1955: Middlecoff wins first Masters, second major
History shows that Cary Middlecoff won the Masters Tournament 50 years ago by a then-record seven shots over Ben Hogan.
The record books do not show, however, the anxiety felt by the one-time dentist as he recorded his second major championship win and first at Augusta National Golf Club.
To say Middlecoff was a nervous type might be an understatement. The golf scribes of the 1950s used three descriptions for him: he was tall for a golfer (he stood 6-foot-2), a dentist (he was stationed at Oliver General Hospital in Augusta during World War II) and fidgety ("He is noted for his compact swing and jumpy nerves,'' Sports Illustrated reported).
Middlecoff was not listed as one of the pretournament favorites heading into the 1955 Masters. All eyes were on Sam Snead and Ben Hogan, who had won the previous four Masters between them. The two met the year before in an 18-hole playoff to decide the tournament after amateur Billy Joe Patton squandered the lead. (Snead nipped Hogan, 70-71, for his third green coat.)
Instead, in 1955, Jack Burke Jr. nabbed the early lead with 67, providing him with a four-shot cushion after the first round. Middlecoff opened with 72, which put him in good company with Snead (72) and Hogan (73).
Burke, one of the game's up-and-coming players, would falter in the second round with 76. Middlecoff seized the opportunity, shooting 65 for the round of the tournament and just one shot off the course record held by Lloyd Mangrum.
Two things stand out about Middlecoff's second round, which essentially won him the tournament: He made four straight birdies on the front nine to cap a then-record score of 31, and he made an eagle putt in excess of 80 feet on the 13th hole.
The eagle was particularly important. Middlecoff was hard-pressed to match his torrid start, and he had parred the first three holes of the back nine. Then, on the par-5 13th, he had hit his second shot to the back of the green. The pin was cut in front, just beyond the tributary of Rae's Creek that fronts the green, and Middlecoff faced a difficult two-putt for his birdie.
But he holed it, and Herbert Warren Wind, writing in Sports Illustrated, surmised that it might have been the "longest putt of any consequence'' holed in a major since Bobby Jones sank a 120-foot putt at the 1927 British Open.
Middlecoff played the final five holes in even-par fashion, and his 137 total put him four shots ahead of Hogan.
Even though Middlecoff could do no better than 72 in the third round, he still maintained his advantage because Hogan also fired 72. Snead posted 74, leaving him eight off the pace, and no one else had presented a serious threat.
Now the only thing between Middlecoff and his green coat was killing the nervous hours until his Sunday afternoon tee time.
"I bought the Sunday papers on Saturday night, but I purposely held off reading them 'til Sunday morning,'' he told reporters.
More fidgeting ensued, and finally it was time to tee off.
"I thought it would never arrive,'' Middlecoff said.
Hogan, playing in front of Middlecoff, could not mount much of a challenge on the front nine. He missed plenty of short birdie putts, while Middlecoff was cruising through the first nine holes in 2-under-par.
Still, Middlecoff was wary of Augusta's back-nine obstacles. He also recalled playing in the final round in 1950 with Jim Ferrier, who squandered a big lead and lost to Jimmy Demaret.
"Ferrier had it sewed up better than I did, and I knew that anything could happen on the back nine,'' he said.
Disaster struck immediately when Middlecoff made double bogey on the 10th hole. A poor approach and two shots to get out of the greenside bunker cost him part of his lead. But Middlecoff didn't let that discourage him. He responded with birdies at Nos. 12 and 15, and he capped the day with a short birdie putt on the final hole.
When all was said and done, Middlecoff's 279 total was seven better than Hogan and eight better than Snead.
The victory ended Middlecoff's drought in major championships and answered the question he had been asking himself.
"I was enough of a neophyte not to know what I was doing,'' Middlecoff said of his 1949 U.S. Open triumph . "I found it was harder after that. I wondered if I was ever going to win another big tournament.''
1955 Round By Round
Thursday: Cary Middlecoff opened with 72, putting him in the running with Sam Snead (72) and Ben Hogan (73). It was the only day Middlecoff did not hold the lead - Jack Burke shot 67 to lead the first round.
Friday: Middlecoff shot 65 for the low round of the tournament and just one shot off the course record held by Lloyd Mangrum.
Saturday: Middlecoff fired a 72, but maintained a four-shot advantage.
Sunday: Birdies on Nos. 12, 15 and 18 helped him stay in the lead. Middlecoff's 279 total was seven better than Hogan's. He won $5,000 in prize money.
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