Johnny Farrell, Head Pro
Baltusrol's Legendary Professional - Johnny Farrell
By Dick Brown
During the 1933 golf season, Baltusrol’s Board of Governors came to believe that the Club should recruit a well-known PGA Tour player to be its head professional. That October, the Board appointed a three-man committee, led by the Club President, and tasked it with identifying and hiring a new man. The committee worked diligently and considered about 200 applicants before settling on one of the best-known golfers in the country.
Johnny Farrell was hired in April of 1934. He had just decided to leave the Tour to become a resident professional, and that decision meshed with Baltusrol’s desire to secure a well-known professional whose first loyalty would be to the Club and its members.
When the decision was made, Major Jones, the Club’s manager, called in the New Jersey press. During his announcement, Jones was careful not to offend Peter Kosky, the outgoing professional, whom he called a “faithful employee.” The Newark papers gave the story major coverage the next day, reporting mainly on Farrell’s career and tournament record. The Associated Press also covered the announcement, which was picked up and used by hundreds of newspapers across the country:
Springfield, N.J., April 18 (AP) – Johnny Farrell, professional at the Quaker Ridge Golf Club at Mamaroneck, N.Y. ever since the war, has been signed as professional at the Baltusrol Golf Club here, it was announced today. Farrell will take over his new position immediately. Farrell has ranked as one of the country’s foremost professionals for many years. A professional of the playing variety, he reached his peak in 1928 when he won the U.S. Open Championship, defeating Bobby Jones in a playoff at Olympia Fields, Chicago.
He succeeds Peter Kosky as pro at Baltusrol, one of the most exclusive clubs in New Jersey, and was signed because of membership sentiment favoring a playing professional. Kosky, better known as a teacher, came here from Upper Montclair in 1929.
Johnny Farrell was born in the Westchester County, N.Y. village of Tuckahoe in 1901. His father died when he was very young and family finances dictated that he dropped out of high school to work. Thus, at the age of 13, he began his career in golf in the caddy shack at Fairview Country Club in Elmsford. He caddied often for Jerry Travers and other top players. He learned to play the game by watching them, and learned enough to be promoted to the post of assistant professional. He moved to Siwanoy in 1916, where he became the caddy master and assistant professional. Four years later, in 1920, he qualified for the U.S. Open at Inverness. He played consistently well from 1923 through 1926, but won only six times during that span, with no important victories.
However, starting in the spring of 1927, he had a significant breakthrough and won eight consecutive tournaments, a run that was unequalled until Byron Nelson won 11 in a row in 1945.
When the golf writer for the Brooklyn Eagleasked Farrell to explain his record streak, he gave the following answer, an answer that tells us much about Farrell and how the top professionals came to view the game of golf:
“I made up my mind a year ago last January, when I was in Florida, that I simply had to win some tournaments. It wasn’t enough just to play high class golf: a fellow had to play winning golf. I tuned myself up to fighting pitch and I scored a few victories, but did nothing to boast about. I closed the 1926 season just about the same as previous years I had closed. I had got a start toward my present form, but I hadn’t learned what it is that gives a winning edge. The 1926-27 winter seasons took me to California. Again I got nowhere.
“Then I got sick and had to return to New York. I was laid up two months. ‘What tough luck,’ I said to myself, as I looked out the window and saw the ground covered in snow. All the rest of the boys were down in the Sunny South having a grand time and there was I, a prisoner. But the fact was I was lucky. I got to think my game. I remembered how often I had been nosed out of tournaments and wondered why this had happened. Suddenly, I thought of something that had happened more than once. Coming up one fairway toward the finish of a tournament, I would hear the gallery applauding some player in the adjoining fairway with whom I was having a struggle. Naturally, I would say to myself, ‘Well he’s making a birdie while I’m missing one.’ The result was that I’d get to pressing and soon lose out. There was the secret, I concluded. I hadn’t been playing my own game but some other fellow’s. Ever since, I’ve been playing my own game.”
Farrell learned to play by the same philosophy as Bobby Jones, who, when asked if he played against his opponents, said that he played against “old man par” instead.
Farrell often claimed that one of the eight wins—the Metropolitan Golf Association Open at Wykagyl—was his most important win of 1927, and possibly of his career. He proved to himself in that tournament that he was able to come from behind and win. He had to pick up three strokes on the back nine of the final round and needed to sink a 12-foot putt on hole No. 18 to win; doing so was an enormous confidence builder. The Met Open was valuable to him for other reasons, too. In his era, exhibition matches were the bread and butter of the touring professional. Purses in PGA events were very low, and a professional had to play exhibitions to make ends meet. The Met Open was a very prestigious event, and when Farrell won it his price tag went up.
