Buddy Alexander recently and vividly recalled a conversation he had with Bill Rogers. The scene was the Inverness Club outside of Toledo, just before the start of the 1973 U.S. Amateur Championship. Rogers and Alexander had just finished a practice round with Gary Koch and Marty West. The four were sitting on their golf bags when a short gentleman wearing shorts walked by, tufts of white hair sticking out of his Ben Hogan style cap.
“Somebody is going to get to play that old man,” said Rogers, who would win the Open Championship in 1981, to the 20-year-old Alexander, “and you have to play Andy Bean.” They were part of a field that included many young golfers on their way to pro stardom, such as Bean, Koch, Craig Stadler (who would win at Inverness), Curtis Strange, Peter Jacobsen, Jay Haas and Billy Kratzert. Alexander would win the 1986 U.S. Amateur and later coach the University of Florida golf team to two NCAA titles.
The next day, Alexander upset Bean – a future 11-time winner on the PGA Tour – in his first-round match. A couple of days later, Alexander got to play “that old man,” 60-year-old Chuck Kocsis (pronounced KO-sis).
By this stage of his life, that old man had already built a résumé on folks misjudging his non-threatening appearance. A résumé that still includes being officially considered the youngest player to ever win a professional tour event at age 18. A résumé that included NCAA team and individual titles. A résumé that included playing in Walker Cups in three different decades. A résumé that included 11 Masters tournament appearances (and a few more invitations that he declined). A résumé that had him named “Golfer of the 20th Century” in Michigan. A résumé that included beating the likes of Francis Ouimet and Tommy Armour; rounds with boxer Joe Louis; dinner with gangster Al Capone; meetings with six U.S. Presidents and aviation icon Charles Lindberg. A résumé that included surviving grave injuries from a car crash and coming back to keep winning golf tournaments four years before his idol Ben Hogan did the same thing.
This old man, Kocsis, had easily won his first two matches in that 1973 U.S. Amateur – his first appearance in 12 years. Alexander recalls that he easily drove well past the 5-foot-8 Kocsis, who fashioned his “boring” game on fairways and greens. On one par-4, Kocsis hit a driver and 3-wood short of the green but got up and down to halve the hole. Yet, despite not making a single birdie, Kocsis battled Alexander the whole match, never allowing the youngster to lead by more than one hole. Alexander only sealed the victory when he rolled in a long birdie putt on the 18th hole to win one-up.
Joe Falls of the Detroit Free Press followed the match. Kocsis told him it was his 15th and final U.S. Amateur, a tournament in which he never finished better than runner-up. That finish was in 1956. Falls wrote: “It’s over. All of it. The years of hope. The years of dreams. All ended by a 60-foot putt.” Kocsis’ reaction was to smile and casually walk over to shake Alexander’s hand and say “nice putt.” According to Falls, Alexander “merely nodded” and that Kocsis had unsuccessfully tried to engage Alexander in conversation during the match.
When told of Falls’ account, Alexander laughed, saying the putt was closer to 20 feet. “You can say 25 feet if it sounds better,” he said. He recalls having a businesslike demeanor but that he was not rude as suggested by Falls.
Of course, hyperbole was always a part of the Chuck Kocsis story, both from his account of events and the accounts of others. Regardless, Kocsis understood if Alexander was being icy. “Heck,” he told Falls before they retired for a beer, “I used to be that way myself when I was young.” He was called “the Silent King of the Links” in younger days because of the way he stayed within himself during matches.
• • •
Kocsis had played in his first U.S. Amateur 43 years earlier in 1930 at Merion, when he was 17. That was the tournament Bobby Jones won to complete his Grand Slam. Kocsis’s first-round opponent was the legendary Ouimet, winner of the 1913 U.S. Open and 1914 U.S. Amateur. Kocsis beat Ouimet, 3 and 2. Ouimet was not merely a ceremonial golfer, as he won the Amateur again the following year at age 38.
After beating Ouimet, Kocsis played his second-round match against W.F. MacPhail later the same day. Trying to be nice, the USGA official assigned to follow the match attempted to engage him in conversation. In the 2007 book, Forever Scratch: Chuck Kocsis—an Amateur for the Ages by the late Vartan Kupelian, Kocsis related that he asked the official “to please leave me alone and not to talk to me.” He blamed his ensuing loss on his inability to concentrate, though the margin (a 6 and 4 thrashing by MacPhail) suggests the kindly official had little to do with it.
