18th December 2018
Johnny Goodman was the last amateur to win a major Championship, securing the 1933 U.S. Open. A relative unknown nowadays he holds a record which is unlikely to ever be broken.
He was the underdog who came good but never got the recognition or financial rewards he deserved.
Johnny Goodman (Photo: omaha.com)
John George Goodman was born on 28th December 1909 in South Omaha, Nebraska, the fifth child of Lithuanian immigrants, William and Rose Goodman. His father worked in the local slaughterhouses and faced with horrific working conditions and poverty drifted into alcoholism. Shortly after his wife died in late 1924 giving birth to their 13th child (who also died) William chose to desert his family and the home he owned.
Abandoned at 15 and ultimately left to fend for himself it’s fair to say Johnny’s prospects appeared poor. The game of golf and the generosity of friends proved to be his saviour.
By accident Johnny had become a caddie at the nearby Omaha Field Club a few years earlier when he was 11. Playing on the railway which criss-crossed the golf course he had found a stray golf ball. Whilst selling it to a passing player he had learnt that more money was available for carrying bags at the Club. Within days he was earning on the weekends and given his natural intelligence and hard work soon became the best caddie at the Club. In 1922, reflecting this status, he was handed the bag of Walter Hagen by the caddie-master when the reigning Open champion arrived in Omaha on an exhibition tour with Australian Joe Kirkwood.
After briefly sleeping rough his friend Matt Zadalis persuaded his family to take him in and the skills he had developed as a caddie in dealing with adults quickly made him a respectful and welcome house guest. Whilst he continued to take his studies seriously his attendance at school became more sporadic. The need to earn, to feed and clothe himself, took priority and over the next few years he secured jobs as a Western Union messenger, a printing factory assistant and even occasionally as a cleaner in the slaughterhouses. To his credit he later did night classes to catch up and completed his high school diploma on time in June 1927.
He had continued to caddie in the spring and summer months and having cobbled together a set of clubs began discretely practising on the Omaha Field course. It wasn’t long before he became proficient and at 15, having won the 1925 Metropolitan Golf Tournament, could rightly call himself one of the best golfers in Omaha.
Like most sports fans at the time Bobby Jones was his hero and understandably given the era Johnny was taken with the amateur ideal. Given his hand to mouth existence at home he had no aspirations to turn professional and to be treated as a second class citizen at the golf course like most professionals still were. He was happy to continue travelling to events in the cheaper boxcars used to transport livestock and mail on the trains if it meant he could continue to have the sanctuary of golf clubhouses.
He developed a sound posture and a repeatable swing where he hit the ball late, more on the upswing than driving the club into the ground at impact. What started off as a draw became a power fade as he practiced more and sought greater consistency. As a small and slender man of 5ft 8” he never hit the ball far but the closer he got to the hole the deadlier he became; there were few who could pitch and putt better.
Johnny Goodman (Photo: Lester Jones Collection)
The next step up the golfing ladder should have been the Nebraska Amateur Championship but ambitiously in June 1926 Johnny went for the regional Trans-Mississippi Championship in St. Louis. Playing in his first major competition Goodman showed his potential, first breaking Hagen’s course record in qualifying before falling to the more experienced Johnny Dawson 2&1 in the semi-finals. Despite the loss his performance made headline news back in Omaha. As he said himself: “One day I woke up and I was famous”.
Whilst his appearance, at least in his early playing years, often left a little to be desired he now realised he needed to look the part every day even if his finances made that hard to achieve. More importantly he now also understood that controlling his emotions on the course would help his scoring. Observers noticed how mentally strong he was and how he played with a competitive focus few others could match.
Goodman won the Trans-Mississippi Championship the following year at Broadmoor C.C. in Colorado Springs beating James Ward 2&1 in the Final. He would go on to become a 3-time Trans-Mississippi champion; wins in 1931 and 1935 bookending a loss in the 1934 final.
