Golfer Bill Mehlhorn, the 'Wild Bill' of the PGA Tour

photo of golfer Bill Mehlhorn
"Wild Bill" Mehlhorn was a pro golfer in the early days of the PGA Tour, most of whose wins happened in the 1920s. While he never won a major, he made a mark on tournament golf in the United States with colorful play and several big years.

Full name: William Earl Mehlhorn

Date of birth: December 2, 1898

Place of birth: Elgin, Illinois

Date and place of death: April 5, 1989 in Miami, Florida

Nickname: Wild Bill

Mehlhorn's Biggest Wins

Bill Mehlhorn is credited with 19 official PGA Tour wins:
  • 1923 Oklahoma Open
  • 1924 Western Open
  • 1926 Long Beach Open
  • 1926 South Central Open
  • 1926 South Florida Open Championship
  • 1926 Santa Clara Valley Open
  • 1926 San Jose Open
  • 1927 San Jose Open
  • 1928 Long Beach Open (tie with Leo Diegel)
  • 1928 Texas Open
  • 1928 Richmond Open
  • 1928 Montauk Open
  • 1928 Westchester Open
  • 1928 Hawaiian Open
  • 1929 El Paso Open
  • 1929 Texas Open
  • 1929 South Central Open
  • 1929 Metropolitan Open
  • 1930 La Gorce Open
Mehlhorn also won two team titles at the Miami International Four-Ball, partnered by Macdonald Smith both times, in 1924 and 1926. Both years, however, are counted as unofficial (non-PGA Tour) wins by the tour today. He also won the non-Tour Mid-Continent Open in 1922.

In the Majors

Bill Mehlhorn never won a major, but he some good showings including runner-up in the 1925 PGA Championship. After beating Tom Kerrigan in the quarterfinals and Mortie Dutra in the semifinals, Mehlhorn faced Walter Hagen in the championship match. Hagen won it 6-and-5, earning his third consecutive PGA Championship victory.

From 1922-31, a stretch of 10 years, Mehlhorn finished in the Top 9 at the U.S. Open seven times, and in the Top 5 in five of those years.

In the 1922 U.S. Open, Mehlhorn shared the 54-hole lead with Bobby Jones, but in the final round shot 74 and finished two back of Gene Sarazen in solo fourth place. In the 1924 U.S. Open, Mehlhorn led the first two rounds before finishing in third place. In the 1926 U.S. Open, Mehlhorn led the first two rounds, was in second place after 54 holes, but shot 78 in the final round and tied for third place.

Mehlhorn was solo fifth in 1927 and tied fourth in 1931. His other Top 10s in the U.S. Open were in 1923 and 1930. Mehlhorn also had two Top 10 finishes in the British Open (1926, 1928) and reached the semifinals of the 1936 PGA Championship. The first major he entered was the 1919 U.S. Open (but he withdrew), and the last he played was the 1937 U.S. Open.

More About Wild Bill Mehlhorn

Two distinctive things about Bill Mehlhorn: His hats and his putting/chipping yips. The "Wild Bill" nickname was after Wild Bill Hickok, the cowboy who was murdered while playing cards. Mehlhorn was an enthusiastic card player and often played (cards and golf) in hats. Sometimes, especially early in his career, that was a cowboy hat. Sometimes it was a safari hat or a fedora. Often there was a cigarette dangling from his lips.

As for his golf game: Mehlhorn was acknowledged in his time as a great golfer tee-to-green. His problem was in the short game, particularly putting. He had the yips, even if the term "the yips" wasn't yet common. Mehlhorn got so nervous over some putts that those watching could see his hands twitch.

In 1934, Bobby Jones wrote about his own issues with occasional nerviness while putting, but held up Mehlhorn as the best (or is that worst?) example. Jones wrote about watching Mehlhorn attempt a 3-foot putt, only to twitch so badly in the attempt that he knocked the ball across the green and into a bunker.

Paul Runyan, in his 1963 Book for Senior Golfers (affiliate links used in this post, commissions earned), connected Mehlhorn's yips to his nickname by writing that "Wild Bill" "was a nickname that fitted only his short game."

Runyan, with one of the all-time great short games, told this story about Mehlhorn:

"Bill was a hardy soul, somehow able to stand the ruin of these sudden wristy putting and chipping lapses spread through otherwise superlative rounds. But at any time his wrists might snap uncontrollably and would send the ball almost anywhere. These twitches happened sometimes right next to the hole. I once saw him carry an 8-foot putt past the cup on the fly, to run 15 feet or so off the green."
Mehlhorn's tee-to-green game had to be exceptional with such short game issues, and when he had a decent week with the putter Mehlhorn was around the lead. Today Mehlhorn is credited with 19 official PGA Tour wins, the same number as Ben Crenshaw, Ernie Els, Doug Ford, Hubert Green and Tom Kite — all Hall of Famers. At the time of his 19th win in 1930, Mehlhorn's career total would have ranked in the Top 10.

He was born in the Midwest at the tail-end of the 19th century. Originally from Illinois, he spent much of his life in New York until relocating to Florida late in life.

Mehlhorn turn pro in 1920. Three years later he earned his first tour win, the Oklahoma Open. In 1924 he claimed the biggest win of his career, the Western Open in Chicago. The Western Open, at that time, was, at worst, the third-most important tournament in the United States, arguably the second behind only the U.S. Open. Mehlhorn won by eight strokes over runner-up Al Watrous.

The bulk of Mehlhorn's 19 official PGA Tour wins happened in three years: He won five times in 1926, six times in 1928 and four times in 1929. He won the Long Beach Open, South Central Open, San Jose Open and Texas Open twice each. When Mehlhorn won the El Paso Open in 1929 with a score of 271, it was the lowest 72-hole winning score yet posted in professional golf.

According to Al Barkow's 1989 reference book The History of the PGA Tour, in addition to his 19 wins, Mehlhorn had 15 runner-up finishes in tour events, 24 third-place showings and 133 Top 10 finishes.

Mehlhorn was also a strong presence in the early history of the Ryder Cup. Before the first official competition, there were two team events pitting American and British pros that are considered foundational competitions for the Ryder Cup. They took place in Gleneagles, Scotland, in 1921, and at Wentworth Club near London in 1926. Mehlhorn played in both.

And in the first official one, the 1927 Ryder Cup, Mehlhorn was part of the victorious Team USA.

Like virtually all tournament-winning pros from his time, Mehlhorn also worked club jobs along the way, including at Fenimore Golf Club in Mamaroneck, New York (today named Fenway Golf Club) during his heyday on tour.

Mount Washington Club in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, was another club pro stop. When the Bretton Woods Conference — a gathering of 44 delegations from around the world to forge a new, post-World War II monetary system — was held there in 1944, Mehlhorn provided golf instruction to the delegates.

His last official PGA Tour win was in 1930, but he continued playing tour events sporadically for many years after. Eventually, Mehlhorn became very well-regarded as an instructor. He lived the latter part of his life in Florida, for the last 15 years of his life helping coach the men's and women's golf teams at Florida International University.

With his FIU co-coach, Bob Shave, Mehlhorn co-wrote an instructional book titled Golf Secrets Exposed, published in 1984.

Mehlhorn was 90 years old when he died in 1989. He is a member of the Metropolitan PGA Hall of Fame and the Elgin Sports Hall of Fame.

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