When Richmond Hosted a Major Golf Tournament
Essayist Brooks Smith, rediscovering Richmond's sports history, recalls the high point of the city's connection with golf.
Brooks Smith is rediscovering Richmond and this year he’s concentrating on Richmond’s sports history. Brooks, many Richmonders, younger ones, would be surprised to know that Richmond once played host to one of the four major golf tournaments.
Smith: That’s exactly right. Back in 1949 we hosted the PGA championship at the old Hermitage Club, now known as Belmont. The course was described by players back in the day as, not rugged, but sly. What is endearing about it now is it’s a municipal course, open to anyone. You can play it for $24 a round, $16 for seniors and $10 for youth.
Wow. So you can actually go and play on a course where one of the majors once was played. Well, it got a lot of national attention. Was it as major a tournament then as it is now, one of the big four?
Smith: It was a big deal. Of course the PGA formed in the teens, so this was going on, I think this was the 31st PGA championship. Back then it was still a match-play style tournament, but it was considered one of the three golf majors. And it’s interesting, setting the scene and time: the PGA championship back in ’49 occurred the same week that Jackie Robinson went on one of his many prodigious hitting sprees, I think over the course of the week he batted .556. But, the headlines in our local paper read something to the effect, “the greatest sports event in the history of Father Byrd‘s town.” What I liked was reading what all the top sports writers from around the country who came into the town to cover the event.
Smith: Well, there was a fellow from the Atlanta Journal who was considered the dean of golf writing, who came to town, but they had something like five AP reporters, somebody from the New York Times, somebody from the west coast. You name it, they were here.
Well, it’s time to tell us who won.
Smith: Well, Virginia native and clearly the people’s choice, people’s favorite, Slamming Sammy Sneed, who turned 37 during the tournament, to become the oldest player to win a PGA championship. This was his second, he also won in 1942. And, interestingly, just a month earlier, he had won the Master’s. He was the first professional golfer to win the Master’s and the PGA in the same year. A week later, he went and vied to win the U.S. National Open, and amazingly, after a rough start, he came back to finish and he tied for second just one stroke off the lead. So he almost got the Triple Crown.
Did he win a lot of money?
Smith: That’s an interesting thing. Particularly in comparison to today’s purses, the entire purse for the 1949 PGA Championship was $30,000, out of which Sneed took $3500. I like this: because he won two earlier tournaments, the Greensborough Open and the Master’s, the win that the PGA put him at the top of the money leader’s list, with $12,610.83.
Well, isn’t that amazing. So, any final thoughts on the 1949 PGA played in Richmond?
Smith: Well, there’s two fun stories that I have found in the archives. One about a fellow named Jack Burke, who was Sneed’s competitor in Round One on Friday of the tournament. Burke was a 26-year-old bobby soxer’s man, and he lost his caddy, who strayed from the 13th green to the 16th hole, ended up having to dispatch a jeep to bring him back, and Jack quipped after the round, that he lost enough holes to Sneed without having to lose his caddy, too. The other story is about Sneed’s putter. He actually borrowed it from a boy whom he met before the Greensborough Open, which Sneed also won. And in the locker room after his victory in Richmond, Sneed was pressed for the boy’s name, but he wouldn’t say for fear that the boy would ask for the putter back.
Virginian Sammy Sneed, winning the 1949 PGA on what is now a county golf course in Henrico County. A forgotten anecdote of Virginia’s and Richmond’s sports history; thanks to Brooks Smith.