Charles Kocsis’s self-assuredness, and at times chippiness, came to him early. He was born January 23, 1913, in New Castle, Pennsylvania, to Emrick and Anna Kocsis, immigrants from Hungary. Shortly after his birth, his family moved to Redford, Michigan, a small town 13 miles northwest of downtown Detroit. According to the 1920 Census, Emrick Kocsis worked as a tool grinder in an automobile factory. To supplement his income from the Ford Motor Company, Emrick started a beekeeping business that supplied honey to commercial food companies and grocery stores. Fortunately, it was profitable, as Emrick and Anna would have 14 children (nine boys and five girls).
When Chuck was 6, he was exposed to golf by his brothers Emerick and Alex (older by six and five years, respectively), who caddied at the Redford Golf Club and gave him his first clubs. All the Kocsis boys developed an interest in golf to varying degrees. Insofar as Hungary was not then (nor is now) a hotbed of golf, their interest in the game was sparked by Emerick, who became a professional and played in the 1929 U.S. Open and 1939 PGA Championship, where he lost to Byron Nelson in the quarterfinals. After that match, Nelson told the press Emerick “had more golf sense than anyone I have ever played with.” His oldest brother’s shortcoming, according to Chuck, was a Tommy Bolt-like temper. A younger Kocsis brother, Sam, would win the 1955 U.S. Public Links championship.
Chuck fashioned his swing after his older brother and as a teenager he honed it by mimicking Al Watrous, the longtime professional at Oakland Hills who was runner-up to Bobby Jones at the 1926 British Open. “He would play with me, which I enjoyed very much because he had a good swing and I was kind of a copycat,” Kocsis once told Golfweek. “He helped me a great deal.”
Chuck Kocsis became a wunderkind. His first win was in 1923, at age 10, when he shot 85 in a junior tournament in Detroit. He won Michigan state high school championships in 1928 and 1929. In 1930, while still in high school, he won the first of six Michigan Amateur championships – still the youngest to ever win it. He also had time to work as a stringer for the Detroit Free Press, reporting on school sports, in addition to driving the family truck laden with honey to farmer’s markets in Detroit. Kocsis joked that all family childhood photographs of him and his siblings showed them with swollen faces from bee stings.
Right after he graduated from high school, Kocsis faced Tommy Armour in a playoff for the 1931 Michigan Open at Cascade Hills Country Club in Grand Rapids. Armour was fresh off his win in the Open Championship at Carnoustie two months prior. He forced the playoff by sinking a lengthy putt on the 18th hole.
Kocsis previously had an unpleasant incident with Armour during a 1930 pro-am tournament in Michigan, where Chuck and Emerick were paired with Armour and his partner. Chuck’s initial excitement to be playing with Armour quickly was dissipated by the Scotsman’s sour disposition during the round. In the clubhouse afterwards, Armour gratuitously told Kocsis that he must be color-blind because his clothes did not match. Kocsis took this as an insult and replied that he did not agree and that the remark was uncalled for. According to Kocsis, just when the exchange appeared to be escalating, another man intervened and threatened to punch Armour in the mouth if he did not leave the teenager alone.
Kocsis got his revenge the next year. According to an account by John Gleason in Golf Journal of the 1931 Michigan Open 18-hole playoff, Armour was nowhere to be seen at the appointed time of 11 a.m. When he finally arrived around noon, Emerick – who was caddying for his brother – suggested that Chuck greet Armour and then retire to the clubhouse. When an official came in and said that Armour was waiting to play, Kocsis responded, “Please go back and tell Tommy he should be disqualified. He did not call or even say hello. I should be permitted to rest before the playoff.”
Kocsis eventually came out and beat the Silver Scot, who stalked off the 18th green without congratulating him. Kocsis later said beating Armour was the biggest thrill of his career. “He was a miserable guy,” Kocsis said. “One of the worst I knew.” At the time, Kocsis was 18 years, 6 months, and 9 days – for which the PGA Tour recognizes him as its youngest tournament winner ever in the legacy event.
• • •
Kocsis was a good student and earned a scholarship to play at the University of Michigan. Every NCAA title since the inception of intercollegiate golf in 1897 had been won by an Ivy League school. Kocsis helped put an end to the era of blueblood dominance, leading the Wolverines to NCAA team titles in 1934 and 1935. He won the individual title himself in 1936.
