A GENTLE MAN PRAISED : Ralph Guldahl, Who Won Consecutive U.S. Open Titles in 1937 and '38, Also Was Longtime Club Official at Braemar

Times Staff Writer

Ralph Guldahl's friends at the Braemar Country Club in Tarzana held a memorial reception Wednesday for the man they fondly called Goldie.

Guldahl, who was 75, died in the early morning hours last Friday of a massive heart attack. It was 50 years, almost to the day, that he first won the United States Open golf championship. He won it again the next year, then won the 1939 Masters, completing one of the greatest major tournament streaks in the game's history.

At Braemar, the members knew Guldahl was an Open and Masters champion--one of only five players to win the Open in consecutive years--and they knew he was a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, but they knew him best as the club's director of golf and professional emeritus.

Guldahl had been at Braemar since the club opened in 1961. He was its first professional and was a throwback to an era when golf professionals spent their time with the members of their club and played tournaments on the side.

He played Braemar's two courses regularly and was out nearly every Saturday with his son, Ralph Jr. Although it had been 45 years since he last played on the tour, Guldahl could still play well. Last month, over the par-71 West course, he matched par.

"He was immensely popular with everyone," club pro Mike Spayd said. "He seemed genuinely interested in everyone. He was the club's ambassador to new members and was a liaison between management and the men's club. He was so gentle, so considerate of everyone."

A new grill at the club, under construction, will be dedicated as the Guldahl Grill.

Most members at Braemar don't remember the meteoric feats of their friend. Most are too young to have read how he destroyed the world's finest golfers at Oakland Hills, outside Detroit, in 1937, and Cherry Hills, in Denver, in 1938.

Sam Snead remembers, though.

The Open at Oakland Hills was Snead's first and when he eagled the 72nd hole to finish with a 68 and a near-record 283, he and the crowd thought he had won. After battling his way through a mob of well wishers, Snead was in the clubhouse, telling the press how he'd won and accepting congratulations from fellow golfers.

Guldahl was still on the course, plodding along without much of a gallery, but putting one birdie after another on the scoreboard. There was no electronic scoreboard in those days, and Guldahl's scores reached the clubhouse only by word of mouth.

"Guldahl holed out from a bunker on 15," came the word.

That birdie gave Guldahl a two-stroke lead over Snead, a margin he maintained as he finished at 281, breaking Tony Manero's year-old record by a stroke. That was the day that Guldahl stopped as he approached the final green, took out his comb and carefully groomed his wavy, black hair.

"I knew I was going to be the Open champion," he said. "I was only 15 feet away and couldn't lose, so I wanted to look good when the photographers took pictures of me with the trophy. I was always proud of my head of hair."

The United States Golf Assn. was planning to honor Guldahl at the Golf Writers Assn. dinner Wednesday night in San Francisco on the eve of this year's Open at the Olympic Club. The award commemorates the 50th anniversary of his win. It was made posthumously.

Guldahl also was to have been at the winner's presentation Sunday.

In 1938, the Open win came easier for Guldahl, although he started the final round at Cherry Hills four strokes behind Dick Metz. When Metz soared to a 79, and no one else challenged, Guldahl picked up 10 shots by shooting a 69 and won by six strokes.

Only Willie Anderson, who won in 1903, '04 and '05; John J. McDermott, 1911-12; Bobby Jones, 1929-30, and Ben Hogan, 1950-51, have won the Open in consecutive years. In the 1939 Masters, Snead again lost to Guldahl, this time by a stroke.

"There was a time when (Guldahl) was the best player in golf," Snead wrote in his autobiography, "Slammin' Sam." Then he added: "That Guldahl is one of the most gentle people in the world."

A gentle man, that is the way most of his associates remember Goldie. One of things he did at Braemar was work with new members in establishing a playing handicap with the Southern California Golf Assn.

"Mr. Guldahl was a man who was very much involved with his members and their well being," recalled Anita Rigali, handicap secretary for the SCGA. "He was always so kind and considerate and always seemed to be thinking of ways he could help."

Guldahl, whose parents came from Norway, was a product of the caddy shacks of Texas, the same melting pot that developed Hogan, Byron Nelson, Jimmy Demaret and Lee Trevino. Guldahl turned professional at 17, but first attained national prominence in the 1933 U.S. Open, when he made up six strokes on Johnny Goodman in the final round at the North Shore club in Chicago, only to lose by a stroke.

Besides the two Opens and the Masters, Guldahl won three consecutive Western Opens in 1936, '37 and '38. At the time, the Western was considered second only to the U.S. Open in importance.

In one of golf's great mysteries, Guldahl's game disintegrated rapidly after his Masters win, and he quit the tour in 1942.

Guldahl always said it was because he lost his dedication after his son, Ralph Jr., was born.

"We didn't want to raise young Ralph out of a suitcase, and playing the tour isn't much of a life for the father of a young son," he said.

After retiring, Guldahl settled in the San Diego area with his wife, LaVerne, and sold insurance before coming to the new Braemar Country Club in 1961. He and LaVerne recently observed their 56th wedding anniversary.

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