This piece is excerpted from the book “Doctors of the Game.”
The Turnesa story began in 1875 when Vitale Turnesa was born in Potenza, a small village 65 miles east of Salerno, Italy. Orphaned as a youngster, he sought a living as a shepherd in the Italian countryside. Hearing stories of a better life in America, he saved enough money by age 14 to make the voyage from Naples to New York. Just a year earlier, in 1888, businessman John Reid and a few friends had quietly established the first golf club in America. Located in the suburban town of Yonkers, New York, it was called the St. Andrews Golf Club.
Shortly after arriving, Turnesa took up residence on the Lower East Side in the Little Italy section of Manhattan, which was recognized as the city’s poorest neighborhood. In a common practice of that era, an Italian family took him in. He quickly found a job as a shoeshine boy and soon worked his way up to a steward position on a fleet of ferry boats run by the Erie and Lackawanna Railroad that connected Hoboken, New Jersey, with Manhattan.
Turnesa eventually met and married Anna Pascarella, and shortly thereafter they started a family that would grow to include seven sons and two daughters. Family legend holds that one day in 1908, Vitale set out walking from Manhattan to Westchester County to see where a relative had purchased some land. Twenty-six miles into his journey, he came upon a site in the country town of Elmsford where laborers were building a new, nine-hole layout for the Fairview Country Club. Drawn to the area, Vitale applied for a job, and he was hired to be a part of that construction crew. Once the course was finished, he joined the course maintenance team.
Turnesa devoted the next 52 years to Fairview, working his way up to foreman before earning the title greens superintendent for a salary of $15 per week. Years later his youngest son, Willie, told a reporter that his father never spoke about himself – he only spoke with pride about grass and his greens. He did not retire until he turned 80.
In the beginning, the young Turnesa family lived locally with relatives. That gave them the opportunity to save for a home of their own, which Vitale eventually built with his own hands with the help of relatives and friends. It was constructed in North Elmsford at the corner of Saw Mill River Road and Payne Street, less than a mile from the club. As the home of a devout Catholic family, it featured a shrine with lit candles in nearly every room.
John “J.R.” Inglis
In his association with Fairview, Turnesa soon had his oldest sons learning the caddie trade under the guidance of club professional J.R. Inglis. The club was private and the Turnesa boys were limited in their access to the course so they transformed an open field near their home into their own course and practice area. For clubs, they assembled discarded heads with broom handles. Every available non-working moment was spent at that field, often in competition with each other.
As the brothers proved their worth, Inglis began providing more attention to their games, ending with offers to serve as his assistants. It was a pattern he used with his best caddies, which eventually earned him the title as the “Knute Rocke of Golf” as he led many young caddies into the professional ranks. Counted among his protégés were the Turnesa brothers: 1928 U.S. Open champion Johnny Farrell and his brother, Jimmy; Bill Creavy and his brother, Tom, who went on to win the 1931 PGA; and 1936 U.S. Open champion Tony Manero.
Inglis became a fixture in the Metropolitan PGA Section over his 57-year career at Fairview, and his service there included 31 years as the Met Section president.
Brother No. 1: Phil
Born: 1896 – Died: 1987
The oldest of the seven Turnesa brothers was Phil, who came to the game at Fairview as a young caddie but then gave it up for a spell when he served in the U.S. Army during World War I, seeing action in Europe. He always wanted to study golf course design and agronomy and after the fighting stopped was able to attend Columbia University on the financial support of a former member who paid for his six-month course.
Turnesa’s name has been linked to the design of McGregor Links Country Club near Saratoga Springs, north of Albany, New York, though formal credit for the design is given to Devereux Emmet, another graduate of Columbia University. When brother Joe took the touring professional’s position at Elmwood Country Club in 1923, Phil agreed to become the club’s home professional, also assuming the role as its greenkeeper.
It was a perfect fit, exemplified by his 50-year tenure at Elmwood. A club professional his entire life, Phil did play some competitive golf and is officially credited with one PGA Tour title, which came in the 1932 season. Following his formal retirement from Elmwood, he continued teaching across the street at the Westchester Golf Range. He died in 1987 at the age of 91.
Brother No. 2: Frank
Born: 1898 – Died: Sept. 12, 1949
Frank was an excellent student in high school, and his mother wanted him to become a doctor. He entertained the thought and even worked for a time in a pharmacy. But without the funds for a college education, a career in golf seemed a better fit. Of the seven brothers, Frank was recognized as the family authority on the golf swing, and he developed a good reputation as an instructor.
