2006: Seven decades later, still a standout
Sunday, July 24, 2011
Ann Arbor, Mich.
It was fall 1932 when Chuck Kocsis arrived on campus for his freshman year at the University of Michigan. America was reeling through the Great Depression. Kocsis was a working-class kid, the son of Hungarian immigrants. He moved to Ann Arbor with little more than pocket change.
Not to worry. Some prominent alumni had assured him that a golf scholarship was in the offing. But during the enrollment process, a startled Kocsis was told there was no record of any such pledge.
“So I said, ‘Well, hold everything, I may be back (to enroll),’ ” Kocsis recalls. He tracked down the golf coach, Thomas Trueblood, whom he’d never met.
“I told him what happened and I asked if he’d loan me the money. He thought for a minute then said, ‘Yes, I’ll loan you the money at 5 percent interest.’ So it was OK. I went back and paid my tuition.”
Turned out to be an fruitful deal, for Kocsis and for the university.
Twice in the next four years the Wolverines, led by John Fischer and Kocsis, would win the national collegiate championship. Their victory in 1934 was the first by a school outside the Ivy League. Fischer was the individual champ as a freshman in 1932. Kocsis won the title in 1936 and, at 93, he’s the oldest surviving national champion in college golf.
It’s not likely Trueblood had to think too hard about the loan proposition. Kocsis was a prized recruit.
Twice he had won the Michigan state junior championship. He was a two-time state high school champ. His principal at Redford High School, in Detroit’s western suburbs, thought Kocsis was so precocious that he entered the youngster into the 1930 U.S. Amateur at Merion. And while all the world was watching to see if Bobby Jones would complete the Grand Slam, it was a teenager from the Midwest who stole the early headlines.
In Round 1 of match play, Kocsis, then 17, beat Francis Ouimet, 3 and 2. Although 16 years had passed since Ouimet won the 1914 Amateur (the year after his historic U.S. Open victory), he was still in his prime at 37, and would win the ’31 Amateur the following year.
“After we qualified, the newspapers had a story that there might be five players in the field who could beat Jones if they had a good day,” Kocsis said. “I wasn’t included, although I had qualified in second or third place. They never mentioned me, but they said Francis Ouimet was No. 1.”
In his autobiography, “A Game of Golf,” Ouimet described the match: “I took one look at the way he (Kocsis) hit his drive on the first hole, and I made up my mind I was in for something. I played a second shot six feet from the cup. He was on the green on his second, and then holed a twenty-five footer for a three. I wish to say I do not know how I dropped that six-footer for a half. I won the fourth hole after the first three had been halved, and then Charlie went to work. For the next twelve holes he was three better than an average of fours, and I was on my way home so far as the championship was concerned.”
Indeed, Kocsis turned out to be a giant killer. He won the Michigan State Amateur in 1930 and beat Tommy Armour in a playoff to win the Michigan Open the following year. It was the second time he had taken down Armour.
“I beat him at Tam O’Shanter (in Chicago),” Kocsis said. “About the sixth hole, I’m 2 under par and he’s 1 over par. The fellows who brought me had a little bet going, and one of them said to Armour, ‘What kind of a pro are you? National Open champion, British Open champion and you can’t even beat a caddie?’ We got to the ninth hole, I hit it to 4 or 5 feet for birdie and he hit it over the green. He quit and walked in.”
Like all the great players of his era, Kocsis was introduced to golf as a caddie. He worked at Redford Golf Club.
“They were so nice to the kids,” he said. “Every other club in those days paid the caddies 25 and 50 cents a round. They gave us a card; we punched it and got 35 cents an hour. Many days, if you didn’t get a loop, the caddie master would pay you for one round.”
So this was the gritty kid who would become a dominant force in college golf. He had five sisters and nine brothers. (Sam won the U.S. Public Links in 1955; Emerick was a prominent club pro in Detroit.) Their father, Emerick, had been a farmer in western Pennsylvania, but
his property was washed out by the Johnstown Flood in 1889. Chuck was born in January 1913, not long before the family moved to Detroit, where the elder Emerick took a $5-per-day job on a Ford assembly line.
Chuck is still a Detroiter, living independently on his own floor of his son Tom’s house in suburban Rochester. Kocsis still drives – he’s a fixture at Red Run Golf Club, where he has been a member for six decades – and lunches frequently at Pine Trace, a nearby daily fee. He played nearly every day into his early 90s before the onset of congestive heart failure slowed him down.
In early May, Kocsis joined a former teammate, 93-year-old Woody Malloy, for lunch at the University of Michigan Golf Course. Malloy is an Ann Arbor native – the farmhouse where he was born was razed to make way for Michigan Stadium – and he still plays frequently at the U of M layout, an Alistair MacKenzie gem that opened across the street from the stadium a couple of years before Kocsis and Malloy were freshmen.
Asked to describe Kocsis’ game, Malloy replied: “He was all business.”
Malloy remembers joining Kocsis 70-some years ago for an early April shakedown round on their home course. The previous five months had been spent studying, working and playing racquetball.
“We never had a club in our hands all winter,” Malloy said. “We came out here and played 18 holes and he shot even par.”
