Golfer Johnny Goodman: Last Amateur to Win a Major

Johnny Goodman grew up in extreme poverty, learned golf in the caddie ranks, then rode his short, compact swing to glory: U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur victories. He was the last amateur golfer to win the U.S. Open (which he accomplished before he had even won the Amateur), and he first came to fame with a shocking, first-round upset of Bobby Jones.

Full name: John George Goodman

Date of birth: December 28, 1909

Place of birth: South Omaha, Nebraska

Date and place of death: August 8, 1970 in South Gate, California

Goodman's Biggest Wins

Goodman played tournaments only as an amateur, and the U.S. Open was his only win in pro tournament:
  • 1927 Trans-Mississippi Amateur
  • 1929 Nebraska Amateur
  • 1930 Nebraska Amateur
  • 1931 Trans-Mississippi Amateur
  • 1931 Nebraska Amateur
  • 1933 U.S. Open
  • 1935 Trans-Mississippi Amateur
  • 1936 Mexican Amateur
  • 1936 Arcola Country Club Invitational
  • 1937 U.S. Amateur
  • 1937 Mexican Amateur
  • 1939 Arcola Country Club Invitational

Last Amateur to Win the U.S. Open

Johnny Goodman won the 1933 U.S. Open playing as an amateur, and no amateur has won it — or any of the other professional majors in men's golf — since. So Goodman isn't just the last amateur winner of the U.S. Open, but of any men's major.

Goodman was 23 years old when he arrived at North Shore Country Club in Glenview, Illinois, for the 1933 U.S. Open. He wasn't an unknown: He had some big amateur wins, and had already done well in several previous U.S. Opens (see the "More About" section below).

Goodman opened with a 75, but in the second round he vaulted to a 2-stroke lead on the strength of a 66. That score tied the then-tournament record first established by Gene Sarazen.

A 70 in the third round extended his lead to six strokes over second-place Ralph Guldahl. Goodman opened the final round with an eagle and a birdie in his first three holes. With 15 holes to play, he led by nine strokes over Guldahl.

But he played the next six holes in 6-over and his lead was only two as he made the turn onto the back nine. Two late bogeys, including one on the 17th, put that lead in jeopardy again.

Guldahl reached the final hole with a chance to make a four-foot putt to tie and force a playoff, but he missed the putt. And Johnny Goodman was the champ.

Goodman was the fifth amateur to win the U.S. Open, following Francis Ouimet, Jerome Travers, Chick Evans and Bobby Jones. When Goodman returned to Omaha, he received a parade through Downtown.

Goodman in the U.S. Amateur

Goodman won the U.S. Open before he won the U.S. Amateur, but so did Ouimet, Evans and Jones.

He first drew serious national attention when he beat Jones in the first round of the 1929 U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach — a tournament to which Goodman traveled riding in a cattle car because he couldn't afford the ticket for a passenger train. (It was a mode of transportation Goodman first used traveling to his Trans-Mississippi Amateur win in St. Louis in 1927.)

It was a victory that was shocking to golf fans at the time: Jones was the heavy favorite, and few, to that point, knew who the 19-year-old Goodman was. But after knocking off Jones, Goodman lost to Lawson Little in the next round.

Goodman made it to the championship match in 1932, beating Chandler Egan in the first round, Charlie Seaver in the second and Francis Ouimet in the semifinals, before losing to C. Ross Sommerville, 2 and 1, in the final.

In 1935, Goodman lost to Lawson Little in the semifinals, and in 1936 he fell to Johnny Fischer in semifinals.

But 1937 was finally Goodman's year to win the U.S. Amateur. En route to the championship match, he beat Donald McPhail, 7 and 6; Jimmy McHale, 4 and 3; Ken Rogers, 3 and 1; Donald Moe, 2 and 1; and, in the semifinals, Bud Ward, 1-up on 19th hole. In the championship match, Goodman, 27 years old, defeated Ray Billows, 2-up.

Trying to defend in 1938, Goodman went out in the quarterfinals to Dick Chapman. He played the U.S. Amateur only five more times after that (the tournament wasn't played from 1942-45 due to World War II), his final appearance resulting in a fourth-round defeat in 1947.

More About Johnny Goodman

Goodman grew up in abject poverty, his family, which included nine siblings, living in the slaughterhouse district of Omaha. His mother died when Goodman was 11, and his father abandoned the family when Johnny was 14, making him and his siblings orphans. Johnny mostly lived with families of friends after that.

Goodman quit school early on and went to work as a caddie at Omaha Field Club. The club pro thought highly enough of Goodman's caddie skills that when Walter Hagen played an exhibition there, Goodman got the assigment to carry The Haig's bag.

After taking up caddying, Goodman also took up playing golf, and into his teens kept improving by leaps and bounds. (He also began attending night school, managed to get back into high school and graduate, and went to college.) When he was 14, using only a driver, mid-mashie and mid-iron, Goodman won the club's caddie tournament.

His earliest significant tournament wins were in Omaha, in 1925 when Goodman was 15 years old: He won the Omaha Caddie Championship and Omaha Metropolitan Golf Championship tournaments.

Goodman was 16 when he traveled by cattle car to, and won, the 1927 Trans-Mississippi Amateur, and that same year he first entered the U.S. Amateur but failed to qualify. Just two year later he was shocking the world by beating Bobby Jones in the first round.

And four years after that came his U.S. Open victory. But Goodman had already made an impression in the U.S. Open before winning it. He tied for 11th in the 1930 U.S. Open, second-low amateur behind the winner, Jones. He tied for 14th and was low amateur in the 1932 U.S. Open. After winning in 1933, Goodman's best finish was in the 1937 U.S. Open, where he was solo eighth and again low amateur.

When Goodman won the U.S. Amateur in 1937, he became the fifth golfer to win both the Amateur and Open, joining Jerome Travers, Francis Ouimet, Chick Evans and Bobby Jones. It was a big-enough deal at the time that Goodman appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

Goodman entered the British Amateur only twice, in 1934 and 1938 (years he was already in Britain for the Walker Cup), but didn't get past the Round of 16.

Goodman played on Team USA in three Walker Cups, 1934, 1936 and 1938. He was a combined 4-0-0 in the first two, but lost both his matches in 1938, by which time some keen observers believed they were already spotting some slippage in his game.

Goodman didn't do himself any favors with his own behavior, though, as he increasingly became a heavy drinker. Then he suffered a broken arm in a car accident, his game suffered, and his alcohol consumption increased. Throughout his amateur golf career, Goodman had sold insurance to make a living, and that business, too, began to suffer.

Goodman moved to California, but lost the job he had there. Just before he turned 50, he suffered a severe liver problem related to his drinking that put him in the hospital, then in a coma. After multiple weeks, Goodman pulled through, and gave up booze.

To make money, he finally turned professional at age 50, in 1960, and began giving lessons at a par-3 golf course near Los Angeles. But he lived only 10 more years, dying at age 60.

Today, Johnny Goodman is a member of the the Nebraska Golf Hall of Fame, the Nebraska High School Hall of Fame and the Omaha Sports Hall of Fame. A municipal golf course in Omaha is named after him, and at the Omaha Field Club where Goodman started as a caddie, there is an annual competition named the Goodman Cup.

In 2015, the Omaha newspaper published a ranking of the 100 greatest athletes from Nebraska, and Goodman was ranked No. 24.

Additional reading:

If you'd like to go in-depth into the interesting life of Johnny Goodman, these are couple good books (affiliate links, commissions earned):

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