While in college, Kocsis also won his second and third Michigan Amateur titles and made it to the quarterfinals of the 1935 U.S. Amateur before losing to Johnny Goodman. In 1936, he was low amateur at the U.S. Open at Baltusrol, finishing tied for 14th. The following year, playing at Oakland Hills near his home, he tied for ninth at the Open (one spot behind Goodman). He also played in the Masters in 1937 and ’38.
These accomplishments earned Kocsis a spot on the 1938 Walker Cup team. The United States had won the first nine competitions, usually by a wide margin, most recently in 1936 at Pine Valley by the count of 9-0-3. The continued viability of the Walker Cup was in question at the time. John Beck, captain of the Great Britain and Ireland team, was set on assembling a team capable of putting up a fight. He gathered 24 candidates at St. Andrews (site of the competition) a month prior for a series of matches to evaluate and select his team before releasing them to play in the British Amateur at Troon. En route to St. Andrews, Kocsis competed in his only Amateur Championship and beat teammate Goodman in an early round match at Troon before losing in the fifth round of 16.
Kocsis’ Walker Cup baptism was a 36-hole foursomes match that provided one of the most controversial moments in Walker Cup history.
At the Old Course, the Americans were once again heavily favored. In addition to Goodman (the defending U.S. Amateur champion who also won the 1933 U.S. Open), the team included three other veterans from the whitewashing at Pine Valley – Charlie Yates (the Amateur winner at Troon), Johnny Fischer (Kocsis’ teammate at Michigan) and Reynolds Smith. Notwithstanding Beck’s efforts, the Great Britain and Ireland team lacked a similar pedigree.
Kocsis’ Walker Cup baptism was a 36-hole foursomes match that provided one of the most controversial moments in Walker Cup history. He was paired with his Michigan teammate, Fischer, against Harry Bentley of England and Jimmy Bruen, an 18-year-old Irishman. An estimated 12,000 fans reportedly turned out on a cold and windy day at St. Andrews. The Americans were three up after 20 holes when Kocsis put his approach to the third hole to 6 feet. Bruen lagged a long birdie try to within tap-in range.
That’s when the problem started. When Fischer’s birdie putt lipped out, he inexplicably tapped in his missed putt, which Kocsis was required to do under the rules of the alternate shot format. As related by Kocsis in Forever Scratch, Bruen yelled, “We win the hole. I didn’t concede that putt. It was not your turn to putt.” In Kocsis’s retelling decades later, the American referee ruled that Bentley-Bruen won the hole and the large Scottish gallery dropped their partisanship and booed Bruen. He also said that later during the match, the Duke of Windsor approached Kocsis and Fischer from the gallery and shook their hands. “I am very sorry for the poor sportsmanship on our team,” he said, according to Kocsis.
Except it did not happen exactly that way. According to a contemporary account in The Guardian, Bentley attempted to stop Fischer as he was about to tap in his missed putt but could not intervene in time. In his book The Story of American Golf, Herbert Warren Wind wrote that Bruen did, in fact, demand that the hole be called for his team, but was overruled by his partner Bentley, who told Bruen and the referee that he already had conceded the putt. The result was that the hole was halved. In the gallery, the Duke of Kent was heard to say “Hear, hear!” as he vigorously applauded Bentley’s sportsmanship. As for the Duke of Windsor, he and the Duchess of Windsor (Wallis Simpson) were in France celebrating their first anniversary and not in St. Andrews.
Bentley and Bruen rallied late, and the match ended all square, to the disappointment of the gallery who believed the home side should have won. However, Britain and Ireland won two of the three other foursomes matches to lead 2-1-1. The following day, Kocsis played former coal miner Charles Stowe of England in a singles match. Helped by two stymies, Stowe won 2 and 1, as the GB&I team took the Walker Cup for the first time, 7-4-1. It was the last competition before World War II, but it was resumed in 1947. Thus, it can be said that Kocsis’ 0-1-1 record contributed in helping save the Walker Cup from extinction.
Not long after, Kocsis decided to turn pro. He left his job at Chrysler, where he was working as a sales representative, following a disagreement over money. According to Kocsis, at the 1940 Masters, after a practice round, he encountered Bobby Jones, Clifford Roberts, Walter Hagen and Ed Dudley, the head pro at Augusta National and future president of the PGA of America, who were having a drink in the clubhouse. Dudley told Kocsis he heard he was turning pro and questioned why, saying there was no money to be made as a professional. It upset Kocsis that Dudley was not welcoming. “You are not a good ambassador for the PGA and in my opinion unfit to be president,” Kocsis said. Per Kocsis, Hagen got up and shook his hand and said, “Chuck, you are 100 percent right. Ed was out of order.”
