Seventy-five years ago yesterday, Jimmy Demaret packed up his golf clubs after finishing the final round in the Masters. Demaret, who’d won the tournament in 1940, finished sixth in 1942, 10 strokes behind winner Byron Nelson.
Bobby Jones, the founder of Augusta National, had already decreed the 1942 Masters to be the last until World War II ended.
In any event, the best players were off to military service: Jones himself, Ben Hogan, Lloyd Mangrum, and Horton Smith to the U.S. Army; Demaret, Lawson Little, and Sam Snead to the Navy. Byron Nelson had a physical condition (his blood didn’t coagulate properly) that made him ineligible for combat: He failed his physical twice, and wasn’t happy about it.
Many of these heroes of the links were kept stateside to entertain officers and troops, while raising money for the war effort. Not all of them, though. Bobby Jones endured shelling at Normandy. Mangrum, known as “Mr. Icicle” on the PGA tour, landed there on D-Day and was later wounded in the Battle of the Bulge.
Jimmy Demaret’s experience was more typical of famous American athletes. He spent the war stationed in Corpus Christi, Texas, where, as Bill Fields of Golf Digest noted, he played “not an insignificant amount of golf.”
Unlike Byron Nelson, Jimmy didn’t fret about it. “Every war has a slogan,” he’d quip. “‘Remember the Alamo,’ or ‘Remember Pearl Harbor.’ Mine was, ‘That’ll play, admiral.'”
This was typical of Jimmy Demaret, who was known for his loud clothes, love of night life, and irreverent wit.
In January 1949, when Ben Hogan was atop golf’s pinnacle, he beat Jimmy Demaret in a playoff at the Long Beach Open. A week later, at a tournament in Phoenix, Demaret did the same to Hogan. Demaret proposed that they consider an upcoming PGA event in Tucson the rubber match, but Hogan told his friend he would be driving back to Texas with his wife, Valerie. It was a fateful trip on which Ben and Valerie were nearly killed.
There’s a wonderful book on that era titled “American Triumvirate: Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan and the Modern Age of Golf.” Should it have been about a quartet of golfers, with a third Texan to go along with Nelson and Hogan and the Virginian Sammy Snead? In other words, was Jimmy Demaret their equal as a golfer?
Perhaps not, but he was truly great. He was also a crowd-pleasing character and first-class raconteur who had a great impact on the modern game of golf. First, the basics: Between 1938 and 1957, Jimmy won 31 PGA tournaments, including the Masters three times. (After the war, he won it in 1947 and 1950, both times on Easter Sunday.) When he died in 1983, Snead suggested, not unaffectionately, that if Jimmy had trained more diligently, he’d have won many more.
“He was a happy-go-lucky person, he liked to party at night and he never liked to sleep more than a few hours,” the then-71-year-old Snead told the New York Times. “No telling what Jimmy would have done if he’d toed the line and gone to bed at a decent hour.”
Back in their playing days, Arnold Palmer said something similar. “He could play the piano all night,” said Arnie, “and shoot 65 the next day.'”
I don’t know if “play the piano” was a euphemism, but I do know that after his retirement, Jimmy Demaret gave as much to the game as it had given to him. Virtually ignored for some reason in the annual hype surrounding the Masters, Demaret essentially created the seniors’ tour by founding the Legends of Golf Tournament, which was initially played at Onion Creek, the beautiful Austin, Texas course he’d designed. Once when asked about the physical splendor of Onion Creek, he said modestly, “God put it there. All I did was manicure it.”
Old-timers who remember Jimmy fondly believe that after his playing days were over he had a falling out with his old friend Bobby Jones. That wouldn’t be a shocker. The sober, formal, well-educated Jones oversaw a tournament in which announcers were (and still are) instructed to refer to the fans in the gallery as Augusta “patrons” and to call the rough the “first cut.”
By contrast, as a network announcer Jimmy coined the term “worm-burner” for a low shot, described Snead’s odd sideways putting stroke as “basting a turkey,” and once blurted out when Lew Worsham holed an improbable shot at a 1953 tournament in Chicago, “I’ll be a son-of-a-bitch!”
He wasn’t, though. Jimmy Demaret was a great guy and a great golfer. I’ll leave the last word to Ben Crenshaw, another Texas golf legend and a respected student of the game.
“It’s amazing,” Crenshaw said when Jimmy died, “how much he meant to golf.”
Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics