Ralph Guldahl: Bio of Golf Giant of 1930s

Ralph Guldahl was one of the greatest golfers of the 1930s. But his peak lasted only four years. In those four years, though, he won three majors and he totaled 16 PGA Tour wins for his career. Guldahl once simultaneously held the scoring records of the U.S. Open and The Masters, and still appears on lists today of the tour's youngest winners. But he stopped playing the tour shortly after turning 30. According to popular legend (emphasis on legend), Guldahl once quit the tour in frustration and later quit the tour after the sudden collapse of his game.

Date of birth: November 22, 1911

Place of birth: Dallas, Texas

Date and place of death: June 11, 1987, in Sherman Oaks, California

Nickname: Goldy

Guldahl's PGA Tour Wins

Guldahl is credited with 16 official tour victories by the PGA Tour, enough to place him on the list of golfers with the most PGA Tour wins. All 16 of those wins happened in the period from 1931 to 1940. His first was the 1931 Santa Monica Open and last the 1940 Milwaukee Open.

Guldahl's victories included three Western Opens, two U.S. Opens and one Masters Tournament. See Ralph Guldahl's Pro Wins and Performances in Majors for the full list of his tournament victories.

In the Majors: Won 2 U.S. Opens, 1 Masters, Runner-Up 3 Times

Guldahl had a combined six first- and second-place finishes in major championships — three wins and three runners-up. He first played in a major at the 1930 U.S. Open. His final appearance in a major was at the 1973 Masters, which he began playing again as a past champion in the 1960s after having gone the entire 1950s without any starts in majors.

These are Guldahl's three victories:

Guldahl's other runner-up in a major was actually his first. It happened in the 1933 U.S. Open, where Guldahl reached the final hole needing a birdie to win, a par to force a playoff. But he missed a 4-foot par putt and finished second.

At the 1937 Masters, Guldahl led by three entering the final round. But on the 12th and 13th holes, Byron Nelson made up six strokes on Guldahl, playing those holes in 2-3 compared to Guldahl's 5-6. Nelson wound up beating Guldahl by two. In the 1938 Masters, Guldahl finished two behind Henry Picard.

In addition to his three second-place finishes and three victories, Guldahl had six other Top 10 finishes in majors. For more details about Guldahl's performances in major championships, see Ralph Guldahl's Pro Wins and Performances in Majors.

Did Guldahl's Game Really Collapse?

If Ralph Guldahl is remembered today, the thing most golf fans probably know about him is that one moment he was arguably the greatest golfer in the world, and the next his game simply disappearead. His name always comes up in discussions of great golfers who suddenly lost their games.

The World Golf Hall of Fame has written that "Guldahl stands alone in golf history as the best player ever to suddenly and completely lose his game."

The 1970 Golf Magazine's The Encyclopedia of Golf (commissions earned on affiliate links) stated that, "his skills left him, virtually overnight, and no one has ever been able to fathom the reason."

That's the narrative about Guldahl. But is it true?

There are two ways to approach that question. We can look at Guldahl's stats, and we can pay attention to what Guldahl, one of the giants of the 1930s, said about why he left tournament golf barely into his 30s.

Forteen of Guldahl's 19 PGA Tour wins happened in the four years from 1936-39, including all three of his majors. According to the narrative, that was it. The World Golf Hall of Fame says that after "that dazzling stretch" from from 1936 to 1939, "mysteriously, he never won again."

Wrong. Guldahl won twice more in 1940. In 1939, Guldahl made 16 starts on tour, had four wins, one runner-up, and 11 Top 10s.

In 1940, Guldahl made 15 starts, had two wins and two seconds, and 11 Top 10s. His scoring average did show a small increase.

In 1941, Guldahl made 14 starts and had zero wins, but was runner-up twice and had eight Top 10s. His scoring average went back down, closer to what it had been in 1939. He would have been on the U.S. Ryder Cup team this year, but the Cup wasn't played due to World War II.

And in 1942, he made only 10 starts, with an increase in his scoring average, no wins and no seconds. But he still finished in the Top 10 in half the tournaments he played.

Contrary to the narrative, there was no sudden, catastrophic decline in Guldahl's game. He simply gradually fell back a bit from the historic heights he had reached in 1936-39, and gradually fell away from the tour.

But why did that happen in his early 30s? Guldahl only turned 31 in 1942. He should have had more peak years left. But perhaps he simply didn't want them.

Consider another part of the standard narrative about Guldahl: That, frustrated with his game in the early to mid-1930s, he quit the tour for several years to go sell cars.

