When The Masters Champ Came To Washtenaw Golf Club

A portrait of Horton Smith hanging in the Detroit Golf Club clubhouse.

When The Masters Champ Came To Washtenaw Golf Club

For this history teacher, one of the best things about playing at Washtenaw Golf Club (course link) is the course’s rich history. Perhaps the third oldest club in a state full of clubs with rich histories, Washtenaw has many stories to tell.

In 1955, Horton Smith, the first and third Masters winner, came to play at Washtenaw Golf Club (then called the Washtenaw Country Club) in the Michigan Open. He was the defending champion, having won the previous year at Lakepointe Country Club.

Smith was the head pro at Detroit Golf Club from 1946 until his death in 1963. Thus, the trip to Ypsilanti to play at Washtenaw was a short one.

The Detroit Free Press reported:

The strongest field in Michigan Open history will start firing Friday for the State’s No. 1 golf title.

Nine former winners headed by Defending Champion Horton Smith and favored Chick Harbert are among the 177 select starters.

Washtenaw Country Club, a 6, 638 yard layout in Ypsilanti, will be the scene of the three day, 72-hole championship. There will be single rounds Friday and Saturday before the low 60 survivors move into Sunday’s double loop.

The 86 pros will be shooting for $750 first prize in the $5,000 purse. They will be paid off as deep as 25th place, while the 91 amateurs will be competing for 15 merchandise prizes …

A 47-year old veteran star, Smith won the 1954 honors with a rallying upset last August at Lakepoint Country Club. On the final round, he overtook Harbert, who had taken the National PGA title just five days previously.

Detroit Free Press, June 14, 1955

As the article states, Chick Harbert was also a major winner, having won the 1954 PGA Championship (“National PGA”). He was the head pro at nearby Meadowbrook in Northville, Michigan.

Also in the field was Wally Burkemo who had won the 1953 PGA Championship.

Smith would finish tied for ninth, with a score of 71-72-74-74=291. Burkemo finished first at 71-71-70-67 = 279. The Detroit native was a two-time PGA TOUR winner who ultimately would win four Michigan Opens, the last in 1970.

Tom Talkington, Washtenaw Golf Club’s longtime (and semi-legendary) golf pro tied for sixth with future Michigan Hall of Famer Chuck Kocsis.

Talkington no doubt took full advantage of his course knowledge to keep himself in the competition. To this day, Washtenaw can be a tough course that rewards repeated play — especially on the greens.

Horton Smith has become a bit of a controversial figure in recent years. President of the PGA of America from 1952 – 1954, he was a staunch supporter of the notorious “Caucasian-Only” clause. That Jim Crow rule did not end until 1961.

In 2020, Smith’s name was removed from the “Horton Smith Award,” given by the PGA of America for contributions to professional education. It now is called the PGA Professional Development Award.

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