Horton Smith: Golfer Was Young Phenom and Masters Champ

Golfer Horton Smith poses
Horton Smith was a PGA Tour golfer who burst on the scene in the late 1920s with one of the best initial runs in tour history: After winning twice in his rookie year of 1928, Smith had eight wins in 1929. Most of those wins happened before he turned 21 year old. Smith eventually became one of the first tour golfers to achieve at least 30 career wins. He won the very first Masters Tournament and was also The Masters' first double-champion.

Smith is often included in discussions of golf's all-time greatest putters. One famous golf writer, Henry Longhurst, said of Smith that "his swing was smooth and slow and beautiful, and he putted with the touch of a violinist." Another famous golf journalist, Bernard Darwin, wrote that Smith's putting was "a joy to watch, easy, elegant and of a horrid certainty."

Full name: Horton Smith (he did not have a middle name)

Date of birth: May 22, 1908

Place of birth: Springfield, Missouri

Date and place of death: October 15, 1963, in Detroit, Michigan

Nicknames: "The Missouri Rover" or "The Joplin Ghost"

Smith's Two Masters Wins and Other Majors

Horton Smith has the distinction of being the first-ever Masters champion, and also being The Masters' first two-time winner.
  • 1934 Masters: At the very first "Augusta National Invitation," as The Masters was formally known its first five years, Smith became the tournament's first champion. He shared the lead after an opening-round 70, led by one stroke after each of the second and third rounds, and won by one stroke over runner-up Craig Wood. (The Masters only counts wire-to-wire winners as those who led outright, no ties, after each round, so Smith is not credited for a wire-to-wire win here.) Smith sealed the deal with a 20-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole (which is the eighth hole today after the nines were reversed in 1935). Smith's paycheck as the very first Masters champ? $1,500.

  • 1936 Masters: After finishing 19th in the second Masters in 1935, Smith in 1936 became the tournament's first two-time champion. This time he came from behind, catching Harry Cooper, who led after each of the first three rounds, on the back nine of the final round. Smith trailed Cooper by four after the first round, by five after Round 2, and by three after the third round. But in the final round (played on Monday due to rain delays) Smith shot 72 to Cooper's 76 to win by one stroke. Smith chipped in for a 50-foot birdie on the 14th hole and birdied No. 15, and Cooper bogeyed No. 17 to bring about the final result.
Smith received a Green Jacket when Augusta National Golf Club first introduced them for Masters champions in 1949. In those days, Masters winners sometimes took their jackets home from the club. When Smith died, the jacket passed to his brother. When his brother died, the jacket passed to the brother's stepsons. In 2013, Smith's Green Jacket was auctioned and brought a price of $682,229.45. At the time, it was the highest price ever paid for a piece of golf memorabilia.

Smith did not win or finish as high as second in any other majors. In the stroke-play majors, he had nine Top 10 finishes total. Those included third place in the 1930 U.S. Open (where he was the 36-hole leader) and 1940 U.S. Open, and tied fourth in the 1930 British Open. He was also fifth in the 1942 Masters. Smith had a 69, the best score among the contenders, in the final round of the U.S. Open in 1940, but finished one stroke outside of a playoff.

In the match play PGA Championship, Smith reached the semifinals in 1928 but lost to Al Espinosa, his best showing. He reached the quarterfinals six out of 10 years in the decade of the 1930s, and made the Round of 16 three other times, last well past his prime in 1954.

Smith's first appearance in a major was in the 1927 U.S. Open. He played every Masters Tournament from 1934 through 1963, the year of his death.

More About Horton Smith

Horton Smith grew up on a farm just outside Springfield, Missouri, on land that is today part of Highland Springs Country Club. He learned to play locally, and played only locally until he first traveled for competition in 1925. That was for the Missouri Amateur, where, at age 17, he lost in the second round.

Smith turned pro in 1926, becoming assistant pro at Sprinfield Country Club in his hometown. In 1927, aged 19, he took over as head pro at two nearby clubs, and in 1928 he became pro at Oak Hill Country Club in Joplin, Mo.

His first year playing the PGA Tour was 1928, which he began at 19 years old. Smith entered 14 tournaments and finished in the Top 10 in eight of them. His first PGA Tour win was at the Oklahoma City Open in November, and he won again at the season-closing Catalina Island Open just before Christmas.

