.”
It’s unlikely any club would hire an assistant pro whose demeanor would inspire members to take up birdwatching or butterfly collecting. Deesen never was willing or able to pursue the PGA member route.
The second option for entering tour events was to become an “approved player,” which required the applicant to get a local member of the PGA to sign off on his moral character, his financial ability to undertake the expense of playing the tour, and his ability to play well enough in tournaments to make money. Despite apparently not completing 36 holes in any 1951 tournaments, Deesen succeeded in persuading one or more Bay Area pros to vouch for him. As a result, in 1952 the PGA made him an approved player.
Throughout the 1950s, Deesen was a fixture at the bottom of leaderboards, at least for the first and occasionally the second round. A “no card” at the 1953 Insurance City Open. At the 1954 Western Open, he shot 85 in the first round and withdrew. An 81 at the 1955 British Columbia Open. In 1957, 85-82 at the Eastern Open and 84-78 at the Western Open. And so on.
“All he did was slow down play,” Fairfield said.
Back then, it was not always necessary for a marginal approved player like Deesen to have to qualify for events.
“He would get in some tournaments because there weren’t enough players to fill the field,” Fairfield said.
That may have been how Deesen entered the 1954 National Celebrities Open at Congressional Country Club outside of Washington, D.C., and left with a little bit of cash. With no cut, Deesen went the distance, with rounds of 76-81-78-74 for 309 – dead last and 36 shots behind winner Marty Furgol – to take home $100.
There was a solitary, mystical quality to Deesen’s ineptitude. “He usually was all by himself,” Fairfield said. “Nobody bothered him, and he didn’t bother anybody.” According to one account, Deesen read Hindu poetry, even while playing – in his words – “to keep myself calm.” At the 1958 Insurance City Open, the Hartford Courant identified him as “the poet laureate of the pro tour.” (Deesen did not turn in a card at Hartford.)
Soon thereafter, the PGA took steps to cull the herd of approved players, who by then were cluttering the fields at qualifiers. On Sept. 1, 1958, Deesen was one of 57 golfers who received notice from the PGA that their privileges to enter tournaments were terminated, effective immediately, pursuant to a provision of the PGA code stating, “The tournament committee may terminate the playing privileges of any player whose ability, character, integrity and general conduct is not of a caliber … which is consistent in the judgment of the committee.”
The tournament committee included tour mainstays Bob Rosburg, Dow Finsterwald and Julius Boros. In an effort to stay on the tour, Deesen enlisted the support of other pros – including Bolt and Mike Souchak, who had taken a liking to, or were amused by, the lonely iconoclast – and they signed a petition on his behalf. Fellow Bay Area resident Ken Venturi wrote a letter to the PGA. The tour brass was unmoved. “Deesen has tried the pro tour for seven or eight years,” said tournament director Harvey Raynor, “and the only time I can recall that he ever finished in the money was in the 1956 Western Open.”
“I wish they had kept me at home with the same ban,” quipped Texan Billy Maxwell, who won the 1951 U.S. Amateur and would end his career with seven tour victories. “I could have made and saved more money staying in Odessa.”
Unlike the 56 other players who had their cards pulled, Deesen did not go quietly.
In April 1959, Deesen filed suit against the PGA in federal court in San Francisco, claiming that the PGA and its members combined and conspired to monopolize the business of tournament golf by barring him from the tour. Deesen alleged this amounted to an unlawful restraint of trade in violation of the Sherman Act. He sought damages in the amount of $210,000 and an injunction permitting him to play the tour, claiming he had been trying to make a living as a golfer and that the PGA deprived him of his livelihood.
It was the first antitrust suit ever brought against the PGA. Taking no chances, the PGA retained the heavy-hitting law firm of Arnold, Fortas & Porter of Washington, D.C.
The PGA had more to worry about than just Deesen. At the time, the PGA bylaws provided that membership was open to “any professional golfer of the Caucasian race and residing in North or South America.” This excluded Black golfers such as Charlie Sifford. The tour skirted that issue by making Sifford an “approved player,” and in November 1961 the PGA removed the discriminatory clause. However, private clubs that hosted PGA events were permitted at the time to bar even approved players such as Sifford. A ruling that the PGA was complicit with these clubs might have opened the floodgates to lawsuits.
