Profile of Golfer Emmet French

Portrait of golfer Emmet French circa 1921
Emmet French was an American professional golfer who played during the early years of the PGA Tour, from the 1910s into the 1930s. He lost to Gene Sarazen in the finals of a PGA Championship, but won several tour tournaments. French also was the captain of an American team in one of the events that inspired the Ryder Cup.

Full name: John Emmet French

Date of birth: November 22, 1886

Place of birth: Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania

Date and place of death: June 10, 1947, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania

Also known as: Although his birth name was John Emmet French, he was sometimes referred to in print and in golf records as "Emmet C. French."

His Biggest Wins

French is credited with three victories in official PGA Tour events:
  • 1919 Philadelphia Open Championship
  • 1924 Pennsylvania Open Championship
  • 1924 Ohio Open
He won the Philadelphia Open again in 1926, but that one today is not counted as a tour win. Neither is his victory in the 1919 Merion Open Invitational Tournament.

In the Majors

Emmet French's biggest claim to fame today is that he almost won a PGA Championship. The 1922 PGA Championship, to be exact, where he made it into the match-play final before losing to 20-year-old Gene Sarazen.

French opened his run to the finals by beating George Gordon, and he then dispatched Mike Brady, R.S. Minor (8 and 7), Emil Loeffler in the quarterfinals, and, in the semifinals by another 8-and-7 score, Johnny Golden.

That set up the championship match against Sarazen, who had exploded onto the golf scene earlier in the year by winning the 1922 U.S. Open. When Sarazen added this title with his victory over French, he became the first golfer to win the U.S. Open and PGA Championship in the same year. He also set a record as the youngest PGA Championship winner.

But French made him work for it. They were all square through 26 holes of the 36-hole match. On the 27th, French's approach into the par-5 green struck the flagstick and ricocheted into a bunker. Bad break for French, good break for Sarazen, who won the hole to square the match. It was first of three consecutive holes won by Sarazen, who closed out the 4-and-3 victory on the 33rd hole.

French first played in a major at the 1915 U.S. Open, where he finished 10th. That was one of nine Top 10 finishes in majors for him.

He reached the semifinals of the 1921 PGA Championship before losing to Jim Barnes, and made the quarterfinals of the PGA in 1919 and 1924. French also tied for fifth in the 1921 U.S. Open, finished solo fourth in the 1927 U.S. Open, and tied eighth in the 1926 British Open.

He was invited by Bobby Jones to play in the inaugural Masters Tournament in 1934, several years after his most-recent previous major championship start, but withdrew after the second round. That was his final appearance in a major.

More About Emmet French

The obituary of Emmet French that appeared in his hometown newspaper began this way: "Emmet C. French, who rose from a locker boy at a local golf club to captain the American Ryder Cup team ..." But French was never the American Ryder Cup captain. He did, however, captain an American side in the first USA vs. Britain, Ryder Cup-style match tournament — a match-play affair that took place in 1921 and helped inspire the creation of the Ryder Cup.

Walter Hagen was the star and leader of the American squad that sailed to Great Britain in 1921 and faced a British team at Gleaneagles in Scotland. But on the voyage over, Hagen appointed French as the team captain. The two sides played foursomes and singles matches in a single day one day prior to the Glasgow Herald Tournament. And it did not go well the for the American side: The Brits won by a 9-3 score.

French, however, contributed one of those points, beating Ted Ray in singles. Samuel Ryder was in attendance, and everyone involved agreed that it had been a lot of fun and should be done again in the future. The groundwork for the Ryder Cup, which debuted in 1927, was laid.

French played in another pre-Ryder Cup USA vs. Great Britain match, too, in 1926. Played at Wentworth, and sponsored by Ryder, the Brits won by an even wider margin than in 1921, 13.5 to 1.5. But once again, French managed to avoid defeat in singles: He halved with Ernest Whitcombe.

So French did play in two precursors to the Ryder Cup, but never in the Ryder Cup itself, nor did he captain in the Cup itself.

French was born near Philadelphia in 1886, not far from where Merion Golf Club was established 10 years later. French's introduction to golf was working at Merion as a locker-room attendant. By his early 20s, he had risen to assistant pro at Merion.

He left Merion in 1913 to become the head professional at York (Pa.) Country Club. By the time he started to gain notice through his tournament play he was the pro at Youngstown Country Club in Ohio.

French's first win on the nascent PGA Tour was back on his home turf in the 1919 Philadelphia Open. But before that, he was runner-up in the 1917 Shawnee Open and 1918 North and South Open.

In 1919, French also won the Merion Open Invitational (a non-tour win in today's reckoning) and was runnerup in consecutive weeks at the Metropolitan Open (to Walter Hagen) and Shawnee Open (losing a playoff to Jim Barnes).

In 1924, French took the Pennsylvania and Ohio opens, both counted as official tour wins today, and won in Philadelphia again in 1926. He had multiple other second-place finishes, too: to Macdonald Smith in the 1925 Western Open; at the 1927 Pennsylvania Open; and, his last runner-up, to Johnny Farrell in the 1930 Mid-South Open.

By the early-to-mid 1920s, French was spending winters as the pro at Southern Pines Golf Club in North Carolina, and summers at his Youngstown, Ohio, job. Unfortunately, he also began experiencing arthritis in his left arm during the 1920s. The condition ultimately forced him off the tournament circuit by the early 1930s.

French continued working as a pro at Southern Pines into the early 1940s.

French was 60 years old when he died in 1947. According to the obituary published in his hometown newspaper, French traveled back to Bryn Mawr from Southern Pines to attend his daughter's graduation ceremony. But during the ceremony, he was "stricken ill" and, a few days later, died of a cerebral hemmorhage.

Photo credit: Edwin Levick, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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