Lighthorse Harry Cooper: Famous Golfer's Career, Biggest Wins

Golfer Harry Cooper stroking a putt in 1936
The figures most-often cited online for Harry Cooper's PGA Tour win total are 30 and 31, but the Tour itself credits Cooper with 29 official wins. That total (29) is tied for 17th best in tour history. Or, to put it another way, in the history of the PGA Tour only 16 golfers have won more official tour titles than Harry Cooper. Cooper's 29 wins tie him with Lee Trevino, and exceed the win totals posted by Tommy Armour, Johnny Miller, Gary Player and Raymond Floyd.

He also had one of the best-known nicknames in golf history: "Lighthorse Harry." His swing was compact but smooth, but Cooper moved fast around the golf course, walking with a quick gate and making quick decisions.

But Cooper never won a major. A member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, Cooper is frequently cited as one of the best — maybe the best — golfer who never won a major championship.

Full name: Henry Edward Cooper

Date of birth: August 4, 1904

Place of birth: Leatherhead, England

Date and place of death: October 17, 2000, in White Plains, New York

Nicknames: First, his given name was Henry, so Harry is a nickname. To the general public during his playing days, he was "Lighthorse Harry." He was also called "Pipeline" by his golfing peers because of his accuracy with the driver. Among friends, he was often "Coopy."

Cooper's Record in Majors: Near-Misses and Feeling Unlucky

"First you’ve got to be good," Harry Cooper once said, "but then you've got to be lucky."

And Harry Cooper never liked his luck. In the major championships, he always felt like something happened, something out of his control, that snatched trophies out of his hands. But Cooper also cost himself titles with big scores at bad moments.

"Something always happened that I had no control over," Cooper told The New York Times in 1996, when he was 92 years old. "I still dwell on the big ones that got away."

How many majors "got away" from Lighthorse Harry? He was the first golfer to record four second-place finishes in majors without winning. That was a record — most seconds in majors without a win — that Cooper shared until the 2000s.

His first appearance in a major was in the 1923 PGA Championship, where he went out in the Round of 32. His last was the 1942 PGA Championship, where Cooper reached the quarterfinals before losing to Byron Nelson on the 39th hole.

In all, Cooper had 19 Top 10 finishes in majors (that total includes five exits in the Round of 16 at the PGA Championship, which, technically, is a tie for ninth place). That included four second-place finishes, three thirds and four fourths.

Cooper's first brush with major-championship glory was at the 1925 PGA Championship, where he reached the semifinals before losing to eventual winner Walter Hagen.

It was the 1927 U.S. Open where, alas, Cooper's hard-luck reputation began forming. In tough scoring conditions at Oakmont, Cooper led Tommy Armour by one after three rounds. Cooper shot 77 in the final round, which wasn't bad by the day's scoring (neither Cooper nor Armour broke par in any of their rounds). But Cooper three-putted the final green. Still, he was in the clubhouse thinking he had probably won.

Then Armour made a 10-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole to tie and force an 18-hole playoff. Cooper led the playoff by one after 14 holes, but Armour made a 50-foot birdie putt to tie on the 15th. Then Cooper found one of Oakmont's infamous bunkers on the 16th and he wound up with a double bogey. Armour won the playoff, 76 to 79.

Cooper was fourth in the 1930 U.S. Open and seventh in 1932. In the 1934 U.S. Open, Cooper tied for third, two behind winner Olin Dutra.

The 1936 U.S. Open was the second one in which Cooper got into the clubhouse thinking he had probably won. Cooper had a two-stroke after the third round. In the final round, Cooper closed with a 73 and, despite bogeys on the 14th, 15th and 18th holes, got into the clubhouse at 284 — a new U.S. Open scoring record.

But out on the course, little-known pro Tony Manero was in the process of breaking the course record with a 67. And Cooper, briefly the U.S. Open scoring record-holder, could only watch as Manero lowered the record again, finishing on 282 for the win.

A couple months earlier, at the 1936 Masters, Cooper had also gotten into the clubhouse as the leader, only to watch that lead evaporate. Cooper was the third-round leader after shooting 70-69-71. But playing early on the final day (leaders were not automatically the last starters in those days) meant that he played his final round in the rain. He shot 76, but still posted 286 to lead. But with nine holes left in Horton Smith's round, the rain stopped and the sun came out. Smith wound up beating runner-up Cooper by one.

In 1937, Cooper was fourth in both The Masters and U.S. Open. In 1938, he tied for second in The Masters and tied for third in the U.S. Open. At the 1938 Masters, Cooper was the first-round leader, and one off the lead after 54 holes. He shot 71 in the final round and finished two behind Henry Picard.

A tie for fourth place in the 1940 Masters was his last Top 10 in either The Masters or U.S. Open (he never played the British Open). And two years later came his final major appearance at the 1942 PGA.

Hall-of-Famer Paul Runyan, a two-time PGA Championship winner, once said the Cooper "was a great shotmaker, one of the three best fairway-wood players ever with Bobby Jones and Byron Nelson." But, Runyan added:

"... he thought that everybody else got all the breaks and he never got any. He was the most pessimistic, negative thinker (on the golf course) I've ever known. Off the course, he was one of the most magnificent human beings in the world."

More About 'Lighthorse' Harry Cooper

It was famous sportswriter Damon Runyan who first tagged Cooper "Lighthorse," after watching Cooper play the final round in 2½ hours en route to winning the 1926 Los Angeles Open.

(The word "lighthorse" originated as a military term for light cavalry, back when cavalrymen were actually mounted on horses. Light cavalry regiments carried fewer weapons and, going back in time, wore less armor, but rode fast horses. They were built for movement and quick strikes. The first famous person nicknamed "Lighthorse Harry" was Henry Lee, Robert E. Lee's father and a cavalry officer in the American Revolution.)

But Cooper later came to believe that his hurrying around the course might have been something that hurt him in big tournaments. He once said:

"If there's something I know now that I wish I knew earlier in my career, it would be that I hadn't been in such a hurry to play, had learned to wait, to be more patient. But that wasn't my nature."

Although born in England, because Cooper grew up in Texas and spent most of his life (all of his adult life) in the United States, he is usually classified as American. In fact, the Texas Golf Hall of Fame has called Cooper "the first 'Texan' to successfully play the emerging pro golf tour."

Cooper's father, Syd Cooper, was also a golf professional and had once apprenticed to Old Tom Morris at St. Andrews. The Cooper family moved to the United States when Harry was a young boy, settling in Texas. Syd became the pro at Cedar Crest Golf Club in Dallas, and that's where Harry learned the game. Harry himself became a pro in Dallas at age 18.

He didn't have to wait long for his first pro victory, what today is counted as his first official PGA Tour win. It happened at the 1923 Galveston Open. Cooper was only four days past his 19th birthday at the time of the win, setting a record for youngest PGA Tour winner. That record only stood until 1931, but to this day Cooper remains the second-youngest PGA Tour winner ever, and one of just five teenagers who've won on the tour.

Although Cooper never won one of the four tournaments we now call the major championships, that doesn't mean he didn't win big tournaments. He won plenty of those. The 1926 Los Angeles, where he got his nickname, was the very first LA Open. He won that tournament again in 1937.

He won the Western Open in 1934, a tournament that at that time was considered on par with the U.S. Open and PGA Championship, which were the "Big 3" in the United States before The Masters (first played that year) surpassed it. Cooper won that Western Open in a playoff over Ky Laffoon, scheduled for 18 holes, but extended to 36 when they were still tied after 18.

Cooper won the Illinois Open three years running, 1933-35 (the later two years as PGA Tour events). In 1933 and 1934, he won both times by beating Tommy Armour in 18-hole playoffs. He won the St. Paul Open three times, in 1930 (its first year) and in both 1935 and '36.

Of Cooper's 29 PGA Tour titles, 24 of them came from 1930-39; he won every year of that decade. The year 1937 was his biggest, with seven official PGA Tour wins, including the Houston Open, St. Petersburg Open and his second Los Angeles Open.

His biggest win that year, though, was at the Canadian Open, which Cooper had first won in 1932. In addition to his seven wins, Cooper had another 13 Top 5 finishes in 1937, and, including his seven wins, 28 Top 10 finishes.

At the end of 1937, Cooper was the PGA Tour's leading money winner with $14,138. He also was the tour's very first winner of the Vardon Trophy award.

Cooper came very close to many more wins over his career, too — he finished second a lot. He was runner-up in the North & South Open in both 1933 and 1934. He lost to Jug McSpaden in the championship match of the San Francisco National Match Play Open in 1935 (when he had five runner-up finishes total).

