125 Years of Golf in America: Nebraska February 19, 2019

The USGA was founded on Dec. 22, 1894. With the 125th anniversary coming at the end of 2019, every week throughout the year we're highlighting how all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, make the game we all love a great one in the United States. 

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Watch: An interview with 6-time LPGA Tour winner Val Skinner, a former Nebraska high school champion

Johnny Goodman: Nebraska’s Rags-to-Riches Golf Hero

By David Shefter, USGA

 

Johnny Goodman is the last amateur to win the U.S. Open. (USGA Archives)

Johnny Goodman, the fifth of 10 children of Lithuanian immigrants, manufactured one of the most remarkable rags-to-riches stories not only in American golf, but all of sport.

Orphaned at age 14 – his mother died in 1921 and his father abandoned the family – Goodman went from the caddie yards of the Omaha Field Club to city champion and eventually 1933 U.S. Open champion as an amateur. He would win the U.S. Amateur four years later, joining Bob Jones, Chick Evans, Francis Ouimet and Jerome Travers among an elite fraternity to claim both prestigious USGA titles as amateurs.

When the Omaha World-Herald came out with its list of Nebraska’s greatest 100 athletes in 2015, the only two golfers to make the list were Goodman and Val Skinner, Skinner at No. 61 and Goodman at No. 24. To this day, Goodman remains the only Nebraskan to win a USGA championship.

Goodman is also the answer to an often-asked trivia question: Who is the last amateur to win the U.S. Open?

Inevitably his name gets rekindled any time an amateur gets into contention. Only Jack Nicklaus (1960 and 1961), Bud Ward (1947) and Jim Simons (1971) have produced top-five finishes in the post-World War II era. In the last 25 years, only Matt Kuchar (T-14, 1998) and Spencer Levin (T-13, 2004) have been inside the top 15.

For Goodman, it wasn’t a case of him finding golf, but the game finding him. He hailed from the other side of the tracks in South Omaha, a depressed area where most inhabitants worked in the packing houses. One day he and a couple of buddies found golf balls from the adjacent Omaha Field Club along the railroad tracks. When they handed the balls back to the players, the boys were given a nickel to grab an ice cream cone, but also encouraged to see the caddie master about employment.

Golf was a foreign game to Goodman, and he showed up at the club barefoot and in overalls. Still, the club professional, Stanley Davies, took a liking to the 12-year-old.

The golf course would become Goodman’s sanctuary. He picked up pointers by keenly observing the club’s top players. When two-time U.S. Open champion Walter Hagen played an exhibition at the club, he asked for the “best boy in the shop” to serve as his caddie. Goodman got the gig. This was an inspirational moment for Goodman, who would one day outduel Hagen and others for the game’s biggest prize.

Goodman naturally took to the game. At 14, Goodman managed to win the caddie tournament with just three borrowed clubs – a driver, mid-mashie and mid-iron – by shooting 37 for nine holes. Seeing his potential, a member lent Goodman his clubs and entered him in the Omaha city tournament, which he won.

In 1926, Goodman and two friends, Jack Pollard and Frank Siedlik, hopped on the caboose of a cattle train to St. Louis for the Trans-Mississippi Amateur. Disheveled from the trip, the threesome, who later became known as the “boxcar trio,” removed their jackets at the first tee and proceeded to qualify. Goodman and Pollard both reached the semifinals.

Over the next decade, Goodman would win the event three times (1927, 1931 and 1935). By then, Goodman had retired from caddieing to maintain his amateur status; the USGA at the time considered caddies professionals. Goodman worked odd jobs to pay for his room and board in South Omaha. He eventually graduated from South High School and attended the University of Nebraska aided by a scholarship fund created by the Omaha World-Herald.

Despite his local and regional success, Goodman was still unknown nationally. That breakthrough would occur in 1929. In June, he qualified for his first U.S. Open at Winged Foot and finished tied for 45th. Three months later, Goodman delivered his statement moment to date.

Four years after winning the U.S. Open, Johnny Goodman (right) outdueled Raymond Billows to win the 1937 U.S. Amateur. (USGA Archives)

Throngs of spectators had flocked to the Monterey Peninsula for the U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach. They were there to see two-time defending champion Jones, fresh off his triumph in the U.S. Open. Everyone expected Jones to romp over his first-round opponent, the unheralded Goodman.

The match nearly didn’t occur. Just prior to the championship, USGA officials questioned Goodman’s amateur status because he worked for a sporting goods company, the same one that caused another entrant, Johnny Dawson, to withdraw from the competition. Desperate to play, Goodman immediately resigned his position.

Goodman then stunned Jones and the large gallery , 1 up, only to lose that afternoon to future two-time U.S. Amateur champion and 1940 U.S. Open champion Lawson Little.

“When I knew I had to play him, my heart kind of skipped a beat,” Goodman said of his match with Jones. “Then I remembered Bobby’s own winning system – to play against par instead of his opponent – and I figured that was my only hope to keep from blowing up completely.”

That performance portended bigger things for this poor kid from Omaha.

Bitterly disappointed that he was left off the 1932 USA Walker Cup Team, Goodman came to that year’s U.S. Amateur at Baltimore Country Club determined to prove a point. He defeated USA Walker Cuppers Ouimet, Charles Seaver and Maurice McCarthy before falling in the 36-hole final to Canadian C. Ross Somerville, 2 and 1.

The next year he edged Ralph Guldahl by one stroke to win the U.S. Open at North Shore Golf Club in Glen View, Ill. He became the fifth amateur to win the championship, following Ouimet, Evans, Travers and Jones.

Back in Omaha, Goodman was feted with a parade through downtown. Most happy among the well-wishers were the caddies. At 23 years of age, he was a hero.

He would represent the USA on the 1934, 1936 and 1938 Walker Cup Teams, and eventually claim that elusive U.S. Amateur title in 1937, defeating Raymond Billows, 2 up, at Alderwood Country Club in Portland, Ore.

A decade later, Goodman had his last hurrah in the game, ironically, at Pebble Beach in the 1947 U.S. Amateur. By now a member at Omaha Field Club, Goodman won three matches before losing to 1935 U.S. Amateur Public Links champion Frank Strafaci.

Goodman quietly faded from the national spotlight. He moved to Southern California with his wife, Josephine, and eventually turned professional, teaching the game at a par-3 course in Bellflower.

Thirty years after his death in 1970, Omaha renamed its 18-hole Applewood municipal course in memory of Goodman, who had been inducted into the Nebraska Golf Hall of Fame, the Nebraska High School Hall of Fame and the Omaha Sports Hall of Fame.

At the Field Club, there are reminders of his greatness. There is a Johnny Goodman Room with many pictures of their most famous member. There’s also a seven-man competition among the top members called the Goodman Cup.

“There's never been a golfer from Nebraska who had more notoriety or more of an impact than Johnny,” said Nebraska Golf Association executive director Craig Ames in the 2012 summer issue of Nebraska Golfer.

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.