Ex-Mountaineer Krak Once a PGA Tour Regular
Mike Krak came to West Virginia University in 1946 hoping to become the next Scotty Hamilton as a member of the Mountaineer basketball team. He left in 1948 as perhaps the best golfer in school history.
Who you consider to be WVU’s best golfer is strictly a matter of preference – some will say longtime New England club professional Tony Morosco, while others will point to Morgantown native and successful Florida club pro Adolph Popp – but neither of those guys played as long nor as successfully on the PGA Tour as Krak, a Czechoslovakia native who grew up in Weirton, W.Va.
“I came to Weirton when I was four years old and could not speak a word of English and was living right next to the grade school,” recalled Krak, now 85, from his home in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. “My next door neighbor was an assistant to the principal and she thought I was supposed to start school, so she took me in there, registered me, and I started school right then. I graduated from West Virginia University on my 20th birthday.”
Krak came to WVU hoping to play for legendary basketball coach Lee Patton, but he discovered quickly that he was spinning his wheels on a team loaded with such star players as Leland Byrd, Fred Schaus and Clyde “Hard Times” Green.
“I was only like 5’11 and those guys were killing me,” Krak laughed. “Well, one day I went out to play a round of golf and I bumped into this guy and it turned out to be Dr. (Richard) Aspinall (WVU’s golf coach). He was an amateur champion years ago from Montana or Wyoming and when we were done he said to me, ‘How about coming out and playing on the golf team?’”
At the time, Krak didn’t have two nickels in his pocket to rub together and was waiting tables at Men’s Hall just to earn enough money to remain in school.
“Let me tell you something,” Aspinall told Krak, “you come into my office on Monday morning about 8:30 and we’ll take care of that.”
Krak showed up in Aspinall’s office the following Monday morning to learn that the coach had his next three years at WVU already mapped out: Krak would become a proctor in the men’s dorm to take care of his tuition and board and Aspinall would come up with some extra money to cover the cost of his books.
“If I do that would you come out for the golf team?” Aspinall asked.
“I’ll quit the basketball team tomorrow,” was Krak's answer.
In 1947, as the team’s No. 1 golfer, Krak helped West Virginia to an outstanding 12-0 match play record, including a pair of easy victories over arch rival Pitt. WVU also qualified for NCAA regionals in Ann Arbor, Mich., for the only postseason appearance in program history.
“We had a heck of a team that year,” Krak recalled.
Krak golfed one more season in 1948 for the Mountaineers before landing a job as an assistant golf professional at Canterbury Golf Course in Cleveland. Then, following a three-year stint in the Air Force, Krak joined the PGA Tour in 1954.
“I traveled for a good many years with Walker Inman (a nine-time U.S. Open participant) from Augusta,” said Krak. “We were old Air Force buddies and he and I worked for a couple of generals who loved golf and were brothers. We became such good friends and he could really drive it straight.”
Another great friend of Krak’s on the tour was Jack Fleck, who famously beat Ben Hogan in an 18-hole playoff to win the 1955 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. Krak had a front-row view of golf history being made that afternoon.
“He was one of my closest friends and I played a practice round with him the day before the tournament and he was just terrible,” laughed Krak. “Then I looked up on the (leader) board and I saw his name at the top and I said, ‘I can’t believe this is the same Jack Fleck.’ And he ends up winning it!”
Krak played in 15 majors, placing four times in the PGA Championships, his best finish coming in 1963 at the Dallas Athletic Club when he was tied for 34th. Yet his most memorable major was the 1959 PGA Championships at the Minneapolis Golf Club when he was one of nine players to lead the field after his first round score of 67.
However, Krak and two others – Dick Hart and Chuck Klein – didn't even make the cut and Bob Rosberg went on to win the tournament by shooting a 68 and a 66 to top Jerry Barber and Doug Sanders by a stroke.
“I had a real, real bad wrist,” said Krak. “I had gone to the Mayo Clinic up there in Rochester and they wanted to operate on my wrist and I had all kinds of different advice and everything, but I went ahead and played in the tournament. All of the PGA Championships I played pretty well, going all the way back to when it was match play and I beat guys like (Ed) “Porky” Oliver and Chandler Harper (1950 PGA winner).
“I played well in the PGA Championships and terrible in the opens,” Krak continued. “I just couldn’t drive it straight enough to get out of the high grass. You’d finish 15th and win $300 back then. Now, if you make the cut you win $15,000.”
Krak was considered one of the longest hitters on the tour when he played, twice winning long drive competitions at the PGA Championships in 1956 and 1957.
“Now they have the Golf Digest Long Drive Contest, well, back then they had them at the PGA Championship after the last practice round on Wednesday afternoon at about 3 o’clock,” said Krak. “The first one I won was in Boston (Blue Hill Country Club) and the second one was in Dayton (Miami Valley Golf Club).”
Krak played a full tour schedule until 1956 when his father became ill and he chose to return to West Virginia and become a club professional.
