Cary Middlecoff is often remembered for his glacial pace of play, his occasionally volcanic temper and his nickname, Doc, which he earned for being a qualified dentist. What he should be remembered as is one of the few players ever to master the game young and then never loose his grip on it.
Middlecoff won his third tournament as a pro, in 1947, and at least one more in every year until his retirement in 1961. When he hung up his spikes his 40 career victories were eighth on the PGA Tour’s all-time list, and he had also bagged two U.S. Open titles and the 1955 Masters. Middlecoff won the Memphis city championship and Tennessee state amateur while still a teenager, took one collegiate tournament by 29 strokes while at the University of Mississippi and later became the first amateur to win the North and South Open, in 1945, while playing in the final group with Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen.
"Nobody wins the Open. It wins you."
“I’d give the world to have a swing like that,” Bobby Jones once said, all the more remarkable considering Middlecoff never took a lesson.
Middlecoff was born in Halls, Tenn., and earned the nickname “The Ghost” as a boy because he was always haunting the town’s country clubs, looking for tips on his game. He was a big kid (eventually growing to 6’2″) who was more interested in knocking the stuffing out of the ball than perfecting any technique. Later in life he would use his tremendous length off the tee to overpower golf courses and opponents alike.
Middlecoff had nearly given up golf for dentistry when World War II convinced him otherwise. After serving 18 months of active duty and filling some 7,000 teeth, he decided to give the pro tour a whirl with the caveat that if he wasn’t successful within two years he would go back to drilling teeth instead of 2-irons. At the Charlotte Open in his rookie year, Middlecoff tied the course record in the final round and took home the $2,000 winner’s check. He never looked back.
Two years later, he won his first major, the 1949 U.S. Open at Medinah. The most dominant performance of Middlecoff’s career came at the 1955 Masters, which he won by a then-record seven strokes, stoked by an 86-foot putt for eagle on the 13th during the third round. When he held off Ben Hogan and Julius Boros at the next year’s U.S. Open at Oak Hill, Middlecoff established himself as one of the premier golfers of the 1950s.
At the 1957 U.S. Open, Middlecoff shot back-to-back 68s to make up eight strokes and force a playoff with Dick Mayer, but it was memorable for other reasons. Mayer showed up for the playoff with a camping stool, an unsubtle comment on Middlecoff’s slow play, which came from an unnatural fastidiousness about his alignment. Indeed, according to writer Dan Jenkins, Middlecoff’s fellow pros used to joke that he had given up dentistry because no patient could hold his mouth open that long. How much Mayer’s stunt perturbed Middlecoff is unknown, but he shot a woeful 79 to lose the Open by seven strokes.
Middlecoff was deliberate in other ways. At the top of his languid backswing he came to a visible stop. Middlecoff was a pithy commentator on the game and worked for several years as a television analyst. Among his more memorable phrases were, “Nobody wins the Open. It wins you,” and “Anyone who hasn’t been nervous, or hasn’t choked somewhere down the line, is an idiot.” Middlecoff’s theories on the golf swing, collected in a book appropriately entitled The Golf Swing, are considered among the most accessible ever written. Which is not surprising, considering the game always came so easy to him.