MICHIGAN OPEN, 100 YEARS: Horton Smith, John Barnum, Walter Burkemo and Dave Hill Represent Second 25 Years of the Championship

EAST LANSING – Michigan Open champions have made history with their wins, but are part of history in other ways as well.
Walter Burkemo won the national 1953 PGA Championship, but also was awarded two Purple Hearts by the U.S. Army for serious wounds suffered in World War II. The second came when the Sergeant was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge.Horton Smith won the 1934 Masters Tournament, the very first Masters, and also won the third. He is also credited with being the first professional to truly study the putting stroke to gain an advantage on opponents, and his name has become synonymous with golf education.
John Barnum, a four-time Michigan Open champion, was the first golfer to win his first PGA Tour event past the age of 50, and was also the first player to win a PGA Tour event using a PING putter, which has become the most popular putter in golf.
Dave Hill won 13 times on the PGA Tour, but might be best known for a willingness to take on the tour leadership and shoot from the lip. That includes filing an unprecedented $1 million anti-trust suit against the Tour following a suspension. It was settled out of court and he played on.
Burkemo, Smith, Barnum and Hill make up a standout foursome to represent the second 25 Michigan Open Championships.
Burkemo won in 1951, ’55, ’57 and 13 years later in ’70 at the age of 52. Smith won his only Michigan Open in 1954, 20 years after his history making win at Augusta National. Barnum won in 1950, ’58, ’60 and ’61. Hill won his only Michigan Open in 1959 during his first year as a professional.
Burkemo, a Detroit native, was the youngest of 13 children born to Norwegian immigrants and started his golf career as a caddie at Lochmoor Club. He was 21 and a professional golfer when World War II started and recovery from his war wounds delayed his return to professional golf.
In the 1950s he became one of the world’s top players, winning the 1953 PGA Championship played in Michigan at Birmingham Country Club, and twice was runner-up in the major championship (’51 and ’54). He also was on the 1953 U.S. Ryder Cup team.
He was a head professional at Franklin Hills, and an assistant at Oakland Hills during his career, and Burkemo and his brother Vic opened a popular driving range in St. Clair Shores as well. He is a member of the Michigan PGA Hall of Fame and the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame. He died Oct. 8, 1986 in Fenton, just one day before his birthday. He was 67.
Smith, a Missouri native, won 32 times on the PGA Tour between 1928 and ’41, including his only two majors in the Masters (1934, ’36). He was part of five Ryder Cup teams and served a non-combat role in the U.S. Army during World War II. He became the head professional at Detroit Golf Club in 1946 and worked there until death at the age of 55 in 1963 from Hodgkin’s disease.
He played in every Masters from 1934 to ’63, though he was retired from the tour and devoted to Detroit Golf Club where he is remembered as a stoic man and fine teacher of the game. In 1962 he received the Bob Jones Award from the United States Golf Association in recognition of distinguished sportsmanship. The PGA of America and its many state sections annually grant the Horton Smith Award to a PGA professional who has made outstanding and continuing contributions to PGA education.
In September of 2013 his green jacket, which was awarded for his Masters wins, was sold at auction by relatives for over $682,000, which at the time was believed to be the most ever paid for golf memorabilia. He is a member of the Michigan PGA Hall of Fame, the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame and the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Barnum was he head golf professional at Blythefield Country Club near Grand Rapids for more than 20 years and played the PGA Tour on a part-time basis. In addition to his four Michigan Open wins, he was a three-time Michigan PGA winner and five times won the Michigan PGA Senior title.
He was 50 when he started making big news nationally. He won the PGA Tour’s 1962 Cajun Classic by six shots over Gay Brewer, which put him in the history books as the first player to win his first PGA Tour event after turning 50. He is also one of six golfers who have won on the tour after turning 50.
Barnum made noise in the senior major championships, too, finishing second three times in the Senior PGA Championship. He was runner-up to Herman Barron in 1963, second to Sam Snead in ’64 and second to Fred Haas Jr. in ’66.
Barnum, who died in 1996 at the age of 85, is a member of the Michigan PGA Hall of Fame and the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame. The PING putter he won the Cajun Classic with is in a collection of historical club items at Blythefield.
Hill, whose brother Mike also had a standout professional career, had his share of controversies and blunt statements that made news, but there was no doubting his talent. In addition to his 13 wins, he won the Vardon Trophy in 1969 for the lowest scoring average on the PGA Tour, and was on the Ryder Cup team that year, too. He would also be on Ryder Cup teams in ’73 and ’77, and win six times on the Senior PGA Tour, which is now the Champions Tour.
He was known as a great ball-striker and had his best finish in a major championship when he was second in the 1970 U.S. Open at Hazeltine in Chaska, Minn. Of course, his criticisms of the course in which he said they ruined a good farm when they built it, made the headlines instead of his play.
He was sarcastic and blunt. When asked by a Grand Rapids Press reporter about hitting a drive out-of-bounds on the final hole of a Senior PGA Tour event in 1990 and finishing second by a shot, he was quick with his temper and an answer: “Wasn’t playing for second place you (bleep).”
He was popular beyond his hometown of Jackson, and made a cameo appearance in a Walt Disney movie called “Now You See Him, Now You Don’t.” Hill died in 2011 after a long battle with emphysema. He is a member of the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame.
Burkemo, Smith, Barnum and Hill stand out in the second 25 year collection of Michigan Opens, but other notable winners marked the era as well.
Chick Harbert, who won four Michigan Opens (1937, ’42, ’48 and ’53) and went on to win seven times on the PGA Tour, including the 1954 PGA Championship, set the four-round scoring record for the Michigan Open of 23-under par at Tam O’Shanter Country Club in West Bloomfield in 1948. It was tied in 2012 by Kalamazoo’s Barrett Kelpin at The Orchards Golf Club in Washington Township.
Amateur Chuck Kocsis, Michigan’s version of Bobby Jones, won back-to-back Michigan Opens in 1945 and ’46 after winning his first at age 18 in 1931. His incredible record included being low amateur in the Masters once and the U.S. Open twice, winning six Michigan Amateur Championship titles and leading the University of Michigan to a pair of collegiate national match play championships, the forerunner to the NCAA Championships.
Pete Cooper, who won the 1956 Michigan Open, won five times on the PGA Tour and was a respected teacher who also won eight Florida Opens. His most famous pupil – Chi Chi Rodriguez who often lauded his praises and dedicated wins to him.
Gene Bone won the last two Michigan Opens of the era back-to-back in 1965 and ’66. The Bay Pointe Golf Club professional won at least one of every Michigan PGA conducted tournament, including two Michigan PGA titles.
Sammy or Sam Byrd won the 1940 Michigan Open while representing Plum Hollow Country Club in Detroit, and built a legend in both baseball and golf. The Georgia native played Major League Baseball with the New York Yankees and Cincinnati Reds from 1929 to ‘36, and reportedly was called “Babe Ruth’s Legs” because he would often appear as a pinch runner for the legend late in games near the end of Ruth’s career.
Byrd successfully made the jump to professional golf and later won six times on the PGA Tour between 1942 and ’46. He was also reportedly a friend of the great Ben Hogan, who liked to talk about the golf swing with him.

FEATURED PIC: Collage image including John Barnum’s historic PING putter that is the property of Blythefield CC, the front page of the Augusta Chronicle newspaper the day after Horton Smith won the first of what would become known as the Masters, a Walter Burkemo personalized golf ball that was once available on eBay and a picture of a collectible Dave Hill bubblegum card.

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  1. Pam Seltzer says

    Wonderful article.

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