Recently married to Dolores Delaney, with whom he would have four children, Kocsis soon learned that Dudley was right, that there was no money to be made as a pro. After the U.S. declared war on the Axis nations, most tour events were cancelled. He played in a handful of events in Colorado, Arizona and California, usually finishing in the money. “But they never paid me,” Kocsis said. “They were a tight bunch then.”
Kocsis found work as an auto parts manufacturing agent, through which he qualified for an occupational deferment from military service. He applied for reinstatement as an amateur and the USGA granted his request immediately. Kocsis continued selling auto parts until he retired, and he remained an amateur for the rest of his life.
• • •
Kocsis never smoked and drank only occasionally. In November 1945, he went on an elk hunting trip to a remote part of Montana. Before the drive back to Great Falls, his companions consumed numerous alcoholic beverages, but not Kocsis. He pleaded to be allowed to drive, but was rebuffed, even after the driver almost crashed before getting to the highway. Kocsis sat in the front seat between his two friends. Predictably, there was a crash halfway to Great Falls. The car rolled over, breaking Kocsis’ back as he was thrown from the vehicle. After a few days in a local hospital, he returned to Detroit and underwent emergency surgery, in which bone from his right shin was grafted to fuse the lower vertebrae and stabilize his spine. He was in traction for weeks and doctors told him he might never play golf again.
Foreshadowing a similar tale by Ben Hogan four years later, Kocsis returned to competitive golf only six months after his accident, recovering in time to successfully defend his Michigan Open title in 1946. He won his fifth Michigan Amateur title in 1948.
In 1949, he was named to his second Walker Cup team. In the 1947 edition, the U.S. had restored normal order in the first edition since the 1938 debacle, winning 8-4 this time at St. Andrews. At Winged Foot in 1949, Kocsis gained some revenge against Jimmy Bruen when, with Frank Stranahan as a partner, they beat Bruen and Max McCready in a foursome match. He also won his singles match in the American’s 10-2 rout.
“Golf to me was just a game. I never aspired to be a national champion or anything. If I won, fine. I just loved to play.” – Chuck Kocsis
Kocsis was a fierce competitor, but at the same time he seemed to lack the driving ambition to succeed at the highest level. “Golf to me was just a game,” he was quoted in Forever Scratch. ”I never aspired to be a national champion or anything. If I won, fine. I just loved to play.” Some years, he skipped the U.S. Amateur in favor of playing in a tournament closer to his Michigan home, and he declined several invitations to play in the Masters because he could not fit it in with his work schedule. He played in just the one British Amateur in 1938 and never in the Open Championship. Kocsis was a pure amateur, who said before leaving for a tournament he always made sure he had enough money for the return trip home.
He played in the 1952 Masters, when he was 39, and was paired in the first round with Bob Toski, a 25-year-old professional. Toski later became renowned as an instructor, but at the time his accomplishments were limited. Nevertheless, according to Kocsis, on the first tee Toski said, loud enough that the gallery could hear, “that he, Toski, should be playing with Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, or one of the players of that order,” and further that “amateurs shouldn’t even be allowed in the tournament.” Kocsis shot 75; Toski 80. He learned after the round that one of his Detroit friends in the gallery, upon hearing Toski’s tactless statement, approached Toski and bet $600 that Kocsis would beat him. Kocsis would finish tied for 14th and collected the silver cup as low amateur while Toski tied for 40th, 10 shots behind him.
In 1956, at age 43 with his shin bone still connected to his back bone, Kocsis went to the Knollwood Club outside of Chicago for the U.S. Amateur, with little training or preparation. “I went to the National just to play a little golf with little thought of the title,” he later said. “And I got to the finals more relaxed than I ever had been in a major tournament.” Along the way, Kocsis defeated Richard Chapman, Rex Baxter and Dale Morey, all successful amateurs. In the semifinal, he beat Canadian Jerry Magee 4 and 2 to advance to the 36-hole final against defending champion E. Harvie Ward.
