Golfer Lew Worsham: U.S. Open Champ, Earliest TV Winner

golfer Lew Worsham
Lew Worsham was a professional golfer who won on the PGA Tour and also had a long and distinguished career as a club professional. He is best-known as a U.S. Open champion, but he also was an important player in the earliest days of televised golf.

Full name: Lewis Elmer Worsham Jr.

Date of birth: October 5, 1917

Place of birth: Pittsylvania County, Virginia (between the towns of Lynchburg and Danville)

Date and place of death: October 19, 1990 in Poquoson, Virginia

Nickname: The Chin

Lew Worsham's PGA Tour Wins

Worsham is credited with six official wins on the PGA Tour:
  • 1946 Atlanta Invitational
  • 1947 U.S. Open
  • 1947 Denver Open
  • 1951 Phoenix Open
  • 1953 Jacksonville Open
  • 1953 World Championship of Golf
In addition, Worsham partnered with Ted Kroll to win the 1952 Miami Beach International Four-Ball, which was, most years, a PGA Tour event, but not in 1952.

His U.S. Open Win and Other Major Championship Results

Worsham first played in a major at the 1938 U.S. Open (although he withdrew), and last appeared in a major at the 1963 PGA Championship. He played in 44 majors total (but never the British Open), making 33 cuts.

In addition to his one victory, Worsham had seven other Top 10s. That included a tie for third in the 1951 Masters, his only other Top 5 finish in a major. He was sixth in the 1948 U.S. Open and 1949 Masters; and tied for seventh in the 1952 Masters and 1952 U.S. Open. In addition, Worsham reached the quarterfinals of the PGA Championship (during its match play era) in 1947 and 1955.

And he won the 1947 U.S. Open, at age 29, beating Sam Snead in a playoff. Worsham opened with a 70, then added another in the second round that moved him into third place, one stroke off the lead. He took the lead with a 71 in Round 3. In the fourth round, Worsham had another 71, while Snead shot 70 to tie Worsham at 2-under 282.

In the 18-hole playoff the next day, Worsham prevailed by one stroke, 69 to 70. He needed some clutch putting and some gamesmanship to do it. Snead led by two strokes with three holes remaining, but Worsham sank a nearly 30-foot birdie putt on the 16th hole. Then Snead bogeyed the 17th, and they were even.

On the 18th hole, Worsham nearly sank a chip shot from the fringe, but his ball hit the cup without dropping and rolled about 2-and-a-half feet past the hole. Snead had a birdie putt to win, but left his attempt short by about the same amount as Worsham's ball was long.

Snead attempted to putt out quickly, but Worsham stopped him: He wanted an official to determine which of their balls was farthest from the hole. The gamesmanship flustered Snead: "I was so mad I couldn't see straight," he later said. The rules official used a tape measure to determine Snead was about an inch farther from the cup than Worsham. Snead took his stance again, and missed. Worsham then sank his putt to win the championship.

As angry as Snead was with Worsham's stopping him from continuation putting, it didn't affect their relationship: they were lifelong friends.

His Role in Early Days of Golf on TV

The first golf tournament shown on local television in the United States was the 1947 U.S. Open. The first golf tournament broadcast on national television in the U.S. was the 1953 World Championship of Golf. Lew Worsham won them both, and in converstation-starting ways.

We read about his win over Snead above in the U.S. Open. That 1947 major was televised in the St. Louis area only, with an estimated 500 television sets tuned to the broadcast.

The World Championship of Golf was played at Tam O'Shanter Country Club near Chicago, which was owned by a promotional whiz named George May. In 1953, May paid ABC to broadcast the tournament nationally. There was a single camera aimed at the 18th green, and the broadcast was only for one hour.

But those who tuned in — estimates of how many did range from one million to two million — saw Worsham win in spectacular fashion. He reached the final hole needing a birdie to tie leader Chandler Harper.

Instead, Worsham holed out a pitching wedge from 108 yards for an eagle two, winning the championship. Although TV viewers saw his shot hit the green and roll into the hole, Worsham did not because spectators surrounded the green as soon as his approach wedge landed. He knew from the audience reaction what had happened, however.

