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St. Petersburg Open left legacy

For 29 years it drew the PGA stars of yesteryear.


© St. Petersburg Times, published October 15, 2000

More than 45 years have passed, and since that first visit to the Suncoast, a struggling professional golfer grew into a legend. He won seven major championships, 60 PGA Tour titles and a legion of fans along the way.

But Arnold Palmer has never forgotten his first St. Petersburg Open in 1955, a tournament that faded into yellow newspaper clippings and long-lost memories, one not even known to today's generation of golf fans and players.

Played 29 times from 1930 to 1964 at three St. Petersburg golf courses, the tournament eventually succumbed to financial pressure, disbanding well before the game's growth spurt.

The JCPenney Classic would later give the Tampa Bay area an off-season tournament for nearly 25 years, but this week's Tampa Bay Classic at the Westin Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor is the first official PGA Tour event since Bruce Devlin captured the St. Petersburg Open at Lakewood Country Club in 1964.

When Palmer first came to town, he and his wife, Winnie, were pulling a trailer to tournaments and had to borrow money from family members to travel the country.

And Palmer chuckles in recalling his first visit, when he experienced excruciating pain in his arms and shoulders while preparing for the tournament. He wasn't quite sure what to make of it, but happened to eat dinner that night with Lakewood Country Club pro Skip Alexander and his friend, the "aptly named" Dr. Needles.

According to Palmer, Dr. Needles was a heart specialist who suggested the young golfer come to his office for a treatment that might ease the inflammation.

The next day, Dr. Needles gave Palmer several injections of cortisone directly into his shoulder muscles. "For several long minutes, I wondered if I'd made the biggest mistake of my life," Palmer said.

Palmer managed to make it through the tournament, shooting 68 in the third round and finishing tied for 17th. Because he was an "apprentice" pro, he could not take the $155 in prize money.

But three years later, he made a more lasting impression, shooting 65 in the final round at Pasadena Golf Club to capture the tournament by one shot and earn $2,000. A few weeks later, Palmer moved on to Augusta National and captured his first major championship, the first of four Masters.

"I was playing pretty well as I recall," Palmer, now 71, said of his St. Petersburg win. "I think that it gave me the confidence I needed to take with me to the Masters."

The St. Petersburg Open never had a purse of more than $25,000, and the total prize money paid in those 29 tournaments was less than the $432,000 winner's share for the Tampa Bay Classic, which has a total purse of $2.4-million.

Over the years, the tournament was won by such luminaries as Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Cary Middlecoff. Jimmy Demaret claimed the St. Petersburg-Masters double in 1940 and 1947. Raymond Floyd won his first PGA Tour event as a 20-year-old rookie in 1963 at Lakewood. Bob Goalby set a PGA Tour record of eight consecutive birdies during the 1961 event he won at Pasadena. The record has been equaled but never broken.

"If you went to Mangrove Bay (in St. Petersburg) today and mowed one of their tees, that grass they have out there would be better than any grass they had on a golf green back then," said Phil Leckey, 60, a Tampa amateur who grew up near Lakewood Country Club. "I wouldn't have bet you could make eight birdies in a row putting to a garbage can back then. That's an amazing record even on the perfect greens they putt on today."

Leckey had the opportunity to both caddie and play in the tournament.

"The pros back then did not have a caddie who followed them around all the time, so they'd take somebody who was local," Leckey said. "When I was in college, I either worked out there, caddied or played in it. They would allow amateurs to qualify, and they'd give spots to the winner of the St. Petersburg Amateur, the city match-play tournament and the Jaycees tournament."

In the early days of the St. Petersburg Open, it was part of the winter tour, a series of events played in warm climates that allowed pros to keep their games sharp and enhance their reputations. Prize money barely covered expenses, but a good bit of publicity might help a player earn a good club job.

