Willie Macfarlane: Golfer Won 20+ Times on PGA Tour in 1920s, '30s

Golfer Willie Macfarlane poses in 1929
Willie Macfarlane was a Scottish golfer who went to the United States in the early 20th century as a club professional. From the 19-teens into the 1930s, he won more than 20 tournaments on the pro circuit, a total that still lands him on the list of golfers with the most PGA Tour wins. Macfarlane also beat Bobby Jones in a 36-hole playoff to win a U.S. Open championship.

Full name: William Macfarlane

Date of birth: June 29, 1889

Place of birth: Aberdeen, Scotland

Date and place of death: August 15, 1961, in Miami, Florida

Nickname: Mac

Macfarlane's Biggest Wins

Macfarlane is credited with 21 official wins by the PGA Tour:
  • 1916 Rockland Country Club Four-Ball
  • 1921 Philadelphia Open Championship
  • 1924 Westchester Open
  • 1925 U.S. Open
  • 1925 Shawnee Open
  • 1928 Shawnee Open
  • 1930 Metropolitan Open
  • 1930 Westchester Open
  • 1930 Mid-South Open Bestball (partnered by Wiffy Cox)
  • 1931 Miami International Four-Ball (partnered by Wiffy Cox)
  • 1931 Kenwood Open
  • 1932 St. Petersburg Open
  • 1933 Metropolitan Open
  • 1933 Mid-South Pro-Pro (partnered by Paul Runyan)
  • 1933 Mid-South Open (tie with Paul Runyan, Joe Turnesa)
  • 1933 Miami Biltmore Open
  • 1934 Pennsylvania Open Championship
  • 1935 Florida West Coast Open
  • 1935 Glens Falls Open
  • 1936 Walter Olson Golf Tournament (tie with Tommy Armour)
  • 1936 Nassau Open
He also won the Westchester Open in 1922, a year in which that event was not counted as an official tour win.

His U.S. Open Victory and Other Major Performances

Willie Macfarlane won the 1925 U.S. Open, and he did it in a way that, speaking from a historical perspective, makes it very special: He beat Bobby Jones in a playoff.

But Macfarlane did something special in that U.S. Open even before the playoff. After opening with a 74, Macfarlane carded a 67 in the second round to share the 36-hole lead with Leo Diegel. It was the very first 67 in U.S. Open history, giving Macfarlane the tournament's 18-hole scoring record. (The record stood until 1932.)

Macfarlane took the solo lead after a 72 in the third round. Jones, who called a penalty on himself in the first round, was four strokes behind.

But in the final round, Macfarlane struggled to a 78 while Jones carded a 74. Macfarlane actually needed to sink a putt on the final green to ensure a tie. It was just a one-footer, but his ball settled into an unrepaired pitch mark. Afraid the ball would bounce offline if he putted, Macfarlane used a mid-iron to give the ball a little lift up out of the pitch mark and into the hole.

The playoff between Macfarlane and Jones was scheduled for 18 holes. Jones bogeyed the 16th hole to fall back into a tie. On the 18th hole, Macfarlane had a 5-foot putt that would have won it for him. But he missed. Both players finished on 75.

Sudden-death holes were rare in golf at the time, and the USGA told them to play another 18 holes. And Jones opened a four-stroke lead over the front nine of the second 18. But Macfarlane chased Jones down with a 33 over the back nine: He made up one stroke on the 10th, two strokes on the 13th, and one on the 15th to tie it.

They were still tied on the 17th hole (the 35th overall playoff hole). To put the closeness of Macfarlane's win over Jones in a different way, they were tied at 433 strokes after 107 of 108 holes played (72 regulation holes, 36 playoff holes).

But on that 108th and last hole, Macfarlane made a par of 4, Jones scored a bogey 5. Willie Macfarlane was the 1925 U.S. Open champion.

Macfarlane's first appearance in any major was at the 1912 U.S. Open, where he tied for 18th. He last entered a major at the 1946 U.S. Open, but withdrew. Aside from his victory in 1925, Macfarlane had only one other Top 10 finish in the U.S. Open, a tie for eighth in 1920. He had Top 20 showings in the U.S. Opens of 1926, 1927 and 1928.

Macfarlane's best finish in any other major was reaching the semifinals (a Top 4 finish) of the 1916 PGA Championship, the inaugural playing of that major. Macfarlane had a win over Mike Brady in the second round, but lost to eventual champ Jim Barnes in the semifinals. He made the quarterfinals in the 1923 PGA Championship before losing to Bobby Cruickshank. Macfarlane reached the Round of 16 in the PGAs of 1924, 1928 and 1931.

He also played in the very first Masters Tournament in 1934, finishing sixth. Macfarlane never played the British Open.

More About Willie Macfarlane

Willie Macfarlane was known for his thick Scottish brogue and this very smooth golf swing. Straight driving, the mid-irons and short irons were the strengths of his game.

