Golfer Craig Wood: Hard-Luck Loser to Major Champ, Hall of Fame

Golfer Craig Wood at the Los Angeles Open in the 1930s
Craig Wood won two major championships in the year of 1941, but before that he was known for his losses in majors: He was the first player in golf history to lose all four men's majors in extra holes. But he was a consistent winner from the late 1920s through the early 1940s, and was known for prodigious length off the tee.

Full name: Craig Ralph Wood

Date of birth: November 18, 1901

Place of birth: Lake Placid, New York

Date and place of death: May 7, 1968 in Palm Beach, Florida

Nicknames: Blond Bomber

Losing Each of the Majors in Playoffs

Eventually, Greg Norman joined Craig Wood in this unusual distinction, but for decades Wood was the only golfer who had ever lost all four men's major championships — The Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA Championship — in playoffs, or "extra holes."

  • 1933 British Open: Wood faced Denny Shute in a 36-hole playoff. On the playoff's very first hole, Wood, one of the longest drivers of his era, knocked his tee ball into the Swilcan Burn, 350 yards away. He tried to play out of the water and double bogeyed. Another double followed on the next hole. He wound up losing the playoff to Shute by five strokes.

  • 1934 PGA Championship: Wood and Paul Runyan met in the 36-hole championship match, a matchup of one of the era's longest drivers with one of its shortest. Wood had also once hired Runyan as his assistant pro at Forest Hill Field Club in New Jersey. Years later, Runyan remembered, "Wood had the coolest demeanor of anybody I’ve ever seen. He was a great friend and mentor." Tied after 36 holes, they continued into extra holes, first to win a hole would be the champ. On the first extra hole, a par-5, Wood reached the green in two. Runyan, playing his second stroke, hooked it — but the ball struck a Movietone News film truck and bounced back into the fairway. Runyan wedged it close, Wood missed his eagle putt, then Runyan won the championship on the 38th hole.

  • 1935 Masters: Wood led Gene Sarazen by three strokes going into the final round. And Wood birdied four of the last eight holes in that final round. He was in the clubhouse being congratulated as the presumptive winner when Sarazen struck his famous "Shot Heard 'Round the World": On the 15th hole, Sarazen, then three behind Wood, holed out a 4-wood for double eagle, tying Wood with one swing. They finished 72 holes tied and proceeded to a 36-hole playoff. Sarazen won the playoff by five strokes.

  • 1939 U.S. Open: Wood, Shute and Byron Nelson finished tied at 284. They were scheduled to play an 18-hole playoff, and on that 18th hole Wood led Nelson by one (Shute was never a factor). But Nelson birdied, and so he and Wood continued into a second 18 holes. On the fourth hole of that second 18 (the 22nd hole overall), Nelson holed out a 1-iron for eagle, and he led the rest of the way. Wood wound up losing by three strokes.
These losses helped Wood become the first golfer to complete the "career Second Slam" — finishing second in all four majors.

Wood's Major Championship Wins

Two years after the last of Wood's playoff losses in majors, he claimed not just his first win in a major, but two of them. He was 39 years old, an age, in the 1940s-era of golf, that was fairly "old" for a tour player. Yet, Wood became the first golfer ever to win The Masters and the U.S. Open in the same year.

  • 1941 Masters: A first-round 66 sent Wood to the wire-to-wire victory, the first wire-to-wire winner in Masters history. (There wasn't another wire-to-wire Masters champ until Arnold Palmer in 1960.) Wood was briefly tied by Byron Nelson on the front nine of the final round, but he held steady and closed with a 72 to beat runner-up Nelson by three strokes.

  • 1941 U.S. Open: A couple weeks before the tournament, Wood strained his back and had to play wearing a back brace. He opened the first round playing poorly and, standing in a ditch into which he had hit, Wood considered withdrawing. Tommy Armour talked him into continuing. By the end of the second round, Wood shared the lead. After the third round, he led by two over Denny Shute and Paul Runyan, two of the golfers who had beaten Wood in extra holes in earlier playoffs. A final-round 70, and final-hole birdie, gave Wood a three-stroke win over runner-up Shute.

At the end of the year, Wood was named by the Associated Press the Comeback Athlete of the Year. And, because the U.S. Open wasn't played again unti 1946 due to World War II, Wood is the longest-serving U.S. Open winner, holding the trophy for five years.

Wood's bad luck in majors was something that was talked about and written about frequently at the time. It is said that fans at The Masters and U.S. Open pulled hard for Wood. In a 1942 interview with Golf Magazine, Wood said of his snake-bitten earlier years, "If this is hard luck, let me have it. Seriously though, in all my many years of golf, I have had just as much good luck as the next fellow."

