The Forgotten Soldier: Why this U.S. Open champion might be the best player you’ve never heard of

Lloyd Mangrum, winner of the 1946 U.S. Open Championship, hits a shot.

Lloyd Mangrum, a World War II combat vet and Hall of Fame inductee (1998), is practically unknown to modern golf fans.

USGA Archives

After four years of imposed rationing on meat and coffee, milk and sugar, gasoline, nylons, coal and shoes, and four years of death tapping on the front door with a Western Union telegram and blue and gold stars displayed in windows by hopeful and mourning mothers, and four years of herculean industrial effort to arm the nation and its allies, Americans on the home front longed for a return to normal and maybe even hoped to have a little fun. World War II was over.

A collective exhale of joy and relief swept the nation. Jitterbuggers jittered like there would be nothing but tomorrows, kids played with new toys called Slinkys and Silly Putty and on Saturday, June 15, 1946, on the outskirts of Cleveland, Americans showed up in unprecedented numbers to watch a golf tournament. Unrestrained by ropes, it was, wrote Grantland Rice, “the greatest gallery in the history of American golf, estimated at 20,000 scurrying souls,” and it witnessed “one of the most spectacular finishes of all time in the U.S. Open. It was an incredible story of brilliant charging to the wire and then cracking under pressure.”

Rice was the godfather of American golf writing, and what he described as a “storming mob of humanity” would have both a direct and indirect effect on the outcome of the first U.S. Open played after the war.

Lloyd’s the best player who has been forgotten since I’ve been playing golf. Byron Nelson

One year earlier, in April 1945, as the Soviets encircled Berlin from the east and U.S. and British forces poured it on from the west, Fred Corcoran received a letter from the frontlines. Corcoran was essentially the commissioner of the PGA Tour before that position and the Tour officially existed. The letter was from Lloyd Mangrum, who was back in action after being wounded during the Battle of the Bulge earlier in the year. Prior to the war, Mangrum had won five times on Tour.

“Hi Fred,” wrote Mangrum. “Guess I have written to everyone when I write to you. I am getting a lot of practice with rifle, machine gun, etc., where I am, but not golf. … Right now, the sun is shining for a change and we just finished breakfast. As soon as we get gas we will take off again. From the reports that came in this morning we are about 10 miles in front of the frontlines.

“Fred, we have them on the run now. … Guess I have witnessed many things the other boys haven’t had the displeasure of being in … and I hope they never do. It isn’t fun at all. … I never knew a grown man could get so scared. Sometimes we cuss and then we pray … and, in fact, I have cried at anything if I thought it would do any good. If you have time to think when shells are breaking all around you, you wonder if the next one will land where you are. I have cheated death many times and am quite lucky. All of us here think the same thing, however — we are coming home if God will permit. After seeing France, Holland, Luxembourg and now Germany, we wonder what these people are fighting for, but guess they like their homes, too.

Mangrum wrote to Corcoran after earning his second Purple Heart. Courtesy World Golf Hall of Fame & Museum

“… I got to play four times when I was in a hospital in England … but other than that you might say I haven’t played for a year. I would need two a side from you these days. … Good luck to everyone back there. Maybe it won’t be long before all of us can make the tour again.

“… So long for now,

“Lloyd the Hacker”

For the entirety of U.S. participation in World War II, Mangrum was the only American professional golfer of any pre-war prominence who served in a combat zone. Other players managed to stay comfortably in the U.S., and Mangrum had a chance to do the same. After being drafted into the Army, Mangrum was offered the club-pro job at the Fort Meade golf course in Maryland. He declined to take the easy way out and soon found himself at the tip of the Allied advance into Hitler’s Fortress Europe as a corporal in a recon unit of Gen. George Patton’s Third Army.

Torrey Pines’ return to the U.S. Open spotlight offers an appropriate moment to reflect on the 75th anniversary of the ’46 tournament and Mangrum’s place in U.S. and golf history. The courses at Torrey sit on land that was once World War II–era Camp Callan, where trainees learned the finer points of coastal artillery and antiaircraft firepower. The camp was declared surplus a few months after the war’s end, and by 1957 the North and South Courses were open for play. San Diego County, Torrey’s home, has the largest concentration of military personnel and families in the state with the largest concentration of same. Nearly 8 percent of San Diego’s total population consists of active-duty personnel and their families, and a quarter million veterans live in the county as well — that’s an additional 13 percent of the population. Among businesses in San Diego, 13.5 percent are owned or co-owned by veterans, and military spending accounts for 26 percent of local jobs. The largest employer in the northern part of San Diego is Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, and the county is home to 60 percent of the ships in the U.S. Navy and a third of active-duty Marines. The Marine Memorial Golf Course at Camp Pendleton is one of five golf courses at four military golf clubs in San Diego. About 40 miles north of the northern boundary of San Diego County, Navy Golf Course Destroyer at the Naval Weapons Station in Cypress is where Earl Woods taught his son, Tiger, to play the game.

