Golfer Felice Torza: Club Pro Almost Won a Major

Felice Torza was a professional golfer who rarely played in tour events, dedicating most of his career to the club pro life. But he did come close once to winning a major championship, making it to the title match of a PGA Championship during that major's match-play era.

Full name: Felice Joseph Torza

Date of birth: March 15, 1920

Place of birth: Naples, Italy

Date and place of death: December 23, 1983 in Connecticut

Nickname: The Toy Tiger

Torza's PGA Championship Run in 1953

The 1953 PGA Championship came down to a title match between the little-known Walter Burkemo and the littler-known Felice Torza. This championship match is sometimes cited by modern media as one of the reasons the PGA of America switched this major from match play to stroke play about five years later. Perhaps. This is certain: Torza earned his place in the final, and Burkemo earned his victory.

Torza began his run by beating two major championship winners in the first two rounds. In Round 1, he knocked out Gene Sarazen, 2 and 1. In the second round, Torza beat defending champion Jim Turnesa. That first day of play (first- and second-round matches on the same day) was immediately nicknamed "Black Friday" because most of the big names — and all of the past PGA Championship winners in the field — got knocked out early. Torza was responsible for the losses of two of those past champs.

Torza then won three tight matches in a row: 1-up on the 38th hole over Wally Ulrich; 1-up over Jimmy Clark; and, in the semifinals, 1-up on the 39th hole over Jack Isaacs.

Local player Burkemo was the heavy fan favorite against Torza in the title tilt. Burkemo led, 1-up, after the morning 18. In the afternoon, Burkemo quickly went 2-up but Torza won the 29th to get back to 1-down. When Torza bogeyed the 31st hole, though, his deficit was 2-down again. Burkemo closed the match out with a par on the 35th hole.

"I've never had so much fun," Torza told reporters afterward, and stories in newspapers the next day described Torza as "the smiling but serious Italian from Hartford, Conn." He was lauded for his friendly, grinning nature and willingness to interact with galleries all week.

More About Felice Torza

Felice Torza never won on the PGA Tour, but, then, he didn't play it much. He was a club pro. Of course, lots of touring pros in Torza's time — most of them — were also club pros. But Torza was a home pro, a professional who (mostly) stayed at the club and actually ran the day-to-day operation.

That doesn't mean he didn't play tournaments at all. He almost won the PGA Championship, after all. And Torza did win these state-level tournaments:

  • 1946 Connecticut Open
  • 1947 Rhode Island Open
  • 1950 Illinois Open Championship
  • 1958 Illinois Open Championship
  • 1965 Illinois Match Play Championship
He also played in 18 major championships, first at the 1947 U.S. Open (still an amateur), last at the 1962 PGA Championship. Aside from his runner-up in the 1953 PGA, his best finish was a tie for 24th in the 1952 U.S. Open.

Torza won the 1946 Connecticut Open while still an amateur, and also reached the Round of 16 in the U.S. Amateur that year.

His best year as a tournament player, however, was 1947. That year Torza was a semifinalist in the U.S. Amateur. He beat beat Harvie Ward in the quarterfinals, 4 and 3, but lost in the semifinals to the eventual champ, Skee Riegel, 2 and 1.

Also in 1947, Torza was the stroke-play medalist in the North and South Amateur, then reached the championship match before falling to Charles Dudley, 6 and 5. He also lost in the the championship match of the 1947 Connecticut Amateur. But Torza won the 1947 Rhode Island Open as an amateur playing against professionals.

He turned pro in 1948. In the 1948 Masters Torza holed-out his second shot on the 18th hole, the first player in Masters history to make a 2 on Augusta National's finishing hole.

After his 1953 PGA run, a note in an issue of the magazine Golfdom said that Torza had been "lauded by writers covering PGA as brightest new 'personality' in golf." He had been working as the pro at St. Charles (111.) CC, a job he took in 1950. But Torza left after the PGA to take another crack at the tour life.

That didn't last long, though, and Torza was soon back in Illinois. He won the Illinois state championship twice, in 1950 and 1958. And he worked as the head pro at Aurora (Ill.) Country Club for 28 years. In 1968, he was named Illinois PGA Professional of the Year.

That was three years after Torza had been inducted into his home state's hall of honor, the Connecticut Golf Hall of Fame in 1965. In Golf Magazine's Tips from the Teaching Pros, published in 1969, Torza was tapped to write the chapter on the pitch-and-run shot.

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