Goodman won the Nebraska Amateur Championship in 1929 and went on to retain it in 1930 and 1931. However, his sights were increasingly set at a national rather than state level. He didn’t have to wait long to make his mark.
At the 1929 U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach Golf Links, in one of the great upsets in the history of the game, he beat medalist Bobby Jones 2&1 in Round 1 of the match play stage. Disappointingly but perhaps not surprisingly he lost in Round 2 by the same scoreline in the afternoon to a 19 year old Lawson Little, who was just setting out on his own path to greatness.
The event started ominously for Goodman. Upon arrival in California he had been summoned to a USGA meeting to explain a new Spalding sporting goods store assistant’s role he had recently started amid concerns about his amateur status. His $8 per week salary appeared to be nothing to him when compared with some of the employment and writing arrangements other leading amateurs, like Jones and Chick Evans, were benefiting from. At the time the USGA appeared happy to show a little more flexibility to the more affluent gentleman players who met their concept of the perfect amateur. Unfortunately “Boxcar Johnny” fell very much at the other end of the spectrum; just the kind of player who they could make an example of and who they felt should be earning a living as a pro. Thankfully he was able to dissuade the Committee of any major impropriety and take up his place in the field. Although relations weren’t subsequently helped when he removed the star player from the field and attendances (and takings) over the final days were decimated. The USGA introduced a seeded match play draw the following year which perhaps played a part in helping Jones complete his 1930 grand slam.
Johnny’s trip to the Monterey Peninsula ended well. The victory over Bobby Jones caught the attention of a watching Bing Crosby who invited Johnny to play a $100 per hole 9 hole cash game at Pebble Beach the day after the Final. Goodman won $500 off the entertainer and with the Wall Street Crash and the onset of the Great Depression just days away the timing couldn’t have been better.
After a disappointing Round 1 defeat in the 1930 U.S. Amateur Goodman was struggling to balance the competing priorities in his life. “Amateur golf is a rich man’s game, and I am far from rich. I am forced to make a living, and find it impossible to combine competitive golf with business.” However, he had no where to go. He was a man of the amateur era, one who believed the U.S. Amateur to be the greatest Championship in the world and who harboured strong Walker Cup hopes. Professional golf was no real solution at the time as the tour was still embryonic and only a handful were making a living on it. Whilst the retirement of Bobby Jones and the continuing Depression saw amateurism lose some of its attractiveness, save for the very wealthiest in society, Johnny chose steadfastly to continue along this path. However, with his fiancé Josephine Kersigo and her family to consider he did decide to take a job selling insurance in early 1931, offered to him by Pete Lyck, a friend from the Omaha Field Club.
Goodman looked odds on for a place in the 1932 USA Walker Cup team after he qualified and then finished 14th and the leading amateur in that year’s U.S. Open. However, revealing the snobbery of the time, some regional prejudice and perhaps an implied accusation of professionalism, the USGA overlooked Johnny, neither naming him to their 10 man team or as an alternate. Many of those selected for the match at Brookline were either past their best or clearly did not have the recent playing record of the man from Omaha. The accompanying outcry from the nation’s golf correspondents finally led to the USGA making a statement. The Selection Committee, despite making their public announcement three days after the U.S. Open had finished, explained that their decision had actually been made before the Championship. Showing maturity beyond his years Johnny largely kept his own counsel and vowed to do his talking on the course. As the USA team comfortably beat GB&I 8-1 in Boston the selection soon became a moot point anyway.
The disappointment fuelled a run at the 1932 U.S. Amateur which started at Baltimore C.C. just ten days after the Walker Cup match finished. Gaining some redemption for his snub Goodman beat Francis Ouimet in the semi-final and was the last U.S. player left standing. However, despite being 2Up with 9 holes to play in the Final, he sadly failed to deliver the ultimate coup de grâce he had hoped for, losing 2&1 to Canadian Ross Somerville in their 36 hole match.