At the 1936 St. Petersburg Open, Cooper lost a playoff to Leonard Dodson, then, one week later, beat Dodson by one stroke to win the Florida West Coast Open. He lost a playoff to Sam Snead at the 1938 Canadian Open, and lost again in the championship match of the San Francisco Match Play in 1941, to Johnny Revolta.

The PGA Tour's official, career stats for Cooper are these: 296 PGA Tour tournaments played, 290 cuts made, 191 Top 10 finishes. In addition to the 29 official wins the Tour credits to Cooper, he is also credited with 37 second-place finishes and 23 third-place finishes. Thirty-seven seconds is a very impressive number on the PGA Tour. Arnold Palmer, for example, had 38 runners-up — just one more than Cooper.

Cooper's final win on the PGA Tour was in 1939, but he had some wins elsewhere after that. Those included the 1942 Minnesota Open and 1955 Metropolitan PGA Championship.

As was common his era, throughout his competitive playing career Lighthorse Harry worked as a club pro. During his best years in the 1930s, he was based in the Chicago area. Cooper was the pro at Glen Oak Country Club from 1930-37, and at Northmoor Country Club in 1941-42, both Chicago-area clubs. In California, while at Lakeside Club in Hollywood, he gave instruction to celebrities including Bob Hope and Howard Hughes.

He spent the second half of his life based in New York. Cooper was the pro at Metropolis Country Club in White Plains, N.Y., from 1953-78. He retired from that position, but then focused on golf instruction at Westchester Country Club.

When the Metropolitan PGA Section introduced its Professional of the Year Award in 1956, Cooper was the first recipient. He won the section's Sam Snead Award in 1981 and was named its Teacher of the Year in 1990.

Cooper continued teaching at Westchester until he was 93 years old, in his later years sitting in a chair on the driving range to watch and counsel his pupils. He was believed to be the oldest active teaching pro in golf at that time. But all the way back in 1927, Cooper was featured in an instructional movie reel (silent) called "Better Golf":

He was 96 when he died in 2000. At the time, he had been the longest-serving member of the PGA of America.

The portrait of Lighthorse Harry as a hard-luck player is so ingrained in golf history that, when he died, the New York Times included it in the paper's headline on his obituary: "Harry Cooper, Unlucky Golfer, Is Dead at 96."

Cooper was elected to the PGA Hall of Fame in the late 1950s, and to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1992. He is also a member of the Illinois and Texas golf halls of fame, and of the Metropolitan PGA Hall of Fame.

Lighthorse Harry Cooper's Tournament Wins

His 29 victories that are counted today as official PGA Tour wins:
  • 1923 Galveston Open Championship
  • 1926 Los Angeles Open
  • 1926 Monterey Peninsula Championship
  • 1927 Pebble Beach Open
  • 1929 Shawnee Open
  • 1930 St. Paul Open
  • 1930 Medinah Country Club Invitational
  • 1930 Salt Lake Open
  • 1931 Tri-State Open
  • 1931 Pasadena Open
  • 1932 Canadian Open
  • 1933 Arizona Open
  • 1934 Western Open
  • 1934 Illinois State Open
  • 1935 Medinah Open
  • 1935 Illinois Open Championship
  • 1935 St. Paul Open
  • 1936 Florida West Coast Open
  • 1936 St. Paul Open
  • 1937 Los Angeles Open
  • 1937 Houston Open
  • 1937 St. Petersburg Open
  • 1937 True Temper Open
  • 1937 Canadian Open
  • 1937 Inverness Invitational Four-Ball (partnered by Horton Smith)
  • 1937 Oklahoma Fourball (partnered by Horton Smith)
  • 1938 Oakland Open
  • 1938 Crescent City Open
  • 1939 Goodall Palm Beach Round Robin
Cooper also won these titles:
  • 1927 Oklahoma City Open
  • 1932 Illinois PGA Championship
  • 1933 Illinois Open
  • 1934 Illinois PGA Championship
  • 1939 Connecticut Open
  • 1942 Minnesota Open
  • 1955 Metropolitan PGA Championship
Photo credit: Harry Cooper in 1936, via Unknown author (ACME), Public domain, Wikimedia Commons

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