By Rob Alvarez
Museum Moment: The Hale America National Open Golf Tournament
Jun 23, 2011
When World War II began in 1939 with the German invasion of Poland, there was little doubt the world would change in the years to come. It took two years for this reality to set in for the people of the United States with the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The country, struggling to emerge from the Great Depression, was accustomed to making do with less, but with the need to ramp up production for the war effort came new jobs, new technologies, and a unified spirit among the American citizenry to put an end to tyranny and oppression in Europe, Africa, and Asia. Hundreds of thousands of men, from every corner of the country, were drafted or enlisted, leaving behind mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and sweethearts to face an uncertain future.
The Military-Industrial complex that formed was unprecedented and generated huge profits for industry leaders who produced weapons, airplanes, tanks, ships and other supplies necessary to equip the armed forces. The economy quickly improved, bolstered by a population that shared a common bond to conserve, ration and rally together to support the war effort.
While many pursuits were frowned upon as being wasteful or distracting, the world of sports did not shut down, it instead adapted. The most popular spectator sport, baseball, was heavily affected by the war. Detroit Tiger “Hammerin’ Hank” Greenberg was drafted in 1940, only to be discharged two days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. He later reenlisted and served for 45 months, the longest term of any Major League ballplayer. New York Yankee Joe DiMaggio enlisted in the Air Force and served in the Pacific. Boston Red Sox outfielder Ted Williams flew for the Navy in both World War II and the Korean War.
Many professional golfers were also called into service during the war. 1946 U.S. Open champion Lloyd Mangrum received two Purple Hearts and was wounded at the Battle of the Bulge. More than a decade before his 1955 U.S. Open victory, Jack Fleck took part in the D-Day invasion.
Golf balls were harder to come by because the demand for rubber to make tires was a priority. “Remade” or “recycled” rubber core golf balls became popular among weekend duffers and even the most seasoned touring professionals. Fuel rationing led to dwindling numbers of players on public and private courses as Americans saved their gas for more vital trips. Car pooling to golf courses, many of which let the grass grow long to save fuel, became the norm.
As early as 1940, the USGA had been working on a contingency plan for its championship season should the country become involved in the war. After the invasion of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the USGA’s Executive Committee met to address the 1942 championship season. It was decided that the organization should concentrate its efforts on activities other than championships, and that holding the U.S. Open would be improper. The U.S. Open, scheduled to be played at Interlachen Country Club in Minnesota, along with the U.S. Amateur, Women’s Amateur and Amateur Public Links championships, were all cancelled.
This did not mean that golf, which after all was a way for people to stay healthy and to raise money for the war effort, would be completely shut down. The USGA responded to calls for a series of local tournaments to be played on important national holidays such as Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day. While the original plan for these tournaments was to invite the casual golfer, the USGA joined forces with The PGA of America and the Chicago District Golf Association in sponsoring the Hale America Open, a competition to be held at the Ridgemoor Country Club outside of Chicago in June 1942.
The Hale resembled a U.S. Open in everything but name only. A total of 69 local and 14 sectional qualifying tournaments were held, with more than 1,500 entries received. Ticket sales exceeded $15,000. USGA officials carried out their normal championship duties, including testing the grooves on one player’s irons and determining that they were non-conforming. Servicemen were given free admission and the tournament’s proceeds went to Navy Relief and the USO.
Ben Hogan, by then a tested veteran with a handful of victories, though lacking in major championships, surged to the top of the leader board with a 10-under-par 62 in the second round. The Texan shot 69 in the third round and closed with a 68 in the final round, for a total of 17-under-par 271, three shots clear of runner-up Jimmy Demaret.
Along with $1,000 in war bonds, Hogan received a gold medal to commemorate his victory. The medal is nearly identical to those awarded to U.S. Open champions, with three exceptions: the inscription on the back notes the partnership of the USGA, The PGA of America and the Chicago District Golf Association. The medal also indicates that the tournament benefited Navy Relief and the USO. One final difference is that the event was referred to as a tournament, not a championship, an important distinction when talking about USGA-sanctioned events. The medal in question is currently on display in the Ben Hogan Room at the USGA Museum.
Many have debated whether or not Hogan’s victory should be considered a major championship, since all the similarities were striking. Hogan would go on to win four U.S. Opens (1948, 1950, 1951, 1953), joining Bob Jones and Willie Anderson as the only players to win the national championship four times. Jack Nicklaus would later join this group with his final U.S. Open victory in 1980.
To grant Hogan a fifth U.S. Open victory would be to rewrite the history books. It would move him one spot ahead of Gary Player, whose total of nine major championship victories places him fourth on the all-time list, one spot behind 11-time major champion Walter Hagen.
Whatever the case may be, the Hale America Open was a unifying event that encouraged Americans to keep fit and support the war effort. It was a momentary distraction from the horrors of war. It would be three long years before the U.S. Open would be played again.
Robert Alvarez is the collection manager of the USGA Museum. Email questions or comments to RAlvarez@usga.org.
Ben Hogan signs autographs during the Hale America National Open, which was held in 1942 at Ridgemoor Country Club in Chicago, Ill. (USGA Museum)
Golf is played during World War II in Stalag Luft III, a German POW Camp (above and below). (USGA Museum)