He was named “Best Golf Professional of the Year” in 1927 and 1928. He had high finishes in the U.S. Open almost annually thereafter. He was named to three Ryder Cup teams starting in 1927. He had won 21 PGA events and three high-level non-PGA events by 1934, when he arrived at Baltusrol.
The 1928 U.S. Open
Farrell’s most famous win, of course, was the 1928 U.S. Open at Chicago’s Olympia Fields. He won that tournament playing in cold, wet conditions head-to-head against Bobby Jones. He started off poorly, scoring 77‒74 in the first two rounds. One of the problems he encountered during the first round was that whenever Jones putted first, the gallery would rush off to the next tee, creating a bothersome stir as Farrell was poised to putt. Before the second round Farrell mentioned this to Jones, who immediately apologized and invited Farrell to putt first.
Farrell was sixth on the leader board after his third round 71. This put him five strokes shy of Jones, three behind Bill Leach and Henry Ciucci, boyhood friends, and two behind Walter Hagen. During the fourth round he shot 73, caught Jones, who obliged with a 77, and passed the others. George Von Elm was closing fast until he double bogeyed the Nos. 14 and 15. An unknown named Roland Hancock played gorgeous golf and after hole 16, he led Jones and Farrell by three. But Hancock had some very tough luck as he tried to close the deal. As he prepared to hit his drive on 17, a stray ball felled a spectator on the next fairway. After the ensuing stir died down, he stepped up to his tee ball once more and proceeded to hit his first slice of the week into a dead stymie behind a tree. Hancock required 12 strokes to complete the next two holes and ended up one stroke behind Jones and Farrell. Grantland Rice described Hancock’s collapse “as the greatest tragedy yet known in any Open. He had picked up seven strokes on Jones and Hagen in nine holes. He was out in 33 that last round to their 40s. He was leading the field by two strokes with two holes left. Then the crash came.” The crash left Jones and Farrell as the only players left standing, and they were tied for the lead after the regulation 72 holes had been completed.
The USGA rule in those days called for ties being decided by a 36-hole playoff, consisting of morning and afternoon 18-hole rounds, played on the Sunday after the Saturday regulation finish. Farrell was a devout Roman Catholic and never in his adult life had missed Sunday Mass, or played golf on a Sunday without having first attended Mass. He was greatly concerned that the scheduled tee time would conflict with church but learned of an early service. He phoned Bobby Jones to ask if the tee time could be delayed to accommodate his attendance, and both Jones and the USGA readily agreed. One can only imagine how the television networks would react to such an agreement today.
It was raining when the two met on the first tee on Sunday. Jones again invited Farrell to putt first in order to avoid the problems of noise and crowd disturbances that had plagued him during the first round. The morning round was a seesaw affair with the lead passing from one player to the other a number of times. Farrell played the better golf, and some remarkably good golf. He birdied the last four holes, finishing the morning round three stokes up on Jones. But the tide turned in the afternoon with Jones playing the better golf. He beat Farrell by a stroke on each of the first three holes of the afternoon’s back nine and took the lead. The gallery and the press decided that Farrell had made a valiant effort but that Jones would win yet another National Championship. With that, Farrell put an end to such speculation by hitting his tee shot on No. 13, a short par three, to within inches of the hole; he then recaptured the lead with another birdie on No. 16. No. 17 was halved with pars, and Johnny knew that he only needed to halve No. 18 to win. He realized he faced another 36-hole playoff match with Jones if he lost the hole, and knew that Jones, who had missed some key putts that day, would not miss as many on another day.
