“I didn’t win despite my handicap, but because of it – just as Hogan came back from that automobile accident, and Babe Zaharias came back from a cancer operation.” --- Ed Furgol after winning the 1954 U.S. Open at Baltusrol
At precisely 9 o’clock the sun went down with a last vermilion flash behind old Baltus Mountain, and a wave of purple shadow descended upon the golf course, and the crickets and cicadas sang and hummed chanted the rhythm of the coming night in all its Neptunian roil. The course waits with a palpable sentience, all the suspense of the empty stage gathered, waiting for history’s blow to fall at this, the final major championship of 2016, with all the wrath, fury, and might of the Golf Gods.
But when it comes to the Golf Gods, only one thing is certain: They are fickle. You’re their darling one minute, riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. And the next moment you’re broken-hearted, alone in the cold grey dawn.
“Fate don’t have a head,” Dan Jenkins, King of Golf Writers, likes to say.
Yet sometimes the Golf Gods have a hell of a sense of humor. Michael Campbell is an example. So is Todd Hamilton. I bet the Golf Gods thought those were pretty funny.
But before there was Campbell or Hamilton or Wayne Grady or Ben Curtis or even Orville Moody (Ol’ Sarge!), there was Ed Furgol, winner of the 1954 U.S. Open at Baltusrol. He was a longshot to end all longshots.
Ed was from Utica, N.Y. Some might think of that as Strike One. (We’ll see later why it’s not, but bear with it for a moment….) Ed had a withered left arm 10 inches shorter than the right. Strike Two. Ed had already tried the Tour and had flunked out. Now he was marking time as a club pro in St. Louis. He had a wife, a mortgage and memories of glory days, but mostly he had fifty cent an hour lessons with Mrs. Bell, trying to teach her not to top the mid-irons. Strike Three.
Not enough for you? Okay, try this. When Furgol qualified in 1954, the local St. Louis newspaper cared so little, they didn’t even send a reporter to cover the tournament. Strike Four. When he got to Baltusrol, his fellow Dunlop-sponsored golfer Bobby Locke got a courtesy car to drive him to and from the course, but Furgol had to take a cab. And when the caddies were doled out, there wasn’t a Baltusrol regular available. Instead, Furgol drew Randy Random – not his real name - just some local boob who volunteered to make a little extra scratch totin’ a bag for the weekend, Bro.
Bones McKay he ain’t. Strike 27.
So let’s review: A washed-up club pro with a withered arm from a hardscrabble town with no caddie, no respect and no chance was going to stop Ben Hogan from winning his fifth U.S. Open? Or stop Slammin’ Sam Snead from winning his first? Or Lloyd Mangrum or Cary Middlecoff or Lew Worsham or any of the other former champions in the field? That’s a grillion-to-1 longshot.
Well if there was one thing Ed Furgol was good at, it was beating the odds. Each of those strikes was actually a blessing -- some in disguise, some by luck and others by design. Just like a bad shot is a chance to make a great recovery, so to is a setback a chance for a remarkable redemption. And as Tom Watson said after he chipped in to beat Jack Nicklaus at the 1982 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, the harder you work, the luckier you get.
That’s what happened to Furgol. Maybe he had some help from the Golf Gods, maybe the ghost of Old Balty helped him from the grave, and maybe “Wingy,” as his fellow pros called him, was tougher and better than anyone gave him the credit for. He made a life out of overcoming adversity and turning negatives into positives. No matter how many times Ed Forgol got knocked down, he got back up.
He had guts…and sometimes at the U.S. Open guts is enough.
OL’ CROOKED ARM
Furgol was the son of Polish immigrants who sailed to America in the late 1880s. Low on money and unable to travel further, they settled in the New York Mills, a suburb of Utica, tucked sleepily in the Mohawk Valley region upstate. Just as it is today, Utica was a gateway for immigrants, a stopover for points west on a migration route that stretch from Ellis Island to California. Back then, immigrants would travel as far as their slim savings would take them. Many families simply ran out of money by the time they got to Utica, so they settled there.
It was a hardscrabble life for the Furgols. Originally a family of five children, two older daughters died in childhood. The entire family had to work multiple jobs to scrape by.