"You couldn't make any money back then," said Paul Runyan, 92, who won the 1934 St. Petersburg Open at Pasadena Country Club and still gives lessons today near his home in Pasadena, Calif. "It was all about camaraderie. It gave us a better opportunity to make a better commercial connection. You'd starve to death otherwise."

Runyan, who at the time had a club pro job in New York's Westchester County, shot 141 in the 36-hole event to defeat "Wild" Bill Mehlhorn by three shots and earn $200.

"I was proud of the fact that it was part of our winter tour," said Runyan, who also captured the 1934 PGA Championship and won 28 titles in his career. "It was lots of fun at that time of year in Florida, particularly in St. Petersburg. It was a little bit of a country village in those days.

"I can faintly remember it being a moderately good golf course. It was better than the average course at that time. My memory is hazy now, but I remember being impressed with the town of St. Petersburg."

Over the years, the tournament moved between Pasadena and Lakewood, sometimes alternating between the courses during the same tournament. Snead won the event three times and was the only back-to-back winner in 1941 and 1942.

World War II caused a three-year break, but the St. Petersburg Open returned in 1946 for a one-year run at the old Sunset Golf Club, now the site of the Vinoy Resort, where Hogan won by five shots over Snead.

That was one of 13 victories for Hogan that year, the second-highest total in tour history to Byron Nelson's 18 in 1945.

By the 1950s, the St. Petersburg Open was a popular tournament, drawing most of the era's top players. Many years later, a St. Petersburg reporter introduced himself to Gary Player at Tampa's Senior PGA Tour event, and the nine-time major-championship winner began to reminisce.

"You know, that's funny," he said. "I was just thinking about St. Petersburg. When I drove over here from Orlando, I saw a sign for St. Petersburg and said to my wife (Vivienne), "Boy, I have such wonderful memories of that place.'

"I remember it was one of the first times I ever saw Arnold Palmer. I was awfully impressed with his charismatic style and the way he played. I hear so many people that are critical of his swing, but I liked it and admired it."

Palmer's final-round 65 in 1958 edged Fred Hawkins by one shot. The field included such players as Billy Casper, Doug Ford, Jay Hebert, George Bayer, Dave Marr, Frank Stranahan, Lionel Hebert, Gay Brewer, Peter Thomson, Julius Boros, Jerry Barber, Bob Toski, Dick Mayer and Tony Lema. As Lakewood's host pro, Alexander also was in the field.

Alexander, who died in 1997, was the golf pro at Lakewood for 33 years, taking the job after his own touring career was cut short by an airplane crash. But he made many friends on the tour, and always welcomed them to town for the tournament. Alexander lived on the eighth hole at Lakewood.

"When the best players in the world come to your home golf course when you're 10 or 11 or 12 years old, a number of thoughts are firmly embedded," said Buddy Alexander, Skip's son and the 1986 U.S. Amateur champion who is now the golf coach at the University of Florida. "I recall the last three years especially, the three winners Devlin, Floyd and (Bobby) Nichols. They were first-time winners, they were young guys who were easy to pull for.

"It is a fond memory. It was fun to go out there and watch these idols."

Jack Nicklaus made his only appearance at the St. Petersburg Open in 1964, finishing six strokes behind Devlin and earning $1,400. Devlin credited Nicklaus for his victory.

"I got a lesson from Nicklaus on Friday, he helped me with a driving tip," said Devlin, an Australian who had recently come to the United States and won the first of his eight PGA Tour titles.

But he never got to defend.

A few months after his victory, the St. Petersburg City Council decided to postpone a decision on sponsorship of the 1965 event. While it was trying to come up with the money to stage the event for another year, Jacksonville announced that it would be holding a $50,000 tournament in 1965, to be played during St. Petersburg's dates.

"Golf was a lot different back then," Leckey said. "They maybe had 2,000 people come out to Lakewood to watch it. There wasn't TV. But something like that leaves the area, it's sad."

Gone, but not forgotten.

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