Dow Finsterwald: Major Champion Made Impact on PGA Tour

Golfer Dow Finsterwald circa 1960
Dow Finsterwald had a relatively brief period at the top of his game, from the mid-1950s to early 1960s, but he packed a lot of accomplishments into that period. He was the runner-up at the last match-play PGA Championship, and the winner of the first stroke-play PGA Championship. He recorded the first 61 in PGA Tour history — while still an amateur. He won 12 tournaments and finished second more than twice as many times. He played in four Ryder Cups and captained in another.

Full name: Dow Henry Finsterwald

Date of birth: September 6, 1929

Place of birth: Athens, Ohio

Date and place of death: November 4, 2022, in Colorado Springs, Colorado

Also known as: His nickname on tour was "Finstie." Later, after his son became well-known in golf professional circles, he was often referred to as Dow Finsterwald Sr. to distinguish him from Dow Finsterwald Jr.

List of His Biggest Wins

Finsterwald is credited by the PGA Tour with 12 official tour victories: Note that some sources do not count Finsterwald's 1955 British Columbia Open victory as one of his official tour wins, which leads those sources to list his win total as 11. However, the tour itself says that British Columbia Open does count, and that his win total is 12.

Finsterwald's PGA Championship Title and Other Majors

As noted above, Dow Finsterwald has the distinction of finishing second in last match-play PGA Championship and finishing first in the first stroke-play PGA Championship. The years were 1957 and 1958.

The 1957 PGA Championship was the last one that used a match-play format. Finsterwald ran off early wins over Ted Sleichter, Bud Williamson and Joe Kirkwood Jr. Then, in the fourth round, he knocked out Sam Snead, 3 and 1. In the quarterfinals, Finsterwald beat Charles Sheppard, 2-up, then defeated Don Whitt, 2-up, in the semifinals. But in the championship match, Finsterwald fell to Lionel Hebert by a 3-and-1 score.

The following year, the 1958 PGA Championship inaugurated that major's stroke-play era. Finsterwald opened with a 67, the low score of the first round. After the second round, he was tied for the lead. He fell two strokes behind leader Sam Snead following the third round. But in the final round, Finsterwald scored 67 again — and again, it was the lowest score of the round — to beat runner-up Billy Casper by two strokes. Snead had a 73 and finished third. This was also the first PGA Championship to be nationally televised, giving Finsterwald an even bigger boost in recognition.

Although Finsterwald was a major champion, it was a couple other majors he didn't win that, arguably, he was just as well-known for in his own time. (In fact, the New York Times' headline on his obituary decades later said that he "may be best known for twice narrowly missing out on winning the Masters.")

The two Masters Tournaments in question are the 1960 Masters and 1962 Masters, both eventually won by Finsterwald's close friend Arnold Palmer. In one, a penalty sank Finsterwald; in the other, he lost in a playoff.

In the second round of the 1960 Masters, Finsterwald took a few practice putts on a green after holing out. His playing partner, Billy Casper, told him that wasn't allowed. Finsterwald realized he had done the same thing during the first round and, after the second round ended, he reported himself to the rules officials. Masters Tournament officials huddled and decided to impose a 2-stroke penalty. And that is the margin by which Finsterwald ultimately lost to Palmer (who birdied the final two holes), finishing third at 284 to Palmer's 282.

Two years later, Finsterwald entered the final round of the 1962 Masters two strokes behind leader Palmer. He scored 73 to Palmer's 75 to tie after 72 holes, with Gary Player making up the third member of the required 18-hole playoff. But four bogeys on the front nine crashed Finsterwald's hopes again. He wound up scoring 77 in the playoff, which Palmer won with with a 68 to Player's 71. It was another third-place finish for Finsterwald.

Finsterwald's first appearance in a major championship was in the 1950 U.S. Open, when he still an amateur; and he last played a major at the 1984 PGA Championship. He had 12 total Top 10 finishes, including two other third-place showings. In the 1960 U.S. Open, he tied for third, three strokes behind Palmer. At the 1963 PGA Championship, Finsterwald finished three behind the winner, Jack Nicklaus.