"One of the smoothest swingers in the game," is how an old golf encyclopedia described him. Once asked what made a good chip shot, Macfarlane replied it was when the chip was "the shot before a conceded putt."

Macfarlane was tall and thin and wore glasses (though he preferred being photographed without them) — or, as the author of the 1939 book Golf Classics: Dramatic Moments put it, Macfarlane was "bespectacled, loose-jointed, slender as a bean pole." His appearance was often compared to that of a schoolteacher.

In his 1963 Book for Senior Golfers (affiliate link), two-time major winner Paul Runyan wrote that "historically speaking, it is not Jones or Sarazen, Snead or Hogan, Littler or Palmer who stand out in my mind as having best mastered the swing plane. It is Willie Macfarlane, a tall wisp of a man, who looked more like a professor than an athlete."

Macfarlane wasn't a long driver, but he was a very straight driver. Runyan continued:

"Willie grooved his swing so well that his idea of a good, rousing workout was to stand on the first tee before starting his round and just make four or five passes in the air with his driver to loosen himself up. The last pass might even be a bit vigorous. Then, he would hit the ball down the fairway straight as a string and go on like that throughout the entire round."
In his book The Education of a Golfer (affiliate link), Sam Snead recalled playing with Macfarlane in the 1938 Metropolitan Open. They reached a 135-yard, downhill, par-3, and Snead watched intently to see which club Macfarlane used. Macfarlane first pulled a 6-iron, then put it back in his bag and took out his 4-iron. This was a trick canny vets in those days sometimes played on younger guys they knew were looking for club info: pull a "wrong" club, then swing softly or three-quarters. Macfarlane hit that 4-iron close.

But Snead wasn't tricked, even though Macfarlane's club gave him pause. Snead played an 8-iron, then asked Macfarlane why he'd hit a 4. "I just wanted to teach you a lesson," Macfarlane replied. "I didn't trap you with my little trick, and nobody else will either, I'm thinking. But remember — never pay attention to what the other man is using. Reason it out for yourself."

A right-handed golfer, Macfarlane could shoot in the 90s playing left-handed, and in the 80s playing righty but using just one hand on the club.

But he was never enamored with tournament golf — or perhaps just with the travel necessary to be a full-time tour player (which he never was). Macfarlane mostly stuck to entering events in New York or close by, or in Florida where he spent many winters.

PGA Tour records show him with only 141 starts in tournaments now counted as official tour events. Over his mid-1910s to 1930s tournament career, that's only a handful of starts per year. Yet, he still won 21 times, had 13 second-place finishes, 17 thirds and 101 total Top 10 finishes. Those are very impressive percentages even if, outside of the majors, he did not play a lot of top tournaments.

At the time of his final tour victory in 1936, Macfarlane's 21 wins would have ranked very high on the list of career PGA Tour victory leaders. It would have been in the Top 10. Today, Macfarlane remains one of fewer than 35 golfers in PGA Tour history to win at least 21 offical tour events.

Born in Scotland, Macfarlane emigrated from Aberdeen to America in 1909 when he was 19 years old. He became a club professional at a time when Scottish golfers probably made up most of the club pros in the United States. But he began playing tournament golf within a few years, including his U.S. Open debut in 1912.

His first tour win was in 1916, then he won sporadically during the 1920s: once each in 1921, 1924 and 1928, twice in 1925.

His U.S. Open playoff win over Jones wasn't Macfarlane's only playoff victory of 1925: He won the Shawnee Open in a playoff against Willie Klein. That was one year after having lost a 1924 Shawnee Open playoff against Lee Diegel.

Macfarlane won another playoff in the 1930 Metropolitan Open, beating another U.S. Open winner, Johnny Farrell. In the 1930s, the pace of his winning picked up: Macfarlane won every year from 1931 through 1936, with multiple victories in four of those years.

In 1932, he had one win but was runner-up in six tournaments. In 1933, Macfarlane had his highest single-season win total of four. Those included his second Met Open victory. He also lost a playoff to Denny Shute in the Gasparilla Open.

In 1936, Macfarlane recorded his final two tour victories (last at the Nassau Open in the Bahamas) and also the last of his 13 runner-up finishes. Although he rarely played tournament golf after the 1930s, he did make occasional appearances — Macfarlane's final start in a PGA Tour event didn't happen until 1957, when he was 68 years old.

Over his club pro career, Macfarlane had his longest tenure at Oak Ridge Golf Club in Tuckahoe, New York, which is where he worked at the time of U.S. Open win. He also taught at Hollywood Club in Florida in the 1920s. Macfarlane eventually moved full-time to Florida and in the 1940s was pro at Miami Shores Country Club.

He was seriously injured in an auto accident in 1949, which curtailed his ability to play. But he continued to teach after that, and up until shortly before his death was teaching at a Miami Beach driving range.

Willie Macfarlane was 72 years old when he died of a heart attack in 1961. Today he is a member of the Metropolitan PGA Hall of Fame.

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