When listing the legendary Texans who have left indelible marks on the game, Lloyd Mangrum’s name doesn’t carry the same weight as that of Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson or Jimmy Demaret.
Perhaps it is because he never won the Masters. Mangrum finished in the top 10 at Augusta National 12 times and was runner-up in 1940 and 1949. Or maybe it is because Hogan, Nelson and Demaret overshadowed him and received most of the press during an era in which the written word contributed greatly to a player’s lore. And while the image of Hogan striking his famous 1-iron approach shot at Merion in the 1950 U.S. Open is instantly familiar for most of us, Mangrum – who lost to Hogan in a playoff that week – doesn’t hold the same place in our minds.
The late Los Angeles Times writer Jim Murray dubbed Mangrum the “forgotten man of golf,” a fitting description for one of the best players we rarely recognize like we should. But as Veteran’s Day approaches in the United States, it’s an appropriate time to celebrate Mangrum as more than just a 36-time PGA Tour winner and a U.S. Open champion.
He was also a war hero.
Born on Aug. 1, 1914 in Trenton, Texas, Mangrum began in the game as a caddie at the Stevens Park municipal course in Dallas. A small creek ran behind his family’s house where he and his brother, Ray, fashioned a green on the opposite bank so they could hold pitching contests with a rusty old mashie someone had discarded years earlier. As he and his brother both became more serious about golf, the two moved to Los Angeles, California, where Mangrum, just 14 years old, caddied and practiced heavily in his attempt to become a professional golfer. At the same time, Ray – who would go on to win five PGA Tour titles himself while enjoying a long career as a club professional – got his start in the business.
After years of refining his game and working odd jobs to get through the depression – driving a taxi, singing in clubs and working as a bouncer among them – Mangrum earned his way onto the professional tour and tried a full circuit schedule in 1937. That season ended with him being broke and 2,000 miles from home. By the time he returned to California, he had $1.90 in his pocket and next to no prospects for continuing in the game.
Undeterred, Mangrum hustled money matches at home and quickly earned enough to give professional golf another shot. This time it worked, and Mangrum made a name for himself both with his game and the way he carried himself on the course. Noticeable by this thin mustache, snappy attire and a cigarette always between his lips, he became known for his steely demeanor and sure-handed putting stroke, both of which led competitors to nickname him, “Mr. Icicle.”
Before World War II, Mangrum won five times on the PGA Tour, shot an Augusta National course-record 64 that wouldn’t be equalled for 46 years and was ranked behind only Hogan, Nelson and Sam Snead. While he was called away to war at age 28, it would not have been unusual for an emerging player of his stature to accept a relatively cushy position stateside and avoid the harrowing scene abroad.
However, when Mangrum was offered the assignment of being a golf professional at Fort Meade Golf Course in Maryland, he refused the position and soon began training for the D-Day invasion. In Normandy, France, Mangrum’s jeep overturned and his arm was broken in two places. Following a brief rehab stint, Mangrum returned to combat in the Battle of the Bulge where some 19,000 soldiers lost their lives. As a corporal in an infantry reconnaissance unit with General George S. Patton’s Third Army, he suffered shrapnel wounds on the knee and on the chin.
Mangrum was one of only two soldiers from his original unit to survive the war, returning home with two Purple Heart medals and four meritorious battle stars. Having seen battle for his country, golf took on a different meaning. If anything could tell of the sorrow Mangrum faced on duty, it is the story of a torn $1 bill that remains in the World Golf Hall of Fame to this day: Before landing at Normandy, Mangrum ripped the bill in half and gave the other half to his best friend, Robert Green, with the hope the two would reunite and put it back together.
Green was killed moments later. Mangrum carried the torn bill with him every day for the rest of his life.
“I don’t suppose that any of the pro and amateur golfers who were combat soldiers, Marines or sailors will soon be able to think of a three-putt green as one of the really bad troubles in life,” Mangrum famously said.
It’s a fact somehow tucked away in golf history, but Mangrum won the 1946 U.S. Open at Canterbury Golf Club in Cleveland just six months after returning from duty. Competing against Nelson and Vic Ghezzi in a 36-hole playoff, Mangrum maintained his composure in a driving rain storm and made a 7-foot par putt on the final hole to win his only major championship.
“It was the greatest demonstration of courage I ever saw on a golf course,” two-time U.S. Amateur champion Bud Ward said. “Mangrum wasn’t given a chance in the playoff. He needed a tricky 7-foot putt on a drenched green to win. He didn’t even hesitate, just stepped up like nothing was at stake and banged it in.”
Imagine winning your country’s national championship almost immediately after three years as a World War II soldier. If the phrase “battling down the stretch” were ever warranted at a golf event, it would be then.
Although he never earned another major victory, Mangrum won two Vardon Trophies, played on four Ryder Cup teams and won four Los Angeles Opens. Only 12 men have won more PGA Tour titles, even though Mangrum lost several years of his prime to war efforts and spent extensive time competing overseas in exhibitions. At a time when tour players needed a side gig to make ends meet, Mangrum found a way to make more than enough money from golf alone. A Time magazine article from January 1953 estimated that Mangrum earned more than $300,000 in the preceding five years and traveled 80,000 miles a year in an effort to make as much as he could in different tournaments.
For all he accomplished on the course, it was evident that Mangrum’s war experience had a negative effect on him. He seldom gave interviews or signed autographs, coming across both to competitors and observers as condescending. Snead remembers sitting with him at a restaurant once when Mangrum accidentally tripped someone walking past. When the man became upset, Mangrum picked up a sugar bowl and slammed it into the man’s face, causing quite a scene.
“Some of us weren’t sure he was quite right mentally because of what he went through in the war,” Snead admitted after Mangrum’s death.
Mangrum suffered 12 heart attacks in his life, the last one killing him at the age of 59. Had he lived another couple of decades and introduced himself to a new generation, Mangrum’s legend may have grown like Hogan’s or Snead’s. Rather, when Nelson walked the range at the 1996 Masters asking young players if they had heard of Mangrum, not one knew of him.
“Lloyd’s the best player who’s been forgotten since I’ve been playing golf,” Nelson lamented.
Those who faced him remember. And so, too, should the golf world, celebrating one of the game’s greatest war heroes.
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