Ralph Guldahl stands alone in golf history as the best player ever to suddenly and completely lose his game. Guldahl was born the same year as Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson, and he shot to the top more quickly than any of them. In fact, during a dazzling stretch from 1936 to 1939, Guldahl was the brightest star in golf, winning two U.S. Opens, a Masters and three straight Western Opens. And then, mysteriously, he never won again.
Born in 1911 in Dallas, Texas, the precocious Guldahl joined the pro golf tour in the early 1930s, winning the 1932 Phoenix Open. In the final round of the 1933 U.S. Open at the North Shore G.C. outside Chicago, the tall 20-year-old picked up nine strokes in 11 holes on Johnny Goodman, and on the 72nd holed needed only a four-footer to force a playoff. He missed it and essentially gave up competition for nearly three years.
Guldahl went home to Dallas and became a used-car salesman until he was asked to lay out a nine-hole course in Kilgore, Texas. The project inspired Guldahl to take up the game again. He began practicing and, on the advice of doctors caring for his sickly son, moved his family to the California desert. In 1936, a rededicated Guldahl finished eighth in the U.S. Open and a few weeks later won his first Western Open.
The 1937 season was his best. Guldahl won the Western Open again, as well as the U.S. Open at Oakland Hills, where he closed with 69 for a total of 281 that stood as the championship record until 1948. He would have had three major titles but for an incredible reversal at the Masters. Guldahl was four strokes up with only seven to play, but he hit into the water on both the 12th and 13th holes to score a 5 and 6. On the same holes, Byron Nelson scored a 2 and a 3 to blow past Guldahl and win by two.
"Behind my so called poker face, I'm burning up."
He finished second in the Masters again in 1938, but eased the sting of that disappointment by becoming the only golfer to win both the Western and the U.S. Open in consecutive years. The latter victory was achieved by six strokes at Cherry Hills in Denver, where Guldahl became the last U.S. Open champion to win the title wearing a necktie.
Finally, in 1939, Guldahl got his green jacket in the most stirring performance of his career. With Snead in the clubhouse with a record score of 280, Guldahl fired a 33 on Augusta National’s back nine, highlighted by a 3-wood second to the par-5 13th that finished six feet from the hole and led to an eagle. That scoring record stood until Ben Hogan shattered it in 1953.
Guldahl in his prime was a golfer with an impressive arsenal. Though his fast and quirky swing produced only marginal power, Guldahl was straight and uncanny in controlling the distance of his approaches.
“When Ralph was at his peak,” said Snead, “his clubhead came back on the line and went through on the line as near perfect as anyone I’ve ever seen.” He was a deadly lag putter, and perhaps most importantly, had an imperturbable manner. Guldahl moved through his rounds slowly and devoid of emotion, his only distinguishing on course gesture a habit of taking out a comb and running it through his thick black hair. “If Guldahl gave someone a blood transfusion, the patient would freeze to death,” said Snead.
Ralph Guldahl once worked as a carpenter for Warner Brothers in the 1930s while he was mired in a slump.
But Guldahl admitted that “behind my so called poker face, I’m burning up.” Somehow, beginning in the 1940 season, he went from being the man to beat to a beaten man. Whether it was due to the rigors of competition, lack of desire or the vagaries of his swing remains a mystery.
One theory maintains that Guldahl lost his game after working on a golf instruction book, which forced him to think about swing mechanics for the first time in his life. Guldahl left the tour in 1942 and, except for a brief return in 1949, never played it again. But there was no denying Guldahl’s brilliance-while it lasted.