Golfer Jim Turnesa, PGA Champion

Cover of book by golfer Jim Turnesa
Jim Turnesa won a couple times on the PGA Tour in the 1950s, but one of those wins was a major championship. He was just as famous in his time, though, for a PGA Championship that he lost only after playing his way through a murderer's row of opponents; and for a Ryder Cup match that was an early example of two opponents struggling with the crushing pressure of the moment.

Date of birth: December 9, 1912

Place of birth: New York City, New York

Date and place of death: August 27, 1971 in Elmsford, New York

Nicknames: Jimmy, Whistling Jim

Turnesa's Biggest Wins

Jim Turnesa had two wins on the PGA Tour:
  • 1951 Reading Open
  • 1952 PGA Championship
He also won numerous other, non-PGA Tour tournaments including:
  • 1937 Rhode Island Open
  • 1946 Westchester PGA Championship
  • 1947 North and South Open
  • 1950 Havana Invitational
  • 1956 Westchester PGA Championship
  • 1959 Metropolitan Open
  • 1960 Haig & Haig Scotch Foursome (with Gloria Armstrong)
  • 1964 Westchester PGA Championship
  • 1968 Long Island PGA Championship
Several of those "other" tournaments (such as the North & South, Havana and Met Open) were once counted as PGA Tour events, but not in the years Turnesa won them.

His PGA Championship Win — and His PGA Championship Loss

By far the biggest win Jim Turnesa ever had was the 1952 PGA Championship title. It wasn't just big for him, but for the entire Turnesa family. Jim was one of seven golfing brothers, and several times previously one of the Turnesa brothers had come very close to winning a major (see the "More About" section below). Jim finally got the golfing Turnesas that major title.

To reach the championship match of the 1952 PGA, Turnesa beat Bob Toski in the first round, then Chandler Harper, Roberto De Vicenzo, Clarence Doser, and, in the semifinals, Ted Kroll.

In the championship match, he faced Chick Harbert. He did not get off to a good start: Harbert held a 3-up lead after the morning 18 in the 36-hole final. But with a birdie on the 32nd hole, Turnesa got the match back to square. It remain tied until the 36th hole, where Harbert hooked his drive and wound up making bogey. When Turnesa knocked in his par putt, he had his first lead of the day — and the PGA Championship trophy. Turnesa was 39 years old at the time.

Ten years earlier, Turnesa had reached another championship match, making a run at the 1942 PGA Championship that got him quite a bit of attention. Because to reach that championship match, Turnesa had to beat a murderer's row of opponents. He opened by beating Dutch Harrison and then, in the second round, Jug McSpaden.

In the third round, Turnesa bested Ben Hogan, 2 and 1. In the semifinals, he faced Byron Nelson. Nelson was 1-up going to the 36th hole, but missed a short putt that would have won it. That squared the match, then Turnesa won it on the 37 hole.

Hogan, Nelson and Sam Snead made up the original "Big 3," the American triumvirate. Who was waiting for Turnesa in the championship match? Snead. Turnesa was a corporal in the Army, Snead was due to report to the Navy a few days after the tournament ended. Thousands of Turnesa's fellow soldiers from nearby Fort Dix filed onto Atlantic City, New Jersey's Seaview Country Club to create an overwhelmingly pro-Turnesa crowd.

"He played his ball, said little and dared you to match him," Snead wrote in his 1962 book, The Education of a Golfer (affiliate links used in this article; commissions earned). Snead claimed that twice during the match Turnesa hit into the woods, only for one of the soldiers (presumably) to kick it out into the fairway before the golfers had walked forward.

Turnesa had a 3-up lead after the morning 18, but Snead started reeling him back in in the afternoon. Turnesa bogeyed the 24th hole, and by the time they teed off the back nine of the afternoon session, the match was back to square.

Another bogey by Turnesa gave Snead the lead on the 29th hole, and Snead kept it going from there. He ended the match beating Turnesa for the title, 2 and 1.

More About Jim Turnesa

Jim Turnesa was one of seven brothers, six of whom were golf professionals, the other a major amateur champion. Four of them — Joe, Mike, Jim and Phil — had PGA Tour wins. Willie won the U.S. and British amateur championships. Doug and Frank were club pros.

And before Jim's 1952 PGA win, the family had had close calls in other major championships. Joe was second to Bobby Jones in the 1926 U.S. Open and lost to Walter Hagen in the 1927 PGA Championship final; Mike lost to Ben Hogan in the 1948 PGA Championship final.

Jim himself had come close before to winning a major, in addition to his runner-up finish in the 1942 PGA. He finished third in the 1948 U.S. Open; and tied for fourth in both the 1949 Masters and 1949 U.S. Open.

So when Jim won that 1952 PGA Championship, it was a milestone win not just for him, but for all his brothers, too.

Jim Turnesa even once held the U.S. Open scoring record, even though he never won that major. In 1948, at Riviera Country Club, Turnesa finished with a score of 280, lowering the previous tournament record of 281 established by Ralph Guldahl in the 1937 U.S. Open.