The World Golf Hall of Fame's profile of Guldahl states that after missing that putt to tie in the 1933 U.S. Open, Guldahl "essentially gave up competition for nearly three years." Lots of other sources say the same thing. But it was not so. He played more tournaments after the U.S. Open in 1933 than he had prior. And he played the same number of official PGA Tour events — nine — in 1934 as he did in 1933. He did only play four tournaments in 1935. But that was the year his son was born. Guldahl wanted to be home with his wife and baby boy in 1935. That's why he left the tour for that one year (not three) and took a job selling cars.

It's also the case that, as Guldahl himself explained in multiple interviews of the years, he simply wasn't a fan of the tour life. He had no burning desire driving him forward in tournament golf.

In a 1979 interview with the New York Times, the then-67-year-old Guldahl explained, "I never did have a tremendous desire to win. ... And under the conditions that today's professionals play, I would be quicker to say the hell with it than I did then."

Another part of the standard Guldahl narrative: The overnight collapse of his game (which didn't actually happen) was caused by "paralysis by analysis." He wrote a golf book that required him to carefully study his swing, something this feel player hadn't really done before. And that was it. His game was gone.

But his game wasn't gone, and Guldahl told many people over the years that the book story wasn't true. It was "nonsense," Guldahl told the Times. "No such thing ever happened." (He did write a book, though, and it is mentioned near the bottom of this article.)

Guldahl explained his reasons for giving up the PGA Tour after 1942 very plainly in a 1976 interview with Golf Digest: He simply didn't have the desire anymore.

"I left the tour after 1942," Guldahl told the magazine. "There were no tournaments in 1943 because of the war and when the tour started again, I just never went back. And I’ve never been sorry. The tour was an empty existence. My wife and I were traveling all the time, our son was in military school, and we just decided we would like to have a chance to enjoy home life for a while."

So the traditional narrative around Guldahl is that he left the tour because his game suddenly abandoned him. What really happened is that he abandoned the tour because he wanted to get out of the spotlight, go be with his family, and work at a club.

When the New York Times published his obituary eight years after that interview, it acknowledged what Guldahl had told them in 1979. In the lead paragraph, the Times wrote that Guldahl "(gave) up the tour for lack of interest," not that he had had suffered a collapse of his game. But most everyone else in golf appears to have just continued with the narrative.

More About Ralph Guldahl

Three-time Masters champ Jimmy Demaret once shared an opinion about Ralph Guldahl that was shared by many who watched him play in the late 1930s:
"Ralph Guldahl might've been the greatest golfer ever for a short period of time."
Guldahl was a dapper man, often playing tournaments while wearing a necktie. A habit he had on the golf course was to run a comb through his thick, wavy hair as he approached his ball for the next shot. Guldahl appeared very calm, cool and collected on the course, one of the game's "icemen."

"If Guldahl gave someone a blood transfusion, the patient would freeze to death," said Sam Snead, with whom Guldahl partnered in multiple team tournaments (including several victories).

But Guldahl once said that he never really felt calm, cool and collected while playing tour golf:

"Behind my so-called poker face, I'm burning up."
Guldahl was born in Dallas, Texas, in 1911, the year before Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan also arrived in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. But Guldahl was always ahead of those two, more-famous golfers in his advancement in the game.

He was self-taught, learning by watching other good golfers. And in 1929, when he was just 17, Guldahl won the Dallas city championship.

Inspired by that success, he drove to San Antonio in 1930 and, at age 18, entered his first PGA Tour event, the Texas Open. He was still an amateur until he turned pro after climbing into the Top 5 during the third round. He finished 11th and collected his first paycheck.

Guldahl played seven tour events that year, most of them as an 18-year-old, and had three Top 10s plus two 11th-place showings.

And in 1931, at age 19, Guldahl got his first PGA Tour win. It happened at the Santa Monica Open (also known as the Motion Picture Industry Tournament) played at Riviera Country Club. At the time, Guldahl was just the second teenager to win on the tour. Only three other teens have won on the PGA Tour after Guldahl. And Guldahl today remains the third-youngest winner in PGA Tour history.

Win No. 2 happened at the 1932 Arizona Open, when Guldahl was 20 years old. To the present day, there are fewer than 10 golfers in PGA Tour history who've won two or more tournaments before their 21st birthday. Guldahl is one of them.

Guldahl never played a lot of tournaments. He entered nine in 1932 and nine more in 1933. One of those was the 1933 U.S. Open, where he missed the short putt on his final hole that would have forced a playoff. He had no victories in 1933, but was runner-up once, in the Top 5 four times and in the Top 10 seven times.

Guldahl entered another nine tournaments in 1934 and earned his third victory, then, after his son was born in 1935, had only four starts that year.

But he returned with a bang in 1936: three wins, three seconds, in the Top 10 in 18 out of 19 starts. It was a huge year that started his famous four-year run.