Turnesa applied his profession at three clubs over his career: Metropolis Country Club, Briar Hills Country Club and Hasty Brook Country Club, all of which were located in the White Plains, New York, vicinity. Metropolis was an especially high-profile position in a section that featured other prominent head professionals, among them Paul Runyan, Jackie Burke Jr., Lighthorse Harry Cooper and Gene Borek.
Turnesa was recognized as a natural leader who always headed family meetings so it was an especially shocking jolt when he was stricken with cancer in his late 40s. Frank had been a heavy smoker, and when he was diagnosed with lung cancer, it was the first time any family member had suffered a serious illness.
He entered the hospital for treatment on April 7, 1949 and died just five months later at the age of 51.
Brother No. 3: Joe
Born: 1901 – Died: July 15, 1991
Over 6 feet in height, Joe was the tallest of the seven golfing brothers. He was also the most prolific champion, with 15 official PGA Tour titles and spots on two Ryder Cup teams. He, too, came into the game as a caddie at Fairview and also gained experience on the course working for his father.
His son, Joe Jr., shared a story on how his father did not let work get in the way of his practice routine, and whenever it was time for him to mow the fairways with a unit drawn by leather-shoed horses, he hid a stash of golf balls along with his favorite mashie in the nearby woods. As soon he was certain his father was out of sight, Turnesa set the horses off knowing he had trained them to walk the fairway in circles so he could hit balls while they were doing so, always timing his escapades so he would finish before his father would return to check on his progress.
Turnesa’s early commitment to practice paved his way to the PGA Tour. From 1924 through 1926, he won five tournaments beginning with the 1924 Augusta Open. In 1925 he won the Texas and Pennsylvania opens, and in 1926 the Metropolitan and Sacramento opens. While five wins will get you noticed, it was his play and near miss in the 1926 U.S. Open that propelled him to national prominence.
That year’s event, at the Scioto Country Club in Columbus, Ohio, was the first time the U.S. Open was extended from two to three days due to the growing size of the field. The first two rounds were played on Thursday and Friday followed by 36 holes on Saturday. After his Saturday morning performance, Turnesa held the lead, and he retained that position through nine holes in the afternoon portion of the tourney. But he faltered as the weather turned bad, turning in a final-round 77. All he could do at that point was sign his card and wait.
Still on the course was Bobby Jones, the reigning British Open Champion. He had started his final round three-shots behind Turnesa, and while standing at the 18th tee, he was informed that he needed a par to tie and a birdie to win outright. Jones then hit a remarkable, 310-yard drive and put his second shot on the green. He then two-putted for the win, becoming not only the U.S. Open champion but also the first ever to have won the U.S. and British opens in the same year.
It was, to say the least, a disappointing near-miss for the 28-year-old Turnesa.
The following year, Turnesa picked up three more tour victories, and in late October battled through the qualifying and early round matches to the finals of the PGA Championship, where he faced Walter Hagen, who was going for his fourth consecutive PGA title.
As a caddie and young professional, Turnesa had idolized Hagen. Now, he was up against his hero in a scheduled 36-hole final match for the Wanamaker Trophy.
A genius at gamesmanship, Hagen conceded every one of Turnesa’s putts within 3 feet during the match, until the 30th hole. From then on, Hagen was silent and so was Turnesa’s putter. The match came down to the 36th hole and a short putt by Turnesa for the tie was left dangling on the lip. It was his second close call in a major in two years.
Turnesa was challenged by his putting to the point that he began stroking the ball one-handed. He became so proficient at that technique that he won two PGA Tour events using it. As the story of his putting style goes, he began receiving mail from fans asking him to share his method. “He didn’t want people to write to him and not write them back, so finally after a short time he gave it up not to draw the extra attention. He got rid of the yips to not hire a secretary,” his son Joe Jr. recalled.
Turnesa’s biggest career win came in 1929, in the Yorkshire Evening News Tournament, which at the time was the equivalent to the British PGA title. He was the first American ever to take that event, and he did so in dramatic fashion by chipping in for eagle on the playoff hole.
As standard for tour players of the era, Turnesa held a number of club positions during his career. Among those positions were: Elmwood Country Club; Old Belleclair Golf & Country Club, Bedford Hills, New York; Alpine Country Club in Rhode Island; Rockville Links, New York; the Jungle, St. Petersburg, Florida; and Grossinger’s Hotel and Resort in Ferndale, New York.
Turnesa retired to Sarasota, Florida., in the 1970s and was associated with Sara Bay Country Club. He was drawn back into teaching after helping the club find a new head professional. On his doctor’s orders, he initially limited his schedule to one day a week. Over the next few weeks, he gradually expanded to seven days a week. One day in 1991, at age 90, he called his son Joe Jr. to pick him up because he was tired. He never returned to the club and died four months later.