The 1933 U.S. Open took place at North Shore C.C. at Glenville, Illinois, a long, tight course made tougher by the baked fairways from a hot early summer. Rounds of 75, 66 – the joint lowest in Championship history at the time – and 70 gave Goodman a 6-shot lead heading into the final round. After a good start to Rd 4 his game deserted him on the final four holes of the front nine which he played in +4. Nevertheless to his credit he collected himself; playing the back nine in +1 he recorded a final round of 76. Thankful for a bogey 5 by his nearest challenger Ralph Guldahl on the 72nd hole Goodman ended up winning the Championship by 1-shot. Showing their continued disdain for the social standing of Johnny the USGA refused to formally present the famous trophy to their new 23 year old champion. Unusually there are no photos of USGA President Herbert H. Ramsey or any other official presenting the trophy to Goodman – reports said he simply lifted it off a presentation table himself.
Johnny Goodman – 1933 U.S. Open Pathe News
This win in June 1933 saw Johnny Goodman became the last member of a select group which already included Jerry Travers, Francis Ouimet, Chick Evans and Bobby Jones – amateurs to beat the pros and win the U.S. Open Championship. 85 years later he remains the last amateur to win a major Championship.
In the light of his U.S. Open win Goodman refused to turn Pro. He continued with his insurance job turning down numerous touring, publishing and sponsorship opportunities that came his way. “Golf is a game for me, not a business” he said.
Johnny Goodman With the U.S. Open Championship Trophy (Photo: USGA Museum)
The Masters was first played in late March 1934. Despite being the reigning U.S. Amateur champion it appears Johnny Goodman was not invited to compete by Bobby Jones, although he may simply have not been able to afford the time or cost of the trip. Ironically it was Goodman’s defeat of Jones at Pebble Beach in 1929 that created the time for him to visit the newly opened Cypress Point G.C. So taken with the course was Jones that he immediately decided that its designer Dr. Alistair MacKenzie would be handed control of any new course that he may build in the future. That course proved to be Augusta National. Despite clearly being one of America’s leading players in the 1930’s Goodman ended up playing in just one Masters. In 1936 he shot rounds of 80, 81 and 79 to finish 43rd. Perhaps Goodman didn’t take to the course and chose not to play in the event again.
Johnny finally made his Walker Cup debut aged 24 at St. Andrews in May 1934. Captain Francis Ouimet played him No. 1 for the U.S. team and he didn’t disappoint, taking to links golf quickly. Paired with fellow rookie Lawson Little in the Day 1 Foursomes they beat a fading Cyril Tolley and Roger Wethered 8&6, Wethered in particular struggling throughout the 36 hole match. On Day 2 Goodman beat the British Captain and reigning Amateur champion, a 55 year old Hon. Michael Scott 7&6. The USA won the match 9.5-2.5 with golf writer Bernard Darwin describing Goodman’s play as “appallingly good.”
The following week Goodman crossed Scotland to play at Prestwick G.C. in the Amateur Championship. A straight knockout in those days the Omaha man reached the Quarter Finals where he succumbed to young Englishman Leslie Garnett 3&1. Johnny’s Foursomes partner Lawson Little went on to beat James Wallace by a record breaking 14&13 score. Little recorded twelve 3’s on the 23 holes played in the Final.
At the 1936 Walker Cup, played at Pine Valley G.C., Goodman was one of four returning USA players and again played at No. 1. Paired with Albert “Scotty” Campbell he won his Foursomes 7&5 against Hector Thomson and Harry Bentley. On Day 2 he again beat Thomson this time 3&2 in the Singles, maintaining his 100% win record and leading the USA to a famous 9-0 victory. There were no points awarded for halved matches in those days so it was not quite the whitewash it appeared.
