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Stroke of Genius: PGA Championship entered new era in 1958
It's been 50 years since the first stroke-play PGA Championship -- and the first broadcast on live TV. It was 1958, and Dow Finsterwald posted a two-stroke victory over Billy Casper at Llanerch Country Club outside Philadelphia in an event that signaled a new era for The PGA of America and major championship golf.
By Dave Shedloski, Special to PGA.com
Dow finsterwald arrived at the 1958 PGA Championship at Llanerch Country Club, near Philadelphia, with a sense of purpose and a desire to take care of some unfinished business. He couldn't possibly have known that the sea of change The PGA of America's flagship event had undertaken that year would place him squarely in a unique spotlight that 50 years later hasn't dimmed.
Finsterwald had finished second in the 1957 PGA Championship at Miami Valley Golf Club in Dayton, Ohio, losing in the final of the match-play format to Lionel Hebert by a score of 2 and 1. But he would not get the chance to avenge that loss in the same format, for the following year at the 40th PGA Championship at Llanerch, the Championship was contested at medal play, a decision that riled the purists and traditionalists in the game who wanted to see one of the major championships remain a match-play competition.
Famed golf writer Herbert Warren Wind, recently nominated posthumously for the World Golf Hall of Fame, was among those fretting The PGA's surrender of its special place in the championship order.
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Wrote Wind in a 1958 commentary for Sports Illustrated:
"There was one thing the 1958 PGA Championship lacked, as we noted earlier, and that it did was inevitable: by changing its format to stroke play it seemed like just another weekly circuit tournament (albeit a good one) and not like the PGA Championship. For four decades ... this championship was singular and impressive because it marked the one time in the year when the pros met in match play. Over the past weeks many of my colleagues and other golf fans whose involvement in the game goes back a ways have been recalling the numberless dramatic matches they have witnessed in the championship."
Wind, whose literary contributions included the coining of the term "Amen Corner" earlier in the year in describing where the key action at Augusta National Golf Club had taken place during Arnold Palmer's first Masters victory, conceded that match play's main shortcoming was the real possibility of many of the game's luminaries being eliminated before the weekend. Medal play provided better odds that the likes of Sam Snead, Billy Casper and the newly minted Masters champion could remain in the throughout the Championship.
The format change also ensured that there would be golf throughout all 18 holes, a paramount consideration given that CBS Sports had signed a four-year contract with The PGA of America to provide television coverage of the final four holes of the Championship beginning with the 1958 edition. A local studio director and Philadelphia native, Frank Chirkinian, would oversee that first broadcast and change the arc of his career and largely impact the future of the game's coverage.
A hunch that the change would spur greater fan interest paid off for The PGA of America, which saw huge crowds invade Llanerch over the four days of the competition. The financial success was so striking that The PGA increased by nearly 30 percent the total prize money to $40,000.
Against this backdrop arrived Finsterwald, who admits years later that he didn't much care how the winner would be determined. He just wanted to win.
"I remember there being a certain amount of resistance to the change," says Finsterwald from his summer home in Colorado Springs, Colo., (he winters near his close friend, Palmer, at Bay Hill Club in Orlando). "The leaders of The PGA saw interest from TV and potential for greater interest from the public. They were, frankly, thinking ahead. They knew what they were doing. But at the time, I didn't have a strong feeling one way or the other. Afterward, I had to say I liked the change."
The son of a two-sport athlete at Ohio University, Finsterwald didn't take up golf until age 15 when he began working as a golf shop steward at Athens (Ohio) Country Club during World War II. He quickly showed an aptitude for the refined skills necessary to excel in the game, and he practiced diligently to become a fine ball-striker and exceptional putter. His steady and patient approach yielded 12 PGA Tour titles, and from 1955?58 he finished in the money 72 straight weeks, still the fifth-longest cut streak ever.
But some people of his era thought Finsterwald played too conservatively. In the preceding 31 months leading up to the '58 PGA Championship, he had just one victory to his credit but had finished second 17 times.
"I did play conservatively, but that fit my game and, I guess, my personality to some degree," Finsterwald admits. "But I never thought that the way I played necessarily cost me any victories. I think it allowed me to get the most out of my game." That certainly turned out to be the case at Llanerch Country Club, where he was never far from the lead over the 72 holes of stroke play. His 3-under-par 67 gave him a one-shot lead over Jay Hebert, the brother of Lionel, and the two men were tied at 139 through 36 holes, while bigger names Sam Snead and Billy Casper began to lurk after sharing low second rounds of the day with 67s.
Snead, arguably the most popular player in the field despite the presence of Palmer (playing in his first PGA Championship), fired another 67 in the third round for a 207 total and a one-stroke lead over Casper. Finsterwald, with a 70, was two back.
Two developments dramatically altered the course of the PGA Championship in Finsterwald's favor the final day. First, he went out on the front nine in a blistering 31. So much for conservative play. "I was hitting it very well that day, and was relaxed," Finsterwald recalls.
Trouble, however, reared up at the par-3 12th. Finsterwald, paired with Snead and Doug Ford, pushed his tee shot far right and found a tree in his way. Snead found the green and was sizing up a 15-footer for birdie. Finsterwald pitched over the tree and got the ball to rest 12 feet from the hole. Snead, perhaps pressing, ran his birdie putt by, and then missed the comebacker to suffer a crushing bogey, while Finsterwald then converted his par putt. Snead then double-bogeyed the 13th.
"That was the tournament, really," Finsterwald says. "I picked up a shot when it looked like I might lose a couple of shots. I didn't have any trouble knowing what to do from there."
Indeed, he became even more conservative on his approaches into the small, raised, pitched greens, making sure he remained below the hole to avoid potential three-putts. His closing 67 and 276 total was two better than Casper. Snead closed with a 73 to end up third at 280.
Later that year, Finsterwald won the Utah Open Invitational, and he was named the 1958 PGA Player of the Year. In addition, he earned an automatic berth on the 1959 U.S. Ryder Cup Team -- for which he played four times between 1957-63 -- and, in that day, the win was worth a lifetime invitation to the Masters.
Finsterwald won his last tournament in 1963, and he left competitive golf in 1964. For nearly 30 years he served as PGA director of golf at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, where he and his wife, Linda, raised four children. He also retained an active role in the game through various duties; he was vice president of The PGA of America from 1976-78, and president of the Colorado Section of The PGA of America. In addition, he served on the Rules committees for the Masters and for the USGA at many of its championships.
A 2006 inductee into the PGA Golf Professional Hall of Fame, Finsterwald considers one of his greatest thrills in golf his service as United States Ryder Cup Captain for the victorious 1977 team.
Lately, though, as the calls have come in and he has recounted his win in the 40th PGA Championship, he's had time to reflect on that achievement and his place in golf history. The exercise of reminiscence has stirred pride and a bit of wonder.
"I'm not one to look back much on things, but lately I've been doing a bit more of it, and I guess you get a new appreciation for certain things," Finsterwald says. "Like I said, winning that PGA Championship at the time meant a lot to my career. All these years later, given the circumstances and the competition, I can say I did all right."
Dave Shedloski is a freelance golf writer from suburban Columbus, Ohio, and a frequent contributor to PGA Magazine. This story appears courtesy of the official PGA Championship Journal.