There are military courses in 40 of the 50 states, and it’s easy to understand the appeal of golf to service members and veterans looking to unwind or void their mind of what’s happening in the world. It’s also an opportunity to stay connected and strengthen or renew bonds of friendship and camaraderie.

On September 21, 1941, when Lloyd Mangrum won by a leisurely six strokes over Ben Hogan and Vic Ghezzi at the Atlantic City Open, there was no urgent training underway at Camp Callan or any other U.S. military base. On a Sunday morning in Hawaii 10 weeks later, Adm. Husband E. Kimmel was preparing to depart for a standing weekly tee time with his Army counterpart Gen. Walter Short. The two were friendly rivals, and their regular game fulfilled orders to pursue “joint coordination” without the interservice tension becoming overheated. Their foursome that morning of December 7 was to include a Capt. Truman. The players never made it to the course. Japanese naval air forces shattered an otherwise calm morning and U.S. isolationism in one go.

Lloyd Mangrum’s war had begun.

In 1946, “20,000 scurrying souls” turned out at Canterbury Golf Club (near Cleveland) to watch the U.S. Open. Note the scarcity of gallery ropes. USGA Museum

Byron Nelson had himself a year in 1945. Absolved from military service due to a disorder that caused his blood to clot four times slower than normal, Nelson spent the war years playing tournament golf and giving exhibitions to raise money for the war effort. With the exception of 1943, there was no shortage of tournaments. Contrary to popular belief, by the start of the ’45 golf season most of the big names were back on the circuit, including Sam Snead, whose Navy tenure as an “athletic specialist” in San Diego ended with a medical discharge for a bad back. Hogan, who did his service time in Fort Worth as a flight instructor, began regularly competing again in July as the war neared its conclusion.

It was Nelson, however, who went on a tear the likes of which had never been seen in golf and unlikely ever will again. Already a four-time major championship winner and considered among the very best of his or any time when the year began, Nelson was beyond dominant in 1945. He entered 30 tournaments and won 18, including 11 in a row when he was in the field. Beginning at Greensboro in March, Nelson won by margins of eight, five, nine, 10, two and seven before winning the match-play final of the PGA Championship on July 15. Back at stroke play for the mega-purse Tam O’Shanter Open in Chicago, Nelson won by 11 and took home $13,600 (compared to an average winner’s check of $2,000 at the time).

As 1945 wore on, Nelson won tournaments by 10 and eight strokes, and on October 15 he won by 13 at the Seattle Open, posting 259. Earlier that same day, Cpl. Lloyd Mangrum won the Army’s inter-theater tournament in Biarritz, France, solidifying his standing as the top soldier golfer in Europe. In August, he’d also won a tournament for all service members in the European Theater contested at St. Andrews. Mangrum was 31, and when he won at the Old Course that August it had been only a year since doctors predicted he would never play golf again.

Texans predominated the early days of the PGA Tour, namely Nelson, Hogan and Jimmy Demaret. Despite contemporaneous reporting that Mangrum was from Los Angeles, he and his brother Ray had moved there from Dallas in hopes of securing better club-pro jobs. Born in Trenton, Texas, in August 1914 — the same month World War I began — Lloyd began working as an assistant to Ray when he was 15. When Lloyd first played on Tour, he was known as Ray Mangrum’s little brother because Ray had won two tournaments in 1936, the year before Lloyd’s debut. Lloyd quickly emerged as the better player of the two brothers, and, along with his five Tour wins prior to entering the Army, he finished second at the 1940 Masters and was a semifinalist in the 1941 PGA Championship. During his post-war career, hardened by battle, Mangrum was sometimes called Mr. Icicle because nothing that happened on the course seemed to affect his emotions.

Later generations of golf fans admired players like Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Raymond Floyd for their steely focus, but even they lacked the life experience that made Mangrum perhaps the smoothest customer to ever play professional golf. Contrary to some lore, Mangrum did not take part in the initial D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, but he did step foot on Normandy’s shores soon afterward as Third Army entered the fray. For a few months, the Nazis held the Allies at bay in the close quarters of Normandy’s hedgerow country, but in August combined offensive operations of the U.S. and British created an opportunity for Patton, and he took it. Third Army raced across occupied Europe on a beeline for Germany that established Patton’s legend. At some point during the breakout, a jeep Mangrum was riding in flipped over and one of his arms was broken in two places.

Mangrum was sent back to England to heal, and despite the prognosis that he would never swing a club again, he was deemed healthy enough to rejoin Third Army prior to Hitler’s last-ditch effort on the western front — the Battle of the Bulge, which began 10 days prior to Christmas 1944. The German surprise attack and bad weather pushed U.S. troops to the limit and placed increased importance on always dangerous recon missions. In the course of his duty, Mangrum was hit by shrapnel in the knee and chin. An inch in any direction and either wound could have been fatal. Mangrum recouped in a field hospital and was back in action when he wrote the letter to Fred Corcoran — just one month before German forces capitulated after Hitler’s suicide in Berlin.