But even if Smith had never done much else, his 1929 year would have given him a place in tour history. Smith recorded four runner-up finishes over the first six weeks of the season before winning the Pensacola Open Invitational in February. And then he just kept winning, including two weeks later at the Fort Myers Open. In three consecutive weeks in March, Smith won back-to-back-to-back at the Florida Open, La Gorce Open and North & South Open.

He didn't win again until November at the Oregon Open, then added two more victories: the Berkeley Open and the season-ending Pasadena Open. That's eight wins total for Smith in 1929, a tour record at the time, and during a year he began at 20 years old. He wound up with six runner-up finishes for the year, too, including at the prestigious Western Open.

The first four of those wins in 1929 happened before Smith's 21st birthday, giving him six PGA Tour victories before turning 21. That remains the all-time record today for most wins on the PGA Tour before age 21. (He also played in the Ryder Cup before turning 21 — more on that below.) Smith led the PGA Tour in both victories and money for 1929. He also won the French PGA Championship that year.

In 1930 Smith won four more times and had five more seconds on tour. One of those victories was in the Savannah Open, where he finished one stroke in front of amateur Bobby Jones. That made Smith the only golfer to beat Jones in competition during Jones' Grand Slam year — the last golfer to beat Jones before Jones' retirement at the end of the year.

During that Savannah Open, Smith showed Jones a new club he was using out of the sand. It had a wide, flanged sole and a concave face. That club has led some writers over the years to say that Smith was the first golfer to use a sand wedge in competition. But Smith's club was different from the modern sand wedge that Gene Sarazen designed and used a few years later, and its concave face soon got it banned by the USGA. Jones put the club to good use during his British Open victory later in the year.

At the height of his fame, Smith wrote a golf instructional column for newspaper syndication. He was one of the earlier pros to get deeply into swing mechanics and instructional practices, and there was some thought at the time that his tendency to tinker with his swing caused him to lose his prolific winning ways. But the truth is that aside from the top five or six winners in PGA Tour history, no golfer has kept up the winning pace that Smith set over his first three years.

And it's not like Smith went away after 1930. He never won as many as four tour events in a single year again, but Smith had five more multiple-win seasons: three wins in 1934, three in 1935, two in 1936, three in 1937, two in 1941. He led the PGA Tour in earnings in 1936 with two wins, two seconds, 20 out of 21 starts in the Top 25, and 17 Top 10 finishes. That 1934-37 stretch, which included his two Masters victories, would be a career-making run for all but a small number of golfers in tour history.

But Smith won only twice more after the 1930s, after turning 30 in 1938. He still contended — he was 10th on the money list in 1939 — but his final two wins in 1941 were the Florida West Coast Open and the St. Paul Open. He finished eighth on the money list in 1941.

Two of his victories — the 1929 Fort Myers Open and 1941 Florida West Coast Open — were via playoffs, with Smith beating Denny Shute and Byron Nelson, respectively, in those playoffs. But he also lost playoffs in six other tournaments: the 1929 South Central Open (to Bobby Cruickshank), 1934 Gasparilla Open-Tampa (to Shute), 1937 Hollywood Hotel Open (to his protegĂ© Leonard Dodson), 1937 Western Open (to Ralph Guldahl), 1937 St. Petersburg Open (to Harry Cooper) and 1939 Glens Falls Open (to Shute). In 1937 Smith became the first golfer to appear in three playoffs in one year on the PGA Tour. Alas, he lost all three (but did win three other tournaments that year).

After serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II, Smith never got back to his old level.

Smith won at least once a year from 1928 through 1937. That set a record at the time for most consecutive seasons with a win to start one's career — 10 years in a row. He was the first golfer to do that, and today still one of just six golfers to win 10 years in a row or more to start one's PGA Tour career.

In addition to his 30 career wins, PGA Tour records credit Smith with 193 Top 10 finishes in 370 career starts. He had 34 second-place finishes and 19 thirds, and 123 Top 5 finishes. Smith is one of just 16 golfers in PGA Tour history to record at least 30 victories. His total of 34 second-place finishes is seventh-best in PGA Tour history.