Hole No. 18 at Olympia Fields is a tight, well-bunkered, 490-yard par 5. Large bunkers threaten the tee shot and a brook threatens the second. It started to rain heavily as Farrell addressed his ball on the tee, and he pushed his drive into the rough and then watched Jones hit a fine drive. Farrell was able to advance his ball quite a distance with his second but it landed in the left rough, well short of the green. Jones hit a spectator near the green with his second and his ball rolled away from the green, where it was kicked by another spectator. Jones was allowed to lift and place his ball and seemed at that point to be a lock for a birdie, while Farrell was given only an outside chance. Farrell played a wonderful pitch to the green from a difficult lie; his ball settled ten or so feet from the pin. Jones then proceeded to chip to inside two feet. It seemed to a reporter that there was a death-like stillness around the green as Farrell lined up his putt, but as he addressed it the hand-cranked movie cameras started to grind away, resulting in a steady chorus of camera clicking. Farrell glanced at a USGA official who immediately ordered that no pictures be shot. Farrell lined up the putt again and holed it, thereby winning the most important event of his career and one of the greatest contests in the history of the U.S. Open. Bob Jones picked Farrell’s ball out of the cup and later gave it to him. His comment was that “it would have been a crime for Johnny to have lost.”
It had been a brutally difficult tournament. Only two players managed to beat par in any round. The scores for the playoff rounds, 143 for Farrell and 144 for Jones, and the 294 each had scored in regulation play, were high for that era. But for the writers who covered the event, it had been an exciting Open, perhaps one of the most exciting in the history of the USGA, and one in which a great deal of exceedingly capable golf was played. One supposes the strongest story line was Farrell’s slow but steady recovery from his almost disastrous opening round 77, after which a writer remarked that Farrell “wasn’t conceded the remotest chance of winning.”
William Richardson, writing for the New York Times, described in detail any number of brilliant strokes made by both Jones and Farrell, and occasions when a fine shot by one was matched by an even better shot by the other. He wrote that the play of both Jones and Farrell on the closing holes of the playoff had been exceptional: “Perhaps there will never again be seen such golf as Johnny and Bobby played from the 31 hole to the 36.”
Richardson concluded his evaluation of the tournament by writing, “It was a great golf day, and in losing to the golf that Farrell played, Jones lost none of his prestige. He put up a great fight from start to finish, and indeed at one time it seemed as though he was actually going to win. Throughout the entire 36 holes there were never any really bad golf shots and a great many brilliant ones, as was to be expected with such masters at work.”
Of Farrell, Richardson wrote, “Farrell got a great reception as he came off the green. His pluck in the face of adversity, the way he came back after Jones had thrice caught up to him after being thrice behind on that final 18 holes, the shots that he played to make four birdies in succession on the last four holes of the morning and those that he played at the finish of the match in the afternoon, stamped him as a golfer of the very top rank. But the shot of shots and the putt of putts was the one he holed after having his concentration broken on the last green. That was a master stroke—the test of a real champion.”
Grantland Rice summarized his views of the week in Golf Illustrated by opining that “Johnny Farrell was due. He had been only six strokes back of Jones in the last four Open Championships. This shows how steadily and how ably he had been sticking to the leaders. His game had found a new soundness and a new consistency. He only had to show he could stick through a grueling finish, and he proved that he could stick through two of them. That is all that anyone can ask from any golfer at any time.”
The Victory Tour
The Open concluded on June 25 but Farrell did not immediately return to New York. Amazingly, he had scheduled a barnstorming exhibition tour of the Midwest with Gene Sarazen, and the first match of it was played the day after his Open victory. Farrell had no post-Open let down and played some of the best golf of his career during that week. His highest score was 69. Winning a major golf championship, then as now, is a life changing event. Farrell at once was awarded more clothing endorsements and more invitations to exhibitions. It was then customary for the winners of the British Open (Hagen was the winner of the British that year) and U.S. Open to play in a series of exhibition matches. Farrell earned about $100,000 in the three months following his Open win. When he finally returned to New York he was given the keys to the City by its mayor, a fine reception at Quaker Ridge, and any number of dinners in Westchester County.
Farrell won more than trophies and cash on the golf course. In 1930, he spotted a young lady in a greenside gallery in Greenwich in whom he developed an immediate interest. He arranged an introduction to her by deftly chipping his ball across the green and causing it to settle nicely at her feet, thus demonstrating, once more, the power and value of a good short game. The young woman’s name was Catherine (Kay for short), and Farrell married her the next year.
The Farrells started a family during their time at Quaker Ridge. Two of their five children were born in New York, and those events constituted the seed of Farrell’s decision to leave the Tour and his eventual move to Baltusrol. Baltusrol, perhaps still remembering George Low who had left ten years earlier, wanted a first-rate golfer and a well-known personality in its Golf Shop, as the press release suggested. There is also a faint suggestion in the records that Baltusrol felt a “name pro” could help counter a decline in membership caused by the Great Depression.
