Dow Finsterwald, winner of the 1958 PGA Championship, dies at 93

Dow Finsterwald, winner of the 1958 PGA Championship, died Friday of a stroke in his sleep, his son confirmed. He was 93.

“He did all he could for the game,” his son, the head professional at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, told the Associated Press. “He enjoyed his friends and they always remembered. He loved the rules and he cared about the game. He had a wonderful life and he felt like for sure it was complete.”

Finsterwald won 11 tournaments during an eight-year span, and was named PGA Player of the Year in 1958. In his day, cashing in on a major meant landing a plum head professional job. In 1963, he left the Tour to raise a family and became director of golf at the Broadmoor Resort in Colorado Springs, Colorado, a position he held for 28 years.

Finsterwald played on four U.S. Ryder Cup teams (1957, ’59, ’61 and ’63) and was the non-playing captain of the victorious 1977 team. He also won the Vardon Trophy for lowest scoring average in ’57. Finsterwald was inducted into the PGA Hall of Fame in 2006.

Finsterwald was born Sept. 6, 1929, in Athens, Ohio. He got his start in the game at Athens Country Club, a Donald Ross design in the Appalachian foothills. Beginning in 1944, Finsterwald had swept its locker room, hosed down the showers, and opened the place each morning.

“My father said if you do a good job and save your money you can go to the World Series,” Finsterwald, who kept box scores of the Cincinnati Reds as he listened on the radio, told Golfweek in 2013. “It came September and instead of World Series tickets, I bought a set of MacGregor golf clubs. You might say baseball got me into golf.”

Finsterwald attended Ohio University, where he first met Arnold Palmer, who would become his closest friend, at Raleigh Country Club in North Carolina in the spring of 1948, when Palmer played for Wake Forest. Palmer threw a front nine 29 at him.

“That was my introduction to Arn,” Finsterwald said. “Quite a rude awakening to how good he already was and would be.”

Finsterwald wasn’t too shabby himself at the time. While still in college, he shot a final-round 60 in the 1950 St. Louis Open, which at the time was the lowest round that had ever been posted on the PGA Tour. After a stint in the Air Force, Finsterwald turned pro in 1955. In 1958, Finsterwald won his lone major, the first PGA Championship, contested in the stroke-play format and the first nationally-televised PGA, at Llanerch Country Club in Havertown, Pennsylvania.

Dow Finsterwald at the 1977 Ryder Cup at the Royal Lytham and St. Anne’s Golf Course in Lytham St Annes, England. (Photo: Associated Press)

The city of Athens, Ohio, threw Dow Finsterwald Day on Sept. 25, 1958, for its native son. He was feted with a key to the city and a hero’s parade, but the day is recorded in the history books for another reason: it marked the first time Arnold Palmer and an 18-year-old Ohio Open champion named Jack Nicklaus teed it up.

Finsterwald fondly remembers the driving contest from the elevated first tee. Palmer smoked one of his low bullets and reached the first green some 321 yards away. A then-beefy Nicklaus lumbered to the tee and smashed a tape-measure blast more than 350 yards and over the green. A rivalry was born. Not to be outdone, Palmer shot 62 to break Finsterwald’s course record by one.

Finsterwald had two legitimate shots to win the Masters only to be bested by Palmer. In 1960, he finished two strokes out of a playoff with Palmer when he was assessed a two-stroke penalty for practice putting during the first round. Two years later, they were locked in a tense duel when Palmer reeled off birdies on two of the last three holes to force an 18-hole playoff and defeated Finsterwald (77) and Gary Player the next day.

Dow Finsterwald

Dow Finsterwald, winner of the 1958 PGA Championship, speaks during a news conference at the 90th PGA Championship on Aug. 5, 2008, at Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Township, Michigan. (Photo: Kiichiro Sato/Associated Press)

Finsterwald never dwelled on what could’ve been. “What’s the expression?” he said. “It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”

Finsterwald always kept a hand in the professional game. He was captain of the 1977 U.S. Ryder Cup team, vice president of the PGA (1976-1978), a member of the USGA executive committee (1977-1979), and served as a rules official at the Masters beginning in 1978.