In his honor, Sara Bay members established the Joe Turnesa Memorial Scholarship. Funded through an annual tournament, it has provided dozens of scholarships to benefit Sarasota Junior Golf: A fitting tribute to the caddie-turned-PGA Tour-star.
Brother No. 4: Mike
Born: June 9, 1907 – Died: Oct. 31, 2000
As was the case with his older brothers, Mike found his way to Fairview as a caddie. Learning the trade at an early age and inspired by his older brothers’ work in the game, he held two assistant’s positions, one at Metropolis Country Club and the other at Inwood Country Club, before being named playing professional at Fairview in 1931.
While a competitive tour player, Mike found he preferred a road less traveled so he spent a majority of his career as the head professional at Knollwood Country Club in his hometown of Elmsford. He started at the club in 1943, remaining their head professional until retirement 44 years later in 1987, when he was named director of golf in an honorary move. Back in 1947 his opening annual salary was $1,500 per year, and he was responsible for paying the caddie master.
Turnesa is credited with six official PGA Tour titles over his 18-year part-time competitive career. “He will always be remembered as a home pro, he never played the tour full-time,” said nephew Joe Turnesa Jr. Following in older brother Joe’s footsteps, he made three impressive runs in the majors.
The 1942 U.S. Open was canceled due to the war, but most of the top players were still out on tour when a stand-in event, The Hale America Open, was held over Chicago, Illinois’ Ridgewood Country Club layout. Turnesa went into the final round at 13 under, tied with Ben Hogan, and ended up finishing in a tie for second with Jimmy Demaret, three shots shy of the Hawk, who posted a final-round 68.
Another disappointing loss came in 1945 at the PGA Championship at Moraine Country Club near Dayton, Ohio, where brothers Joe and Jim joined him in the elite field. Qualifying into match play, he drew Byron Nelson in the second round. Not only was Nelson already a great champion, he was eight wins into his 11-tournament winning streak.
Turnesa kept it close with the record setting Nelson in their 36-hole match and was 2 up with four holes to play. But then Nelson delivered one of the strongest finishes in match play history, going birdie-birdie-eagle to go 1 up. A halve at the final hole on pars gave Nelson the narrowest of victories. “I don’t think anyone can beat him,” Turnesa told reporters.
In his third near-miss, Turnesa delivered a strong performance in the 1948 PGA Championship at Norwood Hills Country Club in St. Louis, Missouri. He qualified into the field of 64, and then had a number of close matches including the semifinals where he took 37 holes to defeat Claude Harmon. His opponent in that final was Ben Hogan, and while Turnesa fought valiantly, he fell to Hogan, who nearly missed advancing through the first round when he took 23 holes to defeat Jock Hutchison Jr. In the 36-hole final Hogan opened with a 66 in the morning round to take a 4-up lead. Although Turnesa made a brief run at Hogan early in the afternoon match, it proved to be too much when Hogan won the 28th, 29th and 30th holes for a 7-and-6 victory.
Although the victor, Hogan remarked that he thought it would be his last PGA Championship because the expanded match play format required the equivalent of 10 rounds over a five-day period; too much for the 37-year-old champion. It should be noted that Turnesa was four years senior to Hogan when they met in the finals.
Interestingly, Turnesa’s previous PGA Tour victory prior to his three close calls in the majors had come in 1941 at the Westchester Open. His last important win came at the 1949 Metropolitan PGA Championship, a non-PGA Tour tournament.
Turnesa competed in nine U.S. Opens, from his first in 1928 to his last in 1954. He played in 14 PGA Championships and joined brother Joe in the first field of the Masters in 1934, playing Augusta again in 1935 and 1949.
As good as he was on tour, Turnesa also enjoyed an outstanding run as the club professional at Knollwood. His work with his local PGA organizations earned him the Metropolitan Section Professional of the Year 1963, and their Sam Snead Award in 1986 in recognition of contributions to golf and the PGA.
When he passed away in October 2000, he was laid to rest wearing his green Knollwood blazer with a Rosary wrapped in his hands.
Brother No. 5: Doug
Born: 1909 – Died: 1972
Like older brothers Phil and Frank, Doug concentrated his career on being a club professional. He was a physically strong individual but had no interest in playing on the PGA Tour. He only occasionally competed in local tournaments. He simply loved being at his club, where he concentrated on teaching and merchandising. He was dedicated to his wife, two daughters and his life as a home professional.
One winter, Turnesa accepted an invitation from younger brother, Jimmy, to travel with him during the winter tour. Occasionally, he would fill in when a field was short players. He also loved watching and studying Sam Snead’s swing, and those experiences on the road gave him plenty of stories to share for years with the members back at his club.
