John McGrath

John McGrath: Johnny Goodman wins a U.S. Open for the common man

More than 10,000 amateurs will attempt to secure a spot in the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay. All have aspirations of emulating a golfer whose name they likely don’t recognize: Johnny Goodman, the last amateur Open winner.

Goodman’s 1933 title put him in position to rival Seabiscuit as a sports icon during the Depression. Like the modestly bred colt whose improbable conquests captivated a nation desperate for good news, Goodman — self-taught at golf, and just about everything else — embodied true grit.

Unlike Seabiscuit, subject of two movies and memorialized by a statue at Santa Anita Park, Goodman never parlayed success into a legacy. He appeared on a Time magazine cover in 1938 — the same year Seabiscuit ranked as America’s No. 1 newsmaker — but by the time of his 1970 death, Goodman was an obscurity who long had resigned any claims to fame.

The son of Lithuanian immigrants, Goodman didn’t trumpet the compelling story of his life — a disinclination that’s both admirable and sad. His mother died after delivering her 13th child. His hard-drinking father, who spent occasional time in the house but was there never in spirit, abandoned the family.

He was 15 years old, an orphan seemingly destined to drop out of school and go to work at one of the meatpacking mills in South Omaha, Nebraska. But fate had intervened in the form of a golf ball he retrieved next to the railroad track that ran through the Field Club of Omaha.

Goodman sold the ball for a nickel at the Field Club, and learned he could earn 10 times that much, in one day, as a caddie. Golf, he would recall, became his “mother and father.”

Finding refuge at the home of a friend, resolved to graduate from high school, Goodman quickly gained a reputation as the Field Club’s most reliable caddie. When he wasn’t carrying a bag, Goodman sneaked on to the course, before sunrise and after sunset, to practice a swing he honed into perfection.

Four years after he was left to fend for himself, Goodman was paired against Bobby Jones in the U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach. In a stunning upset — Jones was in his prime, a year removed from the achieving the 1930 version of Grand Slam — Goodman won the match.

A star was born, but the star was embarrassed by his hardscrabble childhood. Goodman’s idol, Jones, was a Georgia Tech grad, a lawyer who earned a masters degree in literature at Harvard. While Jones represented blue-blooded nobility, Goodman all but denied his blue-collar roots.

Turning pro these days is an obvious decision for a golfer seeking a fortune. During the 1930s, the decision wasn’t so obvious. The pros drove to tournaments in cars that often served as their hotel room. The professional tour offered little prize money and no glamour.

Employed as an insurance agent, Goodman remained an amateur. His status did not ingratiate him with the USGA, reluctant to embrace a street-savvy product of Omaha’s slaughterhouse district as the successor to the scholarly, sainted Jones.

Goodman realized a final milestone in the 1937 U.S. Amateur championship at the now-defunct Alderwood Country Club in Portland, where he turned back Tacoma’s Bud Ward in the semifinal. Goodman joined Francis Ouimet, Jerry Travers and Jones as the only golfers to win both tournaments as amateurs.

And then the Johnny Goodman story just sort of fades, from the 1938 Time magazine cover to his death at the age of 60. A World War II assignment in India preceded a car accident that broke his arm and ended his competitive career. He finally renounced his amateur status in 1960, so he could teach as a club pro.

Movie-star handsome, the once-homeless teenager enjoyed the company of the rich and famous. (After he won $500 from Bing Crosby in an informal match game, they became close friends.) He got married, and raised a son. Goodman’s life was much more about triumph than tragedy.

But in a 2006 biography of Goodman, “King of Swings,” author Michael Blaine writes that Goodman’s grave, hidden by dry weeds in an Omaha cemetery, “is starling in its obscurity ... there is no monument, no stone.”

The brass-plate marker notes that Goodman served in the Quartermaster Corps during World War II, and includes his date of birth and date of death.

“It is almost invisible,” Blaine continues, “in the overgrown plot.”

The grave hidden by high weeds is not the only remembrance of Goodman in Omaha. There is also the Johnny Goodman Golf Course, an 18-hole layout that is a fitting tribute to the last U.S. Open winner who championed the common people.

It’s open to the public.