"Adversity didn't bother him. Weather didn't bother him. Ailing didn't bother him. And he didn't talk about his wounds. He was one hell of a dude, I'll tell you that." — Jack Burke Jr. on Craig Wood

Wood's PGA Tour Wins

These 21 tournament wins by Craig Wood are today counted as official PGA Tour victories:
  • 1928 New Jersey PGA Championship
  • 1929 Oklahoma City Open
  • 1929 Hawaiian Open
  • 1930 New Jersey PGA Championship
  • 1930 Reddy Tee Tournament
  • 1931 Harlingen Open
  • 1932 New Jersey PGA Match Play Championship
  • 1932 San Francisco National Match Play Open
  • 1932 Pasadena Open
  • 1933 Los Angeles Open
  • 1933 Radium Springs Open
  • 1934 Galveston Open Championship
  • 1934 New Jersey Open
  • 1936 General Brock Open
  • 1938 Augusta Open-Forest Hills
  • 1940 Metropolitan Open
  • 1940 Miami Biltmore International Four-Ball (team tournament, partnered by Billy Burke)
  • 1941 Masters Tournament
  • 1941 U.S. Open
  • 1942 Canadian Open
  • 1944 Durham Open

More About Craig Wood

Throughout his career as a club pro and tour pro, Craig Wood was known as kind and generous, someone always willing to help younger players. Sam Snead once called Wood "the nicest guy I think I've ever seen."

He was tall, good-looking and strong, living up to his "Blonde Bomber" nickname. During the 1933 British Open, the same in which he opened the playoff hitting 350 yards into the burn, Wood, on another hole, hit 430 yards into a bunker (yes, there was a good tailwind). For many decades to come, that was the longest-known measured drive in any major championship.

Wood's strength came from a childhood weilding an axe — his father was a timber foreman for a lumber company in the Adirondack Mountains of northeastern New York.

Golfer Craig Wood in 1933 at the Los Angeles Open

Wood started in golf as so many in his era did: caddying. He began carrying bags around Lake Placid-area golf courses at age 12. And his interest in golf grew exponentially right around the same time as another caddie, Francis Ouimet, won the 1913 U.S. Open. He and his brother fashioned a rough-hewn golf course out of farmland in their teens.

After attending college in New Jersey, Wood was hired as the golf pro at a 9-hole course in Kentucky. While there, he won two state tournaments, his first pro win happening at age 24 in the 1925 Kentucky State Open.

in 1926, Wood moved back to New Jersey and began a string of club pro jobs, including at Norwood Country Club, Forest Hill Field Club, Hollywood Golf Club, Crestmont Country Club and Rumson Country Club.

He also picked up his first win in a PGA Tour tournament, the 1928 New Jersey PGA Championship. In 1929, multiple wins, both in official PGA Tour events plus in other tournaments not considered tour events, followed. Wood continued winning tournaments into the 1940s. In addition to the 21 PGA Tour wins listed above, Wood also won these non-tour events:

  • 1925 Kentucky Open
  • 1926 Kentucky PGA Championship
  • 1929 Pasadena Open
  • 1934 Lakes Open (in Australia)
  • 1938 New Jersey PGA Championship
  • 1942 Metropolitan PGA Championship
  • 1943 Golden Valley Four-Ball (partnered by Jimmy Demaret)
His first appearance in a major was in the 1925 U.S. Open. In 1933, before losing the British Open playoff, Wood had finished third in the U.S. Open. He was runner-up in the 1934 Masters, the first one ever played, by one stroke to Horton Smith. Later in the year came his extra-holes loss in the PGA Championship title match. For his career, Wood had 15 Top 10 finishes in majors, including a loss in the semifinals of the 1936 PGA Championship, and solo fourth in the 1940 U.S. Open.

He had multiple Top 20 finishes on he PGA Tour money list during his career, beginning with 16th in 1929. In 1930, Wood was 13th on the money list, then eighth in 1932, second (his career best, behind Paul Runyan) in 1933, sixth in 1934, 13th in 1936, 19th in 1939, 11th in 1940, fourth in 1941 (behind Ben Hogan, San Snead and Byron Nelson), 15th in 1942, and, finally, fifth in 1944.

In 1933, Wood, in addition to his two PGA Tour wins, finished in the Top 10 in 11 out of 14 tour events he completed, with two seconds and five thirds. In 1940, he won the Metropolitan Open by 11 strokes over runner-up Ben Hogan.

Then came his major championship season of 1941, during which he also had Top 10 finishes in 18 out of 22 tournaments completed, including three second-place showings and three thirds.

Along the way, Woods was named to Team USA for the 1931 Ryder Cup, 1933 Ryder Cup and 1935 Ryder Cup. (There would have been more, but the Ryder Cup was suspended from 1938-46 due to World War II.) He went 1-2 in singles, with a win over Bill Davies in 1935, but losses to Arthur Havers (1931) and Percy Alliss (1935).

In 1939, Wood replaced Mike Brady as head pro at Winged Foot, and remained in that position and Claude Harmon took over in 1945. When his golf tournament days ended, Wood worked as a car dealer and a sales executive.

In 1954, the golf course in his hometown, Lake Placid Golf and Country Club, changed its name to Craig Wood Golf Club. It still has that name today. A display in the pro shop shows off mementos from Wood's career.

In the early 1960s, Wood moved to The Bahamas and helped develop Lucayan Country Club, where he became head pro. There, in 1968, he suffered a heart attack while on the job. Two months later, in Palm Beach, Florida, Wood suffered another heart attack and died in his hotel room at the age of 66.

Today, Wood is a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame (elected in 2008), the PGA of America Hall of Fame, the Metropolitan PGA Hall of Fame, and the New Jersey State Golf Association Hall of Fame.

To go more in-depth, check out the book Craig Wood, the Blonde Bomber: Native Son of Lake Placid (affiliate link).

Photo credits: Both images via the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, UCLA Library. Copyright Regents of the University of California, UCLA Library. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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