Doug Turnesa served Briar Hall Country Club in Briar Cliff Manor, New York, for 24 years. He, too, was a heavy smoker, and despite pleadings from his mother after the loss of his brother, Frank, to cancer in 1949, he couldn’t shake the habit. He contracted emphysema and died in 1972. Briar Hall Country Club posted this obituary notice in The New York Times:
“The Members and Board of Governors of Briar Hall Country Club deeply regret the passing of their beloved golf pro and good friend, Doug Turnesa, who will be greatly missed by all.”
Brother No. 6: Jim
Born: Dec. 9, 1912 – Died: Aug. 27, 1971
The sixth of the Turnesa brothers, Jim, was born in 1912, the same year Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead came into this world. Jim benefitted from the influence of his five older brothers as he learned the game and ventured into the profession.
In late 1941, big brother Joe felt Jim was ready to tackle life on the PGA Tour. Although he had never played regularly on that circuit, he did make five appearances in the U.S. Open, beginning in 1937. His highest finish was T32. That same year, he won the 1937 Rhode Island Open.
At the start of the 1942 season, Joe and Jim traveled to California for the early Tour events. The younger Turnesa had just turned 29, and their trip began only weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec 7. Prior to leaving for the West Coast, he had dutifully registered for the draft. It came as a surprise when he was quickly drafted, and had to return home to begin his basic training at Fort Dix, a training and staging base located about 16 miles south of Trenton, New Jersey. Likely because of his age advantage over many of the younger recruits, he was quickly promoted to corporal.
One day in late spring, Turnesa was called into the colonel’s office to receive his next assignment, which was to represent the U.S. Army in the PGA Championship later that month at Atlantic City’s Seaview Country Club. Having not played since being enlisted and with his hands and arms overdeveloped from months of digging ditches, he tried to reason with his commanding officer that the orders did not make sense. But his superiors told him not to worry and gave him a week off to prepare.
Orders in hand, Turnesa appeared at Seaview and successfully qualified for the match-play portion of the tournament, as did his brother, Mike. In the first round, Jim defeated Dutch Harrison, 6 and 5; and next he toppled Harold “Jug” McSpaden, 1 up. Turnesa then played Hogan, and prevailed over the Hawk, 2 and 1. Jim’s semifinal opponent was Byron Nelson, and he managed to close out Lord Byron in 37 holes.
The final match could not have been better scripted by the military, as it came down to Army Cpl. Turnesa versus the Navy’s Sam Snead. The Army made sure that as many local recruits as possible were given time off to attend the tournament to cheer on their man. As it turned out, Turnesa fell to Snead, 2 and 1, when Snead chipped in from 60 feet for a birdie and the title.
Following the war, Turnesa returned to playing the PGA Tour. He earned a number of titles on and off the PGA Tour that included the 1946 Westchester PGA Championship, the 1947 North & South Open, the 1951 Reading Open and the 1952 Havana Open in Cuba. He also collected the Argentine Open in 1952 on the invitation of his good friend Roberto De Vicenzo. In 1948 he set a new U.S. Open scoring record of 280 and then sat in the clubhouse at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles, California, waiting for the balance of the field to finish.
Remarkably Jimmy Demaret came in about an hour later to set another new record at 278, shortly before Ben Hogan earned his first of four U.S. Open titles by resetting the record again at 276. Turnesa finished third on his 4-under performance earning a check of $1,000. He would finish third again the following year.
In 1952, Turnesa ended the family’s 26-year curse in the majors when he captured the PGA Championship in Louisville, Kentucky. Played at Big Springs Country Club, the event was still at match play, and he reached the finals by defeating Bob Toski, Chandler Harper, De Vicenzo, Clarence Doser and Ted Kroll. Then, Turnesa battled Chick Harbert in the 36-hole finale, and that is exactly how many holes it took to beat him. In the morning round, Turnesa fell to 3 down. But in the afternoon, he shot a 34 opening nine to help close the gap. When he birdied the 32nd hole, the match was tied. From there, it remained all square going to the 18th tee. After Harbert hooked his drive under a pine tree forcing a chip-out, Turnesa closed out the match with a par at the 18th.
The win earned him a spot on the 1953 Ryder Cup. The 10th renewal of the matches was played near London, England, at the Wentworth Club, and the U.S. captured its sixth Ryder Cup in a row, at 6½-5½ . The two-day event featured four foursomes on the first day and eight singles matches on the second. Turnesa won his only match, 1 up, over Peter Alliss, and it turned out to be the deciding match for captain Lloyd Mangrum.
