Ellsworth Vines: The Tennis Legend's Pro Golf Career

Ellsworth Vines photographed as a golfer for Wilson Sporting Goods
In the 1930s, Ellsworth Vines built a career in tennis that caused some tennis observers to rank him among the best ever to play that sport. But then, before he turned 30, Vines changed careers: He became a pro golfer and joined the PGA Tour. In this profile, we'll explore the golf career of the tennis legend Ellsworth Vines.

Full name: Henry Ellsworth Vines Jr.

Date of birth: September 28, 1911

Place of birth: Los Angeles, California

Date and place of death: March 17, 1994 in La Quinta, California

Nickname: Elly

Vines' Hall of Fame Tennis Career

This article is about Vines' golf career, but we can't get into that without first taking a brief look at Vines' tennis career, and why it was so surprising at the time that he gave it up to become a pro golfer.

Famous in his time for the power of his serve, Vines started making a mark in tennis in his teens in the late 1920s. At the time, all the top tennis tournaments were amateur events, including the major championships. So when Vines won the U.S. Open in 1931 and 1932, and Wimbledon in 1932, it was as an amateur. He also won multiple major championship doubles titles: The U.S. Open in 1932 and Australian Open in 1933; the U.S. Open mixed doubles in 1933.

Vines turned pro in 1934 (which meant he could no longer play in the U.S. Open or Wimbledon) and was the No. 1-ranked pro tennis player through 1938. He won most of the biggest pro titles of the era, including five "Pro Slam" titles: the Wembley Pro in 1934 and 1935; the French Pro in 1935 and 1939; and the U.S. Pro in 1939.

That U.S. Pro championship in 1939 was the last tennis tournament Vines played. He was only 28 years old when he played his final competitive tennis match in January of 1940.

Vines authored multiple tennis instructional tomes, including How to Play Better Tennis (affiliate links used in this article), Ellsworth Vines' Quick Way to Better Tennis, and Tennis: Myth and Method. In his own 1979 book, tennis great Jack Kramer, whose career came after Vines', argued that Vines, playing at his best at the height of his game, was the best tennis player ever.

Vines' Pro Golf Tournament Wins, Majors Performance

Vines did not have any wins that are counted as official PGA Tour victories. He did win several pro tournaments, however, at the state and regional level:
  • 1945 Southern California Open
  • 1946 Massachusetts Open
  • 1951 Southern California PGA Championship
  • 1954 California State Open
  • 1955 Utah Open
In the major championships, Vines played The Masters three times, the U.S. Open four times and the PGA Championship seven times. His best showing was in the 1951 PGA Championship, where he reached the semifinals before losing 1-down to Walter Burkemo. He finished tied for 14th place in both the 1948 U.S. Open and 1949 U.S. Open.

More About Ellsworth Vines' Golf Career

Trivia question: When Bobby Locke won the 1948 Chicago Victory National Open by a record-tying 16 strokes, who finished second? Answer: Ellsworth Vines. Vines played on the PGA Tour from the early 1940s into the late 1950s, as well as playing in many regional and state tournaments (and winning some of them).

But why would he switch from a lucrative, Hall of Fame tennis career to the life of a journeyman pro golfer? Perhaps this, which Vines said in the late 1930s, can help explain it:

"Golf always defeats you. You can never master it. That is why the game is so fascinating. It's a challenge to everyone who plays it."
Tommy Armour also shared something Vines told him in Armour's book How to Play Your Best Golf All the Time. In the context of a discussion of golf handicaps, Vines, Armour wrote, "told me that in tennis, when he was starring, there were less than a dozen who could give him an exciting and entertaining game, but in golf he could get a fine, close match with a dub (duffer) or an expert because of the handicapping."

Vines had conquered the mountain of tennis. He had made great money (for the time) in his pro years. He was simply looking for a new mountain to climb, and he found it in a sport he loved and that challenged him.

One more quote from Vines:

"In tennis, you seldom have a chance, once things get going, to get shaky. You're too busy running around like a racehorse. Golf? Hell, it makes me nervous just to talk about it. That little white ball just sits there. A man can beat himself before he ever swings at it."
Vines' first forays into tournament golf were in amateur events. He first got into top-level golf competition at the 1939 British Amateur, and also played in the 1941 U.S. Amateur. He reached the match play rounds in both, losing in the first round in both. He also reached the championship match of the 1940 Mexican Amateur (then a tournament played by many of the top American amateurs) before falling to John Barnum.

Vines turned pro as a golfer in 1942, when he was 31 years old, and took a job as a club professional in Denver, Colorado. (He worked many club jobs over the ensuing decades, several of them in the Los Angeles, California, area.)

Vines' first tournament win as a pro golfer was at the 1945 Southern California Open, where he beat defending champion (and PGA Tour winner) Ray Mangrum by two strokes. At the 1946 Massachusetts Open, Vines won an 18-hole playoff by one stroke.

Vines played a full schedule on the PGA Tour for only six years, 1945 through 1950, and he had no wins in PGA Tour events. But he had multiple second-place finishes in addition to his very distant runner-up finish to Locke in the 1948 Chicago Victory National Open. Vines' closest call was finishing second to Herman Barron by one stroke in the 1946 All American Open.

He was also the runner-up in the 1947 Houston Open, the 1947 Inverness Round Robin Four-Ball (partnered by Clayton Heafner), the 1947 Reno Open and the 1948 Miami International Four-Ball (partnered by Ed Furgol). He even finished a very good 12th place on the PGA Tour money list in 1947.

Vines continued playing the state and regional circuits, too, and lost to Dutch Harrison in a playoff at the 1950 California State Open. But he added a couple more victories, too, noted in the list above. He was well-known as a golfer because he was so well-known generally. Vines was one of the instructors (along with, among others, Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead) in the 1949 book The Golf Clinic: Six Master Golfers Tell How to Improve Your Game.

Vines made sporadic appearances on the PGA Tour after 1950, last entering a tour event in 1957 (he reached the Round of 32 in his last appearance in a major, the 1957 PGA Championship). According to an obituary that appeared in newspapers in 1994, Vines had 87 Top 20 finishes over the course of his PGA Tour appearances.

His career after that was dedicated to being a club pro and golf instructor. There were very few senior golf tournaments at the time, but after he turned 50 Vines did play in the Senior PGA Championship a handful of years, last in 1969. His best finish in that tournament was a tie for seventh in 1962.

Vines lived out his life in the Palm Springs area of California, and into the 1980s still worked as a golf professional, including as an instructor. In a 1981 newspaper article, when he was 69 years old, Vines was quoted saying, "I play golf five or six days a week. My game fluctuates from 70 to 81." He said he hadn't picked up a tennis racket in three years.

Vines had a heart attack in 1988, then suffered kidney failure that required dialysis three times a week for the rest of his life. He was 82 years old at the time of his death in 1994 from complications due to kidney disease.

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