Rick Cleveland

Cary Middlecoff took road less traveled to golf's pinnacle

COURTESY OLE MISS 
 Cary Middlecoff was Ole Miss' first All-America golfer in 1939.
COURTESY OLE MISS Cary Middlecoff was Ole Miss' first All-America golfer in 1939.

They will play the United States Open Golf Championship for the 116th time later this week at storied Oakmont Country Club in Oakmont, Pa.

No native Mississippian has ever won the event, and that will remain the case this week. No Mississippian made the field.

Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer Johnny Pott, who grew up and learned to play golf on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, probably finished highest of all Mississippians by tying for ninth at Congressional in 1964.

But did you know that a future Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer did twice win the U.S. Open?

Dr. Cary Middlecoff, the famed golfing dentist, won the U.S. Open in both 1949 and 1956. He won the 1955 Masters and played on three Ryder Cup-winning U.S. teams for good measure.

Middlecoff, who died in 1998, was born in Halls, Tenn., about 65 miles north of Memphis. He played his high school golf in Memphis and then became the first All-America golfer at Ole Miss in 1939.

Middlecoff was easily one of the top golfers of his era. When he retired from playing competitively in the early 1960s he was the leading PGA Tour money winner of all-time, having made more than the likes of Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson.

Middlecoff's story is an interesting one. As good as he was as a player, he was perhaps even better known as the sport's top TV broadcaster in his later years. He surely chose the road less traveled: from dentist, to golf champion, to acclaimed broadcaster.

Middlecoff learned the game from his father, Dr. Herman Middlecoff, a dentist and club champion amateur golfer. Born on Jan. 6, 1921, Emmett Cary Middlecoff began to play the game at age 7, By 17, he was the Memphis city champion. By 18, he was an All American at Ole Miss.

After Ole Miss, he attended the Tennessee College of Dentistry, graduating in 1944, just in time to become a U.S. Army dentist. Get this: He filled 12,093 teeth in 18 months as an Army dentist. I don't know what is more impressive: his filling that many teeth or the Army's keeping that detailed a record?

Somehow, he also found time to play golf. In 1945, while still in the Army, Middlecoff became the first amateur golfer to win the North and South Open in Pinehurst, N.C.

His father wanted him to continue as a dentist. Cary Middlecoff wanted to play golf.

He is reputed to have said, "When I got out of the Army, I didn't want to see any more teeth."

Herman Middlecoff actually enlisted the legendary golfer Bobby Jones, who famously remained an amateur for life, to help him convince young Cary to continue as a dentist.

But in 1955, after Middlecoff won the Masters, beating Hogan by seven shots, Jones quipped, "The way he filled those 72 cavities during the last four days makes me think I may have been wrong."

Middlecoff's two Open victories came on two of America's greatest tests of golf: in 1949 at Medinah and in 1956 at Oak Hill in Rochester. At Oak Hill, he defeated the great Hogan by a single shot.

Apparently, Middlecoff considered the 1956 Open championship his greatest accomplishment. He won with a one-over par, 72-hole score, never breaking par in a single round. Afterward, he famously said, "You don't win the Open. The Open wins you."

It still does. As was the case in 1956 and 1957 when Middlecoff lost in a playoff to Dick Mayer at Inverness, par remains, for the most part, a winning score.

Young Jordan Spieth won last year at Chambers Bay at 5-under. There are similarities between Middlecoff and Spieth. Like Spieth, Middlecoff famously, fiddled, fidgeted and fretted over club selection in his lengthy pre-shot routine.

Middlecoff, a fine gentleman according to seemingly all who knew him, admitted to a career-long bout with nerves. Said Middlecoff: "I don't deny I'm nervous. I have always maintained that a man who is not nervous is either an idiot or has never been close enough to winning to get nervous."

Sounds about right.

Rick Cleveland, is a syndicated columnist and historian at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. His email address is rcleveland@msfame.com.

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