Bill Mehlhorn sank a 6-foot putt on the final hole to defeat a fast-closing Toney Penna by one stroke and win the fourth stop of The Great Depression Tour held at the Turnberry Golf Club located hard by Scotland’s majestic Firth of Clyde.
Turnberry had first hosted the British Open in 1977, an inaugural that was the scene of one of the most memorable rounds in the long history of golf, the epic “Duel in the Sun” staged by Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus. A championship not decided until Watson ‘s winning putt on the 72nd hole, with Nicklaus, who had just holed an improbable 35′ putt to stay alive, looking on.
This time round there was no Claret Jug at stake, and while today’s combatants certainly have acquired reputations in the sport, albeit somewhat lesser than the two 1977 “duelists”, neither had ever won a major (The Golden Bear and Watson had accounted for no less than 26). Nonetheless, today’s final pair, so dissimilar in every way. put on a quite a dramatic finish of their own.
Known as “Wild” Bill because of his time spent as a golf pro in Oklahoma and his love of cowboy hats, Mehlhorn was an offbeat, outspoken, and unpredictable character, who once won a bet with Babe Ruth that he could throw a golf ball further than the fabled Sultan of Swat.
But there was nothing wild about his golf game; many of his contemporaries thought him to be the best of that era’s ball strikers. Only an early and lingering case of the “yips” kept him from becoming a more consistent winner. Featured in golf historian Al Barkow’s book about the early days of the tour entitled , “Gettin to the Dance Floor”, Mehlhorn refers to himself as “the world’s worst putter.”
Penna, who came to America from Naples, Italy at an early age, had immediately added an “e” to his first name to set himself apart from the crowd. Years later he wrote his own book entitled “My Wonderful World of Golf”; a glowing account of his life. The book is replete with photos of the stylish Penna golfing with his cronies, including Bing Crosby, Mickey Rooney, Frank Sinatra, and Fred Astaire. Another photo shows him with Gene Sarazen standing on a green in India with the Taj Mahal in the background. In his spare time the 5’6″ Penna also was a designer of golfing gear and apparel as well as creating several lines of golf clubs. In Brooklyneese, Toney got around.
Mehlhorn began that final round with a one shot advantage, and none of the other 38 golfers were within five shots of the two leaders. Putting togerher early rounds of 67 and 65 on the par 70 course, “Wild Bill” had jumped into an early lead and had decided to the play conservative golf the last two rounds and see if anyone in the field could catch him.
Penna just about did. He shot the round of the tournament on the third day, a 63 that included seven birdies and 11 pars; and pulled within a single stroke of Mehlhorn. His iron play was so exacting that only one of those seven birdie putts exceeded 10 feet in length. Mehlhorn’s third round was somewhat out of character. Poor approaches were salvaged with accurate long putts but 4 birdies on the front nine were offset by his old nemesis. He missed three tap-ins. With a bogey on the final hole, he ended up at par 70.
The final round was played in an unrelenting southwest wind, and the Italian paid the stiffer price, especially from the tee, as he attempted unsuccessfully to make up that one shot. By the time they reached the par-4 14th, Mehlhorn was even par, but his lead had increased to four strokes. On fourteen, however, it was Wild Bill who badly hooked his “safe” long-iron tee shot into the deep rough; only a magnificent wedge that landed two feet from the hole saved his par. Penna meanwhile, regained his putting touch and sank an eight-footer for a birdie. With four holes left, he still trailed by a daunting three. And after the pair recorded routine pars on the next hole, Penna was in need of a miracle.
The approach to the green at the par-4 16th is played overa a burn; a chance for the Italian to close the gap if Mehlhorn got wet – but Wild Bill made another routine par, as he’d been doing all day. But Penna, with a deft 6-iron over the water, sank another 8′-birdie putt. The margin was now two.
The par-5 17th is the easiest hole on the course, but once again the leader played carefully; satisfied once to make par; Penna, with another glorious 6-iron approach and a winding 16′ putt, birdied yet a third hole. The two were but a stroke apart. If there was to be a miracle, it would be all Penna’s doing. Wild Bill was not going to crack.
The 18th, named “Duel in the Sun” in honour of that remarkable finish in the 1977 British Open, is a demanding par-4 of 464 yards. Again Mehlhorn took the 2-iron out of his bag, and this time hit a perfect tee shot. Penna needed more distance than that, but he hooked his driver into one of Turnberry’s many yawning deep bunkers. It looked like curtains for the challenger. From the trap, however, Toney stroked a four iron that came to rest only 20′ from the pin and the birdie which would force an 18-hole playoff the next day. Meanwhile, with a half-flubbed chip, Mehlhorn was still six feet away from his par.
Three potential outcomes loomed: A Mehlhorn miss and a Penna birdie would see the Italian as the remarkable come-from-behind winner; if both made their putts, a playoff would ensue. It was the third possibility that prevailed. Penna’s bold attempt slithered past the hole by a couple of feet. And Mehlhorn, just as Tom Watson 38 years before, found that his fate was now in his own hands. Wild Bill made no mistake.
Starting with the winner, The Great Depression Tour’s fourth stop saw several golfers acheive their best results. Mehlhorn had finished no higher than 17th, while recording 35th and 32nd-place finishes at Royal Liverpool and the K Club. Australian Joe Kirkwood, who had finished second-to-last on two occasions and 25th on a third, placed fourth at Turnberry. Others such as the Frenchman, Arnaud Massy’ and the Englishman Sam King also had their best showings, landing in the top ten.
As to the more familiar names: Bobby Jones came in third at Turnberry for his fourth consecutive top-10 finish; Byron Nelson’s putting difficulties continued, and he ended up in 25th place. Tommy Armour, the Silver Scot, was again never a factor and finished in the middle of the pack for the fourth time..
The fifth stop, the last in the United Kingdom, will be on the other coast of Scotland on the Firth of Forth, the exclusive Muirfield Golf Club. Muirfield has hosted the British Open on a dozen occasions, the winners going back over a century to Harold Hilton, the great English amateur. The betting is that the Great Depression Tour , having produced four different winners in the first four stops, will keep the trend going and make it five.before heading across the pond to the United States and the final five events.