He also placed fourth in the 1959 PGA Championship and tied fifth in the 1963 Masters. Finsterwald's other Top 10s were in The Masters in 1957 (t7) and 1964 (t9); and in the U.S. Open in 1961 (t6) and 1964 (eighth).

More About Dow Finsterwald

There was nothing flashy about Dow Finsterwald's play on the golf course, other than the trophies and paychecks he routinely collected during his relatively brief period of PGA Tour success. He simply got the job done by hitting fairways and greens.

Peter Alliss' mini-bio of Finsterwald in the 1983 The Who's Who of Golf (affiliate link) begins, "It has been said of Finsterwald that he was too cautious a player, too unwilling to risk the bold approach."

That critique of his play is something Finsterwald heard often, but he didn't buy it. He once told the New York Times:

"My conservative play brings the highest rewards. I just keep trying to move the ball toward the hole."

And high rewards that approach did, in fact bring — his PGA Championship victory and 12 PGA Tour wins being just the most obvious signs of a remarkably consistent high level of play during the seven or eight years he was at the top of his game.

Another sign of how high his level was during that period is the fact that Finsterwald was once second only to Byron Nelson in consecutive cuts made on the PGA Tour. Starting at the 1955 Carling Golf Classic and ending at the 1958 Baton Rouge Invitational, Finsterwald made the cut in every tournament he entered — 72 in a row. Only Nelson's 113 consecutive cuts beat that, until Jack Nicklaus surpassed Finsterwald's streak in 1976. Today, Finsterwald's 72-cuts-in-a-row streak still ranks fifth-best in PGA Tour history.

Finsterwald went to work at Athens Country Club, in his hometown of Athens, Ohio, when he was 14. His father was a football and basketball coach at Ohio University there, and Dow, several years later, became a member of the university's golf team.

One of the first matches he played at Ohio University, in 1948, was against Arnold Palmer, who was at Wake Forest. They became lifelong best friends.

Finsterwald was still a college golfer when he played the PGA Tour's 1950 St. Louis Open as an amateur. And he made his first national news there when he scored 61 in the final round. It was the first round of 61 ever carded in an official PGA Tour tournament, making Dow, a 21-year-old college student, the tour's all-time record-holder. (He held the record for only a year, until Al Brosch scored the first 60 in 1951.)

He graduated from Ohio University in 1952 and turned pro. His first pro win happened two years later off the tour at the 1954 Carolinas Open. On the PGA Tour, Finsterwald had struggled in his appearances. That soon changed.

His first PGA Tour win was at the 1955 Fort Wayne Invitational, and he added the British Columbia Open that year, too.

In 1956, he had one win and also lost in a playoff to Doug Sanders at the Canadian Open. Finsterwald was sometimes called a "bridesmaid" early in his career because he started piling up large numbers of second-place finishes. By the end of his career, he had finished second in 28 PGA Tour tournaments, which puts him on the list of most seconds all-time.

But he kept winnnig regularly, too. All of Finsterwald's 12 wins happened in the eight years from 1955 to 1963, and he usually finished high on the money list. His first top 10 money list finish came when he was second (to Ted Kroll) in 1956. From 1956-60, Finsterwald was never lower than fourth on the money list. He finished third in 1957, fourth in 1958, third in 1959, and third in 1960.

He won the Tucson Open in 1957 and that year claimed the PGA's Vardon Trophy for leading the tour in scoring average. In 1958 he won twice, including the PGA Championship, and won the tour's Player of the Year Award.

Finsterwald won three times in 1959, including the Greater Greensboro Open; and twice in 1960, including the Los Angeles Open.

He fell out of the Top 10 on the money list in 1961, then was 10th in 1962 and sixth in 1963. But he was winless in both 1961 and 1962, before claiming his final PGA Tour victory at the 1963 500 Festival Open.