Unfortunately for Jim, he only held the record for about an hour. Jimmy Demaret finished with a 278. Finally, Ben Hogan came in with a 276. But nobody else beat Turnesa's 280 until 1964. Turnesa also had three sub-par rounds in the 1948 U.S. Open, which tied the tournament record of the time. Nobody beat that record until Lee Trevino played all four rounds under par in the 1968 U.S. Open.

Turnesa was described by James Dodson, author of the book American Triumvirate, as "short and trim and unusually quiet by nature."

A quirk of his swing was in his stance: He stood farther from the ball than just about any other pro on tour. The strength of his game was putting. After Turnesa beat Nelson in the semifinals of the 1942 PGA, Nelson remarked, "I have seen the best putter in the world."

The obituary of Turnesa that appeared in the New York Times in 1971 included a quote of Ben Hogan saying the same thing:

"In 1940, after Turnesa upset Hogan in an early round of the Metropolitan Championship, Hogan, the year's leading money winner, said of the newcomer, 'I've seen putting in my career, but nothing to compare with Turnesa's.' "
The first tournament win of any kind for Turnesa was the Westchester Caddie Championship of 1929, when he was 16 years old. He turned pro in 1931, and his first significant pro win was in the 1937 Rhode Island Open.

Turnesa joined the Army in 1941, when he was 28, but was transferred to the Enlisted Men's Reserve Corps. That allowed him to go back to his job as club pro at Elmsford (N.Y.) Country Club. But then Pearl Harbor happened and he was called back into service.

After the war, Turnesa's tournament career began picking up steam. He had wins in the 1947 North & South Open and 1950 Havana Invitational. He had some close calls in PGA Tour events, too. He partnered Dave Douglas to a runner-up finish in the 1950 Miami International Four-Ball, losing in the championship match to the team of Pete Cooper/Claude Harmon.

In 1951, Turnesa was runner-up in the Tucson Open in February and the Azalea Open in April. Then, in September, he got his first PGA Tour win at the Reading Open, beating runner-up Jack Burke Jr. by three strokes.

Some more second-place finishes followed: In 1952, at the Azalea Open and Fort Wayne Open (in both he was second to Jimmy Clark, and those were Clark's only PGA Tour wins); in 1953 at the Thunderbird Invitational.

But in 1952 Turnesa won the big one, the PGA Championship. Although his contending days were mostly over (he tied for fifth in the 1954 British Open), his PGA win got Turnesa a book deal. In 1952, his instructional book, 12 Lessons to Better Golf, was published. Another book, Low Score Golf, followed in 1953. He also had signature equipment lines with Wilson Golf.

And he played for Team USA in the 1953 Ryder Cup, where he was part of another match that was quite famous in its time. Great Britain hadn't won a Ryder Cup since 1933. In the singles session in 1953, they were in position to win. But in order to do so, Peter Alliss, in his rookie appearance, had to earn at least a half-point against Turnesa in the second-to-last singles match.

Alliss took a 1-up lead over Turnesa on the 15th hole. Turnesa, shaken, badly sliced his drive on the 16th. But his ball hit a spectator and caromed back into safety. Now it was Alliss' turn to be shaken — he bogeyed, Turnesa parred to square the match.

On the 17th, it was Alliss who hit a terrible drive, but he, unlike Turnesa on the previous hole, didn't get any good luck — his drive flew out of bounds. Turnesa won the hole to go 1-up. Team Great Britain could still win the Cup if Alliss could win the last hole to halve Turnesa (and depending on the outcome of the final match).

Turnesa, his nerves failing him, hit his drive way right into trouble and could do nothing but chip out. Alliss hit a good drive and then a solid 2-iron just left of the green, putting him in good position with Turnesa in bad position.

But under the crushing pressure of the moment, Alliss fluffed his chip shot. He played the next chip to within three feet. Turnesa wound up putting for a bogey that would have guaranteed the Cup for Team USA, but missed for a double.

That left Alliss with his short bogey putt to win the hole, halve the match, and put GB&I in position to win the Cup. But Alliss also missed! Turnesa had the 1-up victory, and America had the Cup again.

In his book Good Bounces and Bad Lies, Ben Wright wrote, "To say that Alliss has been haunted by this incident ever since would be an understatement."

Throughout his tournament playing days, Turnesa held jobs as the head pro at various clubs. In 1952 he was pro at Briar Hall Golf and Country Club in Briarcliff, N.Y. In 1956 he moved to Empire State Country Club in Spring Valley, N.Y. (His brother Doug replaced him at Briar Hall.) He took over as head pro at Rye (N.Y.) Golf Club in 1960. And in 1965 he moved to Mill River Club in Upper Brookville on Long Island. And like many name pros in northern climes, Turnesa often spent winters working at clubs in the south, including at Pinecrest Lakes Golf Club near Sebring, Fla.

His wins on the PGA Tour may have ended at two, but Turnesa still had some other wins in him. He partnered with Gloria Armstrong to win the inaugural Haig & Haig Scotch Foursome in 1960. That's a tournament better-known today by a later name: the JCPenney Classic.

And he won the 1968 Long Island PGA Championship at age 55. Turnesa had 13 holes-in-one over his career.

Jim Turnesa was only 58 years old when he died of lung cancer in 1971. He was the sixth of the seven Turnesa brothers born, but the second to die.

Turnesa is a member of the Metropolitan PGA Section Hall of Fame.

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