The eyes of the golf world this week focus on the Tour Championship at East Lake in Atlanta, the final event of the season.
Seventy-five years ago, golf’s grand stage was Spokane’s Manito Golf and Country Club and the 1944 PGA Championship, the first major held in the state of Washington.
Golf, and other sports, understandably faded to the background during World War II. The PGA was the only major contested in 1944 or 1945. The British Open took a six-year break from 1940-45. The U.S. Open wasn’t held from 1942-45 and the Masters went dark from 1943-45.
The idea sprouted overseas when PGA tournament manager Fred Corcoran noticed British citizens flocking to historic St. Andrews to play shortly after an air raid nearby, according to a 1998 Seattle Times article. Corcoran believed that holding the 1944 PGA Championship would boost morale of the troops and spark interest in golf.
The PGA needed a venue and Manito stepped up with the backing of Spokane’s Athletic Round Table, which pledged $20,000 to cover the purse and other expenses.
“It’s a huge source of pride for the club,” said Steve Prugh, who worked at Manito for 47 years, the last 33 as head pro, before retiring in 2015.
From Aug. 14-20, record crowds followed as a war-limited field was trimmed during match play to two finalists: Bob Hamilton, an upstart from Evansville, Indiana, and heavy favorite Byron Nelson, who would win 11 straight tournaments and 18 overall during the 1945 season.
Memorabilia and pictures are in display cases in Manito’s clubhouse, Prugh said, as was Hamilton’s putter, which carried him to the upset victory. The course obtained the putter from Hamilton’s family.
“That was the big thing, that was what beat Byron,” Prugh said. “I know we had it for our 75th anniversary (Manito turns 100 in 2022), but I’m not sure if it’s still (on display).”
The Spokesman-Review estimated 6,500 fans followed the 36-hole championship match, circling the 18th green as Hamilton upset Nelson with a 15-foot birdie putt for a 1-up victory.
Manito measured roughly 6,400 yards at the time, essentially the same as present day, but its testy greens proved to be an equalizer. The layout obviously was different 75 years ago but still carried many of Manito’s defining characteristics.
“I would say the green complexes and how they putt and perform are probably very similar,” Prugh said. “The fairways are probably the same on many (holes), but the bunkering and mounding around them and the routing has changed quite a bit.”
Every match was 36 holes and Nelson was dominant until the final day. He was the low qualifier with a two-round total of 138. The closest of his first four matches was 4 and 3. Nelson won 8 and 7 in the semifinals.
Hamilton shot 145 to qualify. He won tight matches in the quarterfinals, semifinals and finals.
Nelson was 30 under par for 196 holes during the week, but his putter “was distinctly off” and he missed “short ones” on nine greens in the championship match, according to The Spokesman-Review.
Some felt there was more to it than just Nelson’s balky putter. The late Jimmy Shriver, a good friend of Nelson who attended the 1944 tournament, told several media outlets decades later that Hamilton’s etiquette was a factor.
“Bob Hamilton’s unsportsmanlike conduct was unreal,” Shriver, who preceded Prugh as Manito’s pro, told the Seattle P-I in 1998 when the PGA Championship returned to Washington at Sahalee Country Club in Sammamish. “Whenever Nelson would get ready to putt, Hamilton would clear his throat, anything to distract him on the greens. It was just frightful.”
Another possible explanation? Before teeing off against Nelson, Hamilton told The Spokesman-Review he had been drafted and was required to report for duty in a week. He noted that he needed the $3,500 first-place prize to help his family while he was away. Nelson, who won the 1945 PGA Championship, earned $1,500.
Support for the military was the main theme in tournament promotions and $25,000 was raised for Spokane’s Fort Wright Convalescent Center and Baxter General Hospital. About 100 soldiers handled crowd control at Manito.
Spokane hosted several prominent golf events in the 1940s in addition to the 26th PGA Championship. The 1941 U.S. Amateur Public Links and the PGA Tour’s Esmeralda Open in 1945 and 1947 were at Indian Canyon. Nelson won the 1945 tourney. Manito was the site of the 1942 Western Amateur. The 1946 U.S. Women’s Open took place at the Spokane Country Club.
The 1944 PGA Championship made an impression on then PGA president Ed Dudley.
“Yes, indeed, our Championship was a success – a magnificent success in every way,” Dudley wrote in a September 1944 article. “Our players were swell and gave everything they had, as I knew they would do.
“The work on the ground by the Athletic Round Table was nothing short of colossal. The assistance given by the members and personnel of the Manito Golf and Country Club could not possibly be excelled anywhere, and the kindness, hospitality and generosity of the officials, businessmen and citizens of Spokane and its surrounding territory was something to marvel at.”
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