The Turnesa family has long been considered golfing royalty. The youngest son, Willie, is considered by many to be the greatest amateur player who ever lived not named Jones. Before exploring Willie and his family’s accomplishments, it is important to trace the roots of this golfing dynasty.
Museum Moment: Willie The Wedge Headlines Turnesa Family Golf Dynasty
Jan 26, 2012
The pater familias, Vitale Turnesa, was born in Potenza, Italy, which lies 65 miles east of Salerno. Orphaned, he found work as a shepherd near Naples and dreamed of a life in the United States. Like millions of immigrants, young Vitale left home with only his name, and little in the way of marketable skills, bound for the United States. He settled in the Lower East Side of New York City and found work as a shoeshine boy on a ferry boat connecting Hoboken, N.J., to lower Manhattan.
Vitale soon met and married Anna Pascarella, and with a family on the way he sought better job opportunities. Family lore says Vitale set out one day from his home in Little Italy and walked 21 miles through the neighborhoods of New York, eventually spotting a crew working with picks and shovels on what would later become the Fairview Country Club in Elmsford, N.Y. Turnesa introduced himself, applied for a job, and was later hired as a greenkeeper for the new club.
Turnesa stayed with family in Greenwich Village and was able to save enough money to build a house, with the help of family and neighbors, within walking distance of Fairview. The Turnesas would raise nine children – seven boys and two girls – in this home.
In a 1990 interview, Willie Turnesa spoke of his father’s dedication: “He loved the work. He never went to a movie; he never drove a car; he walked. The club was like a mile from home and at midnight he would go to the club and water the greens himself. They didn’t have any fancy nozzles. They just used pressure. He would put his thumb over the end of the hose, and spray, just to wet the greens, and put moisture on them. He did that himself, at midnight, then he would come back home. He had one man helping him. He loved the place and that was his whole life, and his joy, taking care of those greens.” Vitale continued to work at Fairview for 55 years.
On Jan. 20, 1914, Willie was born, the youngest of the Turnesa clan. The town in which the Turnesas lived, Elmsford Village, produced one British Amateur champion, one U.S. Amateur champion, one U.S. Open champion, one PGA champion, three PGA Championship runners-up, and one U.S. Open runner-up. According to Turnesa, at least 15 professional golfers could trace their roots to “The Village.” One reason the small town produced so many quality golfers was that it was surrounded by four golf courses, making it possible for many of the young boys to learn the game as caddies and greenkeepers.
Living close to the course and being the children of an employee allowed the Turnesa boys to learn the game by caddieing, occasionally playing a few holes themselves, and practicing in a field next to their house using clubs they fashioned out of broom handles. The boys all excelled, with six becoming professionals. Willie, meanwhile, had other plans.
Willie attended Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass., where he studied economics and philosophy. He also played on the golf team, winning the New England Intercollegiate championship three times. He idolized Bob Jones and Francis Ouimet and wanted to follow their lead as an elite amateur player, a “gentleman golfer.” He believed that the only way to retain his identity among a gaggle of professional golfer brothers was to remain an amateur and get a college education.
Turnesa’s first major victory came at the 1938 U.S. Amateur, which was played at Oakmont Country Club near Pittsburgh. A veteran of several previous Amateurs, he approached the 1938 contest with a different attitude, having studied mistakes which led to early exits from previous championships.
Turnesa expressed his opinion that Oakmont was the toughest course of all, with greens being sped up by using 500-pound rollers, causing the ball to roll and roll. Turnesa said, “I played very well, I was more conservative. I was satisfied with myself. I didn’t want to blame my loss, if I did lose, on being careless and ridiculous. I reverted to that saying that Bobby Jones always advocated: ‘Play the golf course, don’t play your opponent.’ I did, even in the finals. I didn’t watch my opponent play. I just played my own game.” Turnesa trounced his opponent, Pat Abbott, 8 and 7 in the final match.
Willie, later dubbed “The Wedge” by famed golf writer Bernard Darwin, successfully executed 13 sand saves from the bunkers at Oakmont during the final 36-hole match. Turnesa’s wedge is now part of the USGA Museum’s collection.
It would be nine years before Turnesa captured another major amateur championship. After playing in the 1947 Walker Cup, Turnesa made his way through the field at the British Amateur Championship to face fellow American Dick Chapman in the final, marking the first time two Americans met in the final of the British event.
Richard Miller, writing for The Met Golfer in 1985, detailed Turnesa’s clever strategy during the first round of the 36-hole final: “Turnesa’s caddie noticed that Chapman’s caddie was paying very close attention to Turnesa’s club selection. With a 1-up lead after the 15th hole, Turnesa changed his head covers going to the par-3, 235-yard 16th. Having the honor, he took out his 3-wood with the driver head cover, threw it to Chapman’s feet, and then hit a shot just short of the green. Chapman, thinking Turnesa had used his driver, took his driver and hit a shot 20 yards over the green.” Turnesa won the match, 3 and 2.
Turnesa claimed his second U.S. Amateur title in 1948 when he defeated Raymond Billows in a rain-soaked championship match at Memphis Country Club. Among those in the field was a relatively unknown 19-year-old by the name of Arnold Palmer.
When he was a boy, Turnesa had caddied for Udo Reinach, a New York City financial wizard. He learned a great deal from Reinach about life, money, and work. Rather than worshipping athletes like other boys, Turnesa attempted to pattern his life after Reinach’s. From the first day he met Reinach, he knew he wanted to be a businessman.
Turnesa remained an amateur, proud of being a businessman first and a golfer second. After a stint in the Navy as a gunnery instructor he purchased a small fire extinguisher company. He sold the company in 1952 and took a position as vice president of sales and marketing with the Binghamton Container Company.
Willie’s story is that of only one of many Turnesas. Joe Turnesa finished second in the 1926 U.S. Open, one stroke behind Bob Jones. The next year he was beaten, 2 and 1, by Walter Hagen in the finals of the PGA Championship. Jim Turnesa was runner-up to Sam Snead in the 1942 PGA Championship; he won that same event in 1952. Mike Turnesa lost to Ben Hogan, 7 and 6, in the final match of the 1948 PGA Championship.
Willie Turnesa passed away on June 16, 2001, leaving behind a legacy of championship golf, the importance of family, and hard work. His obituary in the New York Times stated that the Turnesa faily was "to golf what the Kennedys were to politics."
Rob Alvarez is the collection manager of the USGA Museum. Email questions or comments to RAlvarez@usga.org.
Willie Turnesa, the youngest of nine children, stands outside his Elmsford, N.Y. home with his parents, Vitale and Anna, after winning the 1938 U.S. Amateur. (USGA Museum)
Nine years after his first U.S. Amateur title, Willie Turnesa defeated fellow American Dick Chapman in the 1947 British Amateur final. It marked the first time two Americans met in the championship's final. (USGA Museum)
Willie's older brother, Jim Turnesa, was a corporal in the U.S. Army. He finished runner-up to Sam Snead at the 1942 PGA Championship. Snead (seated) is shown buying a war bond with his winnings while Jim Turnesa watches. (USGA Museum)