This is the fourth in a 16-part series detailing every USGA championship contested at Oakmont Country Club in suburban Pittsburgh. The story recounts the 1938 U.S. Amateur Championship, won by Willie Turnesa over B. Patrick Abbott. It was the fifth USGA championship at the club, which is hosting its ninth U.S. Open in June.
Looking Back: 'Willie the Wedge' Wins 1938 U.S. Amateur
March 22, 2016 | Far Hills, N.J.
By Tom Mackin
There are more glamorous nicknames in the history of golf, but few more accurately reflect a champion’s performance than Willie Turnesa’s during the 1938 U.S. Amateur Championship at Oakmont Country Club.
After watching the 24-year-old Turnesa successfully extricate himself from 13 bunkers over 29 holes in the final match against B. Patrick Abbott, British golf writer Bernard Darwin dubbed the New York native, “Willie the Wedge.”
But if it wasn’t for the persistence of Turnesa’s friend, New York golf professional Danny Galgano, the nickname, and potentially the victory, might never have come to fruition. Knowing the perils presented by Oakmont’s plentiful bunkers, Galgano tried to convince Turnesa to obtain a sand wedge for the championship. Gene Sarazen, who won the 1922 PGA Championship at Oakmont, had popularized the sand wedge in the early ‘30s, but Turnesa initially balked due to his unfamiliarity with the club. He relied instead on his 9-iron for bunker shots.
“You can’t play with that club at Oakmont,” Galgano warned Turnesa, “because the bunkers are furrowed and the ball sinks halfway down.”
The recommended wedge was provided by sportswriter Lester Rice, and once he tried the club for himself, Turnesa realized it deserved a spot in his bag.
“I went to Elmwood Country Club [in White Plains, N.Y.] where my brother, Phil, was the pro, and where they had these deep, beautiful bunkers,” Turnesa told Senior Golfer magazine in 1996. “Every time I swung, the ball popped right up to the hole. I said: ‘This is a cinch. This is a good club.’”
Turnesa, the youngest of seven golf-playing brothers and the only one who remained a lifelong amateur, already had plenty of confidence in his putter.
“Mr. Fownes (club founder and designer Henry Clay Fownes) always saw to it that no one was going to burn up Oakmont,” Turnesa said. “The greens were so fast. But the greens never bothered me. I thought I could make everything – and I almost did.”
In six matches, Turnesa’s only three-putt came in the morning round of the final match on the 475-yard, par-4 15th hole.
Turnesa’s closest call came in the Round of 16 against 1936 U.S. Amateur champion John Fischer. Fischer was 1 up when he drove the green on the 300-yard, par-4 17th, his ball stopping 50 feet from the hole. Turnesa’s accurate wedge approach from the fairway led to a 5-foot birdie. Fischer three-putted to lose the hole and Turnesa eventually birdied the 20th hole to advance.
His opponent in the final, Abbott, was no stranger to the national stage. Two years earlier, the California native won the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship on the Red and Blue courses at New York’s Bethpage State Park.
In front of a gallery of 3,000, the pair started off the championship match with matching pars before Abbott drained a 28-foot birdie putt on the 363-yard, par-4 second to go 1 up. Turnesa squared the match on the following hole with a par. After halving the next hole with pars, Turnesa won the fifth with a par, giving him a lead he would never relinquish.
Abbott won just two more holes (the 14th in the morning and the third hole of the afternoon). During the morning round, Turnesa escaped from nine bunkers and one-putted eight greens to go 5 up. In the afternoon round, he had seven one-putt greens on the outward nine and eventually won, 8 and 7.
William Richardson of The New York Times described the win as, “Perhaps the greatest exhibition of blasting out of bunkers and putting ever put on in the forty-two years that the championship has been played.”
The performance also impressed his opponent. “I don’t know when I ever enjoyed losing a match before, but I enjoyed losing this one,” Abbott said.
Turnesa went on to win another U.S. Amateur in 1948, and he captured The Amateur Championship, conducted by The R&A, in 1947. He also represented the USA on winning Walker Cup Teams in 1947, 1949 and in 1951 – the latter as a playing captain – adding to what the lifelong amateur referred to as his “crowns without coins.”
But his biggest impact had plenty to do with the latter; in 1956 he started the Westchester (N.Y.) Golf Association Caddie Scholarship Fund, an ongoing effort that has raised more than $9 million in scholarship awards for more than 2,000 students to date.
As for that wedge Turnesa used to win the 1938 U.S. Amateur and earn himself an unusual nickname? In 1977, he donated it to the USGA Museum, where it remains today.
Tom Mackin is an Arizona-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.