Grantland Rice, writing in the August 1928 issue of The American Golfer, described Farrell’s game in fairly glowing terms, writing that “Farrell is a magnificent wooden club player—and this includes the drive, the brassie and the spoon. The spoon is one of his favorite clubs. He is a sound iron player and one of the soundest mashie players golf has seen for years. Above all, he can putt. His putting style is not quite as sound as that of Jones and Hagen, or Travis and Travers in the old days, but it is smooth and easy and full of courage.”
Other writers took a different view. By most accounts Farrell had a gorgeous golf swing but apparently was only average off the tee (although he drove it past Jones a few times in the 1928 Open) and was not great with his irons. He compensated with an exceptional short game and brilliant putting.
His contemporaries thought of him as the greatest scrambler of all time. One of them told a Long Island Star Journal writer that “Farrell had a penchant for coming out of the most terrible places, never hit a green and could sink putts from anywhere. I vividly recall Farrell playing with me at Wykagyl in the Met Open and he dropped a 12-foot putt to beat out Bob Cruickshank. And that 12-footer was the shortest putt, by far, Johnny dropped all day. In the final round, he hit only one green but was par for the round.”
Byron Nelson remembered the rhythm in Farrell’s swing: he told a writer from the Boston Globe that Farrell “had a very rhythmic swing, back and through—kind of like an old rocking chair.” Farrell always said he developed his rhythm from his days playing with hickory shafted clubs, such as those he used during the 1927 winning streak.
The Teacher & Media Pioneer
While Farrell came to Baltusrol to teach, he did not give up competitive golf altogether. He played in dozens, if not hundreds, of local Met, NJPGA and NJSGA events, and even some nearby PGA events. He won the 1936 New Jersey State Open at Crestmont Country Club. But for the most part he wanted to be home with his growing family. He knew he could not be successful on both the Tour and the lesson tee, and as he told Harry Grayson, a syndicated golf writer, “I used to laugh off the alibis of teaching professionals when they failed to score well in open tournaments as a lot of baloney, but I’ve learned to my mistakes since I quit freelancing and took up serious teaching at Baltusrol. They were right. It’s almost impossible to give lessons all day and still make a good competitive showing against men who do nothing but play in tournaments.” He went on to say that a golf teacher’s game is “rusted at the hinges” and that “he lacks that nice judgment of distance and sensitive touch that comes from constant competition.”
Farrell worked hard to become a star teacher, as he had worked earlier to become a star tournament golfer. And apparently, he took a lead in the development of a members’ golf program at Baltusrol. He took an early position in promoting junior golf at Baltusrol and it was reported to the Board in the summer of 1935 that “the golf professional had arranged classes for children between the ages of 10 and 18 years and it was resolved that children of Golf members may attend these classes without obtaining links privileges.” A few current Baltusrolians took lessons from Farrell. They recall that he spent hours on the practice tee, was happy to take on all comers as students, and treated all with unfailing charm, courtesy and gentlemanly bearing. His central message was “rhythm, tempo, pay a lot attention to your grip, and get your left hip out of the way of the swing” according to Larry Carpenter. If Farrell had a mantra, it was rhythm. Carpenter recalls that when he was hitting balls on the practice tee, Farrell would watch and whistle a waltz tune (was it the Merry Widow Waltz?). Farrell would constantly check his grip and always followed up with Carpenter and all of his students when he saw them next. None of the people to whom I spoke, and few of the writers, ever failed to mention Farrell’s courtesy and charm.
Farrell had already become a noted teacher during his days at Quaker Ridge, and his fame as a teacher continued to spread beyond the limits of Baltusrol’s practice tee. Over the years, he taught golf to Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon and Ford, as well as to the likes of Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Ed Sullivan, Douglas Fairbanks, and the Duke of Windsor. One suspects that most of these celebrities visited Farrell at the Country Club of Florida, where he became the golf professional in 1957, but we know that at least the Duke of Windsor, Bob Hope, and Bing Crosby came often to Baltusrol.
Farrell participated in a number of instructional films for RKO and Pathé during the 1930s, and in 1951 he wrote a golf instruction book called If I Were in Your Golf Shoes. He hosted the first golf instruction program on television in the early 1950s, called Swing into Sports. The theme music for the show was the Merry Widow Waltz, that favorite rhythmic tune of his. One episode featured a discussion with Joe DiMaggio on the similarities and differences between the golf swing and the baseball swing.
The writers were always welcome in Farrell’s golf shop. He was happy to talk to them about the swing, both early in his career as a Tour player and when he was at Baltusrol. Because many of his writer friends had syndicated columns, Farrell’s tips appeared in dozens of columns all over the country. And these pieces often began with the phrase “Johnny Farrell of Baltusrol.”
“Johnny is a classy guy and he has a classy swing,” Mike Turnesa said after Farrell’s eight win streak ended in 1927. That thought was echoed hundreds of times over many years by dozens of writers—and by today’s Baltusrol members who remember him. The writers always seemed to add an adjective or two when they mentioned Farrell’s name, rarely just writing ‘Farrell said this or that’ but instead writing something like ‘the ever-genial (or cordial, suave, pleasant, charming, courteous, etc.) Johnny Farrell.’ He seemed to be able to converse as easily and comfortably with a President as with a teenaged student. He was, one suspects, the Arnold Palmer of his day, or perhaps Arnold Palmer was the Johnny Farrell of his day.
The Best Dressed Golfer
The writers rarely omitted mention of Farrell’s dress. He was always dressed to the nines, and his outfit “du jour” was usually described somewhere. For example, The Chicago Tribune reported that Farrell had decked himself out during the morning playoff round of the 1928 U.S. Open with “a gray-checked sweater, blue socks and white plus-four trousers with a crease that would cut butter.” He changed clothes between rounds (Jones probably did too, since it had rained all morning) but the afternoon costume was not described.
He was named the game’s best dresser twice and awarded prizes by the clothing companies. Farrell once noted, wryly, that on one occasion he won a tournament and a clothing prize, and won more with the clothes that he did with his golf. The “best dressed” sobriquet served Farrell well. It earned him one of the earliest clothing endorsements in sports, and ads picturing Farrell in various outfits appeared in the papers long after he left the Tour. According to his daughters, Farrell enjoyed the title, more than partly because of the income that came with it.
The Elder Statesman
After the 1928 U. S. Open, Farrell won four more events on the Tour, his last being the New Jersey State Open in 1936. He was too old for military service in World War II but was an obvious patriot and did what he could to help in the war effort. He played events such as war bond promotions, fundraisers for war victims’ relief, and many other similar causes sponsored by the American Red Cross and the USO. After the war, as activities at Baltusrol returned to normal, he continued his teaching and his play in local events.
Farrell was the host professional at the 1936, 1954, and 1967 U.S. Opens, and at the 1961 Women’s Open. He took that duty very seriously—and made sure that he welcomed each and every participant personally. When the USGA came to Baltusrol in 1967, it honored Farrell by including a profile of him in the official program, written by Dave Eisenberg, and by naming the merchandising tent the “The Farrell Pavilion.” One evening during Championship week in 1967, the USGA hosted a dinner honoring Farrell that was attended by many of the Open participants, including Arnold Palmer, Johnny Miller, Gary Player, and Gene Littler.
Baltusrol honored Farrell on the 25th and 35th anniversaries of his start at Baltusrol. The earlier of those occasions was named “Johnny Farrell Weekend” and was filled with a variety of tournaments, skills contests and a celebratory dinner.
The Board of Governors recognized Farrell’s 35th year of service to the Club in 1969 by electing him to Honorary Membership and by creating the “Johnny Farrell Room.” The 35th anniversary was celebrated in September of 1970 with “Johnny Farrell Day” that included the dedication of the Farrell Room, an exhibition match played by Johnny and his three sons (his two daughters were the honorary caddies), and a buffet dinner attended by 200 or more members. At the dinner, a check for $7,500 raised by the membership was presented to Farrell. The day is still remembered and appreciated by the Farrell family. Farrell retired from Baltusrol after the 1971 season and headed south to his home in Florida, where he took up permanent residence and continued to act as the professional at the Country Club of Florida, a post he had taken in 1956.
Farrell died in Boynton Beach, Florida on June 15, 1988. He was one of many from his generation who rose, in spite of extremely limited economic opportunity, from apprentice to the top of his profession. Several young American golfers began as caddies and became U.S. Open Champions; few, however, made the journey with more grace than Johnny Farrell. As far as we know, only 26 men have won more PGA tournaments than Farrell. He beat the best golfer in the world in the National Open. He was named to Golf’s Hall of Fame in Pinehurst, though not to the new World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine. Perhaps most important of all, he won the respect and admiration of the members of Quaker Ridge, Baltusrol and the Country Club of Florida.