It is sometimes written that Finsterwald retired from the PGA Tour following the 1963 season, but that is not true. He did cut back his schedule, but Finsterwald still played 15-20 tournaments a year into the late 1960s. It wasn't until the early 1970s that he really could be considered retired from tour play, although he still made a handful of appearances per season into the early 1980s.

For his PGA Tour career, Finsterwald made 474 starts, finishing in the Top 10 135 times and in the Top 5 84 times. In addition to his 12 victories, he finished second 28 times and third 24 times.

Along the way, Finsterwald also made his make in the Ryder Cup, playing for Team USA four times. In 13 matches played, Finsterwald compiled a record of nine wins, three losses, one tie. He was 3-3-0 in singles matches, 4-0-1 in foursomes and 2-0-0 in fourballs.

In singles matches, Finsterwald lost to Christy O'Connor, 7 and 6, in the 1957 Ryder Cup. In the 1959 Ryder Cup, he beat Dai Rees, 1-up. In the 1961 Ryder Cup, Finsterwald beat O'Connor, 2 and 1, but lost to Neil Coles, 1-down.

In his final turn as a player, in the 1963 Ryder Cup, Finsterwald went 4-1-1. In singles that year, he lost to Bernard Hunt, 2-down, but defeated Dave Thomas, 4 and 3. His buddy Palmer was the team captain, and Palmer paired himself with Finsterwald in two fourball matches. They won both.

But although that was his final appearance as a player, Finsterwald wasn't finished with the Ryder Cup. He served as Team USA captain in the 1977 Ryder Cup, a 12.5-to-7.5 win for the Americans. It was the final Ryder Cup to feature Team Great Britain & Ireland; the competition was expanded to include all of Europe beginning in 1979.

In 1963, Finsterwald took over for Ed Dudley as head pro at The Broadmoor in Colorado. He served in that role for 28 years, until retiring in 1991. While there Finsterwald was named Colorado's Golf Person of the Year in 1977.

He also wrote a couple instructional books. Fundamentals of Golf (affiliate link) was published in 1961, and the flip-book The Wedges: Pitching and Sand (affiliate link) was published in 1965.

Finsterwald could be seen on television, too, teaching golf. In the early 1960s, he recorded around 150 "Golf Tip of the Day" segments, in which he demonstrated golf tips with the help of entertainers or famous athletes. The segments were syndicated to television stations around the U.S.

"The average golfer, I can say flatly, lacks the ability to concentrate, which probably is the most important component of any good game. I believe the ability to concentrate is the difference in skill between the club player and the golf professional, even more than the shot-making process." — Dow Finsterwald
Finsterwald was often active behind the scenes, too, in administrative roles. He was a member of the PGA Tournament Committee in 1957-59. He was vice president of the PGA of America, 1976-1978; a member of the USGA executive committee, 1977-1979; and beginning in 1978, and continuing into the 2010s, he was a rules official and then a member of the tournament rules committee at The Masters.

Finsterwald did play on the Champions Tour after its founding in 1980, but was never a star on the senior circuit. He made 189 starts from 1983 through 1996, with no wins, one runner-up finish and four total Top 10s.

Over his post-PGA Tour life, Finsterwald spent his summers in Colorado and his winters in Florida. He stayed near his buddy Palmer's Bay Hill Club and Lodge, and almost every day they could in those winters, Finstie and Arnie played golf together.

Today, Dow Finsterwald is a member of the PGA Hall of Fame, the Ohio Golf Association Hall of Fame, Colorado Golf Hall of Fame, Colorado Sports Hall of Fame and Ohio University Athletics Hall of Fame.

He is one of three generations of his family enshrined in sports halls of fame. His father, Russ Finsterwald, is also in the Ohio University Athletics Hall of Fame. And his son, Dow Finsterwald Jr., longtime head professional at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, is in the Texas Golf Hall of Fame.

When his father died at age 93 in 2022, Dow Jr. told the Associated Press: "He did all he could for the game. He enjoyed his friends and they always remembered. He loved the rules and he cared about the game. He had a wonderful life and he felt like for sure it was complete."

Photo credit: Dow Finsterwald by Unknown (Associated Press), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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