Smith was a member of Team USA in the Ryder Cup five times: 1929, 1931, 1933, 1935 and 1937. In his first appearance, at the 1929 Ryder Cup, Smith was about four weeks shy of turning 21 years old. He held the Ryder Cup record for youngest player until 1969, but he remains today the youngest-ever American Ryder Cup player.

Smith played only four matches in those five appearances, going 3-0-1. In 1929, he beat Fred Robson in singles, 4 and 2. Smith was on the team in 1931 but did not play. In the 1933 Ryder Cup, Smith defeated Charles Whitcombe in singles, 2 and 1. In the 1935 Ryder Cup, Smith played doubles for the only time, partnering Paul Runyan to a 9-and-8 foursomes victory over Bill Cox/Ted Jarman. In singles, he halved with Cox. In 1937 Smith was again named to the team but did not play in any matches.

Over Smith's playing career he worked multiple club pro jobs, some already mentioned above. He left the job of head professional at Oak Park Country Club (River Grove, Illinois) in 1936. In 1946, he took over as head pro at Detroit Golf Club and held that position until his death.

He also was very involved in PGA of America administration. Beginning in 1932, Smith regularly served on the PGA Tournament Committee that governed the PGA Tour at that time. He served as Illinois PGA president, and he was president of the PGA of America from 1952-54.

Smith wrote a couple of golf instructional books, focused on putting and published shortly before his death: The Secret of Holing Putts and The Master's Secrets of Putting (affiliate links).

When Smith passed away in 1963, he was the first winner of The Masters Tournament to die. He was only 55 years old, the victim of Hodgkin's disease. It was his second battle with cancer after having a lung removed due to the disease in 1957. His return to golf after that late-1950s surgery earned Smith the Ben Hogan Award in 1960. In 1962, the USGA gave Smith the Bob Jones Award.

In 1965, the PGA of America created the Horton Smith Award to honor club professionals for making "outstanding and continuing contributions to PGA education," and to memorialize Smith. In 2020, that award was renamed the PGA Professional Development Award because, the PGA explained, of Smith's support, while president of the PGA in the 1950s, for the organization's racist rules of the era that banned blacks from PGA membership.

After the PGA move, and for the same reason, Detroit Golf Club changed the name of the Horton Smith Invitational tournament, played annually since 1964, to the Michigan Medal Play. The Horton Smith Golf Course, the municipal golf course in Smith's hometown of Joplin, Missouri, still carries his name.

Horton Smith is a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, PGA of America Hall of Fame, Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Illinois Golf Hall of Fame, Michigan Sports Hall of Fame and Michigan Golf Hall of Fame.

Horton Smith's Pro Wins

On the PGA Tour, Smith is credited with these 30 victories:
  • 1928 Oklahoma City Open
  • 1928 Catalina Island Open
  • 1929 Berkeley Open Championship
  • 1929 Pensacola Open Invitational
  • 1929 Florida Open
  • 1929 La Gorce Open
  • 1929 Fort Myers Open
  • 1929 North and South Open
  • 1929 Oregon Open
  • 1929 Pasadena Open
  • 1930 Central Florida Open
  • 1930 Savannah Open
  • 1930 Berkeley Open
  • 1930 Bay District Open
  • 1931 St. Paul Open
  • 1932 National Capital City Open
  • 1933 Miami International Four-Ball (partnered by Paul Runyan)
  • 1934 Masters Tournament
  • 1934 Grand Slam Open
  • 1934 California Open
  • 1935 Palm Springs Invitational
  • 1935 Miami Biltmore Open
  • 1935 Pasadena Open
  • 1936 Masters Tournament
  • 1936 Victoria Open
  • 1937 North and South Open
  • 1937 Inverness Invitational Four-Ball (partnered by Harry Cooper)
  • 1937 Oklahoma Four-Ball (partnered by Harry Cooper)
  • 1941 Florida West Coast Open
  • 1941 St. Paul Open
He won multiple other tournaments that were not part of the PGA Tour, including these:
  • 1929 French PGA Championship
  • 1940 Massachusetts Open
  • 1948 Michigan PGA Championship
  • 1954 Michigan Open

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