From 1949 to 1957, one event drew the best players from around the globe. Its field was better than the U.S. Open, the Open Championship, the PGA Championship and in some years the Masters. The purse was many times that of any other tournament.
It was called the World Championship of Golf – no relation to the current World Golf Championship events or the World Series of Golf, which went through many iterations two decades later. Today, the WCG is as little remembered as long-gone Tam O’Shanter, the posh club outside Chicago where it was held. But in its day, the event was part of an annual two-week golf pageant, as impressive then as it is unimaginable today.
At the 1954 WCG, Jack Burke Jr. finished tied for second to Bob Toski and took home $7,500, three times more than Burke earned in any of the 10 tour events he had won up to that time. In 1956, Burke would win both the Masters and the PGA Championship, and he is a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Reached at the Champions Golf Club in Houston – which he co-founded with three-time Masters winner Jimmy Demaret in 1957 – the nearly 99-year-old Burke dismissed the notion that the WGC was on par with the majors. “No. No. No,” he said. “There wasn’t anything to it. It was just another event. George May’s business was something else. I don’t know why he put it on.”
The man Burke refers to is George Storr May, who was responsible for the audacious effort at establishing an annual world championship for golf. Although he ultimately failed, in the process May introduced golf as a spectator sport for the masses, and was responsible for innovations to tournament golf long taken for granted.
May was an enigmatic figure, equal part huckster and visionary. He was born in 1890 on a farm in Windsor, Illinois, and graduated from what became Illinois State University. May started out as a door-to-door Bible salesman, following the trail of legendary evangelist Billy Sunday. In 1925, he founded one of the first business management consulting firms, the George S. May Company, that centered on problem-solving and productivity. The Chicago business became very profitable during the Roaring Twenties and survived the 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression.
At some point May caught the golf bug, though there is scant record of the extent to which he played the game himself, or how well. To say May had hubris would be an understatement. He was a “short man who walked with the head-high, shoulder-back erectness of those who carry a well-fed but not much exercised stomach,” wrote journalist Al Barkow. “He always seemed to have a kittenish smile on his face, a little like someone who had pulled a fast one on the world.”
May joined Tam O’Shanter in Niles, Illinois, a suburb north of Chicago, when the club opened in 1926. Tam O’Shanter had no pretensions about exclusivity. The only requirement for membership was the ability to pay dues. “The elite of Chicago’s Mafia were an integral, visible, part of the scene at ‘Tammy O,’ some playing golf at the club under assumed, anglicized names,” Barkow wrote.
After a 1936 fire that destroyed the Tam O’Shanter clubhouse and a 1938 flood that damaged the course, May took over the place. He invested more than $500,000 to rebuild the clubhouse and redesign the golf course into a world-class facility. “The Tam O’Shanter clubhouse was a vast concrete-and-glass, triple-decker building with a sprawling dining room overlooking the course and a one-hundred-foot-high water tank in the form of a golf ball atop a red tee,” wrote John Coyne. “At the height of its operation, the club had thirteen bars and telephones on every tee for the convenience of the members.”
May convinced the Chicago Golf District to hold the 1940 Chicago Open at Tam O’Shanter. Dick Metz won the tournament by one stroke over Ben Hogan and Johnny Revolta, and took home $1,500 from the $5,000 purse, the going rate at the time. For the first time in its history, the tournament turned a profit. His appetite whetted, and at suggestion of Charles Bartlett (golf editor of The Chicago Tribune), May held his own tournament, the Tam O’Shanter Open, in 1941.
May saw golf as his ticket to even greater wealth and, more importantly to him, respectability. He had attended the 1940 U.S. Open at the Canterbury Country Club near Cleveland and was disturbed that tickets cost $3.30. He set the entry fee at $1.00 for his tournament, and drew an astonishing 23,000 fans for the final round. Byron Nelson won the first of his four victories at Tam O’Shanter.
In 1942, the United States Golf Association canceled its Open and Amateur championships for the duration of World War II. May happily stepped into the void, re-naming his event the Tam O’Shanter National Open, upping the total prize money to $15,000, and instituting the All-American Amateur tournament.
In advance of the 1942 Tam O’Shanter tournaments, May was contacted by Benjamin Grant, an African American Chicago alderman, who asked whether Black players would be welcome. May replied, “the words National and All-American in the titles meant exactly what they implied,” and that “the two tournaments would be open to any American who is willing and able to qualify under the rules of competition laid down for all participants.” Black golf pioneers Ted Rhodes, Howard Wheeler and Charlie Sifford would play in Tam O’Shanter events, as did boxer Joe Louis, at a time when Black golfers were excluded from almost all tournaments.
