George Von Elm: Bio of the Amateur Golf Champ

Golfer George Von Elm posing in the 1930s

George Von Elm was one of the great amateur golfers of the 1920s, a decade that was chock full of them. He beat Bobby Jones in a U.S. Amateur championship match, but lost to Jones in other big events including several professional majors. Von Elm turned pro in the 1930s and almost won a U.S. Open (it took 72 playoff holes for him to lose), but his pro career didn't live up to his amateur success.

Date of birth: March 20, 1901

Place of birth: Salt Lake City, Utah

Date and place of death: May 1, 1961 in Pocatello, Idaho

Nickname: Gix

His Biggest Amateur and Pro Wins

Von Elm's biggest wins in amateur tournaments:
  • 1917 Utah Amateur
  • 1920 Utah Amateur
  • 1921 Trans-Mississippi Amateur
  • 1921 Pacific Northwest Amateur
  • 1921 Utah Amateur
  • 1922 Pacific Northwest Amateur
  • 1922 Southern California Amateur
  • 1925 Southern California Amateur
  • 1925 Northern California Amateur
  • 1925 California State Amateur
  • 1925 Hillcrest C.C. Invitational
  • 1926 U.S. Amateur
  • 1927 Southern California Amateur
  • 1928 Gold Mashie Tournament
  • 1930 French Amateur Championship
His wins in PGA Tour tournaments:
  • 1925 Southern California Open (as an amateur)
  • 1928 Michigan Open (as an amateur)
  • 1938 California Open
Also as a professional, Von Elm won the 1936 Southern California Open (not a tour event that year).

Von Elm's U.S. Amateur Win and Other Appearances

In 1924 at Merion, Bobby Jones blitzed George Von Elm in the 36-hole U.S. Amateur championship match by a 9-and-8 score. In 1926, at Baltusrol, Von Elm got his revenge.

Meeting Jones in the championship match again in 1926, this time Von Elm won, 2 and 1. Jones was trying to make it three in a row, but Von Elm stopped him. In fact, Von Elm prevented Jones from winning five consecutive U.S. Amateur titles — Jones had won in 1924-25, and won again in 1927-28.

En route to the final, Von Elm beat Ellsworth Augustus in the first round, then Maurice McCarthy, Jones' buddy Watts Gunn (7 and 6) in the quarterfinals, and George Dawson (11 and 10) in the semifinals. Von Elm was the No. 2 seed, behind Jones, going into the stroke-play qualifying rounds. And even though Von Elm had the highest score among those who made it through the qualifying rounds, the tournament committee kept him as the No. 2 seed in the match play bracket. That was a key: Von Elm's play improved each round, and the seeding meant he didn't have to face Jones until the final.

In that championship match, Von Elm took a 1-up lead into the lunch break. By the 10th hole of the afternoon 18 (the 28th hole overall), Von Elm was 2-up. Jones hit his drive into a ditch on the 31st hole and couldn't reach the green trying to blast it out of some standing water. He lost the hole to go 3-down. Jones won the 32nd, but when the golfers halved the 35th hole, Von Elm had the 2-and-1 victory. (Trivia: Von Elm was the first golfer to receive the new Havermeyer Trophy after the original was destroyed in a fire.)

In his book Down the Fairway (affiliate link), Jones said of that championship match: "George did not have the luck, he simply outplayed me. It was coming to him. I had beaten him at Merion and at Oakmont, and the Lord knows nobody is going to keep on beating a golfer like George Von Elm. I wanted to make it three championships in a row, but it wasn’t in the book. It was George's turn."

In 1924, Von Elm beat Max Marston 7 and 6 in the semifinals before his big loss to Jones in the title tilt. The 9-and-8 title match score was, at the time, the biggest win/worst defeat in a U.S. Amateur final. But Von Elm at least did better against Jones than Francis Ouimet that year: Ouimet lost in the semifinals to Jones, 11 and 10.

Von Elm's first U.S. Amateur match was a first-round loss to eventual champ Jesse Guilford in 1920. He lost in the quarterfinals to Ouimet in 1923, and reached the semifinals in 1925 before Jones knocked him out (that was Jones' reference to Oakmont in the quote above). In Von Elm's title defense in 1927, he was beaten in the second round.

In the 1930 U.S. Amateur, Von Elm was part of a record-setting match. The record was longest 18-hole match: Von Elm's second-round match against Maurice McCarthy was all square after 18, so they went to extra holes. And they had to play 10 of them — the match didn't end until McCarthy won on the 28th hole. It remains to this day the longest match in U.S. Amateur history originally scheduled for 18 holes. That was Von Elm's last match in the U.S. Amateur. (McCarthy, by the way, took Von Elm to 22 holes in their second-round match in Von Elm's championship year of 1926.)

His Record-Long U.S. Open Playoff and Other Pro Majors

Von Elm made multiple appearances in professional majors, and he even came very close to winning one: It took a record-long playoff to deny him a U.S. Open trophy.

At the 1931 U.S. Open, in Von Elm's first year playing as a professional, he took a two-stroke lead into the final round. But he found himself chasing Billy Burke late. Von Elm birdied five of the last seven holes, including the 18th, to tie Burke at 292.

That forced a playoff, and in those days the U.S. Open used a 36-hole playoff. So on the next day, they played 36 more holes, but were still tied.

The USGA said, play 36 more. So Von Elm and Burke teed it up for another two rounds the next day. Von Elm led by one stroke after the morning 18 (the third playoff round overall), but with two holes to go in the after 18 Burke had a two-stroke lead. Burke wound up winning by one. After the 72-hole tournament proper, and 72 more playoff holes, a single stroke was all that kept Von Elm from winning the 1931 U.S. Open.