The final five playoff holes were played through a raging thunderstorm.
Mangrum, with the U.S. Open trophy, won in a 36-hole playoff against Vic Ghezzi (in tie) and Byron Nelson. USGA Museum (2)

Soldiers, sailors and airmen in the European and Pacific theaters were not demobilized the instant the war ended. Mangrum was still in Europe when President Harry Truman — a distant relative of the Capt. Truman who was slated to play golf with Adm. Kimmel and Gen. Short the morning of the Pearl Harbor attack — opted to drop two atomic bombs on Japan. However, by March 1946 Mangrum was stateside and competing in the Charlotte Open, where his third-round 64 left him tied for second with Snead and Vic Ghezzi. (Ray Mangrum had won the Pensacola Open five weeks earlier.)

By late May, Mangrum was banking runner-up finishes to Hogan at the Western Open and the Goodall Round Robin at Winged Foot. As the U.S. Open at Canterbury Golf Club approached, Hogan (six wins before Canterbury), Nelson (three wins) and Snead (three wins) were playing at a high level.

Through 1964, the U.S. Open’s third and fourth rounds were played on Saturday — a 36-hole survival of the fittest. At close of play on the Friday of the 1946 U.S. Open, Ghezzi and Hogan led at four under (140) by one over Lawson Little and two ahead of Nelson and Porky Oliver. With a 70 in round two, Mangrum — a passable double for Clark Gable and sporting a fedora — had clawed his way back to par and within four of the leaders heading into Saturday.

On the Saturday morning of the 1946 U.S. Open, Lloyd Mangrum fired a four-under 68 and a soldier on leave, Pvt. Eddie Martin, kicked Byron Nelson’s ball. Martin, in full dress uniform, happened to be Nelson’s caddie. After Nelson’s ball hit a tree on the 13th hole and took a member’s bounce back into the fairway, Grant’s “mob of humanity” swarmed around the spot where it came to rest. Nelson and Martin had to force their way through the throng, and when Martin finally busted clear he never saw the ball — he walked right into it. Despite the resulting one-stroke penalty, Nelson posted 69 to lead Ghezzi and Mangrum by a single blow as the afternoon showdown unfolded.

From left: Ghezzi, radio host Harry Wismer, Mangrum and Corcoran celebrate the title at Toots Shor’s in NY. Bettmann Archive

This is a story that says as much about the character of the game and the people who play it as it does any particular moment in history. Mangrum and Nelson were paired in that afternoon round so long ago, and after four years of imposed rationing on meat and coffee, milk and sugar, gasoline, nylons, coal and shoes, and four years of death tapping on the front door with a Western Union telegram and blue and gold stars displayed in windows by hopeful and mourning mothers, and four years of herculean industrial effort to arm the nation, the 20,000 fans who invaded Canterbury understandably were pulling for Mangrum, the guy who had been awarded two Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars and two Bronze Stars. Byron Nelson was a gentleman of the first order and a villain in the eyes of none, but no man alone can stem the emotions of a nation busting at the seams with pride.

According to Rice and every other writer on the scene, the crowd was unequivocally backing Mangrum. Canterbury was playing classic U.S. Open tough, and the leaders battled par all the way to the house. Nelson led by two with three holes remaining in regulation but bogeyed the final two holes, including a three-putt from 15 feet at the 17th hole. A late charge by Hogan faltered when he too three-jacked at the 17th.

After an exhausting day of play, Nelson was asked whether his caddie had cost him the tournament.

“Eddie’s all right,” said Nelson. “He’ll be with me tomorrow.”

On Sunday morning, June 16, 1946, Nelson, Ghezzi and Mangrum played to a draw over 18 holes, with 72s all around. Out in the afternoon for another 18-hole playoff, Mangrum finally appeared outgunned when he hit one OB at the 9th. Undeterred, he salvaged a bogey six by holing a 45-footer, and the fans roared.

As the threesome reached the 13th tee on that long-forgotten summer afternoon, prolonged thunderstorms ripped across Canterbury. There is no record of Nelson or Ghezzi mentioning that the dangerous conditions made them nervous. There’s no record of Mangrum saying that maybe after a year of hard combat without rain or snow delays and sleeping in ice-coated foxholes he’d hardly noticed the lightning, rain and wind that day in Cleveland. What is known is that trailing with six holes to play for the U.S. Open title, Mangrum proceeded to can birdies at the 13th, 15th and 16th holes. On the 108th hole of the 1946 U.S. Open, Lloyd Mangrum drilled a four-footer to defeat Nelson and Ghezzi by a stroke to win the national championship. It was two years and several lifetimes since Normandy.

After the 1946 U.S. Open, Mangrum went on to win 30 more PGA Tour events. His 36 career victories place him 13th on the all-time win list, far ahead of Johnny Miller, Lee Trevino, Floyd, Hale Irwin and Dustin Johnson. His runner-up finish in the 1940 Masters included a record-setting 64, which stood as the single-round benchmark at Augusta National until 1986. On the practice range during the 1996 Masters, Byron Nelson asked three young Tour players if they’d ever heard of Lloyd Mangrum. Each professed no knowledge of Mangrum’s playing record or life. That response prompted Nelson to say, “Lloyd’s the best player who has been forgotten since I’ve been playing golf.”

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