Mountain State Possesses a Great Golf History
Golf enthusiasts throughout the state have had reason to celebrate with the recent announcement that West Virginia University is reinstating its men’s golf program, beginning in 2015.
“We were really blown away by how passionate people were here about bringing back collegiate golf,” West Virginia University Director of Athletics Oliver Luck said earlier this month. “I know golf is very important to our economy, especially here in the summertime.”
Indeed, the state of West Virginia has a rich and proud golf history that dates all the way back to 1884 – the year Oakhurst Links in White Sulphur Springs opened to become the first public golf course in the United States (Oakhurst predates St. Andrews Golf Club in Yonkers, N.Y., by four years).
Since then, the sport has become a prominent part of the fabric that makes up our summers here in the Mountain State. The West Virginia Amateur Championship was founded in 1913 and has been played 95 times since while the West Virginia Open first started in 1933 and has been played at various venues throughout the state, annually attracting some of the area’s top golfers.
Chances are pretty good that you played a West Virginia golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Pete Dye or Robert Trent Jones, and chances are also pretty good that you’ve at least heard the name Sam Snead.
“Slammin Sammy” was born in Hot Springs, Va., right across the West Virginia border, but his name was synonymous with West Virginia golf as a longtime member and professional at The Greenbrier. The late Snead won his first tournament, the West Virginia Closed Pro, at The Greenbrier in 1936 and later that summer won the first of his 17 West Virginia Open titles. For many years, Snead would interrupt his pro tour schedule to return to West Virginia to play in various events throughout the state.
Snead’s 82 PGA Tour victories are still the most by any professional golfer, and his seven major championship victories included three Masters, three PGAs and one British Open title in 1946. Snead was the PGA player of the year in 1949 and was also the leading money earner on the pro tour in 1938, 1949 and 1950.
Speaking of major winners, longtime Huntington golf pro Denny Shute was a two-time PGA Championship winner in 1936-37 while also claiming the 1933 British Open title in St. Andrews. Shute, who won 17 tour events and also placed second in the 1941 U.S. Open, was the last person to win back-to-back PGA championships until Tiger Woods achieved the feat in 1999 and 2000.
“Denny was a very fine player,” recalled Jay Randolph, himself an outstanding amateur golfer on the local circuit before taking to broadcasting and later becoming NBC’s lead golf announcer in the 1970s and 1980s. Randolph worked the Masters in 1968 when Bob Goalby won the event and for many years called the Bob Hope Desert Classic and The Players Championship. “I never saw (Shute) play, but everyone I knew who said they did said he was a very fine player.”
Although not quite in the same league as Snead and Shute, Barboursville’ Barney Thompson did play on the pro tour for 11 years from 1972-82, his best season coming in 1981 when he appeared in 28 tour events, making the cut in 18. Known as one of pro golf's longest drivers, Thompson won more than $320,000 as a regular tour player during his career.
Another long-ball hitter was Weirton’s Mike Krak, twice capturing the “long drive contest” at the PGA Tour Championships in 1956 and 1957. The former West Virginia University standout played in 15 majors and placed in four PGA Championships.
“Golf has been a pretty good sport for the size of our state with a lot of very prominent amateurs,” noted former Wheeling Intelligencer sports editor and state sports historian Doug Huff.
Two outstanding West Virginia amateur golfers – Bill Campbell and Ed Tutwiler – were easily good enough to make the pro tour if they wanted to. Campbell played in 37 U.S. Amateurs, including 33 straight from 1941-77, and won the national amateur championship in 1964 by defeating Tutwiler.
Campbell was once runner-up at the 1954 British Amateur and three times was Canadian Amateur runner-up. The Huntington insurance agent served on the Executive Committee of the USGA from 1962-65, and once again from 1977-84. He also served a two-year term as the USGA’s president in 1982-83, and later, in 1987, Campbell was named Captain of The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews to become only the third American to hold that post. He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1990.
“Bill Campbell is probably the most important figure in the history of West Virginia golf,” Randolph noted. “He was given an honorary membership at the Royal Academy of Golf.”
