The Depression caused many country clubs to close, but New Deal programs such as the WPA saw to the building of nearly two hundred public golf courses. Enthusiasm for the sport dwindled a little, as smaller crowds came out to see the major tournaments. Still, golfing got better. Equipment—both golf clubs and golf balls—improved. The move from hickory shafts to steel ones provided longer drives. Golfer Gene Sarazen invented the sand wedge in his Florida garage in 1930.
More-meticulous attention was paid to groundskeeping and landscaping. Built for Bobby Jones, the Augusta National, one of the most challenging golf courses in the world, opened in Augusta, Georgia, in 1934 and became the home of the Masters Tournament. The new event would be limited to sixty-five or so of the very best golfers in the world. The miniature-golf craze would die out by the end of the decade, but in 1930 the first national open miniature-golf tournament was held in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Searching for Bobby Jones
From the day Bobby Jones retired (after winning the Grand Slam in 1930), people kept hoping another golfer with skill and charisma might come along who could assume the mantle of his greatness. No one, however, was able to fill his golf shoes. Twenty-year-old Gene Sarazen thrilled golf fans by coming from behind to win the 1932 U.S. Open by playing his last twenty-eight holes in a hundred strokes. In 1935 he double-eagled in the Masters to force Craig Wood into a playoff, which Sarazen won the next day.
His career was marked by inconsistency but also by longevity and proficiency. In 1934 Stanford’s Lawson Little Jr. burst onto the scene, capturing both the British and Amateur titles two years in a row. But even winning the double-double did not endear the stoic Little to fans. Ralph Guldahl also won two consecutive U.S. Opens in 1937 and 1938, but he played too methodically and emotionlessly. By the end of the decade a host of talented young golfers appeared, including Sam Snead and Byron Nelson, who won the Masters in 1937 and earned well-deserved comparisons with golden-age hero Jones.
What Price Pro?
There was not much money to be made in professional golf, especially during the height of the Depression. Paul Runyon was the big moneymaker in 1934, but he figured that when his expenses were deducted from his earnings he netted about $2. Of the thirty-three or so Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) tournaments in 1935, gross winnings totaled $135,000. Big winner Johnny Revolta won less than $10,000, while more than two hundred professional golfers split the rest. Since amateurs regularly competed with—and often defeated—professionals, the gallery seemed indifferent to status.
Women golfers remained amateur, although many of them could hit in the low 70s. Fans saw veteran Glenna Collett defeat seventeen-year-old Patty Berg (“the darling of the Minneapolis galleries”) for her sixth national championship in 1935. Virginia Van Wie won three consecutive amateur titles between 1932 and 1934. One major disappointment for Americans was the loss of the biennial Walker Cup to Great Britain in 1938; Americans had won it every other time it was contested since its inauguration in 1922.