As a precursor to problems with players and the golf establishment that would dog May, at the 1942 event, players were unhappy to learn that they were required to wear numbers on their backs so spectators could identify them from the programs. Joe Kirkwood, who was better-known as a trick-shot artist but who was in eighth place after 36 holes, refused and was disqualified. “I’ve been playing golf for 25 years and I don’t propose to start plastering a number on my back at this time,” he said. “I offered to put the number on my caddie or my golf bag, but under no circumstances on my back.”
Eventually, of course, caddies would wear identifying numbers on their bibs, and continue to do so today.
Other players threatened to withdraw until learning that May and the PGA had agreed the players would wear the numbers, partly in return for 15 percent of the tournament proceeds going to a World War II-related charity. In the end, only Tommy Armour joined Kirkwood in withdrawing, though Ben Hogan mildly protested by placing his number 77 loosely over his belt.
In 1943, May re-christened his tournament the All-American Open. Harold “Jug” McSpaden won. In October, May sponsored a 36-hole match at Tam O’Shanter between McSpaden and Sam Byrd, winner of the Chicago Victory National Open. May cheekily called the exhibition the “world championship.” May held similar 36-hole events, with limited fields, on the tail of the All-American, through 1948. He also hosted exhibition matches pitting the likes of Bob Hope against Bing Crosby.
In 1948, Lloyd Mangrum swept both the All-American and the “world championship” and took home a total of $23,500.
By then May was drawing the ire of the United States Golf Association. In 1943, he offered $1,000 in war bonds to amateurs, more than 10 times the amount approved by the USGA. May founded the American Golf Foundation, which he described as “a non-profit organization devoted to the interests of golf,” a direct challenge to the USGA’s authority. In July 1944, golf writer and Bobby Jones confidant O.B. Keeler wrote a scorching piece published in Esquire warning that May aspired to take over the business of competitive golf.
For the 1944 edition of the All-American, May raised the purse to an astounding $42,500. Byron Nelson won a Tam O’Shanter tournament for the third time, earning $13,462.50 in war bonds, and in 1945 won again during his record streak of 11 wins in a row and 19 for the year.
At the 1946 All-American, May pulled a stunt that showed the extent to which he would stoop to attract publicity and crowds – and stick it to golf’s bluebloods. He employed a “Masked Marvel” to compete and offered a prize to any spectator who could identify him (subsequently revealed to be Canadian Bob Gray, who shot 301, 21 strokes behind winner Herman Barron).
In 1949, May’s golf circus really took off, with seven tournaments over 10 days for men and women, professionals and amateurs. The All-American tournament offered $20,000, followed by a 72-hole “World Championship of Golf” with an enlarged field and a $35,000 purse. Those who made the cut in the All-American qualified for the WCG.
(Players) resented having to wear numbers on their backs, having to compete against a Masked Marvel, seeing circus clowns wandering the course, and spectators setting up picnics in the middle of the fairway, …
Don Fairfield was then a 19-year-old aspiring pro from downstate Illinois. “I was young and playing halfway decent,” he recalls. “I found out if you wanted to play, you could play. I think it was a $20 entry fee. I was paired with a fellow named Herb Deeson. He didn’t come close to breaking 80. Maybe 85 or 90. He was just out there messing around.” Fairfield made the cut but was unable to stay for the WCG because he was broke. “I played four rounds and was out of the money,” he recalls. “I wasn’t planning on being there more than one or two days.”
Johnny Palmer came out on top at the 1949 WCG, earning $10,000. Babe Didrikson Zaharias won the Women’s WCG, one of her eight victories at Tam O’Shanter. Showing there were limits to May’s willingness to break barriers, Zaharias took home only $1,000. William C. Campbell, who would come to epitomize establishment golf, won the Amateur WCG.
May was not above paying appearance fees, which were allowed at the time. In 1951, he paid current U.S. Open and Masters champion Ben Hogan (who had won the event in 1947) a sizable sum to appear and promised an additional $1,000 if Hogan committed to appear again in 1952. Hogan won in 1951, taking home $12,500. After a disagreement over appearance money (it has been reported alternatively that May reneged on his promise or that Hogan upped his demand to $10,000), Hogan did not return in 1952 and never played at Tam O’Shanter again. May also offered the winner of the WCG the opportunity to earn an additional $50,000 by playing up to 50 exhibitions at $1,000 a pop.
In an effort to create the aura of a world championship, May paid the travel expenses of the best international players. This enticed players like Peter Thomson and Norman Von Nida of Australia, Roberto De Vicenzo and Antonio Cerda of Argentina, and Bobby Locke and a young Gary Player of South Africa, to play at Tam O’Shanter, some of whom rarely, or ever, played in the U.S. Open or PGA Championship, or accepted invitations to play in the Masters.
In 1953, at May’s prodding, the WCG was the first golf tournament to be nationally televised, by the American Broadcasting Company. An estimated 646,000 sets were tuned in. There was a fixed camera behind the 18th green. Viewers saw Chandler Harper hit a sensational wedge to within a foot for a tap-in birdie to give him a one-shot advantage.
Then, moments before the broadcast would have ended, Lew Worsham holed a 104-yard wedge for an eagle to snatch the victory. Jimmy Demaret, doing commentary for ABC, reportedly said, “It’s rolling towards the cup … Well, I’ll be damned!” Undoubtedly, some viewers unfamiliar with golf came away thinking such dramatic finishes were the norm. In fact, it would be another 30 years, when Isao Aoki holed out for an eagle on the 772nd hole of the 1983 Hawaiian Open, before Worsham’s feat was replicated on live television.
By 1956, WCG purses had increased to $101,200 for the men and $15,000 for the women. A reported 61,000 fans attended on Sunday to see Ted Kroll win, earning $50,000. Marlene Hagge took home $6,000 after winning the Women’s WCG. In 1957, Dick Mayer won, also earning $50,000. Sam Snead and Al Balding tied for second and took $7,500 (more than the $7,200 Mayer pocketed for winning the U.S. Open at Inverness earlier in the year).
Fairfield played in later editions, tying for 13th in 1956. “It was a better golf tournament than any of the tournaments we were playing,” he said. “[George May] was really ahead of his time as far as promotion.”
In many ways May was a visionary. In addition to being the first tournament sponsor to see the promise of televised golf, he was the first to use grandstands, and the first to place scoreboards showing up-to-minute scores, transmitted from around the course by short-wave radio. He introduced golf to the masses, drawing crowds that are seldom seen even today.
On March 31, 1958, May announced he was pulling the plug. The PGA had demanded that May turn over the player entry fees to them, that May pay guarantees to the top 10 finishers from the previous year’s tournament, and that he abolish the practice of making the players wear numbers. May had been receiving entry fees himself and applying them towards the purse and tournament costs. May refused. “But I’ll resume in 1959 if they’ll let me write my own ticket,” he said.
The PGA never did. Today, it is hard to fathom that the WCG went away with as little outcry from the players as it did. In 1957, the Tam O’Shanter tournaments awarded four times as much money as any other event on the men’s tour. By comparison, the winner of the Tournament of Champions, which had the second largest payout, received $10,000, one-fifth of what the WCG winner took home.
The fact that the PGA and the players left so much money on the table says volumes about what little regard they had for May. “We players have long felt we shouldn’t have to pay to play anyhow,” Burke said in 1958. “It was like an actor having to pay to make an appearance on the stage. We are the show.” Sixty-three years later, Burke says May’s money never was a factor for him. “Dollars are worthless until you spend them,” he says.
The pros were more than willing to take May’s money, but only up to a point. They resented having to wear numbers on their backs, having to compete against a Masked Marvel, seeing circus clowns wandering the course, and spectators setting up picnics in the middle of the fairway, then having to rub shoulders with them at the Tam O’Shanter clubhouse into the evening while the patrons gambled on the club’s slot machines and danced. The pros had enough pride not to be reduced to sideshow attractions.
By the end of his life, May had a sign in front of Tam O’Shanter stating that no PGA pros were allowed on his golf course. He died in 1962 at age 71. In 1965, his family sold the club to developers, who turned most of the land into an industrial park. Eventually, a nine-hole public course opened on about one-third of the land. The once-opulent clubhouse burned down long ago.
Nowhere in history books is it written that Ben Hogan was the 1951 world champion. Players, fans and writers are fine with honoring winners of four majors every year (and the winners of the FedEx Cup and Race to Dubai if they wish). Having a No. 1 in the Official World Golf Rankings, which can change by the week, more than suffices to indicate the best in the world.
Golf does not now, and never did, need a World Champion. With all due respect to the R&A, everybody knows that “the Champion Golfer of the Year” is no more than the latest winner of the Open Championship. But for his successful efforts to bring the game to a larger audience, we can be thankful to George S. May for trying.
Top: Lloyd Mangrum with George May at the 1948 All-American Open. Photo PGA of America via Getty Images
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