World Golf Hall of Famer Doug Ford, golf’s oldest major champion, passes at age 95

By Bob Denney
Published on
World Golf Hall of Famer Doug Ford, golf’s oldest major champion, passes at age 95

World Golf Hall of Famer Doug Ford Sr., the oldest living major champion and one of golf’s most durable competitors, died Monday evening in Palm Beach Gardens Medical Center. Ford, who had suffered a pair of strokes over the past year, was 95.

Born Douglas Michael Ford on Aug. 6, 1922, in West Haven, Connecticut, he was the son of a PGA Professional and had three uncles who also became PGA Members.

Doug Ford captured the 1955 PGA Championship, winning in his first attempt when the event was conducted as match play. Ford went on to win the 1957 Masters, become PGA Player of the Year that season and play on four U.S. Ryder Cup Teams.

“We are saddened to learn of the passing of Doug Ford, a champion who bridged the transformation of our PGA Championship from the match-play to stroke-play eras to become an honored member of the PGA family. He was rightfully enshrined forever as a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame,” said PGA of America President Paul Levy. “Our heartfelt thoughts and prayers are with his son, PGA Member Doug Jr., and his family.”

Ford was one of nine PGA Champions who were sons of a PGA Member. Ford’s father, Mike, was his only golf coach. “I only went to my Dad for help when I was having a problem,” Ford said in 2017. “I never took a lesson from anyone else. He knew my swing so well.”

During World War II, Ford served in the U.S. Coast Guard Air Division. He turned professional in 1949 and won for the first time in 1952, at the Jacksonville Open. It would be one of his 19 career professional victories.

Ford's first major triumph, the 1955 PGA Championship, came at Meadowbrook Country Club in Northville, Michigan. He was the 36-hole qualifying medalist, the last to do that and win a Championship. On his way to the finals, Ford rallied to defeat Ted Kroll, 2 and 1; and followed with his rout of Wally Ulrich, 12 and 10, in the third round.

“Wally and I were friends,” said Ford, confirming they remained that way after the match. “I had a lot of confidence that week.” 

In the 36-hole final against Cary Middlecoff, Ford halved the morning 17th hole by making a downhill 10-foot birdie putt to remain one hole down. In the afternoon, Ford used some unique gamesmanship. His son, Doug Jr., then 10 years old, carried a chair that Ford used judiciously for rest while waiting for Middlecoff to play.

“In those days, there were no gallery ropes keeping you back. Marshals rolled them up until the players and caddies arrived at their balls,” said Doug Jr. “I had a small folding chair that my dad used. It really showed up as we reached the back nine in the afternoon. My dad got stronger.”

Ford pulled ahead for good in the match on the 26th hole and built a two-hole advantage by the time the twosome arrived at the 32rd hole, a long par-4. Doug Jr. recalled that “there were thousands of fans following, and they were getting on Middlecoff about his pace of play.”

Ford was closer in two to the hole than Middlecoff was in three. When the pair arrived at the green, Middlecoff lit a cigarette, and didn’t putt until the whole cigarette was gone. It didn’t faze Ford, who won the hole. Two holes later, he closed out Middlecoff, 4 and 3. 

A few hours after the Championship, Ford and his family jumped into the family Lincoln that also pulled a trailer and arrived at Akron, Ohio the next morning. Few believed that Ford would play that week, but he ended up losing a playoff in the Rubber City Open.

A week later, Ford won the All-America Championship in Niles, Illinois, and finished those three straight weeks of play by earning $9,886.67.

“It didn’t dawn on me that it (the PGA Championship) was a major,” recalled Ford, as golf’s modern Grand Slam wouldn’t be popularized until 1960. “I wasn’t looking for majors; I was looking for money.”

Ford received a parade back home in Yonkers, New York, where his father was PGA Head Professional at Putnam Country Club. He also had three uncles who were golf professionals.

Despite the struggle Tour professionals faced to earn a representative take-home purse, Ford won 19 times in the 1950s, including 14 on the PGA Tour. He closed out the 1957 Masters by holing out for birdie from a plugged lie in the bunker on the 18th hole, capping a rally to beat Sam Snead by three strokes. The last of his PGA Tour wins was the 1963 Canadian Open.

Ford was a member of Ryder Cup teams in 1955, ’57, ’59, and ’61. He was inducted into the PGA Hall of Fame in 1975; the Connecticut Golf Hall of Fame in 1972; the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame (1992) and the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2011.

Ford once said that as long as he was able to swing a club, he would find a way to the course. In 2016, he attended the Champions Dinner at The Masters, and a couple days earlier got the chance to play Augusta National Golf Club one last time. He was accompanied by one of his longtime friends, 1968 Masters Champion Bob Goalby.

Ford returned to Augusta National for the last time in 2017, attending the Champions Dinner. His health had been in decline, yet he made the trip.

“My dad was not only a great player, he was a great man,” said Doug Jr. “He was from the Greatest Generation.” 

If there was ever any question about Ford’s focus and durability, it was answered during his 2011 World Golf Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Then age 88, Ford gave his acceptance speech without notes. He recalled that he showed enough promise as a third baseman that he received a contract offer from the New York Yankees.

While he was considering that offer, his father asked how long he might expect to play professional baseball. Doug answered that he might play about 10 years. His father replied, "Why don't you stay with the golf? You'll last forever.”

Doug Ford is survived by his PGA Professional sons, Doug Jr. of Palm Beach Gardens; and Mike, of Gulfstream, Florida, who also owns Jack O’Lantern Resort in New Hampshire; daughter Pam, an Assistant State Attorney, lives in  Jupiter, Florida. Ford was preceded in death by his wife, Marilyn, in 1988. Ford has seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Grandson Scott is a PGA Assistant Professional at Glen Oak Club in Old Westbury, New York.

Memorial details for Doug Ford will be released at a later date.

Doug Ford's career accomplishments 

One of 4 players in PGA Match Play History to be a qualifying medalist and eventual Champion

Ties Walter Hagen (1926); Olin Dutra (1932); and Byron Nelson (1945)

One of 9 sons of a PGA Member to win a PGA Championship

One of 8 players in history to win a PGA Championship in his first attempt

Biggest Winning Margin of Victory in a PGA Championship Match – 12 and 10 (tied)

Ky Laffoon  def. George Smith, 1st Round, 1934

Doug Ford def. Wally Ulrich, 3rd round, 1955

Masters Champion - 1957

Competed in 49 Masters, 27 PGA Championships, 19 U.S. Opens, 1 Open Championship

Member of 1955, ’57, ’59, ’61 U.S. Ryder Cup Team