Leonard Dodson: Pro Golf Character of 1930s, '40s

Leonard Dodson was a golf pro and legendary golf gambler who also happened to be good enough to win several times on the PGA Tour in the 1930s and 1940s. And three of his tournament wins came in playoff victories over future Hall of Famers.

Full name: John Leonard Dodson

Date of birth: March 29, 1912

Place of birth: Mumford, Missouri

Date and place of death: January 14, 1997, in Springfield, Missouri

Nickname: "The Whack" or "The Ozark Chatterbox"

Dodson's Biggest Wins

Dodson is credited today with three official wins on the PGA Tour: In addition, he won multiple other pro tournaments that were not part of the PGA Tour, including these:
  • 1937 Iowa Open
  • 1937 Western Missouri-Eastern Kansas Tournament
  • 1937 Hollywood Beach Hotel Open
  • 1946 Iowa Open
  • 1948 Waterloo Open Golf Classic

In the Majors

Dodson played in 11 professional majors: six U.S. Opens, three Masters and two PGA Championships. His first major was the 1933 U.S. Open, and his last the 1953 PGA Championship. Dodson missed the cut in five of those 11 starts, and withdrew one other time. His best finish was also his only Top 10 showing — a tie for 10th place in the 1937 Masters.

More About Leonard Dodson

Leonard Dodson won three PGA Tour titles. And all three of them were won in playoffs. And he also won another prominent tournament in a playoff. Of his four playoffs wins, three came against future Hall of Famers — including Ben Hogan.

Dodson's first PGA Tour win was in the 1936 St. Petersburg Open. When he and Harry Cooper finished tied after 72 holes, they headed into a 36-hole playoff. Dodson won by a stroke, shooting 72-73.

His next PGA Tour win was the 1937 Philadelphia Open, won in a playoff over Bruce Coltart, a notable club pro who played in 14 majors.

And the last of Dodson's three PGA Tour wins was the 1941 Oakland Open. Dodson (called an "all-time, All-American screwball" by a columnist for the Oakland Tribune), Ben Hogan and Dutch Harrison played an 18-hole playoff in heavy rain. Dodson won with a 71 to Hogan's 74 and Harrison's 76.

Three wins, three wins by playoff, two of them over big names in golf history. Who was the third future Hall of Famer (in addition to Cooper and Hogan) Dodson beat in a playoff? His old buddy and benefactor Horton Smith.

The 1937 Hollywood Beach Hotel Open in Florida is not, today, counted as an official PGA Tour win for Dodson. But it was a big tournament that got lots of attention at the time. Smith and Dodson both grew up in the Springfield, Missouri, area, Smith about four years older than Dodson. Both learned the game on the golf courses there. Smith helped Dodson get his first job caddying, and later coached Dodson.

Dodson was 25 years old at the time, described in the Associated Press article as the "wisecracking, forgotten man of golf." After the two friends finished 72 holes tied, Dodson approached Smith with an offer: Let's make the playoff winner-take-all. (It was not uncommon for playoff participants in that era to strike side deals on how to divvy up the first- and second-place checks, splitting them evenly, playing winner-take-all, or playing for them as-is.) "You know you can't beat me," Dodson playfully prodded his mentor.

Smith declined the offer, which turned out to be a good decision, because he couldn't beat Dodson head-to-head. Not on that day, at least. Dodson shot 71, Smith 74. The Jefferson City, Mo., newspaper headlined its story, "Horton Loses By 3 Strokes to Ex-Student."

Dodson was known as one of the quirky characters of golf. He he talked a lot ("keeping lockerrooms filled with laughter," as Golfdom once put it), and he dressed to be noticed (wearing "eye-blinding sweaters," the AP once reported). One of his nicknames was "The Whack," because the other pros thought he was wacky. And Dodson was a famous (and infamous) gambler. He would play any other pro, or any local legend or big-shot, wannabe hustler anytime, anywhere, for any amount of money, under any conditions. And usually win.

He was known to win bets by playing a full round swinging one-armed, or while standing on one leg — or both. He would agree to matches that had him drag a rocking chair around the course and play every stroke while seated — sometimes, even while seated and blindfolded. Dodson would take a quick break at the turn to play a game of checkers for any amount of money. He would bet that you could choose any par-70 golf course you wanted and he would shoot 68 or better on it.