When the case was finally tried without a jury in late 1963 (more than 4½ half years after the filing of the complaint), the evidence showed that in his years on the tour Deesen earned a grand total of $240.35 and that he otherwise was unemployed.
While Deeson’s litigation proceeded, he continued to play where he could, mostly in the Bay Area. He shot 83 in the opening round of the 1959 Golden Gate Open at Harding Park. That May, he was the subject of a United Press International article by Don Becker. “ ‘I did everything possible to be reinstated,’ the angular-faced 35-year-old Deesen said after finishing a round of par golf at San Francisco’s tough Harding Park municipal course,” Becker reported.
Deesen went to U.S. Open local qualifying at the Presidio and shot 76-77 and once again failed to advance. He was six back of San Francisco 49ers quarterback John Brodie, who was the medalist and would play in the 1959 Open at Winged Foot.
Deesen became a punchline of sorts. Before the inaugural 1961 Lucky International Open in San Francisco, The Times of San Mateo reported: “To point up the ‘open’ aspect, tournament officials announced the entry of Herb Deesen has been accepted.” If Deesen could play, anybody could. He did not qualify.
U.S. District Court Judge Lloyd H. Burke was assigned to the case. He was an appointee of President Dwight Eisenhower, whose love of golf surpassed his skills (if the two played a Nassau, Deesen would have had to give Ike three strokes a side). Judge Burke would give Deesen his day in court, denying the PGA’s motions to dismiss.
At a pretrial conference, the parties agreed that Deesen would play “test” rounds with Bay Area professionals to see whether his skills had improved enough to get back on the approved-player list and render the lawsuit moot. Once again, Deesen failed. His scores ranged from 75 to 84, and reinstatement was denied.
The lawsuit continued.
When the case was finally tried without a jury in late 1963 (more than 4½ half years after the filing of the complaint), the evidence showed that in his years on the tour Deesen earned a grand total of $240.35 and that he otherwise was unemployed. Also, he had a “partnership arrangement” with his parents to support him, and their cost in underwriting Deesen’s expenses from 1952 to ’59 came to $13,500.
In December 1963, Judge Burke ruled against Deesen and in favor of the PGA. Whereas Deesen claimed he was being deprived of the opportunity to earn a living, the judge ruled that Deesen would suffer economic loss if he were allowed to play, echoing Maxwell’s joking aside.
“The defendant, PGA, has not excluded non-PGA members from tour golf play in an arbitrary or unreasonable manner,” Burke stated in rejecting Deesen’s contention that the PGA’s policy of affording its members the right to play in tournaments without being approved was evidence of discrimination. “Membership in PGA is open to all persons including plaintiff on the same conditions,” the judge continued, noting Deesen did not avail himself of this option. “The evidence shows no violation of antitrust laws.”
The suit dragged on for three more years as Deesen took his case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which affirmed the trial court’s judgment and then denied Deesen’s petition for rehearing.
Finally, on Oct. 10, 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a one-sentence order refusing to hear Deesen’s suit, more than eight years after the PGA rescinded his playing privileges, putting an end to his long, bizarre quest to play professional golf.
Deesen’s father and benefactor, Ralph Deesen, died in 1985. In 1986, Eric Wilson and his wife bought the Berkeley home from Ralph Deesen’s estate and still live there. In an interview, Wilson reported hearing there was bad blood between father and son. Land records show that in 1972 Ralph transferred a joint interest to Herb, and that in 1982 full title was transferred back to Ralph, whose obituary stated Herb was living in Italy. Presumably, Ralph gave his son a sum of money to get rid of him, and Herb moved to Europe.
Herb Deesen died on June 29, 2002, at age 79 in Kent, England.
Based on a review of Deesen’s available scores, his handicap likely was around 7, which many recreational golfers would love to have, but only the delusional would think provided a future as a pro golfer. Not since Deesen’s day has the tour had a list of “approved players.” Nowadays, the only realistic path to playing the PGA Tour is to go through the multi-layer process of qualifying school for the Korn Ferry Tour, and then play well enough to earn promotion.
Anybody can still attempt to qualify for “open” PGA Tour events such as the Valero Texas Open and the WM Phoenix Open – if willing to shell out about $250 to go to a pre-qualifier, and if successful pay another $250 to go to Monday qualifying to try to earn one of four spots reserved for qualifiers.
Probably for the best, there aren’t many like Herb Deesen with the money (or parents’ money) and the threshold for humiliation, to try on a regular basis.
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