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Column: This famous golfer’s granddaughter tells his story
Johnny_Vardeman
Johnny Vardeman

When the names of golfing greats come up, you might not always hear Bobby Cruickshank’s.

Yet he played with and against such champions as Tommy Armour, Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen, Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen. He is in four Golf Halls of Fame, including the original PGA Hall, and won 17 PGA events and 12 other titles. He played in the first Masters and was the leading money winner in 1927.

Because he was runner-up or close in so many tournaments, losing some because of “hard luck,” he earned the title of “The Luckiest Unlucky Golfer in the Game.” 

That’s the subtitle of the book, “Wee Bobby Cruickshank,” written by his granddaughter, Diana Smith of Young Harris. The “Wee” comes from his small frame, 5 feet, 4 inches tall.

Cruickshank learned golf at an early age, digging holes in a field in his native Scotland for practice. He even won some championships before joining British forces in World War I. His brother died in battle, and Bobby was wounded and captured. He had a harrowing escape from the concentration camp and made his way back to his homeland of Scotland after the war.

Cruickshank resumed his golf, won some championships, then emigrated to the United States to attempt a career in the game he so loved.

One of his better-known moments came during the 1923 U.S. Open in New York. He and Bobby Jones were tied after the first two days, but Cruickshank fell several strokes behind before rallying to within one of Jones. He needed to birdie the 18th to tie and did after striking a long iron over water to within 6 feet of the cup. They would go back and forth during a playoff the next day and were tied after 17 holes, but Cruickshank broke his club on his next drive and couldn’t recover, Jones taking home the trophy.

In the early days there was no organized golf tour. Golf professionals made their money as club pros, teaching and managing golf courses. They mostly played exhibitions. A hefty tournament prize at the time might be $1,000. Pro golfers had no sponsors.

The travel was helter-skelter, mostly by train or automobile, and Cruickshank, his wife Nellie and daughter Elsie might be on the road for days because of a lack of a coordinated schedule.

He broke the course record in an exhibition in Minneapolis, but could not make a train to the next destination, Janesville, Wis. A supposed veteran “ace pilot” insisted he fly Cruickshank and fellow pro Cyril Walker. They strapped their clubs to the wings, and off they flew. But they ran out of gas in a storm, and had to land in a farmer’s field. They got some gas, took off and headed for the golf course, but the tournament was starting. The plane ran out of gas again, almost hit a train trying to land and flipped over.

Nevertheless, the uninjured golfers changed clothes, and playing together, won the exhibition.

Tommy Armour, whose family was close to the Cruickshanks, called his good friend “the luckiest unlucky golfer in the game,” perhaps because of his many near-misses in championships. Sports writers of the day focused on his many runner-up finishes, small stature and tough luck.

In the 1934 Open at Merion in Philadelphia, on the final day, he was leading when his shot headed toward a creek. His heart sank, but then he saw the ball ricochet off a rock and land on the green. Elated, he threw his club into the air, thanking God at the same time. However, the club fell on his head, knocking him down and causing him to bleed profusely.

Cruickshank finished the round, but was five over par on the last seven holes, losing to both Sarazen and Olin Dutra. 

Bad luck did him in in the Texas Open in 1926. He led by one shot coming to the final hole, but his approach shot left him a 20-foot putt to win, which he missed, still leaving him with only a 10-inch putt to tie for a playoff. Some spectators climbed trees to get a better view, and just as Cruickshank began to stroke the routine putt, somebody yelled from one of the trees, causing him to miss.

The ensuing uproar led to more decorum on the golf course, especially silence when a golfer is putting.

Ben Hogan, another famous golfer of that era, credits Cruickshank and  Armour for winning the British Open in 1953. Hogan didn’t plan to play until the two persuaded him to go.

Perhaps the most significant accomplishment of the Cruickshank family, however, was their part in pushing for an organized professional golf tour. Golf wives Nellie Cruickshank, Estelle Armour and Jo Espinosa began talking the idea up, contacting chambers of commerce all over the country about sponsoring tournaments. By 1929 the American Tournament Golfers Association formed with Cruickshank and Armour in leading roles. It evolved into today’s Professional Golfers Association.

When golfers age, a goal is to “shoot their age.”  In his 70s, Cruickshank thought that would be a poor round for him. So he shot a 67 at age 77. He also shot six competitive rounds in the ’70s and won three age groups by 45 strokes in 1972. He died at age 80 in 1975.

Diana Smith played many rounds of golf with her grandfather, Bobby Cruickshank, who she said raised her. Tommy Armour was “Uncle Tommy” to her. Her mother, Elsie, also was a championship golfer, and Diana followed her by playing in 14 U.S. Golf Association national championships, juniors, women’s amateurs and women’s opens. She doesn’t play anymore, spending time with Court Appointed Special Advocates, earning both state and national awards for her volunteering. At one time she had 31 rescue dogs and cats, now down to eight dogs and three cats.

Tired of Florida, Diana and husband Joel heard about the North Georgia mountains, drove through Young Harris and decided to settle there in 1994.

Her book is available through shop.booklogix.com or Amazon ebook.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326; email, vardeman1956@att.net or johnny.peggy1956@gmail.com. His column publishes weekly.

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