Wednesday, February 17

Johnny Farrell: Best Golfer the World Has Never Known

IN 1928 THE BEST PROFESSIONAL GOLFER wasn't Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, or Tommy Armour. It was a New York club professional who was the first golfer to receive an endorsement contract for his stylish attire.

Johnny Farrell
He sported fashionable plus-four trousers, long-sleeved shirts, ties and tie clasps, sweaters and two-tone leather golf shoes. Seventy-five years later he would be called the best golfer the world has never known.

His name was Johnny Farrell. Legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice tagged him "Handsome Johnny," and it stuck.

In 1927 Farrell won eight consecutive tournaments and was voted professional golfer of the year. It was a record that would stand for 17 years until a future Hall of Famer named Byron Nelson won an astonishing 11 straight on his way to an 18-win season. But, despite four top-seven finishes from 1923 to 1927, Farrell had yet to win the big one, the U.S. Open.

His chance would come against the world's greatest golfer during that golden age of sport: Bobby Jones, a lifelong amateur.

The holder of seven major golf titles at the time — two U.S. Opens, two British Opens and three U.S. Amateurs — Jones was the favorite every time he teed it up against amateurs or professionals. That was certainly the case at Olympia Fields near Chicago, site of the 1928 U.S. Open.

Paired with Jones for the first 36 holes, Farrell struggled to a 77 and 74 in front of large galleries to trail Jones's lead by seven shots at the championship's midway point. But Farrell rallied with a 71 in the third round, and his final round of 72 caught Jones, who carded a 77 on his last loop of Olympia Fields.

A Farrell-Jones showdown would not have occurred had an obscure North Carolina pro named Roland Hancock not come undone on his way to the trophy presentation. Needing only a bogey and a par on the last two holes to claim the title, Hancock stumbled to the clubhouse with a double bogey and a bogey, never to be heard from again.



Under threatening skies, Farrell and Jones met the next day in a marathon 36-hole playoff, expanded that year from the 18-hole format previously favored by the United States Golf Association.

Jones was the heavy favorite as 10,000 spectators lined the fairways. But it was Farrell who raced to the lead after the morning round, firing a 70, his best round of the championship. Jones posted a 73.

The great amateur rallied after the lunch break. Jones quickly caught and overtook Farrell in a match that had six lead changes and during which the two players combined for 16 birdies on the brutal layout.

But Farrell battled back. He held a one-stroke lead on the final tee after both men birdied the par-3 17th.

Jones went for the green in two on the 490-yard par-5 18th. Farrell laid up in the rough, then hit a wedge to within eight feet of the hole. From the edge of the green, Jones chipped to within 18 inches for a sure birdie and watched as Farrell stood over a birdie putt to win the championship.

With cameras clicking, he stepped away and calmly asked an official to silence the photographers. Then Farrell stepped back up to the putt and stroked it home as thunder clapped in the distance. The crowd roared. Gene Sarazen and four other players carried Farrell away on their shoulders.

"There never has been another golf competition," Grantland Rice reported, "where the drama held its place so long and the tide of battle swung back and forth with such startling rapidity. I have never seen two golfers so physically and mentally weary and worn down after the strain of the championship play such stout hearted golf against all the handicaps that golf brings."

* * *

Although he had runner-up finishes the following year at the British Open and the PGA Championship, Farrell never won another major. And Bobby Jones never again lost at the U.S. Open. His name was etched on the silver trophy in 1929 and 1930, the year Jones won the Grand Slam and retired from competitive golf at the age of 28. After marrying and accepting the head professional job at Baltusrol Golf Club in the early 1930s — a post he would hold for nearly 40 years — Handsome Johnny retired from the regular tournament circuit to start a family and become a golf teacher for the rich and famous.

He instructed four presidents — Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford — and had close friendships with celebrities such as Babe Ruth, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. None of it went to his head, according to his children. Johnny Farrell remained a humble man until his death in 1988 at the age of 87.

Not surprising, perhaps, since he came from humble origins. Farrell was the son of Irish immigrants who sailed for America after relatives frowned upon their marriage. His father died when Johnny was four. Determined to keep up appearances despite the family's poverty, Johnny's mother always dressed Johnny and his siblings in nice clothes.

Farrell was introduced to golf as a caddie in Westchester County, New York. His formal education was limited. Although he never earned a high-school diploma, his life turned out far better than he could have imagined.

Farrell finished his tournament career with 22 PGA Tour titles, although there were several more wins not recognized in the official record. He was inducted into the PGA Hall of Fame in 1953. Thirty years later he was among a group of Hall members not transferred when the financially challenged PGA Hall of Fame merged with the World Golf Hall of Fame.

The late Byron Nelson and others have said Farrell deserves to be in the Hall.

2 comments:

Brian Kuehn said...

Thanks. Other than possibly seeing his name on a list of U.S. Open winners, I knew nothing about Handsome Johnny. You consistently upgrade my golf history knowledge.

The Armchair Golfer said...

Thank you, Brian.