One of those 1936 wins was in the Western Open. At the time, the Western Open was second only to the U.S. Open in importance and stature among American stroke-play tournaments (although The Masters, founded in 1934, soon surpassed it).

Guldahl won the Western Open three consecutive years (1936, 1937, 1938), the only golfer to do so. Combined with his consecutive U.S. Open wins in 1937 and 1938, Guldahl was the only golfer to win both the Western Open and U.S. Open in successive years.

Also during that four-year run, Guldahl was runner-up in The Masters in 1937 and 1938 before winning it in 1939. And he set tournament scoring records in both the U.S. Open (281 in 1937) and Masters (279 in 1939). From 1939 through 1947, Guldahl simultaneously held the scoring records for both those majors.

In 1937, he had two wins, six runners-up, and was in the Top 10 in 16 of 23 starts. He dropped to just 13 starts in 1938, but won twice, was second twice, and finished in the Top 10 in 12 of those starts. And in 1939, in 16 starts, Guldahl had four wins and was second once.

Which brings us to 1940, the year, according to the standard narrative about Guldahl, in which his game collapsed and he never won again. Except that it (game collapse) didn't, and he did (win again), as explained in the section above.

During that 1936-39 stretch, Guldahl also made his one appearance on Team USA in the Ryder Cup. Guldahl won both matches he played in the 1937 Ryder Cup, teaming with Tony Manero in foursomes and, in singles, beating Alf Padham 8-and-7. He was on the list for selection to the team again in 1939 and 1941, but those Ryder Cups weren't played due to World War II.

Guldahl turned 30 late in 1941, but his PGA Tour career was already near its end. He entered another 10 tournaments in 1942, but the war virtually canceled the 1943 season, and Guldahl was ready to go, anyway.

According to PGA Tour stats, Guldahl made only 184 starts in official tour events. He had the 16 wins plus 19 seconds and seven thirds, finished in the Top 5 62 times and in the Top 10 102 times.

In the late 1930s he had been the head professional at a New Jersey club then named Braidburn (now called Brooklake Country Club), and during the war years was head pro at San Diego Country Club in California. In 1945, he took over from Tommy Armour as head professional at Chicago's prestigious Medinah Country Club, a position he held until 1948.

After that, Guldahl headed back to California and worked in real estate and insurance sales. In 1961, he became head pro and teaching professional at Braemar Country Club in Tarzana, California. He was still giving lessons there at the time of his death, at age 75, in 1987.

That golf instructional book that allegedly (but not really) ruined Guldahl's game? It was titled Groove Your Golf (affiliate link), published in a flip-book format by International Sports in 1939. Today it is a collector's item.

Guldahl also was one of the "four masters" who contributed instruction to the 1937 book From Tee to Cup By the Four Masters (affiliate link), published by Wilson Sports Goods in 1937.

A in-depth biography of Guldahl was published in 2016, written by Kevin Kenny and titled Ralph Guldahl: The Rise and Fall of the World's Greatest Golfer (affiliate link).

Guldahl is a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, PGA of America Hall of Fame, Texas Golf Hall of Fame, Texas Sports Hall of Fame, and the SoCal Golf Hall of Fame.

Medinah Country Club. "Past Golf Pros," https://www.medinahcc.org/club/scripts/section/section.asp?NS=PASTGPRO
New Jersey State Golf Association. "In 1938, N.J. pro won U.S. Open, but lost state open at home course," https://njsga.org/news/post/in-1938-nj-pro-won-us-open-but-lost-state-open-at-home-course
PGATour.com. "Ralph Guldahl," PGA Tour Wins, https://www.pgatour.com/player/05252/ralph-guldahl
Radosta, John S. "A Golfing Prodigy Recalls the Legends," New York Times, April 29, 1979, https://www.nytimes.com/1979/04/29/archives/a-golfing-prodigy-recalls-the-legends-a-legendary-memory.html
Scharff, Robert. Golf Magazine's The Encyclopedia of Golf (affiliate link), 1970, Harper and Row.
SoCal Golf Hall of Fame. "Ralph Guldahl," https://socalgolfhof.com/members/view/ralph-guldahl-pga-2023
Texas Golf Hall of Fame. "Ralph Guldahl," https://www.texasgolfhof.org/exhibit/ralph-guldahl
Thomas, Robert Jr. "Ralph Guldahl dies at 75; golfer dominated tour, then quit," New York Times, June 14, 1987, https://www.nytimes.com/1987/06/14/obituaries/ralph-guldahl-dies-at-75-golfer-dominated-tour-then-quit.html
World Golf Hall of Fame. "Ralph Guldahl," https://worldgolfhalloffame.org/ralph-guldahl/

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