Cyril Walker: U.S. Open Winner Who Died in a Jail Cell

Golfer Cyril Walker circa 1924
Cyril Walker was an England-born golfer who won on the very young PGA Tour in the 1920s, including a victory in the U.S. Open. He is remembered as one of the slowest players in golf history, so slow he was once literally hauled out of a tournament by police. After his playing days ended, Walker went into a downward spiral fueled by drinking and a loss of investments, and he died in a jail cell.

Date of birth: September 18, 1892

Place of birth: Manchester, England

Date and place of death: August 6, 1948 in Hackensack, New Jersey

Walker's Biggest Wins

  • 1916 Indiana Open
  • 1921 Pennsylvania Open Championship*
  • 1922 Mobile Country Club Tournament*
  • 1924 U.S. Open*
  • 1925 Princess Anne Country Club Tournament
  • 1930 Miami International Four-Ball* (partnered by Clarence Gamber)
  • (*counted as PGA Tour wins today)

His U.S. Open Win and Other Majors

Cyril Walker was a small man, his weight during his playing years variously listed from 118 pounds to 125 pounds. So it's a little surprising that his one great victory in golf happened at Oakland Hills Country Club in Michigan. That was the site of the 1924 U.S. Open, and the course played 6,880 yards that week — a long course for its time.

But Walker played above his weight as far as his distance on the golf course. He wasn't one of the long players of his era, but he got the ball out there. One journalist of the time wrote that, "The little guy could smack that ball."

At Oakland Hills in the 1924 U.S. Open, Walker smacked it good enough to be tied for fourth after the first round, solo third after the second, and tied with defending champion Bobby Jones in the lead after the third. Walker's scores for those first three rounds were 74-74-74, which gives you an idea of the difficulty of the golf course.

In the final round, Jones struggled to a 78, opening the door for Walker. Walker's 75 was good enough to win by three strokes. He had a late bogey at the 15th hole, reducing his lead to two strokes, but birdied No. 16 and then parred out for the win. Walker was the only golfer to finish below 300 with a stroke total of 297.

Another England-born golfer didn't win the U.S. Open until Tony Jacklin in 1970.

Walker's first appearance in a major was the 1913 British Open. He made the quarterfinals of the 1916 PGA Championship (the first one played), losing to Jock Hutchison; and also made the quarters in the 1931 PGA, losing to eventual champ Tom Creavy.

His best showing outside of the 1924 U.S. Open was reaching the semifinals of the 1921 PGA Championship. He beat Gene Sarazen, 5 and 4, in the quarterfinals, then lost to eventual champ Walter Hagen by the same score in the semis.

Outside of his win, Walker's best other U.S. Open finish was 13th in 1921. His final appearance in a major was in the 1934 Masters.

Walker's Infamous Slow Play

Cyril Walker was one of the slowest golfers of his time — but keep in mind that in his era, play on tour (and everywhere else) was generally significantly more brisk than it is today. In 1927, a newspaper columnist wrote that Walker was known as "the slowest of all pro or amateur golfers" and joked that "the players who follow him in a big tourney are supplied with a deck of cards so they can kill the time playing solitaire."

A 1936 article in the Milwaukee Journal called Walker "the slowest player in the world." A 1930 article in a St. Petersburg, Fla., newspaper called Walker "slow, painstaking, deliberate." A 1929 Miami News article called Walker "unbelievably slow" and referred to the "agonizing preliminaries" before he played a shot.

Tournament organizers sometimes sent Walker off in the last tee time of each round, playing alone, so he wouldn't hold up the rest of the field.

And Walker was once hauled out of tournament by cops (literally) over slow play. At the 1929 Los Angeles Open, after repeated warnings about taking too long, and after falling farther and farther behind the group in front, Walker was disqualified. But he refused to leave. So two Los Angeles police officers, at the behest of tournament officials, literally picked Walker up and carried him off the course, kicking and screaming the whole way.

It was a story that 2-time PGA Championship winner Paul Runyan always got a kick out of telling, because he saw Walker being physically removed. "I can still see him being carried up the hill kicking his legs like a banty rooster," Runyan once said. "They threw him off the course and told him not to come back or he'd go to the pokey."

More About Cyril Walker

Cyril Walker got started in golf in his hative England, where he served apprenticeships in English golf clubs and trained in clubmaking. He qualified for the Open Championship in 1913 before heading to America in 1914.

Just two years later, he earned his first pro win at the 1916 Indiana Open. (At the time he was working at the Wabash Country Club in Indiana.) That was the same year the PGA of America and PGA Championship were created, the same year that what we now call the PGA Tour was first organized. And Walker was there at the beginning for all of them.

He worked club jobs and played tournaments, and also developed his slow-play habits, a bad drinking problem, and a personality that often rubbed other pros the wrong way (although he could be funny and personable, too).

Prior to his 1924 U.S. Open, Walker had two victories that are now counted as PGA Tour wins: the 1921 Pennsylvania Open Championship and 1922 Mobile Country Club Tournament. After his U.S. Open victory, a 72-hole exhibition match against Walter Hagen, marketed as a world championship match, was arranged. Hagen won easily, 17 and 15, but matches such as that were one way pro golfers of the era earned more money.

In addition to his handful of wins, Walker had multiple runner-up finishes on tour, too. He was second in the 1921 White Sulphur Springs Open, 1921 Garden City Open, 1922 Texas Open, in the North and South Open in both 1923 and 1924 (both times to Hagen), and in the 1926 Mid-South Pro-Am Best Ball.

Walker, in those days, before the bottle got the better of him, had money. He claimed in later years that at one point he had $150,000 in the bank — if true, a huge sum for any pro golfer of the era not named Hagen. He invested most of his money in real estate.

But in 1929, the economic crash that heralded the start of the Great Depression wiped out most of Walker's money, as it did to so many others.

He continued playing tournament golf for several more years and worked club jobs, but his growing drinking problems and erratic behavior cost him. In 1933, working at Saddle River Golf and Country Club in Paramus, New Jersey, Walker was arrested when he destroyed signs pointing the way to a rival golf course.

Hard Times and Death

A UPI newspaper article published in 1940 established just how far Walker, then 48, had fallen. After becoming estranged from his wife and son, Walker moved to Florida and was trying to earn money by returning to the caddie ranks. "He is back where he started from" at the age of 10, the article stated, "but without the youth, health and ambitions he had then." The article continued:
"Left with only the memories of the days when he had $150,000 in the bank, he takes his turn now on the caddy's bench at the Miami Beach municipal course and considers himself lucky if he gets one call a day, for not many recognize the wizened, hollow-chested little man. He is down and has spent many a night — when he could afford the necessary 25 cents — at the Salvation Army home here."
Walker was 55 years old when he died in 1948. He was found dead in a chair in a jail cell in Hackensack, New Jersey, by police officers who had checked on him in the morning. Walker had shown up at the police station seeking shelter the night before.

"He had not been active in golf in recent years," the brief Associated Press obituary reported. Time Magazine gave the official cause of death as pleural pneumonia, and ended its blurb about Walker's death with: "After winning the Open, English-born Walker gradually drank himself out of big-time competition, at one time worked as a caddy, ended up a dishwasher."

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