In 1971, Turnesa was diagnosed with lung cancer. Severely ill in the hospital, he fell into a deep depression with only days to live. Then he received a surprise phone call from Byron Nelson that provided a bit of relief. “Somehow he knew how to get Jimmy out of his depression,” said Joe Turnesa Jr. “He helped to save him at that critical time. His old opponent and nemesis gave him the faith to face death.”
Brother No. 7: Willie
Born: Jan. 20, 1914 – Died: June 16, 2001
With all six of his older brothers golf professionals, it seemed only logical that Willie would follow in their footsteps. But they wanted to make sure he took a different path. Not because they didn’t love the game, or failed to find success, but rather because they all wanted him to have something they never attained – a college education.
The youngest Turnesa brother came of college age in the midst of the Great Depression. His brothers were surviving as golf professionals, but it was tough. To assure his brightest possible future and fulfill the dream of his parents for all their sons, the brothers combined their resources to pay his way through college at Holy Cross, a Jesuit liberal arts college in Worcester, Massachusetts.
While at Holy Cross, Turnesa rose to prominence as one of the country’s leading amateurs. He won the New England Intercollegiate Championship three times, and in doing so led his team to the New England Championship each year. He also was an NCAA medalist twice. While at Holy Cross, he also won the Westchester Amateur Tournament twice and the Metropolitan Amateur once.
Just after graduation, Turnesa entered that year’s U.S. Amateur at Oakmont. He had some previous experience in the event, but this year was to be different. “I reverted to that saying that Bobby Jones always advocated, ‘Play the course, don’t play your opponent.’ ”
He worked his way through the event into the final match against Pat Abbott, the reigning U.S. Public Links Champion. On the strength of 13 sand-saves over 29 holes, Turnesa closed out the match, 8 and 7.
Following his remarkable performance noted British golf writer Bernard Darwin coined a nickname for Turnesa: “Willie the Wedge.” It stuck for the rest of his life.
Just before entering the event, Turnesa was told he needed to add a sand wedge to his bag. Up until then, he always used his nine-iron, a practice still very typical of the era. Oakmont was adorned with over 200 bunkers, all prepped with the famous tined rake that created deep furrows. He was given a Wilson R-20 sand iron by sportswriter Lester Rice, who had received the wedge from Gene Sarazen. In fact, it was the wedge Sarazen had used to win the 1932 U.S. Open.
Over the next nine years, Turnesa grew his reputation as a great amateur, even though he served four years in the Navy during World War II, where he finished as a gunnery instructor. He moved his game to another level in 1947, gaining a place on the U.S. Walker Cup team for the first post-war matches. Played at St. Andrews, the United States posted an 8-4 victory, with Turnesa winning in both his foursomes and singles matches.
He followed up that outstanding performance with a win at the 1947 British Amateur played at Carnoustie. It marked the first time that the event was hosted at the course.
In 1948, Turnesa picked up his second U.S. Amateur title at Memphis Country Club in a rainy final, 2 and 1, over Ray Billows. Willie returned to defend his British Amateur that year but lost in the semifinals. He then went on to represent the United States in the 1949 Walker Cup and acted as the playing captain in the 1951 victory at Royal Birkdale. Following that event, he began to cut back on his national competitive schedule. By then, he was married and had two daughters.
In 1956 Turnesa had an idea to follow in the path of one of his idols, Francis Ouimet, by starting a scholarship program for caddies in the Westchester area. As a young man, he had caddied for Udo Reinach, a New York financial wizard who became a mentor, role model and later in life a close friend. Together they founded the Westchester Caddie Scholarship Fund, with Reinach seeding the program with a gift of $20,000.
Since its inception, more than 2,000 young men and women from the Westchester caddie ranks have been awarded scholarships through that fund. In 2015 alone, 279 students benefited from the fund, with $3.6 million in financial commitments being channeled to their trade schools, colleges and university programs.
Willie served golf through his outstanding role as a player, ambassador for amateur golf and as president of both the Metropolitan and New York State Golf Association. His famous wedge, played for decades, was given to the USGA Museum and is on display as a living legacy to the only Turnesa brother to not turn professional.
Willie died in a nursing home in 2001 at the age of 87.
The seven Turnesa brothers came to be regarded as “America’s Royal Family of Golf,” and they came to represent everything that is good about the game. Thank goodness for their father, Vitale, a one-time sheepherder in the countryside of Italy, and that walk of destiny he decided to take in 1908 from Manhattan into the world of golf.
Doctors of the Game – A History of the Golf Profession was self-published in September 2016 by WJD Press.
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