Harry Cooper was one of the finest players and most consistent winners in professional golf in the 1920s and 1930s with but a single void in his career: a major championship-despite several narrow misses.
Cooper won 31 times on the PGA TOUR between 1925 and 1941, including the Canadian Open and the Los Angeles Open twice each. In 1937, he won eight times, led the money list and won the inaugural Vardon Trophy.
Cooper spent his career around the lead and he racked up 37 runner-up finishes and 25 thirds. The most disappointing seconds were at the 1927 and 1936 U.S. Open and at the 1936 Masters, where he was nipped at the end by the hot putting of Horton Smith. He was also second at Augusta in 1938. He reached the semifinals of the PGA once, losing to Walter Hagen in 1925. He never played in the British Open.
"First you've got to be good, but then you've got to be lucky."
Cooper was born Aug. 4, 1904, in Leatherhead, England, and came to America at age 10. His father, Sid, who had served an apprenticeship under Old Tom Morris at St. Andrews, was the golf professional at Cedar Crest in Dallas. His mother, Alice, also was a fine player who worked in the golf shop and gave lessons.
The young Cooper was a phenom. He won the 1923 Texas PGA at age 18 and repeated the next year. He took his first important title at the 1926 Los Angeles Open. It was there that Damon Runyon dubbed him “Light Horse” for the speed with which he played and the nimble way he carried himself. At the Los Angeles C.C., he and George Von Elm played the last round in 2 hours and 30 minutes. While Cooper floated, his caddy labored with a bag filled with 26 clubs.
Cooper was considered a wonderful swinger of the club. When he was young, he had a long flowing swing, which he described as “about two inches shorter than John Daly’s.” Shortly after his victory at Los Angeles, he decided he had to make it more compact and competed sparingly for 18 months. When he came back, he had lost some distance but gained accuracy. It gave birth to another nickname, “Pipeline.”
Harry Cooper won the inaugural Vardon Trophy in 1937.
Cooper twice came excruciatingly close to winning the U.S. Open. In 1927 at Oakmont, he led after the third round but made three 6s on the final 18, and three-putted the 71st hole from eight feet. Then Tommy Armour holed a 10-footer for birdie on the difficult 18th to tie. In the playoff, Cooper led by two after 11, but he double-bogeyed the 16th and lost the playoff, 76-79. In the 1936 Open at Baltusrol, Cooper led by two through three rounds and finished with a 73 for a record total of 284. While Cooper was being congratulated for his apparent victory, Tony Manero came in with a final-round 67 for 282.
At Augusta in 1936, Cooper led by three after three rounds. However, he got the worst of wind and rain and finished with a 76. Horton Smith was still two strokes behind with five to play, but birdied two of them while Cooper bogeyed the 71st. After his playing career, Cooper became a distinguished teaching professional passing on his knowledge of the game until shortly before his death in 2000.
Nevertheless, in the era of 1930 to 1945, Cooper was ranked by PGA TOUR statistics the fourth-best player behind Byron Nelson, Sam Snead and Horton Smith. “First you’ve got to be good,” Cooper once said, “but then you’ve got to be lucky.”