“I really didn’t want to leave the tour. I was playing good enough to make a living and I was single, but my dad had cancer and he was dying,” recalled Krak. “I had two younger sisters in Weirton and all of the guys told me, ‘Mike, if you leave the tour and take a club job and live a normal life, you’ll never come back.’
“Well, they were right.”
Krak was playing in a pro-am at Seminole Golf Course in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., when he ran into a group of players that included former West Virginia University basketball coach Dyke Raese.
“Why would you talk to Dave?” he said. “Go talk to Mike Krak. He’s a West Virginian and he graduated from there.”
Krak became the first professional at Lakeview in 1957 and worked at the resort until 1962. In the meantime, he was able to get away during the winter months to play a limited tour schedule.
“I left there as soon as the weather turned cold about the 15th of October,” he said. “Back then they had three or four tournaments along the Gulf Coast in Beaumont, Texas, Mobile, Ala., and Pensacola, Fla., and I would go down there and play. I’d come home for Christmas and then I’d fly out to qualify for the LA Open, San Diego and then Pebble Beach. I was fortunate because I was able to qualify for most of those tournaments. I played in the (Bing) Crosby probably six or seven times.”
Krak could do this because the qualifying rules on the tour then were much different than they are today.
“You could qualify every Monday and there would be quite a few spots open,” he explained. “There would be maybe 80 players for 50 spots, so if you shot anywhere near par you got in. And if you made the cut you automatically played the next week, which they’ve changed all of those rules now.”
His best finish on the tour came in 1958 when he placed third in the Greater New Orleans Open, which three-time major winner Billy Casper managed to pull out on the back nine.
“I had a three-stroke lead with nine holes to play - and I really didn’t blow it - I was playing with Ken Venturi and he holed one in from hell’s creation. Ugh,” he sighed.
Krak also won the Westchester Open in 1969 while working as the club professional at Wee Burn Country Club in Darien, Conn. In 1980, he was lured away from Connecticut to help build the beautiful Pete Dye Golf Course in Clarksburg. Local businessman Jim LaRosa was looking for the right people to oversee the construction of his new golf course and he asked Mike if he would get involved.
“Jim had this property picked out with an architect and I said, ‘Jim, Clarksburg is in the middle of no place. If you don’t get a big name it’s not going to make it,’” Krak said. He first called Jack Nicklaus, but Nicklaus was heavily involved in another project and was still a regular player on the tour.
“He wanted to send up his second string and I said, ‘No, we need to get somebody like you to come off the airplane and get your pictures and all’ so I called Pete and he hit it off with Jim LaRosa like two brothers,” said Krak. “He was frank with Jim and he said, ‘Jim, I’ve never been associated with a failure and this will not be my first.’”
The first site LaRosa picked out was not suitable to Dye.
“He said, ‘I cannot build a golf course on this piece of land you’ve got,’” Krak said. “So Jim said, ‘If I find a piece of land you’re happy with will you build me a golf course?’ He said he would. When we found that other piece of land he came back and we walked the property and he said to Jim, ‘If you don’t run out of money, I will build you the greatest inland golf course in America.’”
And he did.
“I enjoyed that place so much and I left there just before it was finished and then the coal business went real bad and it took him another 10 years or so before they opened it,” said Krak.
By that time, Krak was working as the director of golf at the National Golf Course in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., where he still resides today with his wife Susan, also a WVU graduate. Krak wanted to join the Senior Tour when he turned 50, but his doctor had other plans for him.
“I had a little click in my right hip and I went to see a surgeon and he told me I was going to need a hip replacement, and since then I’ve had five hip replacements,” Krak said. “I played a few Senior PGA Championships when I was golf director at PGA National. They played a couple here and they gave me an exemption so I didn’t have to qualify.”
Krak said he was still playing golf regularly about two or three times a week up until a couple of months ago when he had his gallbladder removed. Since then he hasn’t touched a club.
“It’s so discouraging to think that you used to be able to shoot in the 60s and now it’s hard to shoot in the 80s,” he said.
Krak, a 2005 West Virginia University Physical Education Hall of Fame inductee, played in nine PGA Championships, five U.S. Opens and one British Open during his career. He still remains involved in the game as much as possible and is in awe of what the players on the pro tour can do today.
“What used to be the Nationwide Tour and is now the Dot.com Tour (those players) are much better than we were back in our day,” he said. “You had a handful – the Sneads, the Hogans, Byron Nelson – but the rest of the guys couldn’t touch these guys today.”
When Krak was on the tour there were no swing coaches, personal trainers or sports psychologists to help them with their games. Back then, if a player got the yips he either figured it out himself on the course or in the clubhouse bar afterward.
“Today when they get through playing they have this huge trailer that goes from golf tournament to golf tournament that they work out on, and they have trainers and guys that help them along the way,” Krak said. “We used to get done playing and go right to the bar.”
Sounds like a pretty good way to stay cool on a hot summer day, that's for sure.
This is the first in a series of stories on the history of golf at West Virginia University running throughout the remainder of the summer.
Mike Krak, PGA Tour, PGA Championships, Jack Nicklaus, Dave Marr, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Jack Fleck, West Virginia Mountaineers
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