“DID YOU KNOW”
Leo Fraser held a senior open at his Atlantic City CC 23 years before the USGA’s first one!
In September 1957, Leo Fraser, owner and professional at the Atlantic City Country Club, staged an open tournament for senior golf professionals and amateurs, 50 years of age or older. Fraser was always looking for a way to promote golf and his club.
Since 1937 the PGA of America had held a senior championship for its members who had reached the age of 50. In August of 1957 there had been an inaugural tournament called the U.S. Senior National Open in Spokane, Washington. At Spokane Gene Sarazen had lost a playoff for the title.
Spokane had a bigger purse and larger field than Fraser’s tournament, but there were some great golf professionals from the past entered in the Atlantic City Seniors Open. Former Philadelphia PGA member Denny Shute, the winner of two PGA Championships and a British Open, was entered. Harry Cooper, who some still refer to as the greatest golfer to never win a major championship was there. Along with winning 30 times on the PGA Tour in the 1920s and 30s, Cooper had finished second in two Masters Tournaments and two US Opens, losing the 1927 US Open in a playoff.
At Atlantic City Pete Burke, the 1956 Senior PGA Champion, led the three-day tournament until the last green where he carelessly missed a one-foot putt. That left him tied with Joe Zarhardt, who had just turned in a 67, with 212 totals. The two pros were sent right back out that day for an 18-hole playoff. Zarhardt, a Jersey boy who had won a Philadelphia PGA Championship and a Philadelphia Open, was now a pro in North Carolina. He won the playoff with a 69 against a 71 for Burke. Shute finished fourth and Cooper was eighth. First prize was $650 and ten pros won money.
Former Atlantic City CC professional Johnny McDermott, winner of the 1911 and 1912 US Opens, was in attendance as a guest of Fraser. McDermott had been confined to mental hospitals since suffering a nervous breakdown in late 1914.
Fraser held the tournament one more year. Zarhardt returned nearly defending his title, losing a sudden death playoff to Virginia’s Jack Isaacs. Cooper finished third. The US National Senior Open continued on out west for many years, finding a home in Las Vegas. At one point, Tommy Bolt won that tournament five straight years.
It took 23 more years for the USGA to embrace senior professional golf. It June 1980 the newly formed PGA Senior Tour held its first tournament at the Atlantic City Country Club. One week later, the USGA held a senior open at Winged Foot Golf Club in New York. That first US Senior Open was for golfers 55 and over, but in 1981 with Arnold Palmer having turned 50, the tournament was changed to accept entries from those 50 and over.