Kocsis was a straight hitter who possessed an enviable bunker game.
“I didn’t get in too much trouble,” Kocsis said. “In fact, there were many, many times when I was playing a match play tournament (that) I’d let the other guy, outdrive me, so I could hit it on the green first and make him worry a little more. I did that a lot. It worked out pretty good.”
Kocsis describes himself as a “better than average” student.
“But I did flunk one subject,” he said. “I flunked French. But I had a teacher who I didn’t like. She spoke to us in French all the time and we had to understand her or you couldn’t do anything. So I flunked that. But I took Spanish to make up for it, and I did real well in Spanish.”
Trueblood was a highly regarded public speaking instructor at Michigan. He guided the Wolverine golf team for 15 years beginning in 1920, and was well into his 80s when Kocsis and Malloy played.
“Back in those days, they didn’t provide any equipment,” Malloy said. “They gave you one or two lousy Spalding Dots and that was all you ever got.”
Memories of the team’s road trips sparked laughter. Sometimes they traveled by train, more typically in Trueblood’s car.
“Professor Trueblood had a seven-passenger Buick,” Kocsis said. “He designated me as the chauffeur. So if we had a golf match, we’d all get into the car and go to Chicago, or go to Ohio, wherever we were going to play.”
Malloy said the trips weren’t exactly comfortable.
“It wasn’t a very big Buick, as I recall,” he said. “We rode with six guys. Chuck used to do most of the driving. I remember that trip down to Washington (for the 1935 national championship at Congressional, which Michigan won). We started in the morning and drove all the way down there. Professor Trueblood was a big guy, too.”
Included was a side trip to Mount Vernon. As the team piled out at George Washington’s home, whoever had occupied the middle seat accidentally bumped the shifter into gear and hit the accelerator as he exited the driver’s side. The car lurched forward; the open door hit something and was torn off its hinges. What they hit or why the engine was running, neither Malloy nor Kocsis can recall.
But they do remember golf details.
“That first day (of qualifying) at Congressional, I shot a 72,” Malloy said. “I was tied with a guy from Princeton by the name of Jack Malloy. I’d never known a guy with the same name as mine.
“In the second round I shot a 74. (Chuck) tied me for the medal honors that day.”
Michigan won the Big Ten championship (stroke play) five years in a row beginning in 1932. Kocsis took the individual title in ’34 and ’36; his teammate Fischer won in ’35.
“I should have won it three years,” Kocsis said. “The one year that I didn’t win, it was (because of) a par-3 hole, the 13th or 14th, and the pin was right in the middle front of the green. I had a 7-iron or 8-iron, going right at the flag. It hit a sprinkler head just in front and bounced over the green. I had an almost unplayable lie and took a bogey. If I would have had a birdie, I would have won it three times in a row.”
The national championship of that era was contested by match play. Kocsis reached the 1934 final at Cleveland Country Club but lost to Charlie Yates of Georgia Tech. The next year, when Kocsis won at North Shore Country Club in suburban Chicago, he faced Paul Leslie of Louisiana State in the final. In the semifinals, Leslie had upset teammate Fred Haas (who would gain fame by ending Byron Nelson’s 11-tournament winning streak in 1945). Haas was in the gallery for the final.
“On the first hole with my second shot, I hit it in the trap,” Kocsis said. “Freddie Haas and his friends all applauded. I said to my caddie, ‘They won’t applaud very long.’ Because I could play the trap shot. I had six trap shots that day. He conceded every putt but one, and I holed it.”
Kocsis won the Michigan Amateur three more times, bringing his total to six (he won it twice while in college). He won the Michigan Open in 1945 and ’46. He was low amateur at the 1937 U.S. Open (for the second time, following 1934), and low amateur at the Masters in 1952 (his best finish in 11 starts at Augusta). Kocsis played on the U.S. Walker Cup team in three different decades, 1938, ’49 and ’57. He was runner-up to Harvie Ward at the 1956 U.S. Amateur.
Kocsis still carries in his wallet a copy of the scorecard from the first time he shot his age: 59 in 1972, at the 6,435-yard, par 71 Edgewood Golf Club in Commerce Township, Mich.
Thanks to golf, Kocsis said, he has traveled the world, met six U.S. presidents and hobnobbed with a plethora of celebrities, including Charles Lindbergh, Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII, who later would abdicate the British throne), Henry Ford and Al Capone.
He competed against legendary players, frustrating Armour, going head-to-head with Ben Hogan and winning bets from Sam Snead. Golf legend Nelson counts Kocsis among his good friends and calls him perhaps the most talented amateur he ever played against.
“I never saw him play a bad round,” Nelson said.
Sitting in the U of M clubhouse, he and Malloy shook their heads at the plight of the Wolverine golf program, which has made only one appearance (finishing 25th in 1997) in the NCAA Championship since 1969.
“Their golf team here hasn’t been doing very good,” Malloy told his old teammate. “They just played in some kind of tournament with 15 different teams and they came in last.”
Kocsis pondered the news for a few seconds, chuckled and replied:
“Tell ’em to change our names and put wigs on us. We’ll play.”