1930-1939 #GAM100 – Chuck Kocsis Emerges as Michigan’s Greatest Amateur Golfer
Editor’s note: This is the second of a 10-part series celebrating the Golf Association of Michigan’s 100th year of service to the game. #GAM100
by Greg Johnson
FARMINGTON HILLS – Chuck Kocsis, who admitted he didn’t care much for match play, said in an interview just a few years before he died in 2006, that sometimes when playing in that format he would hold back with his tee shots to make sure the other player hit it past him.
“I wanted to hit it on the green first and putt pressure on,” he said. “It worked a lot.”
Everything Kocsis tried on the golf course seemingly worked – a lot. The Golf Association of Michigan named him Michigan’s Golfer of the 20th Century, and he was certainly the top amateur golfer in Michigan in the 1930s and into the 1940s.
Golf legend Byron Nelson, a contemporary who played with and against him many times, wrote in the forward to the book Forever Scratch by Vartan Kupelian that: “Kocsis in many ways, was the most remarkable golfer I’ve ever known.”
David Graham, executive director of the GAM retiring this year after 18 years leading the association, was interviewed when Kocsis passed away at the age of 93.
“Chuck was not only an ambassador for the GAM, he was an ambassador for the game of golf,” Graham said. “Early in my tenure with the association, Chuck sent me a hand-written note of congratulations. I don’t remember what was being recognized but was most impressed by his act of kindness and support toward me as the rookie executive director. I feel very fortunate to have met him, talked with him and heard his stories. He was truly a gift to golf in Michigan.”
He was born in Pennsylvania, one of 14 children, including nine brothers. His family, their farm washed out in the famous 1889 Johnstown Flood, relocated to Redford shortly after he was born. He grew up playing golf with his brothers, including fellow Michigan Golf Hall of Fame members Emerick and Sam. The Kocsis boys played at Warren Valley Golf Club and caddied at Redford Golf Club.
Kocsis, won his first tournament at age 13 and won what was then considered the state high school championships playing with his Redford High team in 1928 and ’29. At just age 17 in 1930, just after his junior year in high school, he won the first of a record six Michigan Amateur Championships.
He remains the youngest to have ever won the state amateur title. He also won six Michigan Medal Play titles – the only six he played in – and won the GAM Championship twice when it was still known as the Detroit District Championship.
He started building his national resume at age 17 when he beat U.S. Open legend Francis Ouimet in the first round of the 1930 U.S. Amateur, which is most famous for being one of the Grand Slam wins of Bobby Jones. He also won three Michigan Open Championships playing against the professionals, and his first was in 1931 at age 18 when he beat Michigan resident Tommy Armour, the reigning British Open champion, in a playoff for the state title.
While at the University of Michigan he was team captain and part of four Big Ten championship teams and two NCAA championship teams. He won the individual Big Ten medalist honors twice, was the top individual in the NCAA Championship in 1936 and played on three Walker Cup teams. He remains the most accomplished player in the university’s golf history.
On the national and international stage while working as an automotive sales representative, he was invited to and played as an amateur in 11 Masters Tournaments. It was before the current invitation standards were in place and the players were invited by reputation by the tournament committee, which aimed at having the best players in the world and contemporaries of Jones, the Augusta National co-founder. Kocsis was low amateur in 1952 and made the 36-hole cut eight times at Augusta National. He considered Jones his friend, and Jones gave him one of his famous “Calamity Jane” putters.
Kocsis also qualified 13 times for the U.S. Open and was low amateur in 1934 and 1937. He qualified 15 times for the U.S. Amateur and was runner-up in 1956, was runner-up in the 1948 Mexican Amateur, won three U.S. National Open Seniors championships and won four International Senior Championships, including 1970 at Gleneagles in Scotland by an unprecedented 21 shots. Over his career he won championships of note in seven decades.
Fellow Michigan Golf Hall of Fame member Kupelian penned the book “Forever Scratch” off a series of interviews and lunch talks with Kocsis. Kupelian calls him Michigan’s answer to Bobby Jones. Along with Walter Hagen and Al Watrous, Kocsis was fittingly part of the first class inducted to the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame in 1982.
“Chuck was great, and he was great over several decades,” said Bob McMasters, his one-time caddie who became a close friend, fellow Red Run member and regular two-man team competition teammate.
“He was a quiet man really, but not so much once he got to know you. He was frugal, I guess you could say, which meant he wasn’t a big tipper to the caddies, and he didn’t like to gamble, though a lot of people would bet on him.
“He could play the game though, and he loved to play. I loved to caddie for him because it was a walking lesson every time. He had every shot, and the best short game I’ve ever witnessed.”
In that rambling interview in the early 2000s Kocsis said he tried professional golf for a year in 1940, but he opted to get a job where he could make money and be reinstated as an amateur.
“I played golf because I loved to play, and I like playing it with people I like,” he said.
He played with Nelson, Jones, Ben Hogan, Walter Hagen, with three presidents, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Gerald R. Ford, with entertainment stars, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope and elite athletes like Joe Louis and Babe Ruth, but McMasters said Kocsis never balked at playing with or partnering with high-handicap golfers.
“He just wanted a game, and everybody who played with him was amazed at how consistent he was,” McMasters said. “He wasn’t like Tiger Woods making spectacular shots from the trees, though he could. Most of the time he just hit the fairways, greens and wrote down a better score than everybody else because he played so many good shots and was a great chipper and putter.”
Kocsis played against many legends, but he was past his prime to go head-to-head with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. He watched though, and he lived long enough to take measure of Tiger Woods.
“The best there is,” he said. “He hits is as far as anybody, as straight as anybody. If he misses a green, he hits it up there real close. I think he might be the best golfer I’ve seen.”
#GAM History – Did you know?
The GAM teams hold a 46-20-3 lead all-time in the Atlas Trophy Matches that originated in 1938 as a competition between private club golfers represented by the then Detroit District Golf Association (GAM) and public course golfers represented by the Michigan Publinx Golf Association with the trophy honoring Edward Atlas, who then was a GAM Governor as well as a USGA Public Links Committee member and Detroit area public golf official. The matches are currently presented as a biennial competition and the 69th version of the matches will be played this fall. A version of the Atlas Trophy Matches for women private and public course players was started in 1989, and the 29th set of matches, currently presented annually, will be played this June.
-Greg Johnson, firstname.lastname@example.org