Golfer Willie Turnesa: Winner of Amateur Majors

Willie Turnesa was the youngster in a family of golfing brothers, and the only one who didn't turn pro. He won the U.S. Amateur twice and the British Amateur once, along with multiple other significant amateur tournaments.

Full name: William P. Turnesa

Date of birth: January 20, 1914

Place of birth: Elmsford, New York

Date and place of death: June 16, 2001 in Sleepy Hollow, New York

Nickname: Willie the Wedge

Turnesa's Biggest Wins

  • 1933 Westchester Amateur
  • 1936 Westchester Amateur
  • 1937 Metropolitan Amateur
  • 1937 Westchester Amateur
  • 1938 U.S. Amateur
  • 1938 Westchester Amateur
  • 1938 New York State Amateur
  • 1943 Florida Open*
  • 1947 British Amateur
  • 1948 U.S. Amateur
  • 1957 The Ike
  • 1958 The Ike
(*This was the only significant pro tournament won by Turnesa but he was playing as an amateur.)

His Wins in Amateur Majors

Turnesa won three times in amateur majors: the 1938 U.S. Amateur, 1947 British Amateur and 1948 U.S. Amateur championships.

At one point in his 1938 U.S. Amateur semifinal match against Ed Kingsley, Turnesa's caddie, a young boy, began crying after Turnesa hit into trouble. When Turnesa asked him why, the boy replied, "I hope we don't lose." Turnesa comforted his caddie and assured him he had no intention of losing the match.

He didn't, and faced Hollywood movie extra Pat Abbott in the championship match. Turnesa dispatched Abbott rather easily, winning 8 and 7, ending the match after the 29th hole. It was during that 1938 U.S. Amateur final that Turnesa earned his "Willie the Wedge" nickname. Over the 29 holes, Turnesa hit into 13 greenside bunkers. But he wedged it close enough to get down in two strokes on every one of those holes.

At the 1947 British Amateur, Turnesa beat a fellow American, Bud Ward, in the quarterfinals, and found another one, Dick Chapman, awaiting him in the championship match. But Turnesa handled Chapman, too, winning the title by a 3-and-2 score. That victory made him the sixth golfer ever to win both the U.S. and British amateur championships.

In the 1948 U.S. Amateur, Turnesa had to get past Bud Ward again, once again in the quarterfinals. In the championship match, Raymond Billows was the opponent. Billows made three U.S. Amateur championship matches, and didn't win any of them. Here, Turnesa earned the hard-faught, 2-and-1 victory.

More About Willie Turnesa

The authors of The Encyclopedia of Golf (Steel/Ryde, 1975) wrote about Willie Turnesa:
"There was nothing exceptional about his long game, indeed by championship standards it was below average in consistency, but he was a phenomenal player around the greens."
The authors cite that 1938 U.S. Amateur final during which Turnesa was dubbed "Willie the Wedge," and also Turnesa's semifinal in the 1949 British Amateur. There, Turnesa missed 15 of 18 greens, but, because of his short-game prowess, still shot 71 and won the match.

Willie was the youngest of seven brothers (he had two sisters, too) born to italian immigrant parents. His father worked as greenskeeper at Fairview Country Club in Elmsford, New York, all seven of the patriarch's sons becoming notable golfers. Jim Turnesa won the 1952 PGA Championship; Joe won 14 PGA Tour tournaments. Joe, Jim, Mike and Phil were all tour players who combined for 23 PGA Tour wins. Frank and Doug became club pros.

Willie learned from his older brothers, and caddied at many courses around Westchester County in New York. He planned to turn pro young, but his older brothers pooled their money to send him to college. In 1938, Willie became the family's first college graduate, from Holy Cross University. While in college, he notched his first big wins, including the New England Intercollegiate Championship three times.

Willie Turnesa was 24 years old when he won the 1938 U.S. Amateur, but he already had multiple wins in significant amateur tournaments by then. Those included the Westchester Amateurs of 1933 and 1936-38, and the Metropolitan Amateur of 1937.

Turnesa also won the New York State Amateur in 1938, but lost in the championship match (to Raymond Billows) there in 1940. He had also lost in the title match of the Met Amateur in 1938.

Turnesa was arguably at his best before World War II, even though he won two of his three amateur majors after the war. During the war, Turnesa served in the U.S. Navy.

Once back in civilian life, he resumed playing top-flight amateur golf, notching his British Amateur victory in 1947 and his second U.S. Amateur win in 1948. In 1949, Turnesa reached the championship match at the British Amateur before falling to Frank Stranahan. At his U.S. Amateur title defense that same year, he made it to the semifinals before falling.

Turnesa was selected for Team USA in three Walker Cups, including serving once as the playing captain. His overall record was 3-3, with a 2-1 record in foursomes and 1-2 mark in singles. In the 1947 Walker Cup, he recorded his lone singles victory in three tries, beating Cecil Ewing by a 6-and-5 score. In the 1949 Walker Cup, Turnesa had the dubious distinction of suffering his team's only two losses. In foursomes, Turnesa and Billows lost to Joe Carr and Ronnie White; in singles, White beat Turnesa, 4 and 3.

It was the 1951 Walker Cup in which Turnesa also served as the Team USA captain. He lost to Alex Kyle in singles after teaming with Sam Urzetta for a foursomes win.

In 1955, Turnesa served as president of the New York State Golf Association, and also of the Metropolitan Golf Association (after previously serving three terms as secretary of the MGA). His final tournaments wins of note were back-to-back victories in The Ike in 1956-57. Originally founded by a New York Daily News sports writer, The Ike was (and is) a stroke-play tournament that is now run by the Metropolitan Golf Association.

Turnesa was a lifelong amateur as a golfer, so throughout his playing days he was also working in the business world to support his family (and his golf habit). He was the longtime vice president of sales and marketing for Binghampton Container Corporation, retiring from that position in 1978.

That was two years after he had received the Distinguished Service Award from the Metropolitan Golf Association. One of the reasons Turnesa was given that honor was his co-founding, in 1956, of what today is called the Westchester Golf Association Caddie Scholarship Fund (it was originally named the Reinach-Turnesa Caddie Scholarship Fund). That fund had helped literally thousands of young men and women, who have worked as caddies, to attend college.

Willie Turnesa was 87 years old at the time of his death in 2001. Today he is a member of the New York State Golf Association Hall of Fame and of the New York Sports Hall of Fame.

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