In fall 1945, Chuck Kocsis arguably was the top player in American amateur golf. He had represented the United States in the Walker Cup Match. He had won the Michigan Open, beating Tommy Armour in a playoff, and was a four-time Michigan Amateur champ. Twice Kocsis had been low amateur at the U.S. Open. He had been runner-up at the Western Amateur and had a national collegiate individual title to his credit.
At 32, Kocsis (pronounced KO-siss) was on top of his game. He would add two more Walker Cup appearances to that resume, plus a pair of Michigan Amateur titles, another Michigan Open, a low amateur finish at the Masters and a runner-up medal from the U.S. Amateur – feats all the more remarkable considering he nearly died that autumn of ’45, and was told he might never play golf again.
Returning from a hunting trip in Montana, Kocsis suffered a broken back in a car accident. The driver, a hunting buddy, was drunk; he had refused Kocsis’ entreaties to take the wheel. He lost control, ran off the road and Kocsis was thrown from the car when it flipped.
After spending several days in a local hospital, Kocsis returned home to Detroit, where doctors told him he needed emergency surgery. Part of his shin bone was removed and fused onto his lower vertebrae to stabilize the spine. The injury, and Kocsis’ recovery, would turn out to be eerily similar to the fate of his golf contemporary Ben Hogan, who four years later was severely injured in a car crash. Hogan was told that his golf career likely had ended and defied the odds by coming back and winning six major championships.
A similarly determined Kocsis returned to competition six months after his surgery. In 1946, he successfully defended his Michigan Open title. He was low amateur, T-14 overall, in the 1952 Masters (one of his 11 starts at Augusta National). Kocsis was 6-for-6 in the Michigan Medal Play Championship, winning every time he entered between 1955 and 1962. He was runner-up to E. Harvie Ward at the 1956 U.S. Amateur (Kocsis qualified 15 times) and was named to the U.S. Walker Cup team in 1949 and ’57.
“The day he beat me, he made every putt he could see,” Kocsis said of his 5-and-4 loss to Ward at the Knollwood Club in Lake Forest, Ill. “He made two 30-footers. But that’s what happens.”Kocsis died May 30 in Royal Oak, Mich.
He was 93. Kocsis continued to compete into his mid-60s, winning his fourth International Seniors Championship in Scotland in 1988.
Until last year, when congestive heart failure slowed him, Kocsis continued to play several rounds each week during the season in Michigan, routinely beating his age.
The son of Hungarian immigrants, Charles Kocsis was born Jan. 23, 1913 in New Castle, Pa. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to Detroit, where his father took a job on a Ford assembly line. Young Chuck learned to play golf as a caddie at Redford Golf Club.
Kocsis first gained national attention in 1930, when as a 17-year-old he defeated Francis Ouimet in the first round of the U.S. Amateur at Merion. The next year he knocked off Armour in the Michigan Open. A stellar college career at the University of Michigan followed, as Kocsis led the Wolverines to three of their five consecutive Big Ten championships (twice winning the individual title) and National Collegiate Championships in 1934 and ’35.
He was individual runner-up at nationals in 1934, then won the title in 1936. Until his death he was the oldest surviving national college golf champion (Golfweek, May 27).
As a teenager, Kocsis honed his swing by mimicking Al Watrous, the longtime professional at Oakland Hills, who was runner-up to Bobby Jones at the 1926 British Open.
“He would play with me, whichI enjoyed very much because he had a good swing and I was kind of a copycat,” Kocsis told Golfweek in early May. “He helped me a great deal. But from other standpoints, I could write a book about him. He was one of the cheapest, tightest guys you’d ever meet.”
Kocsis was a no-nonsense competitor, as evidenced by the oft-told story of his Michigan Open victory over Armour at Cascade Hills in Grand Rapids.
“He was one hour late (for the playoff) and they did nothing about it,” Kocsis said. He decided two could play that game, and when Armour’s car finally pulled up to the clubhouse, Kocsis went into the locker room and didn’t emerge for a half-hour. When he did, “I told the officials, loud enough for Armour to hear, that he should be disqualified and I should be declared champion without even playing.”
But they played, and Kocsis beat the Silver Scot by a shot in the 18-hole playoff.
“He was a miserable guy,” Kocsis said. “One of the worst I knew.”
More often, golf served pleasant experiences for Kocsis. In return he was a gracious competitor and affable ambassador for the game. He played friendly rounds with boxing champ Joe Louis, had dinner with gangster Al Capone, and was introduced to aviator Charles Lindbergh.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Kocsis said. “I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve met a lot of people; I’ve met six presidents because of my golf.”
Kocsis, who often competed against the likes of Hogan, Sam Snead, Jimmy Demeret and Byron Nelson, did flirt with the professional game. In 1940, he played as a pro in a handful of tournaments in Colorado, Arizona and California. He usually finished in the money, “but they never paid me,” Kocsis said. “They were a tight bunch then.”
He applied to the U.S. Golf Association for amateur status reinstatement, and “they did it right away.”