Don Cherry: Bio of Golfer, Singer

Singer and golfer Don Cherry
Don Cherry was an accomplished amateur golfer in the 1950s and then a pro golfer who played PGA Tour events from the 1960s into the 1980s. But he might have been more famous in his day for his other vocation: singer. Cherry had multiple hit records in the 1950s, appeared on many 1960s television shows, and, decades later, made several albums with Willie Nelson.

Date of birth: January 11, 1924

Place of birth: Wichita Falls, Texas

Date and place of death: April 4, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada

Nickname: To his friends in the entertainment industry, he was known as "Pro."

In the Majors (And Getting in Trouble at The Masters)

Don Cherry played in 17 major championships. Nine of those appearances were in The Masters, and eight were in the U.S. Open. He made the cut in nine majors, including 25th place in the 1959 Masters and 30th in the 1955 Masters.

But his best showing was a tie for ninth place with Ben Hogan in the 1960 U.S. Open, four strokes behind the winner, Arnold Palmer. Cherry was in it all week: He was in joint fourth after the first round, tied for sixth after Round 2, and seventh after Round 3.

His final total of 284 was better than any previous amateur in a U.S. Amateur. But it didn't set the record, because Cherry wasn't the low amateur in that tournament: Jack Nicklaus, still an amateur, was solo second at 282.

The first time Cherry played at Augusta, in the 1953 Masters, his singing got him in trouble with Augusta National strongman Clifford Roberts. Cherry was booked to perform in an Augusta, Ga., nightclub all four nights of the tournament. Roberts didn't like that idea.

In his book, Cherry's Jubilee: Singin' and Swingin' (published in 2006), Cherry remembered Roberts calling him aside and saying, "We never had anyone play in the Masters and sing at a local nightclub at the same time." The message was clear: Stop.

But Cherry didn't get the message at first, writing in his book, "My reply, without being disrespectful and with a little Texas naivete, was 'Mr. Roberts, I have looked at the people playing in this tournament and can't see anyone else who can sing.'"

Bobby Jones, Roberts' co-founder, hearing the exchange, told Cherry, "Your response to him was a very good one, but I don't think you should ever use that answer again." This time, Cherry got the message and cancelled his singing gig.

Cherry's Biggest Wins

All of Cherry's wins were in amateur tournaments, and these four were his biggest:
  • 1951 West Texas Amateur
  • 1952 West Texas Amateur
  • 1953 Canadian Amateur Championship
  • 1954 Sunnehanna Amateur
The Sunnehanna Amateur is still today one of the biggest stroke-play amateur tournaments for men. The one that Cherry was won the inaugural tournament.

His Singing Career

We go into more detail about Don Cherry's singing career in the article, The Hit Songs of Golfer Don Cherry. But a few highlights: His single Band of Gold, released in 1955, reached No. 4 on the Billboard charts and was a million-seller. One of his earliest singles, Thinking of You in 1950, also hit No. 4. Cherry had multiple other Top 10 and Top 40 singles in the 1950s, too.

That was the peak of his chart success, but in the 1960s Cherry appeared on many television variety shows and talk shows. He was a semi-regular on his friend Dean Martin's variety show. Another good friend was Willie Nelson, and in the 1990s/early 2000s Cherry and Nelson made several albums together. (See the article linked in the first paragraph to hear many of these songs and for more info.)

Cherry, described as having a mellow baritone, performed in clubs, cabarets, hotels and lounges, including headlining in Las Vegas (where he eventually lived). The New York Times, in an obituary of Cherry, wrote that "Mr. Cherry recorded for the Decca, Columbia and Monument labels, appeared on radio and TV variety shows (notably Dean Martin’s, on which he was a frequent guest) and played many of the big rooms in Las Vegas."

"Contrary to popular notions, Jimmy Demaret wasn't the best golfer who could sing and Bing Crosby wasn't the best singer who could play golf. The all-time best golfer/singer, singer/golfer is Don Cherry." — Dan Jenkins

More About Don Cherry

As a child, Cherry pursued both is lifelong loves: He got his first golf clubs at age eight and also caddied at the local club while honing his game; and he delivered singing telegrams for Western Union.

His competitive golf career started after he returned home from the Army Air Forces, in which he served during World War II. He won numerous local and regional tournaments in Texas, culminating in his West Texas Amateur wins of 1951-52.

In 1952, Cherry reached the semifinals of the U.S. Amateur — beating Frank Stranahan 3 and 1 in the round of 16, then Gene Littler 3 and 2 in the quarterfinals — before losing in the semis to Al Mengert.

Cherry's best year was 1953. That's the year of his Canadian Amateur win, and he reached the semifinals of the Southern Amateur. He also made his Walker Cup debut that year. In 1954, Cherry made it to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Amateur before falling to eventual champion Arnold Palmer, 1-down.

In addition to the 1953 Walker Cup, Cherry also played on Team USA in the 1955 Walker Cup and 1961 Walker Cup. He won every Walker Cup match in which he appeared. His singles wins were 9-and-7 over Norman Drew, 5-and-4 over Joe Carr and 5-and-4 over David Blair.

During the closing ceremonies of the Walker Cup in 1955, R&A captain Lord Brabazon asked Cherry to sing. So he stood on the steps of the R&A clubhouse at St. Andrews and crooned one of his hits, I Believe.

Also in 1955, attempting to defend his Sunnehanna championship, Cherry was runner-up by one stroke to Hillman Robbins Jr.

In 1962, Cherry decided to turn pro. He was never a full-time PGA Tour player, but eventually made 115 career starts (first in 1948, last in 1983) and had three career Top 10 finishes.

On the golf course, Cherry was noted for a powerful swing, but he often experienced putting problems. He often experienced anger management issues, too, once saying that his on-course temper "made Tommy Bolt look like a choir boy." He also played golf minus the hairpiece that he wore when singing on stage (and in publicity photos for his singing career such as the one above).

"I could always play golf, and I could always sing. I loved them both." — Don Cherry

Cherry never made much money from pro golf tournaments, and his singing career was mostly about the live performances by the 1960s (he headlined at most of the famous old Las Vegas hotels such as The Sands, The Tropicana, The Dunes, The Golden Nugget, and, especially, The Desert Inn). But he earned loads of money another way: From 1957-66, Cherry sang the "Mr. Clean" jingle in television commercials for the cleaning product. Eventually, the New York Times reported, Cherry earned, through residuals, more than $800,000 from that work alone. Here is one of those commercials:

The first of Cherry's four wives was Miss America 1956 Sharon Kay Ritchie. One of their sons, Stephen, was killed in the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

Cherry is a member of the Texas Golf Hall of Fame, and claimed 30 career holes-in-ones.

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