“Our early life was a real struggle. My father and mother worked in a [cotton] mill. Their pay was small, just enough to keep the family going,” Furgol wrote in a 1954 article for the Saturday Evening Post, perhaps the only surviving long first-person narrative Furgol gave of either his life or the ’54 Open.
“My mother was heartbroken over the death of her little girls. For two years she would work 12 hours in the mill, come home and fix supper for the family, then walk 2-and-a-half miles to the cemetery to visit my sisters’ graves.”
Utica Golf Club (which no longer exists) was nearby and Furgol and his brothers would caddie there for 50 cents a day. (Ed’s brother Henry Sr. also became a golf pro at Valley View Golf Course in Utica where Henry’s son Hank is now a second-generation pro.) He also did odd jobs around the course for a whopping 25 cents a day. It was tough to get work, though. Many immigrant families were in similar circumstances, and competition for jobs and bags was fierce. Even so, the Furgol boys all fell in love with golf.
But Furgol almost ruined his pro golf career before it even got started. It was a childhood accident, and not a disease as some reports had it, that resulted in Ed’s withered left arm.
“Do you know how many times I’ve had to debunk that story?” roared Ed’s nephew Hank. “He fell off a playground gym set trying to impress some older kids.”
It was a grisly injury, a compound fracture. Trying to cushion his fall fro a height of about six feet, he landed on his left elbow on asphalt.
“The bone popped out and there was an ugly gash in the flesh. The pain was almost unbearable,” he wrote. “I…started walking toward home, about a mile away and a man passing in a car saw my trouble and took me to the hospital.”
There were three operations. There was the ever present threat of amputation. And he spent five weeks flat on his back with his arm extended in the air.
“I knew the doctor who took the X-rays,” Furgol wrote. “I caddied for him on the golf course.”
Though the cast finally came off after five weeks, the pain continued, so bad they had to pump Furgol full of ether and pills for close on two full years. It even caused his face to swell so badly that he couldn’t see.
His arm, as well, was virtually useless, withered from shoulder to elbow and “no bigger than a mashie shaft.”
“I was determined I wasn’t going to be an invalid,” he wrote. “I did everything I could to rebuild the strength of my left arm.”
Furgol turned to boxing, of all things, and got good quickly. His injury made him prey for bullies, and he had to fight his way out of more than his share of scrapes. But the playground kids didn’t call him “Crooked Arm” for long after he demonstrated a compact, savage hook and the brains to box rather than brawl. A blend of power, finesse and the angry drive of a child who’s been picked on too much for too long, Furgol won two amateur bouts as a teen and attempted to turn pro. But because of his injury – his “deformity” as the New York state boxing authorities called it - he was denied a license.
Cripples don’t sell tickets to boxing matches in New York, was the thinking, apparently. That’s when Furgol knew he had to turn to golf.
WINGY TAKES FLIGHT ON TOUR
No one helped Furgol with his game. He developed his own way of generating power while maintaining finesse. His swing was wonky, with one hand much stronger than the other, but everything stayed compact and smooth. Call him the Jim Furyk of his generation.
“How do I manage with that crooked left arm? Well my backswing is much shorter than the average player’s, but I wind up my body a lot more….By coiling and uncoiling my body to synchronize with my hands in the hitting area, I get good distance and accuracy,” he wrote.
He explained further, “Much of my power generates from my feet. I have to have my heels built one inch higher on the outside to give better balance because I shift my weight so much. I seem to stand closer to the ball than most golfers, and appear to be chopping at it because I come down so viciously with my right hand.”
As his skill at golf grew. he impressed a rich Utican named Art McMahon, who staked Ed to go and play in the U.S. Amateur Public Links. He handed him $30, whereupon Furgol hitched a ride to Detroit with a Roman Catholic priest where he set the tournament qualifying scoring record (138) and advanced to the semi-finals.
Furgol stayed in Detroit, working at Ford Motor Company by day, practicing golf by night, and that’s where he met Helen Buckso, a bottle-green eyed, raven-tressed stunner of prosperous family and Hungarian descent. They hit it off, and, with Helen by his side, Ed hit the amateur circuit, peaking in 1944 with two wins (one in the North and South Amateur over the great Frank Stranahan), three top-10 finishes and a 12th place finish at the venerable North and South Open, considered a major back then. He even tied for first place in the inaugural Bing Crosby Clambake. (They didn’t have a playoff; that year it wasn’t an official Tour event.) Furgol married Helen in 1945, turned pro, and that year found himself 11th on the money list after just six months on Tour.
But golf is fickle and success is fleeting. The seasons of 1946 and ‘47 saw reversals of fortune. Needing about $12,000 to stay on Tour with Helen by his side, his paltry $5,000 income forced them to use their savings. He continued barnstorming, as he put it, playing in two tournaments a week to eke out enough to make it to the next Tour stop. He lost in a playoff at the 1947 Crosby, and, in more than 1,000 competitive rounds, tallied a scoring average of 71.4.
This year a scoring average of 71.4 would earn that player about a million dollars. The most Furgol ever won in any given year before winning the ’54 Open was $14,000...about $154,000 adjusted for inflation.
The nadir came in the clubhouse of City Park Course in New Orleans over lunch. Hands trembling as she held her tea cup, pretty, sweet Helen’s emerald eyes welled up as she broke down sobbing.
“What’s wrong with us?” she bawled, pointing at all the other tables of players and wives chatting away with one another. “Nobody wants to sit with us.”
Everybody lives a winner, Ed explained tenderly. And he hadn’t been playing well. It caused them to ask each other, “Is this the life we want?” The answer came easily to both of them: “No.” So, in 1952, Ed became head professional at Westwood Golf Club on the outskirts of St. Louis. They let him play four tournaments a year, including the PGA Championship and the U.S. Open, but it seemed his life as Tour was over.
THE ’54 OPEN
“I was never more depressed than just before the Open at Baltusrol. Helen had to stay back home to keep the pro shop for me,” he recalled. It was the first time in nine Opens she wasn’t with him. “I got a feeling of emptiness. It didn’t seem to make any difference whether I was here or not.”
Partly because he was the son of immigrants from a blue-collar town struggling in a world of the affluent and powerful, partly out of a need to feel he was doing something significant he admitted that he never hardened himself against those insecurities.
They were augmented when he was treated as an afterthought that week – a ceremonial golfer, window dressing for the coronation of Hogan or the long-awaited triumph of Snead, or a coming-out party for a talented youngster like Gene Littler or Dick Meyer. The St. Louis papers didn’t feel the need t cover his presence at the tournament. His sponsor, gave Bobby Locke a courtesy car, but told Furgol he could ride with Locke when convenient.
“This wasn’t often. Locke likes to lounge around till noon. Besides we had different tee times,” Furgol explained. Ed had to take a cab each way at a cost of $6 ($52 in 2016 money).
And while the top players all got experienced Baltusrol caddies, Furgol had a beginner foisted upon him.
“Not only did he know nothing about the course, he had very little knowledge of golf,” Furgol fumed in the article. “At no time during the entire three days and 72 holes of golf did I ask him for one bit of advice. On two or three occasions I pleaded with him to keep my iron clubs clean – he would leave the grooves and face of the clubs dirty.”
Furgol gave him a base rate of $50 for the week, but when the week was over, he cut him a check for $1,000, one-sixth of the total prize money. He was feeding him wife and kids on caddying.
The ‘50s saw the advent of “harder is better” when it came to U.S. Opens, and, like Oakland Hills in 1951 and Oakmont in 1953, the course was set up to reward pars not birdies. Furgol remarked that self-control, “greater self-control than Ben Hogan” would be needed that week, and he was exactly right. The winning score was 4-over 284, the highest winning score ever on the Lower Course.
“I decided I would be neither spectacular, nor bold,” he said. “I would shoot for the greens and not for the pins.”
His opening 71 put him in a tie for fifth with Hogan and Al Mengert. Still, the press paid him no mind, nor did they care when he fired a second-round 70 to stand within two of the lead, again tied with Hogan.
One person outside the press did care, Ed’s Brother Ted, who called him that night to tell him he was driving all night to Baltusrol from Utica. He said he was going to watch him win the Open. Crowds, parking problems, and no sleep would not deter him.
That night, Furgol had a premonition. He woke in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, “with the sudden realization that I was about to be the Open champion. Say it was a dream. I don’t know what it was. I only know that my whole body shook with the emotion of it, and I began to cry. This experience, instead of leaving me tired and weak gave me added strength. I felt stronger than ever for the final 36 holes.”
