100 Years of the Michigan PGA Professional Championship
Part 1: Al Watrous Competed With Legends in Michigan, Around the World
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a series of four releases regarding 25-year segments of the Michigan PGA Professional Championship, which will be played for the 100th time Aug. 16-18 at Prestwick Village Golf Club in Highland. The first 25 tournaments were presented from 1922 to 1946.
- 100 Years of the Michigan PGA: Part 1;
- 100 Years of the Michigan PGA: Part 2;
- 100 Years of the Michigan PGA Part 3;
- 100 Years of the Michigan PGA: Part 4
Al Watrous, upon being named to the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame in 1979, reflected on the competitive golf part of his career.
“During my time the game was great,” said the 37-year golf professional at Oakland Hills Country Club who played in 55 of what are now recognized as golf’s major championships, battled the likes of Bobby Jones to the wire in the British Open and when back at home won a record nine Michigan PGA Professional Championship titles.
“Sure money was important but somehow the money didn’t enter into it. We didn’t play because of the money. It was the title. We all managed. The competition was great. It was more fun then; the pressure wasn’t as great.”
Watrous, born in 1899 in New York, moved to Michigan at a young age. He grew up in the Detroit area, developed his golf game and won the very first Michigan PGA Professional Championship at Grosse Ile Golf & Country Club in 1922 at age 23, the same year he won the Canadian Open.
He went on to win the Michigan PGA eight more times with the last one 32 years later in 1954 at the age of 55.
In an era when most touring professionals had club affiliations to subsidize if not significantly fund their income, the eight-time PGA Tour winner had to battle legends of the game on the international stage and at home in Michigan tournaments.
Chief among them was Walter Hagen, who won the Michigan PGA titles in 1930 and ’31, worked briefly at Oakland Hills as its first head professional and is regarded as one of the game’s all-time greats. Hagen and Watrous represented the U.S. on the first two Ryder Cup Teams (1927, ’29).
Other regular foes at home and around the world included; Horton Smith, who won the Michigan PGA in 1948, won the first two Masters Tournaments and worked at Detroit Golf Club; Jimmy Demaret, who won the Michigan PGA in 1943, worked at Plum Hollow Country Club in Southfield and won 31 PGA Tour events, including three Masters titles; and Chick Harbert, who won the national PGA Championship in 1954, and won six Michigan PGA section titles between 1946 and ’59, worked at Meadowbrook Country Club.
Hagen in his memoirs felt the need to mention Watrous, one of his original Ryder Cup teammates: “He’s a great golfer … one of our real stylists.” An internet search reveals a 1927 Ryder Cup team photo with Hagen holding the cup in the middle and Watrous on the left end, and also a photo of a smiling Watrous with Bobby Jones and Hagen returning via ship to New York after the 1929 competition in England.
Watrous, who played in the Masters Tournament nine times including the first Masters in 1934 where he tied for 11th, was a self-made player. He told a Florida newspaper reporter in 1977 that no one taught him the golf swing.
“I developed it from observation, you might say,” he said. “I saw Bobby Jones when he was very young and Walter Hagen. I saw Harry Vardon. He was my idol. I was told I had a lot of Vardon’s swing concepts.”
Watrous worked and played as a professional at Redford Golf Club and then The Highlands Country Club in Grand Rapids before he accepted a position as just the fourth head golf professional at Oakland Hills in 1930. For four decades he was a world-class player and won a PGA Seniors Championship, his third, and World Senior Championship title in 1957 at the age of 58.
Watrous, who made 49 cuts in his 55 of golf’s major championships played, came very close to winning the 1926 British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in 1926. He was tied with Bobby Jones in the final round, only to fall victim to Jones hitting what is regarded as one of the greatest recovery shots in golf history – a 175-yard blast from dune grass left of the 17th fairway.
While his play on the international stage is noteworthy, his play in Michigan remains the hallmark of achievement. In addition to his nine Michigan PGA wins, he won the Michigan Open six times. Today, Scott Hebert of Traverse City Golf & Country Club, is still chasing those records at age 53. He is tied with Watrous in Michigan Open wins with six and is one shy in Michigan PGA titles with eight.
The last significant win for Watrous was the 1961 Michigan PGA Senior Championship, which was his fifth. He was 62.
His role in Michigan golf history went beyond his competitive career. He helped Robert Trent Jones in his famous 1950 renovation of Oakland Hills’ South course that Ben Hogan called “The Monster” after his U.S. Open win in ’51. Watrous walked with Jones and hit thousands of golf shots for the architect. Later, Watrous designed a course by himself near Gaylord called Wilderness Valley (now closed).
Steve Brady, the ninth head golf professional at Oakland Hills and a two-time Michigan PGA champion (1993, ’95), said Watrous is remembered at the club and in the club’s centennial book as a wonderful player.
“He was known for being one of the best players in the world, one of three Oakland Hills pros to be on Ryder Cup teams (Hagen, Watrous, Mike Souchak), and at one point he was the top distributor of Spalding golf equipment in the world,” he said. “He played their clubs, sold their clubs, they had a line with his name on them.”
Brady never met Watrous but played golf with and gave lessons to his son Tom when he was a member at Oakland Hills. Tom also became a golf professional.
“He told me stories about Al, and growing up in the game,” Brady said. “He spoke really fondly of his dad raising a family while working in the game.”
Brady also received from a friend a few years ago some video copies of film of the senior Watrous hitting golf balls on the practice range at Saginaw Country Club long ago.
“He had a beautiful golf swing,” Brady said.