After 20 holes, Kocsis led Ward 2 up despite missing an 18-inch putt on the 17th hole. However, Ward – 13 years younger – played the next 11 holes in 5-under to win the championship, 5 and 4. Herbert Warren Wind hailed Ward’s newly found “killer instinct” in the pages of Sports Illustrated, while admiring the older Kocsis as “a very good example of the longevity a basically good swinger possesses.”
“He made every putt he could see,” Kocsis later said. “He made two 30-footers. But that’s what happens.” It was the closest Kocsis came to winning the Havemeyer Trophy, though in 1958 he advanced to the quarterfinals before losing to Tommy Aaron.
Kocsis’s overall record in U.S. Amateur matches was 37-15, a winning percentage of 71 percent. Nevertheless, he expressed an aversion to match play because he did not believe it to be a true measure of the best golfer in a tournament. He ceased playing in the Michigan Amateur after winning it for the sixth time in 1951 and founded the Michigan Medal Play Championship – an amateur event – and won it all six times he entered, the last time in 1962 at age 49.
• • •
In 1957, Kocsis played in the Walker Cup for the third and last time at the Minikahda Club near Minneapolis, Minnesota, but did not contribute to the Americans’ 8-3-1 victory. He lost his only match (in foursomes play with Arnold Blum), ending his Walker Cup career with a record of 2-2-1. Kocsis is one of only six Americans to play in a Walker Cup in three different decades, joining William Campbell, Charles Coe, David Eger, William Hyndman and Jay Sigel. The 19-year span between his first appearance in 1938 and his last in 1957 is exceeded only by Campbell’s 24 years (1951-1975).
The most decorated golfer from Michigan accomplished everything without much flash. Venerated Detroit golf writer (and fellow Michigan Golf Hall of Famer) Jack Berry once wrote of Kocsis: “As well as being Michigan’s greatest golfer he also was Michigan’s Most Unassuming Champion. Actually, he was something of a boring golfer. He wasn’t a Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson, hitting shots out of the woods. Or Seve Ballesteros, hitting from the car park. Or Arnold Palmer, slashing and crashing. Chuck played a game unfamiliar to most folks, and one we’d sell our souls for — fairways and greens, like a metronome.”
Byron Nelson concurred. Nelson faced Kocsis in a match at his hometown Red Run Golf Club in Royal Oak, Michigan, and trailed the Michigander 34-32 at the turn. Promising “no amateur is going to beat me,” Nelson shot 30 on the back to win the match by two strokes. “He had a wonderful, repeatable rhythmic swing that always looked effortless,” Nelson said of Kocsis.
By his own admission, Kocsis never drove the ball far enough to consistently beat the best in the world, or to succeed as a professional, but he drove it straight and excelled on and around the green. To him, practice was the key to his exceptional short game, but he also had exotic technical theories that pre-dated Bryson DeChambeau. In Forever Scratch, Kocsis claimed that “a ball must be stroked with a more pronounced degree of force when pitching or putting in a northerly direction than in a southerly direction” due to “the centrifugal force caused by the motion of the earth.” Similarly, he believed it “also necessary to regulate the force applied to a golf ball by studying the position of the sun and the moon before attempting to pitch or putt with accuracy” due to the “gravitational attraction of the sun and moon.”
Even with celestial calculations he would make during a round, Kocsis played at a quick pace. Late in his career, it made him angry to see players like Jack Nicklaus walk far ahead of a ball to survey the next shot. He calculated that, before he started riding golf carts in 1980 when he was 67, he had walked 31,000 miles on the golf course. He believed his serious and quiet demeanor is why the laconic Ben Hogan asked him to play practice rounds at the Masters on several occasions. Although intense, he was not temperamental like his brother Emerick. Off the course, Kocsis usually was congenial.
Long after he ceased playing in tournaments with young players, Kocsis continued to excel in senior competitions. He won the International Seniors Amateur Championship four times, the first time in 1970 by an unfathomable 21 shots over four rounds, and the final time at Gleneagles, Scotland, in 1988 when he was 75. This was 65 years after winning his first championship as a boy. Thus, Kocsis won reputable tournaments in seven decades, from the 1920s through the 1980s. In 1997, at age 84, he shot a 73 at Red Run. He continued to play until shortly before his death on May 30, 2006, at age 93.
“He was one of the more underrated amateurs ever,” Buddy Alexander said of “that old man” he barely beat at age 60.
Scott Michaux contributed to this report
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