COVER PHOTO: Champion Vic Ghezzi, PGA president Tom Walsh, Byron Nelson

When Vic Ghezzi, the head pro at Deal Golf and Country Club, defeated legendary Byron Nelson, the defending champion, on the second playoff hole to win the 1941 PGA Championship, it was only the third professional victory of his career.

After Ghezzi barely rolled in a three-foot putt in the side of the cup to beat Nelson in 38 holes at the Cherry Hills Country Club in Denver, he said: “I won against one of the finest golf players we’ve ever had. I feel like a kid on Christmas morning.”

Prior to the PGA victory, Ghezzi’s only previous wins had come at the Los Angeles Open 1935 and the North and South Open at Pinehurst in 1938.

Back in 1941, the PGA championship was determined in a 36-hole final. Both golfers, 29 at the time, had placed their chip shots on the 400-yard second extra hole to within 30 inches of the cup. They needed a coin flip to decide who was closer. Nelson won the flip and putted first, but it slid past the hole “by a hair,” said the Associated Press.

Describing Ghezzi, the AP story read: “Ghezzi … who is built like a fullback, then slapped his blade against the ball and for a second it looked as though he, too, had missed, but the ball slithered in the ‘side door’ for the all-important 4.”

The victory was worth $1,100 for the Rumson-born Ghezzi, who had competed in PGA championships for 10 straight years, but never advanced past the third round.

In the run-up to the final, Nelson, who had already won a Masters and the U.S. Open, not to mention the 1935 New Jersey State Open when he was a pro at Ridgewood, had to beat a who’s who of golf royalty. Ghezzi had a much easier route than did Nelson.

Nelson beat both Bunny Torpey and William Heinlein, 1 up, then faced Ralph Guldahl, who had won two U.S. Opens and a Masters in recent Years. Nelson defeated Guldahl, 4 and 3.

Next up was Ben Hogan, also 29, who was in his second year on the pro tour and yet to win a major. Lord Byron downed Hogan, 2 and 1, in a 36-hole quarterfinal, then ousted 39-year-old Gene Sarazen, by then a winner of seven majors, 2-up, in a 36-hole semifinal.

Ghezzi advanced steadily past Joe Pezzullo, 3 and 2, Augie Nardone, 1 up, Jack Grout, 1 up, and then eased past Jimmy Hines in the quarterfinal, 8 and 7. In the semifinal, Ghezzi met 27-year-old Lloyd Mangrum (who would later win the 1946 U.S. Open).

Ghezzi was able to hang on to beat Mangrum 1-up, despite shooting a 40 over the final nine holes. Ghezzi had a 3-up lead going into the last nine holes, but Mangrum scraped away at the lead and caught Ghezzi with a birdie at the 35th hole. However, Mangrum caught a bad break on the final hole, and drove the ball 275 yards to the edge of the lake. He was forced to wade in the water and chip back into the fairway, while Ghezzi was just off the green with his second shot.

Mangrum went on to make bogey and Ghezzi was able to get his chip within inches of the hole to win the match.

In the finals, Ghezzi dethroned Nelson in an extra-hole match that had one of the most bizarre finishes ever. Ghezzi was 3-down after the 27th hole, but squared the match by winning the first three holes on the final nine.

The match was square for the fourth time when Ghezzi made bogey at the par-5 35th hole. On the final hole of regulation, both missed the green with their second shots. Nelson pitched up to within 15 feet, while Ghezzi chipped his ball four feet away. When Nelson missed his putt, Ghezzi had a shot at ending the contest, but instead lost almost everything as he missed the match-winning putt. At the 37th hole, Ghezzi had another chance to win the match with a 10-footer for birdie, but missed.

It all came down to Ghezzi making his “side-door” putt on the 38th hole, where he actually won the match twice. Both chip shots landed side-by-side, exactly 42 inches away from the hole. A coin toss determined Nelson would putt first. In 1941, the stymie rule was still in effect so when Nelson addressed his putt, Ghezzi's ball was still on the green. Nelson could have asked Ghezzi to move his ball if he felt it interfered with his stance, but he did not.

As he stood over his putt, however, the toe of his foot touched Ghezzi's ball and moved it. By rule, Ghezzi could have been awarded the hole and the match, but he refused to accept the victory under those circumstances. Nelson missed the putt and admitted later that he felt uncomfortable about the situation, although he insisted he had been trying to make his putt. Ghezzi then stepped up and ended any and all controversy by making his own putt to win the championship.

Years later in a Sports Illustrated article, Nelson was quoted as saying Ghezzi won the match twice. Ghezzi then pocketed the $1,100 ($18,452 in today's money) for the triumph.

No wonder why he felt like a kid on Christmas!

The closest Ghezzi ever came to another major victory was in 1946 at the U.S. Open in Cleveland. Ghezzi, Nelson and Mangrum all tied through regulation with scores of 284. They came up tied again after 18 playoff holes. Mangrum, who received two Purple Hearts in World War II, finally won by a stroke after a second 18-hole playoff.

Ghezzi had a 3-stroke lead after 13 holes, then bogeyed the next two holes as Mangrum took the lead. When Ghezzi missed his 8-foot putt on 18 by inches, Mangrum had the victory.

Ghezzi died of cancer in 1976 in Miami at age 65. His personal set of clubs are on display at NJSGA headquarters.

--Mike Moretti

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