Dow Finsterwald’s triumph in 1958 PGA Championship bridged a new generation of major champions
Sixty-one years ago, Dow Finsterwald wiped the sweat off his brow, sat at a table in front of a crowded press tent at Llanerch Country Club in Havertown, Pennsylvania, took the microphone and made an announcement.
“Gentlemen, you’ve got yourselves a colorless champion,” said the winner of the 1958 PGA Championship.
Finsterwald, who had finished either runner-up or shared second 18 times over the preceding 31 months, was not the marquee name golf fans were anticipating. However, that hot July day at Llanerch, some 11 miles northwest of Philadelphia, Finsterwald received the adulation of a gallery throughout his final round.
The week was historic for the PGA Championship and the PGA of America, as its signature championship — begun in 1916 — made the transition from match to stroke play. It also was the first PGA Championship broadcast by network television. CBS provided nationwide coverage Saturday and Sunday.
It was a week of atonement for the 28-year-old Finsterwald, a native of Athens, Ohio, who had lost the 1957 PGA Championship’s final match, a 2 and 1 decision to Lionel Hebert. It was almost as if Finsterwald had made a seamless transition to four rounds of stroke play.
“Yes, I was the one there at the end, but I didn’t dwell on it,” said Finsterwald, now 88 and who splits his year spending summers in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and winters in Orlando, Florida. “I remember that year how a television director from Philadelphia, Frank Chirkinian, made his mark in broadcasting at the Championship. And, those last nine holes almost felt like match play to me.”
Paired with legendary Sam Snead, who was bidding to win a fourth PGA Championship at age 46, Finsterwald stepped up. He birdied the fourth, fifth and seventh holes to catch Snead. Finsterwald grabbed a two-stroke lead through nine holes with a 31.
The moment of truth for Finsterwald came on No. 12, then a 178-yard par-3 that was bordered by trees.
“I missed my tee shot bad left, and was faced hitting over a tree to a downslope,” said Finsterwald. “I got a tremendous break. I wedged my ball to 12 feet and made that putt on a green that was probably in the worst condition of the greens that week. I remember Sam three-putting.”
Finsterwald told reporters he had made a “Houdini par.” Year later, he said, “I felt only a magician could have saved par there.”
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That week, Finsterwald’s father, Russ, who started his son in golf, was in the gallery. He walked the entire 72 holes along with Finsterwald’s uncle Abe. “I was very fortunate,” said Finsterwald. “Winning changed a lot of things for me. I was among the first four money-winners five years in a row.”
Having failed to qualify for the U.S. Open earlier in the year, Finsterwald put together rounds of 67-72-70-67 to defeat Billy Casper by two strokes and Sam Snead by four. Finsterwald earned a first-place check of $5,500.
Finsterwald’s youngest son, Dow Jr., is a PGA Head Professional at historic Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas. He was born less than a year after his father’s PGA triumph. “Obviously, his being a runner up in match play prior to his victory made it that much more special,” said Dow Jr. “It is mentioned every year during the championship which keeps the memory alive.
“For sure, my dad’s affiliation with the PGA got me interested in the business at a young age. Working the driving range and bag room at The Broadmoor was the key to a better understanding of the business that I later became part of.”
Ascending to major champion status was actually not that big of a jump for Finsterwald, who had left an indelible mark as an amateur golfer.
In 1950, Finsterwald was a 20-year-old posting a 61 in the final round of the St. Louis Open. At the time, it was the lowest round at a PGA Tour event, and though Finsterwald didn’t get a check for his T-23 finish, he had left an early mark among many in the golf world. He turned professional in 1951 and debuted on the PGA Tour a year later.
Finsterwald won 12 times as a PGA Tour professional, along with capturing the 1957 Vardon Trophy, registering the lowest scoring average (70.3) for an entire season and was named the 1958 PGA Player of the Year. He also made 72 consecutive cuts, still the fifth-longest streak all time. In fact, Finsterwald made 398 of 474 Tour cuts, an amazing 83.9 percent efficiency standard.
He was a member of four U.S. Ryder Cup teams, and served as non-playing captain for the victorious 1977 U.S. Ryder Cup Team.
Finsterwald attended Ohio University in his hometown, where he member of the golf team. Finsterwald was known for his superb short game. He was one of the most consistent players on the Tour in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He finished fifth or better more than 50 times in his career. Finsterwald was a close friend of Arnold Palmer, who was also one of the dominant players on the Tour during this same time period.
With all the successes, it was a week outside Philadelphia that became Finsterwald’s hallmark performance. In 1969, Finsterwald was inducted into the Ohio University Athletics Hall of Fame joining his father, Russ Finsterwald, who was in the inaugural class of inductees (1963) as a football player, and later basketball and football head coach.
Finsterwald served as director of golf at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colorado for 28 years. He simultaneously served as PGA of America vice-president from 1976–1978; and on the USGA Rules of Golf committee from 1979-1981. He is also the Pro Emeritus of the Pikewood National Golf Club, based in Morgantown, West Virginia.
Finsterwald’s public presence didn’t end there. He also was a fixture for many Midwesterners tuning in to watch the Chicago Cubs on WGN in the 1960s. His "Golf Tip of the Day" would follow Cubs telecasts.
The program was a series of color instructional vignettes filmed in 1962, in which Finsterwald helped sports and entertainment celebrities of the day fix their golf swings. The made-for-television films were among the first of their kind.
The first six weeks of filming took place on a golf course in New Jersey. Celebrities such as Yankee great Roger Maris and comedian Henny Youngman were among guest to present Finsterwald with a swing problem. Finsterwald: "We'll be back in a minute to see if this tip will help you TV viewers."
At the close of each commercial, Finsterwald added a signature farewell: "If you didn't see your problem today, come back. You will."
Finsterwald was inducted into the PGA of America Hall of Fame in 2006, and a year later was honored by fellow Ohio native Jack Nicklaus at the 2007 Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio. In 2008, he was inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame.