Although Leo Diegel was declared the winner after finally defeating Toney Penna on the 36th hole of their extenuated playoff, the real story of the 8th stop of The Great Depression Tour was the course itself – Oak Hill.
Located in a suburb of Rochester, New York, the layout is 7,100+ yards of trouble: Narrow fairways further constricted by overhanging branches, deep bunkers, thick stands of trees, and hellacious rough bordering the greens – that turned short chip shots and pars into double bogeys. Neither of the par-5’s were reachable in two even under calm conditions, and when the wind blew from the northwest, three shots were required to get onto the green of several of Oak Hill’s par-4’s. Not surprisingly, the average score for the tournament was 74, four above regulation.
After 72 holes, Diegel, who had begun the last day one shot behind the leader Johnny Golden, and Penna, trailing by a further two strokes, wound up tied for the top spot at +3. At the other end of the leaderboard was Brooklyn’s own Wiffy Cox, who shot 80-73-85-74 – 32 strokes over par.
Four other golfers had been in contention as the final round began: Crowd favourite Bobby Jones was wild off the tee and inconsistent on the greens; he shot 73 – tied for sixth place with the fast closing Byron Nelson and Horton Smith, who each shot 69. Both Jones and Nelson are still looking for their first Great Depression victory, although the pair are one-two in scoring average.
The unheralded Golden, known primarily as Walter Hagen’s preferred Ryder Cup partner, heeded “The Haig’s” advice of the night before, that a par-7o would win the tournament – and it would have. But Golden bogeyed #9 to fall into a tie with Diegel, and then lost his lead for good with another bogey on the difficult 17th, after he hooked his drive into the trees. He finished third, four strokes over par, his best showing to date.
Henry Picard, mentor to both Sam Snead and Ben Hogan, raised some eyebrows when he came out of the shoot with two birdies. But he was unable to build on that promising start, and scored even par for the day, finishing right behind Golden. It was Picard’s fifth top-ten finish; he is the leading “All Around” player on the Tour.
Picard’s playing partner, the long-hitting Jimmy Hines, second only to Craig Wood in distance off the tee, bogeyed the opening hole and couldn’t sink a putt all day, but he hung on to finish just behind Picard. By far it was the best showing that the native Long Islander has achieved.
A playoff seemed only a remote possibility after Penna had run off three consecutive birdies on 13, 14, and 15 – barely missing an eagle when his wedge gently tapped the flag at the par-5 13th. But the diminutive Italian (he was born in Naples), lost his opportunity when he shanked a 5-iron approach on the seventeenth hole, took bogey, and fell even with Diegel, who had sunk an 11′ putt on the par-4 sixteenth.
The playoff was a marked contrast in both personalities and appearances. The gifted but high-strung Diegel, nearly six feet in height, was dressed in a baggy, long-sleeved sweater; his nondescript outfit topped off by a wide-brimmed fedora; he could be seen nervously rushing down the fairway after almost each shot. On the other hand, the suave Penna, was elegantly attired in matching short-sleeved pullover, carefully creased slacks, and cap. Not quite five and one-half feet tall, he was demure and self-contained; looking every inch the successful golf club designer, and a Californian who had befriended the rich and famous – Crosby, Astaire, and Sinatra among them.
Diegel was installed as a shaky favourite, having won two majors (the 1928 and ’29 PGA’s), and defeating Hagan on both occasions. But he was also known for losing a bunch of other major tournaments during the last round because of his chronically jangled nerves which eventually would catch up to him and play havoc with his putting. He may have not invented the “yips”, but he was certainly a devotee.
After one of those bitter disappointments Diegel had said: “They keep trying to give me a championship but I won’t take it.” Those words were almost prophetic at Oak Hill:
In the first playoff, Diegel jumped to an immediate two-stroke lead but had given it back by the 5th hole. Never trailing in the match, he took another two-stroke lead when Penna found the creek on the 15th. Victory was in sight, but Diegel lost the entire advantage on the very next hole when Penna sank an 18-footer for birdie 3, while he hooked a 7-iron from the middle of the fairway, and took three to get up-and-down; a bogie that again evened the match.
But Penna gave Diegel yet a third opportunity to win it all when he bogied #17. Now one up, and with a birdie well nigh impossible on the finishing hole (there had only been two in the entire tournament), all Diegel had to do was match the Italian’s score on the last hole. After two shots on the 497-yard par-4, Diegel, who had played it safe, was in the middle of the fairway, a short pitch and a putt away from victory; while Penna had boldly gone for the green and overshot it; his ball lay entangled in the thick rough. But a marvelous chip left him an 8-footer and he sank it. Meanwhile, Diegel had misplayed his own lob from that perfect lie, and missed the ten-footer that would have given him his par – and the tournament.
The gallery had groaned at the miss, and many departed for home or the clubhouse bar rather than endure another 18-hole playoff that was scheduled after a break for lunch. The struggle was becoming a cousin to the 1945 World Series, when the war-depleted members of the Detroit Tigers and the Chicago Cubs trotted onto the field for Game One, causing an astute scribe to remark: “I don’t think either team can win.”
Midway through this second playoff, both Diegel and Penna were struggling at +2. As he had in the first playoff, the Italian, now clothed in a different chic ensemble, was playing cautiously waiting for his opponent to crack – but instead, Diegel got hot, birdied 11, 12, and 13, and went to the 14th green four strokes in the lead – seemingly a lead that even the jumpy Diegel couldn’t lose – but he almost did just that.
At this point, Penna became aggressive – and birdied 14 and 15 (the latter with a chip from a deep bunker) to cut the deficit in half, and when Diegel, nerves now at the breaking point, missed a short putt to bogey #17, only one shot separated the pair.
Again, as in the morning’s playoff, Diegel played it safe, and landed his approach almost exactly in the same spot as in the morning round. But Penna had sliced his drive into a deep bunker from which there was no chance of finding the green; his only hope – and not at all that far-fetched – was for Diegel to butcher his chip and then take a couple of putts.
But Diegel composed himself and got his par, and the long day was finally over. He became the eighth different winner of The Great Depression Tour’s first eight events.
From Rochester, the Tour will head south to the wilds of New Jersey, and the blowing sands of the Pine Valley Country Club. A few questions remain to be answered: Will Jones or Nelson finally come home a winner? Will Tommy Armour ever sink a putt longer than six feet? Will Paul Runyan display the form that made him one of the supreme golfers of the era, and manage a finish somewhere in the top ten?