More About Lew Worsham

Worsham was born in rural Virginia but grew up closer to the Washington, D.C., area. He got into golf through caddying at Bannockburn Golf Club, near Glen Echo, Maryland, beginning in 1929. After playing on his high school golf team, Worsham turned pro at age 18 in 1935.

He went to work in the golf shop at Kenwood Golf and Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland, the first of many club positions to follow. In 1938, Worsham became an assistant pro at Chevy Chase Club, and his first head pro job was at Burning Tree Club in 1939, both those clubs also in Maryland.

Worsham made his first appearance in a PGA Tour event in 1938, and had a handful more (seven total) through 1942. That's also the year he won the first of three Middle Atlantic PGA Championship titles. Then Worsham went into the U.S. Navy during World War II. He was stationed in Bainbridge, Maryland, serving stateside alongside Sam Snead and Jimmy Demaret.

Upon discharge, Worsham returned to Burning Tree and, in 1946, gave the tour another try. Good decision: He earned his first tour win at the 1946 Atlanta Invitational.

He briefly served as an assistant to Wiffy Cox at Congressional Country Club then, in 1947, was named head pro at Oakmont Country Club in Pennsylvania. But Worsham also was giving the tour much more attention, too.

That PGA Tour season, Worsham had two wins — the U.S. Open plus the Denver Open — was runner-up at the Jacksonville Open, added one third-place finish, had 15 Top 10s and finished in the Top 25 in 23 out of 25 starts. He finished eighth on the money list.

The stellar season earned Worsham a spot on Team USA in the 1947 Ryder Cup. He won both his matches, including over Jimmy Adams in singles. In foursomes, Worsham teamed with Ed Oliver for a 10-and-9 win over Henry Cotton and Arthur Lees.

Worsham continued his role at Oakmont while playing frequently on the PGA Tour for the next several years. He was 20th on the money list in 1951, then came his big 1953 season.

In 1953, Worsham had two tour wins, finished runner-up once and third once, and had eight Top 10s. Not quite as good as 1947 in some respects. But in other way, it was a year that set Worsham up for the rest of his life.

Because one of those wins was the World Championship of Golf. We mentioned above that tournament organizer George May was a great promoter. One of the ways he promoted his tournament was by offering far more money than any other golf tournament in the world. When Worsham won it, he earned the first prize of $25,000 — more than the total purses of nearly any other event around. Most PGA Tour events paid less than $4,000 to the winner at that time.

The World Championship win also netted Worsham a contract with May to compete in 37 exhibitions at $1,000 per appearance. So his total haul from that one win was $62,000, an enormous sum in those days. On only golfer had ever earned that much for an entire year before (see yearly PGA Tour money leaders).

Worsham decided to stop playing the PGA Tour as much after that, making only 10 starts in 1954 and only a handful per year after that. His last PGA Tour start was in 1973. He did still play in PGA section events, however, and his final tournament victory was in the 1961 Tri-State PGA Championship.

Meanwhile, Worsham continued as head pro at Oakmont until his retirement in 1979. He also served during the winter months as the pro at Coral Ridge Country Club in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He was famous as a club pro for his kindness and generosity with younger pros, and during his decades at Oakmont and Coral Ridge groomed dozens and dozens of future head professionals.

Worsham was 73 years old at the time of his death in 1990. He is enshrined in the PGA of America Hall of Fame, Virginia Golf Hall of Fame, Virginia Sports Hall of Fame and Mid-Atlantic PGA Hall of Fame.

Worsham's Brother and Arnold Palmer

You might know the story that Arnold Palmer briefly gave up golf during his college days at Wake Forest University after a teammate and close friend was killed in an auto accident. That teammate was Lew Worsham's brother Marvin "Bud" Worsham. Bud Worsham was actually the star recruit of Wake's 1948 golf class, and he talked the coach into bringing his buddy Arnie into the program, too. It was a coup to recruit the brother of the 1947 U.S. Open champion.

On October 14, 1950, Bud Worsham and another Wake golfer, Gene Scheer — who was roommates with future famous golf instructor Jim Flick — drove to a dance. Palmer and Flick declined to go, despite their friends' efforts to persuade them. On the drive home, the car skidded off a bridge and landed upside down in the streambed below, killing both men.

Distraught, Palmer left school and joined the Coast Guard. He spent three years in the service before returning to Wake Forest and resuming his golf career.

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