Ed carded a 71 in the morning to take a one-shot lead over Dick Meyer. Hogan and Snead shot themselves out of the tournament with poor morning rounds and suddenly the stage was left to Furgol, Gene Littler, Dick Meyer and Lloyd Mangrum, the winner of the 1946 Open. In the final round, Furgol hit a staggering 16 greens, bogeying only twice with three-putts on the seventh and eighth holes. But the best was yet to come.
The last hole of the Lower Course, a par-5, played 545 that year (it played 560 this year), but when Furgol and Cary Middlecoff arrived at the tee there was a 15-minute log-jam. They had caught the group in front of them and had to wait. As a result, Furgol hooked his ball into the woods.
Furgol played his next shot into the adjacent 18th fairway of the Upper Course. But he neither asked rules officials for assistance nor was required to do so by his lie. One of the only eyewitnesses, Oscar Fraley of the UPI saw that Furgol could have chipped out into the Lower Course’s 18th and played it safe, hoping for a playoff. Furgol, knowing he might never get this chance again went for broke. He slammed a 4-iron up the 18th fairway, then bumped and ran a chip to the front apron. Two putts later, he was chatting in the television booth with Craig Wood (the 1941 Open champion at Colonial) waiting to see if Littler could make one final birdie to tie. When Littler’s 8-foot putt grazed the edge, Ed Furgol, “the longshot’s longshot” was the National Champion.
A NEW BEGINNING
“A few weeks ago, I was just a broken-down old golf pro with a crooked left arm. Most people wouldn’t give me the time of day. Today I’m on top of the world and riding a merry-go-round,” he wrote.
“Our telephone jangled every few minutes. We were showered with invitations – lunch at Shor’s, dinner at the Waldorf, a theatre, it was wonderful…Everybody’s my pal.”
Ed won $6,000 in prize money ($52,000 now), and Dunlop matched it with another $6,000. Television exhibitions tallied him another $20,000. When he returned home to Westwood Country Club, they not only threw him the party of his life, they gave him a year sabbatical to cash in, which he did. Ed Furgol won a total of five more times on the PGA Tour and represented the U.S in the 1957 Ryder Cup. Now that he was a winner, he rubbed elbows with all the greats of the game, Hollywood starlets and politicians.
Everybody loves a winner.
“What a scene it was in Utica when he came to celebrate with the family. They gave him a ticker-tape parade through downtown: up Genesee Street and then along the Parkway, right up the pro shop of Valley View Golf Course where my Dad was the pro. They had buttons with his picture on them, they had ribbons with his name; it was unbelievable. The whole town turned out,” Hank Furgol recalled, pride swelling in his eyes. He was just eight years old then, but you never forget a scene like that.
“When they got to the golf course, they had him play a 9-hole exhibition. He drove the first green – 320 yards.”
Furgol went on to fire a 5-under 31 on the front side before they whisked he and Helen and 400 of their family, friends, and well-wishers off to Twin Ponds Golf and Country Club for a gala dinner celebration.
Twin Ponds was only a few doors down the street from both his old house and the playground where he fell 26 years earlier. He had come full circle.
“He and Aunt Helen eventually lived in both the Catskills and Pittsburgh; He was head pro at the Concord Hotel for a while, the at Westmoreland Country Club outside of Pittsburgh,” Hank Furgol explained.
“He asked me to come be assistant pro at the Concord when I was 19, but Dad wouldn’t let me. I was a little wild back then,” Furgol recalls, laughing fondly and deeply at the memory.
Was it Furgol’s humble beginnings that helped him win the Open? Absolutely. There’s something to be said about small-town, Christian values. They teach you how to overcome adversity. Pop culture, Hollywood, and Madison Avenue may snub their nose at small cities like Utica, but they are actually wholesome places to live, where people care about each other, work together to grow individually and as a city, and take justifiable pride in their accomplishments. Furgol didn’t win despite his humble upbringing. He won because of it. He didn’t win despite his adversity, but he was galvanized by it.
“Winning the Open changed my life,” Ed wrote, summing up the Post article. “If a man wants something long and hard enough, and if he puts every ounce of his ability and self-control behind that wish, he can attain it. I think my Open victory proves it.”