That wasn't his first time challenging for a pro major, however. At the 1926 British Open, Von Elm finished tied for third place, four strokes behind Bobby Jones' winning total.

In the 1928 U.S. Open, Von Elm tied for fourth, two strokes out of a playoff (which was won by Jones). In the 1929 U.S. Open, Von Elm tied for fifth, three behind the winner (you guessed it: Jones).

Von Elm played the British Open three times, last in 1930. He played the U.S. Open 11 times, last in 1939, and also had an 11th-place finish in 1930. He played in The Masters once, tying for 50th place at age 49 in 1951.

More About George Von Elm

Growing up in Utah, George Von Elm was far from the major golf centers in America. Football was his game and he quarterbacked his high school team. But he got into golf through caddying.

By age 16, Von Elm already had his first big title, the 1917 Utah Amateur (a trophy he won twice more, in 1920-21). His first big tournament wins outside of Utah was the Trans-Mississippi and Pacific Northwest amateurs of 1921.

But also in 1921, Von Elm was suspended by the United States Golf Association for accepting expense money from supporters and for having a relationship with equipment company Spalding. When he returned to competitive golf in 1922, though, Von Elm was ready for his national break-out.

In 1922, he won the Pacific Northwest Amateur for the second year in a row, and also took the Southern California Amateur. He reached the championship match in his title defense at the Trans-Mississippi, and lost in the championship match (to Chick Evans) at the Western Amateur.

It was a very strong year, but Von Elm, who was supporting his golf game by running a financial services company, then went three years without any big wins. He also played many exhibitions, often with leading pros of the era such as Walter Hagen and Tommy Armour. Unable to accept money for golf, Von Elm gave his earnings from those matches to charity.

But in 1926, Von Elm returned to the winner's circle with a bang: He beat his nemesis Jones in the U.S. Amateur Championship, and finished in third place in the British Open.

Von Elm also made his Walker Cup debut on Team USA that year, the first of three times he played the event. In the 1926 Walker Cup, Von Elm and Jess Sweetser partnered for a foursomes win, and in singles Von Elm halved with Charles Hezlet. In the 1928 Walker Cup, he and Sweetser won again in foursomes, and Von Elm beat William Tweddell in singles. And in the 1930 Walker Cup, Von Elm won his singles match against Rex Hartley, but he and partner George Voigt lost in foursomes to the GB&I tandem of Cyril Tolley/Roger Wethered.

Von Elm made another big splash in 1928 when he won the final Gold Mashie Tournament. That was a 72-hole, stroke-play event for top amateurs played on the 9-hole Ocean Links in Newport, Rhode Island. The golf course and the tournament were renowned in their time, although both had short lifespans.

In the 1928 Gold Mashie, Von Elm won by 21 strokes over a top field, posting scores of 65, 67, 71 and 69. His 272 total broke Sweetser's previous tournament record by 15 strokes. And that 272 total was hailed in many newspapers as "a new world record 72-hole total for golf." It was believed at the time that pro tour player Emmett French's 274 in winning in the 1922 Ohio Open had been the lowest 72-hole score known in golf; Von Elm beat that by two strokes.

The score made news around the golf world. An Australian newspaper referred to Von Elm's 272 as "an amazing example of the capabilities of a really good player."

Von Elm's last big win in the amateur ranks was the 1930 French Amateur. He turned pro late in that year.

What happened with Von Elm's career after he turned professional? Not as much as most observers of the time would have expected. There is some disagreement among sources about how many PGA Tour victories Von Elm had: A 2015 Golf Magazine (affiliate link) article put the number at just one, but many other sources cite five as the number. Our own research puts the number at three. (Why the disagreements? Record-keeping wasn't great at the time, and some tournaments that were earlier considered PGA Tour events are not, today, counted by the tour as official tournaments.)

Two of those three wins happened while Von Elm was still an amateur, however. After turning pro, he won only once on the PGA Tour, at the 1938 California Open. He also had a number of second-place showings. Before turning pro, he was runner-up in the 1926 Los Angeles Open, 1926 California Open and 1929 Pasadena Open. After turning pro, Von Elm was runner-up in the 1931 Agua Caliente Open, 1931 U.S. Open, 1931 San Francisco Open Match Play, 1933 St. Paul Open and 1937 Bing Crosby Pro-Am.

Von Elm continued working in the financial services industry after turning pro in golf. He also worked at several places as a golf professional, including Hacienda Country Club (1950-53) in California and Blackfoot Golf Course (1957-60) in Blackfoot, Idaho. He also designed several courses, including Blackfoot and a handful of others, mostly in Idaho.

George Von Elm was only 60 years old when he died of lung cancer in 1961. Today, he is a member of the Utah Golf Hall of Fame and the Southern California Golf Hall of Fame, in both cases inducted as part of those Hall's inaugural classes. The Blackfoot course in Idaho still holds the annual Von Elm Memorial Tournament, as does Rancho Park Golf Course (where Von Elm practiced during his biggest years) in Los Angeles.

Von Elm is still considered one of the best golfers ever to come out of the state of Utah. Golf Digest (affiliate link) once named him the best-ever amateur golfer from Utah, and in the early 1960s he was named Utah Golfer of the Century. The panel of experts convened by the PGA of America in 1951 to pick the "Most Important Amateurs" in American golf history selected Von Elm at No. 10.

Photo credit: Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive. Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA. Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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