The book Money Golf: 600 Years of Bettin' on Birdies (affiliate links used in this article), included an anectode about Dodson. "During a tournament in Glens Falls, New York," the book's author wrote, "Leonard Dodson and journeyman pro Johnny O'Connor agreed to a $500 Nassau, but Dodson had to play on one leg. 'If Leonard touches the ground with the other foot before the club hits the ball, he gets a two-stroke penalty,' (Paul) Runyan recalled. 'Well, he lost the first three holes, then beat O'Connor all four ways. He shot 69, starting par, bogey, bogey. Next day in the tournament he's standing there on two feet and takes 77'."

The authors of The Ultimate Golf Book: A History and a Celebration of the World's Greatest Game wrote that Dodson "would bet on anything — which crow would be the first to fly off a telephone wire, which raindrop would be the first to slide to the bottom of a window."

In his 1961 book The Education of a Golfer, Sam Snead wrote of Dodson that:

"With a big, black cigar in his mouth, Dodson was about the meanest operator I ever saw then the chips were on the table. While he never won any major world title, a bet made him all but unbeatable."
Dodson once explained his nickname, "The Ozark Chatterbox": "Down in the Ozarks where I come from, we have no golf ethics and if you don't try to talk your opponent into missing that five-foot putt you are either crazy or you aren't an Ozark hillbilly."

In an era full of legendary golf gamblers, gadabouts and gadflies who went by such names as The Mysterious Montague, Count Yogi and Titanic Thompson, Dodson was arguably the best of the bunch as a pure golfer. He was the only one who made it as a tour golfer, after all, and produced PGA Tour wins. (Or was it that he was the only one who seriously tried?) He used his earnings from gambling and hustling to help finance annual trips to, mostly, Florida and Southern California PGA Tour stops, what was then known as the "Winter Tour." Those trips began in 1936.

The week after beating Cooper in a playoff at the 1936 St. Petersburgh Open, Dodson missed another playoff against Cooper by one stroke in the Florida West Coast Open.

He took part in another playoff in 1936 at the Wildwood Open in New Jersey, a 9-holer vs. Ray Mangrum. It was still tied after nine, so they continued into sudden death, and Mangrum got the win on the 10th hole. That gave Dodson one victory and two runners-up on the PGA Tour in 1936.

In the 1938 Bing Crosby Pro-Am, which began within a few weeks of the USGA's new rule limiting golfers to carrying 14 clubs or fewer, Dodson discovered after the first round that he had an extra club in the bag. It was a trick putter that was in one of his bag pockets, but it was, in fact, a 15th club. Dodson was disqualified — according to some sources the very first golfer ever DQ'd by the PGA Tour for carrying more than 14 clubs.

In 1937, Dodson won the Philadelphia Open on tour, plus, off tour, the Iowa Open, Western Missouri-Eastern Kansas Tournament and the Hollywood Beach Hotel Open over Smith.

His 1941 season began with the playoff win in the Oakland Open over Hogan and Harrison. Later in the year, he was involved in another showdown with Hogan, but neither of them won this time. It was at the high-dollar Tam O'Shanter Open in Chicago. Byron Nelson made a final-round charge to pip Dodson and Hogan, tied for second, by one stroke.

(The Tam O'Shanter Open was one of the few tournaments on the PGA Tour at the time that allowed Black golfers to enter or attempt to qualify. In the event that Black golfers did make the field, however, they were usually all grouped together because many white golfers declined to play with them. Dodson, to his great credit, volunteered himself as a fellow-competitor for any Black golfers who played. It was a great gesture, but was generally met with a joking, or even angry, response from fellow pros, fans and the media. Dodson was dubbed "Booker T. Dodson.")

In-between, Dodson also won the pro-am team title at the 1941 Bing Crosby Pro-Am with amateur Ray Watson, father of Tom Watson.

Dodson's last notable tournament win was in the 1948 Waterloo Golf Classic in Iowa, a big regional tournament still played today.

Dodson worked as a club pro at various places over the course of his golf career. His first job, landed with the help of Horton Smith, was at a course in Pembine, Wisconsin. Later Dodson became the head pro at Old Mission Club in Kansas City; at Green Hills Country Club in Burlingame, Calif.; and at Kansas City Country Club, among other stops.

Dodson was 84 years old when he died in 1997. He was inducted into the Ozarks Golf Hall of Fame in 2004.

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