The year was 1946. Seventy-five years ago. The boys were coming back after the war and things were happening in Grand Junction.
After the exhaustion of World War II, young men and women were looking to resume their lives. In Grand Junction, outdoor sports of softball and golf thrived. The Sentinel had a weekly column devoted to our service men and women, where they were stationed, and who had been discharged. In August, a record crowd of 1,500 people had watched the Pepsi Cola softball team beat Salt Lake City.
The Rocky Mountain Open golf tournament had been started seven years previously and played on the Lincoln Park golf course. The nine-hole track had matured from its beginning in 1926 and it was complete with grass greens and grass fairways, but was still quite different from the course we know today.
In 1946, the first hole began approximately where third base is in Suplizio field, and the 9th green was approximately where home plate is. When a baseball game was scheduled, the golf course was altered. The city had not yet purchased the property where the current second, third and fourth holes are located. That was to come much later.
The excitement began for the 1946 tournament when Ellsworth Vines announced that he was returning to Grand Junction.
The 1944 Champion had been the World No. 1 tennis player in the 1930s and won two U. S. Open Tennis Championships and once at Wimbledon. He was 6-feet 2½-inches tall, 155 pounds, dressed like Fred Astaire and his tennis game had been described as “serves like Babe Ruth.”
The great Don Budge argued that, when he was on his game, Vines was the world’s all-time best tennis player.
But, the knock on Vines was that he was lazy. He had retired from tennis in 1940, at the age of 31 and devoted himself to professional golf.
In his second career, he was making a considerable name for himself as a professional golfer, having just won the 1946 Massachusetts Open.
He would go on to win the 1951 Southern California PGA Championship and the 1955 Utah Open. He played in six Masters, seven U. S. Opens, and eight PGA Championships.
But, Vines was not the only multi-sport athlete entered in the RMO. His returning to Grand Junction was overshadowed by another announcement. On August 16, the Sentinel told its readers that Babe Didrikson Zaharias had entered the RMO.
Immensely popular, “The Babe” was a multi-talented athlete, who, with her husband George Zaharias lived in Lakewood. The Babe had established four world records in the 1932 Olympics, winning two golds and a silver, for the 80-meter hurdles, the javelin throw and the high jump.
To this day, she is the only athlete, man or woman, to win individual Olympic medals in running, throwing and jumping events. She had even pitched in several major league baseball spring training games.
Now, as an amateur golfer, the Babe was breaking gender barriers: she had competed in the three PGA events in 1945, making the cut several times and finishing as high as 33rd in the Phoenix Open.
She would be the first woman to compete in the RMO. The year before she had won her third Women’s Western Open. Later in her career, she turned professional and ultimately recorded 41 tour wins.
On Sunday, Sept. 1, a week before the 1946 tournament, the Sentinel reported that “if enough rooms can be found to house the visiting golfers next weekend, the field would be the largest in the history of the event.
“All residents of the community who can rent a room for the weekend are asked to call the Lincoln Park golf clubhouse, telephone 2153.”
“Caddies will be needed for the tournament, and anti-polio precautions will be taken to protect the boys. All boys who have any experience at all, as well as those who have never caddied, are invited to report at the golf clubhouse. Lessons are planned for those without experience.”
Golfers began arriving on Wednesday for the competition. Woody Laffoon, Lincoln Park’s pro, announced that the area PGA championship would be held in conjunction with the RMO.
A field of 80 was expected; the Calcutta (for which tickets were required) was scheduled for the La Court hotel; the Junior Chamber of Commerce was holding a tournament dance on Saturday evening at the Lincoln Park auditorium. The Gardner band, “union authorized,” was scheduled to play.
On Saturday, the amateurs completed 27 holes, but most of the pros completed only 18 holes.
Babe Zaharias shot 70 (and got in her third nine, slipping to 38). Ellsworth Vines was at 71.
Since some pros played 18 and some 27, it is difficult to determine the status after Saturday’s play, but Denver amateur Jack Koenecker led at 67 (and had completed a 3rd nine at 35).
Harold “Skeet” Sommers and Walt Cosgriff were close at 69, John Geerston was at 70, as was Zaharias. Vines was one shot behind at 71, along with Bill Jeliffe. The Sunday pairing had Cosgriff, Koenecker and Zaharias in the featured threesome.
On Sunday, Koennecker continued his excellent play, finishing at 10 under par and became the first amateur to win the tournament with a score of 206.
Ellsworth Vines topped the pro field, finishing at 208, taking home the top prize of $450 which would be the equivalent of about $6,500 today.
Amateurs, such as Zaharias, could not win cash prizes. Instead, in order of finish, they chose from prizes donated by members of the local chamber.
Koennecker chose a wristwatch and since the Babe had finished third amongst the amateurs, she chose a radio. The galleries were described as the largest in the history of the tournament; Babe Zaharias graciously commented how much she enjoyed playing in Grand Junction.
But, as Paul Harvey used to say, “here’s the rest of the story:”
The RMO in those early days was known for its Calcutta dinner.
ould bid, auction-style, on the golfer they think will win the tournament. The highest bid will win the golfer.
Most of the pros tried to purchase themselves; the amateurs did likewise. The money went into two pots, one for the pros, and one for the amateurs. After the tournament, the pot was distributed amongst the winners, most likely with 50% of the pot to the first place, 30% to second, and 20% to third.
In fact, there was far more money to be won in the Calcutta, than the stated prize money.
So, imagine if the Calcutta pot for the pros was $3,000, and the Calcutta pot for amateurs the same amount, each winner would take home $1,500, second $900 and third $600.
That $1,500 would be the equivalent of $21,500 today. Even third prize would be the equivalent of $8,500.
These prizes made for a good weekend’s work. We can be fairly certain that Koennecker, Zaharias and Vines all felt well-compensated for their work over that first week in September, 1946.
Bernie Buescher is a former member of the Colorado House representing Grand Junction, and once served as Colorado Secretary of State, serving in 2008-09. An attorney by profession, he also was interim head of the Colorado State Fair and briefly served as executive director of the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing in 1997.
He’s been golfing at Bookcliff Country Club since he was 7 years old. As a result, and at the age of 72, he still maintains a low handicap, which currently sits at 6.1.