Tutwiler, too, had a distinguished amateur career, winning 11 West Virginia titles while claiming three West Virginia Open championships in 1951, 1956 and 1962. The Charleston businessman played on two U.S. Walker Cup teams in 1965 and 1967, and was also a member of the 1964 U.S. World Cup team.
Randolph said he had an opportunity to join the pro tour in 1954, however, at that time it was nearly impossible for most pro golfers to make a decent living.
“Spalding Sporting Goods had a program where they selected about six or eight college or amateur players every year with the hope that they would play Spalding equipment and eventually make the tour,” he said. “They would get you a job in the summer months somewhere and then in the winter months you’d play the Caribbean Tour or whatever was available.
“But my dad (U.S. Sen. Jennings Randolph) - and rightfully so - didn’t want me to do that. The guys didn’t make any money and there wasn’t any money to win. Look at Snead. He won 82 tournaments and now a guy who wins a tournament on tour earns more money in one tournament than Sam won in 40 years.”
Wheeling businessman Stuart Bloch has always been a local golf supporter, but his influence reached the national level in 1992 when he was named president of the USGA. Prior to that, Bloch served on that organization’s executive committee from 1985-93 during a period of time when he chaired the equipment standards committee that permitted the use of long putters in the game.
Beckley’s “Slugger” White, once a pro golfer, has spent more than 30 years working for the PGA Tour as vice president of rules and competition. White was particularly helpful in Jim Justice’s effort to bring the PGA Tour back to West Virginia in 2010 with the creation of The Greenbrier Classic.
The Greenbrier has been the host venue for many prominent golf tournaments through the years, most notably the 1979 Ryder Cup (when the course was redesigned by Jack Nicklaus) and the 1994 Solheim Cup. Up in the state's Northern Panhandle, Wheeling’s Oglebay Resort was the host site for a regular LPGA Tour event called the Wheeling Classic from 1974-85.
“Nancy Lopez came to Wheeling and she played a round at Speidel and bowed out of the tournament because she said the course was too hilly for her,” Huff recalled. “She played the practice round and then left.”
Two administrators with West Virginia University ties have also reached the pinnacle of golf. Joe Steranka, a 1979 journalism graduate, began his sports career in the NBA working for the Washington Bullets before transitioning to golf where he eventually became the CEO of The PGA of America, an association that serves more than 27,000 PGA club professionals and runs the PGA Championship, the Ryder Cup, the PGA Grand Slam of Golf and the Senior PGA Championship. Steranka held the PGA of America top post for seven years until retiring at the completion of the 2012 season.
Andy Pazder, a 1988 WVU graduate in business and administration, has been with the PGA Tour for more than 20 years and was recently promoted to Executive Vice President and Chief of Operations, overseeing the 45 events the pro tour conducts each year.
There are others with WVU ties involved with high-level golf: Brian Goin, the son of former collegiate sports administrator Bob Goin, for years has been involved with the PGA Tour and is currently the Vice President of Championship Management while 2001 WVU graduate Brian Cleek recently assumed the title of Head, Partnership Sales for The PGA of America.
There are many, many prominent club professionals working around the country sporting the Flying WV as well. And although far better known as a legendary professional basketball player, Jerry West has a history in golf, too, as a member of Bel Air Country Club in Los Angeles and a longtime scratch player. West has attached his name to several pro golfing events through the years.
“We hired Jerry to be executive director of the Northern Trust Open out in Los Angeles at the Riviera Country Club,” said Pazder. “Jerry is a big friend of the tour and he did a great job for us in LA.”
Yes, the state of West Virginia does have a tremendous golf history and in short time West Virginia University will once again be contributing to that great heritage.
This is the third in a series of stories on the history of golf at West Virginia University running throughout the remainder of the summer.
Editor's Note: It was incorrectly stated that Snead won a U.S. Open in 1946 when, in fact, it was the British Open that he won that year. Snead never won a U.S. Open.
Golf, West Virginia, Sam Snead, Denny Shute, West Virginia Open, West Virginia Amateur Championship
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