The 1937 U.S. Amateur was played at Alderwood C.C. in Portland, Oregon. It would prove to be Johnny Goodman’s crowning glory. In his 1Up semi-final win against Bud Ward he one putted 15 greens. ‘Cinderella Man’ Ray Billows, known for his relaxed temperament (as well as finishing second), waited for him in the Final. Johnny stumbled down the home straight again but finished strongly to ultimately win by 2 holes. Finally accepted by the USGA, President John G. Jackson happily made the trophy presentation to a man who had now achieved the American double.
Just 11 players have won the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open – Francis Ouimet (1914 / 1913 respectively), Jerome Travers (1907 / 1915), Chick Evans (1916 / 1916), Bobby Jones (1924 / 1923), Johnny Goodman (1937 / 1933), Lawson Little (1934 / 1940), Arnold Palmer (1954 / 1960), Gene Littler (1953 / 1961), Jack Nicklaus (1959 / 1962), Jerry Pate (1974 / 1976) and Tiger Woods (1994 / 2000). Goodman is the last player to win the U.S. Amateur after the U.S. Open.
The 10th Walker Cup match, played on 3-4 June 1938 at St. Andrews, again featured Johnny Goodman, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion. The U.S. team first travelled to Troon to play in the Amateur. An ‘unlucky’ draw saw Goodman beat Ray Billows 4&2 in Round 2 before falling 3&2 to Charles Kocsis in Round 4, both U.S. teammates. Unfortunately any form he had deserted him in his Walker Cup matches as he lost on both days as GB&I won for the first time 7-4. Hector Thomson got revenge for his 1939 defeat comfortably winning their repeat Singles 6&4. With World War II interrupting proceedings the next match would not be played until 1947 and hence this proved to be Johnny’s last involvement.
Back home Johnny Goodman remained well known and respected. He featured on the cover of the popular Time Weekly Newsmagazine on 6 June 1938 under the heading ‘The King of Swings’ and in a story about him being the natural successor to Bobby Jones. To my knowledge Jones, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods are the only other golfers to grace the cover of this famous U.S. magazine.
Johnny Goodman – Time Magazine, 6th June 1938
Shortly afterwards Johnny married Josephine in Omaha, Lawson Little acting as his best man, and with little money moved in with his mother in law.
However, on the golfing front his play started to drift and he was never to contend in a big event again.
The Pearl Harbour attack just a few days before Johnny’s 32nd birthday in December 1941, which led to the United States’ entering World War II, changed more than just the golfing landscape. Goodman found himself called up to serve in the Quartermaster Corps and ended up being posted to India.
Once the War was over Johnny settled back into family life. He left the insurance world and started working for his brother in law John Atkins who had become a successful beer distributor and club owner in Omaha. 1947 proved to be a pivotal year in his life. Firstly he and Josephine had a son, Johnny Goodman Jr. and then he was involved in a serious car crash, badly breaking his right arm. Any hope of resurrecting his top level golf career was lost in the crash.
The Goodman’s eventually decided a change of scene was needed and in 1950 the family moved to South Gate in Southern California. He used his knowledge and trade connections to obtain a sales job for Canada Dry.
Unfortunately a restructuring led to Johnny losing this job eventually and he started to drink more than he should. In 1959 he became ill and very nearly died from complications brought about by cirrhosis of the liver.
He survived and having adopted a healthier lifestyle started to play more golf. He enjoyed playing with Johnny Jr. and shortly afterwards turned Pro to take up a teaching position at the Bellflower Golf Center in California.
On the 8th August 1970 Johnny Goodman died in his sleep aged 60. Just a few days earlier he had travelled back to Omaha Field and played a round at his old club with his nephew Jack Atkins. It was his goodbye to the game he loved. He was buried in Omaha in a nondescript grave without headstone. More recently a municipal golf course in the southwest of the City has been named in his honour.
Johnny Goodman earned next to nothing for his golfing exploits and faced discrimination throughout most of his career. However, his story is one of the more interesting ones and his U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open wins mean he has his place in the record books forever and should perhaps be better remembered by the golfing world.
Copyright © 2018, Mark Eley. All rights reserved.