Golfer Johnny Dawson: Amateur Champ, Father of California Desert Golf

Golfer Johnny Dawson swings a club

Johnny Dawson was an amateur golf champion, winning tournaments from the 1920s into the 1960s. But there is one glaring omission from his body of work: No victories in USGA championships, despite the fact that some years he was considered the best amateur in America. That's because for 18 years at the height of his game he was ineligible — the USGA had revoked his amateur status for national championships.

As good as he was on the golf course, Dawson might be better remembered today for work building golf courses. He is generally given credit for launching the golf boom in the Coachella Valley of California — growing the Palm Springs, Calif., area as a golf hotspot.

Full name: John Wesley Dawson

Date of birth: December 20, 1902

Place of birth: Chicago, Illinois

Date and place of death: January 6, 1986, in Palm Springs, California

Dawson's Biggest Wins

Dawson is credited with one win on the PGA Tour:
  • 1942 Big Crosby Pro-Am
Dawson also recorded the following wins; tournaments denoted with an asterisk (*) were professional tournaments, although Dawson was playing as an amateur:
  • 1934 Colorado Amateur Match Play
  • 1935 Iowa Open*
  • 1936 Trans-Mississippi Amateur
  • 1942 California State Amateur
  • 1942 Southern California Amateur
  • 1942 California State Open*
  • 1944 Southern California Amateur
  • 1945 Southern California Amateur
  • 1952 Southern California Amateur

In the Majors

Although a lifelong amateur, Johnny Dawson did play in professional majors seven times: Five times he was invited to The Masters, and twice he qualified for the U.S. Open. His best finish among those seven starts was tied for ninth place in the 1936 Masters.

Dawson was invited to each of the first three Masters Tournaments played. In the 1934 Masters, the first one, he tied for 23rd. In the 1935 Masters, he tied for 17th. Dawson had one other Top 20 finish, a tie for 16th in the 1949 Masters.

Dawson was low amateur in The Masters in 1936, and tied for low amateur in 1949.

Dawson's Role in the Desert Golf Boom

The 1975 Encyclopedia of Golf stated that Dawson "is generally given credit for developing Palm Springs into the famous resort that it is."

The Southern California Golf Association called Dawson "the visionary force that began the golf course boom in the Coachella Valley after World War II."

And the Los Angeles Times, at the time of Dawson's death, described him as "the man who started the desert golfing boom."

What did Dawson do? He built golf courses in the desert. Dawson went into real estate beginning in 1942. As a golf course architect and builder, he had already opened a few courses in California, including Stardust Country Club in San Diego, when he moved to Palm Springs in 1949.

When Dawson arrived, there was only a single, 9-hole course in the Coachella Valley. Dawson bought a deeply indebted property called Thunderbird Dude Ranch in Palm Springs. Dawson set about adding a golf course and transforming the property into a "golf course community," one of those neighborhoods where luxe homes line the country club fairways.

Thunderbird Country Club opened in 1951 and was a huge success — a proof-of-concept for desert golf in California. The club was the site of the 1955 Ryder Cup and was one of the original golf courses used by the PGA Tour's Bob Hope Desert Classic.

Celebrities flocked to the Palm Springs area, and more golf courses began opening. Dawson was behind many of the new ones, too. Among his other desert courses are Eldorado, Seven Lakes, Marrakesh, Desert Horizons and La Quinta Country Club.

Dawson also developed golf courses outside of the desert, includng Silverado in the Napa Valley of California.

More About Johnny Dawson

At the 1928 U.S. Amateur, Johnny Dawson made a splash by beating Chick Evans — a two-time champ and 1916 U.S. Open winner — in the first round. Dawson advanced to the quarterfinals before losing to one of the eventual finalists, Phil Perkins.

A year later Dawson reached the semifinals of the 1929 British Amateur. He was considered one of the favorites that year for the U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach, and he broke the Pebble Beach course record during a practice round. But the night before the tournament began the USGA ruled Dawson ineligible. Why?

Dawson was on the payroll of golf club and sports equipment maker Spalding. That, the USGA determined, meant Dawson had forfeited his right to play in USGA amateur championships. And although Dawson continued to play amateur tournaments run by other organizations, it was 17 years before he played in another USGA amateur championship.

When Dawson finally left Spalding after turning to real estate, the USGA made him eligible again as of 1945. He returned to USGA competition at the 1946 U.S. Amateur. He was 43 years old and lost in the first round.

But in the 1947 U.S. Amateur, Dawson made it all the way to the championship match. In the fifth round, Dawson needed two extra holes to beat Frank Stranahan, then, in the quarterfinals, bested Frank Strafaci, 6 and 5. In the final Dawson fell to Skee Riegel, 2 and 1.

That performance helped get Dawson onto the American team in the 1949 Walker Cup, which, due the long ban by the USGA, was his only appearance in that competition. He was 46 years old. Dawson partnered Bruce McCormick to an 8-and-7 foursomes win over Ken Thom/Arthur Perowne on Day 1. In Day 2 singles, Dawson downed Irish stalwart Joe Carr, 5 and 3.

During his long banishment by the USGA, Dawson did play regional- and state-level amateur tournaments. He also toured the country several times in the late 1920s and early 1930s, playing exhibition matches, usually with a partner. One tour was with British legend Joyce Wethered, another with Gene Sarazen. Yet another was with Babe Didrikson, in her earliest years as a golfer and before she added the "Zaharias" to her name.

Dawson won many tournaments during the 1930s and 1940s, but his biggest wins were in California, which Dawson called home.

The year of 1942 was Dawson's glory year. He won a PGA Tour event, the Bing Crosby Pro-Am, at Pebble Beach. That was the last year the tournament was only 36 holes in length, but the PGA Tour still counts it today as an official tour win. (Six years later, in 1948, Dawson won the team pro-am title at the Crosby with his partner Ben Hogan.)

Also in 1942, Dawson won the California State Amateur, beating Bob Gardner in the championship match, 8 and 7. He won the Southern California Amateur, and also the California State Open. Dawson was the first golfer to win all three of those tournaments in the same year — and he remains today the only golfer to do so. It was around this time that some began referring to Dawson as "the uncrowned king of amateur golf," since he was still barred by the USGA.

Dawson eventually became the first four-time winner of the Southern California Amateur. He took that title in 1942, 1944 and 1945. Going for win No. 4 and his third consecutively in 1946, Dawson reached the championship match before losing to Robert Gardner, 2 and 1. But he did win a fourth title in the Southern Cal Am in 1952 at age 50. He was the first golfer to notch four victories in that tournament.

Dawson also reached a lot of other finals at big tournaments. He lost in the championship match of the 1926 Trans-Mississippi, 1928 North and South Amateur, 1935 North and South (to Johnny Goodman) and 1935 Mexican Amateur. Dawson did win the Trans-Mississippi in 1936.

He had some close calls into his 50s, too. Dawson was runner-up in the 1958 U.S. Senior Amateur. And, at age 57, he lost in the championship match of the 1960 French Amateur.

Dawson was 83 years old when he died in 1986. He was inducted into the Southern California Golf Association Hall of Fame in 2007.

Dawson's wife, who outlived him by 21 years, was famous in her own right. Velma Wayne Dawson was a puppeteer who built the marionettes used on the famous early television series The Howdy Doody Show. That included creating the iconic look of Howdy Doody himself. In 2000, she received a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars. Velma Dawson died in 2007. Palm Springs Magazine once called Johnny and Velma "the Desert's first power couple."

Photo credit: Golfer Johnny Dawson pictured in 1926. Photo by Julian P. Graham, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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