Player Comments

These are direct quotes. Anything in [brackets] has been added for editorial clarity.

Byron Nelson:
  I only played in the Tucson Open once, and I should have won it. I made a silly mistake. The 18th hole at El Rio, a par-5, had kind of a half-moon shape to it, and it had a barbed-wire fence marking the out of bounds.
  If you cut across the out-of-bounds a little bit, it shortened your shot to the green. I aimed to the right, not a lot, but my ball hit the top of a fence post and bounced out of bounds. I think all I needed was a par to win.
  Out of bounds back then was stroke-and-distance. I lost by a shot.
  I don't know if that was the only tournament Ray Mangrum won, but he didn't win that many. His brother Lloyd was the great player.

Babe Didrikson Zaharias:
  I've played all over the world on beautiful golf courses surrounded by beautiful houses. This is the first time I've played at one surrounded by shit houses. [Remark concerning El Rio, in an area with no sewer system in those days so houses along the course had outhouses in back, made to local pro Dell Urich.]

Harold "Jug" McSpaden:
  I remember that last hole at El Rio, the par-5 with the barbed-wire fence running along the right side. Everybody tried to cut the corner and knock it over the fence on 18. It cost Byron the tournament one year when he hit the fence or a fence post. I could hit it over. I could hit it farther than Byron. They'd pair me with Snead and [Jimmy] Thompson all the time, and if you couldn't hit it 300 yards, you were hitting first in that group.
  El Rio was as good as any of the courses were then. They weren't in near the condition they are today. Some of the tees today are better than the greens we putted on.

Johnny Palmer:
  Second was my best at Tucson. I set the two-round total record in the third and fourth rounds, and it stood for about 40 years. I shot 126, 62-64. I just made the cut by one shot and I got beat by one shot. I had an uphill 18-foot putt for an eagle on the last hole at El Rio after I hit the green in two with a 4- or 5-iron. Skip [Alexander] got a pretty good break on the same hole when he hit a hard spot in front of the trap on the left and ran over the trap to 12-14 feet from the hole. I was in the clubhouse getting ready for a playoff when I heard he made 3.
  You kind of figured you might win, shooting that low the last two days, but Skip closed almost as well as I did.
  El Rio was my kind of course. I was good from 150 yards in, and a straight but not a long driver. El Rio wasn't that different from anywhere else we played, but we did play it a couple of times when the first green was frozen.
  Everyone thinks it was so much different back then, that we played with medieval clubs, but we had decent equipment. The balls were good, but not as good as they are today. The way they make 'em today, they won't hook or slice as much. We had a good Spalding Dot golf ball and Wilson Staff and McGregor. But the McGregor boys didn't play their balls - they played Titleists.

Frank Stranahan:
  In the second round in 1952, I was playing in a group at El Rio with Jackie Burke. After teeing off on the first hole, I was talking to Jackie. He snaps at me, "You're an amateur, and I'm a pro. This is my business. I don't want to chatter." I didn't talk to him the rest of the round.
  I was making a lot of birdies and playing really well until the 13th hole, a little par-3 that was only about a half-wedge shot. I bunkered it there and took a bogey. Jack never said a word to me.
  I came to 18 and I drove way across the out-of-bounds on the right, then hit a 5-iron on the green, 15 feet past the hole. It almost hit the pin. I had that putt for a 59. It lipped out and went by a foot and a half. When it came my turn to putt again - those greens were bad - I missed the little putt. It broke my heart. I'd had several other 61s in my life, but I'd never broken 60.

Jack Burke, Jr.:
  In 1952, Frank Stranahan and I were paired at El Rio in the second round. We were both single at the time. I had dated some little girl in Phoenix. Frank would always ask you about your girls, and he asked me about this one.
  I told him "You got all that spark plug money [Stranahan's father owned the Champion Spark Plug company]. I'm just a club pro from New York, and I'm trying to work, and I don't want to talk about girls."
  So, Frank wouldn't talk to me all day Usually he'd be flapping his mouth all day and not concentrating on his game. Well, he shot a 61 that day.
  Another guy that got me was Lloyd Mangrum. He had a guy in Tucson that he was always playing gin with. They'd have to drag Mangrum away from the gin table for his tee time.
  Lloyd would come straight from the gin table and shoot a 65. Here I am working my tail off, and he's playing gin and shooting 65s.

Joe Kirkwood, Jr.:
  That was the smallest check I ever earned, $7 [in 1953, when there was a 7-way tie for 25th, and only the top 25 won money]. I think I tipped my caddy with it.
  The money was so different then. I won two of the biggest money tournaments one year and got $2,600 from each one. Sam Snead was second in both, and I think his checks were $2,000.
  Playing Joe Palooka in the movies loused up my golf game. I was learning my trade from actual fighters, and I got knocked out twice. I sparred with Rocky Marciano one year, and he hit me in the arm so hard it made me sick to my stomach. He said "Don't make me look bad." I said, "You SOB, don't hit me so hard, you'll kill me."
  I did 19 Joe Palooka movies and 39 weeks on a TV series. In between, I'd go out and play golf. But I was lifting weights and punching the bag so much that I started to get muscle-bound and my game started to drift away. My dad [an accomplished golfer] and Walter Hagen used to travel together, and they wouldn't even carry their suitcases into a hotel. I thought that was a little extreme, but I developed all these muscles and had no connection to the golf swing. I had to stay in the movies. I couldn't live on seven bucks a week from golf.

Cary Middlecoff:
  Henry Williams held a big lead, four or five strokes, going into the final round that year [1952] at El Rio. But I shot a 31 on the front nine and thought I would win the tournament. On the 10th hole, I pushed my second shot, and it got stuck in a tree. The ball was hanging right over the green. I climbed up, hit the limb it was on and bounced it out of the tree.
  But the ball landed off the green and I took three to get down from there for a double-bogey 6. Henry won by two strokes.
  I've had other balls stick in trees, but that was the only tree shot I ever had that I could get to.

Tommy Bolt:
  I could putt in those days. I was a little younger, too. I called a penalty on myself in 1953 on the ninth hole at El Rio. I had a fairway wood shot, and I nudged my ball an inch or so when I addressed it. I hit my next shot on the green and made a par anyway. Nobody saw me nudge the ball but me and my caddy - and the good lord. You got to be honest with him, you know.

Bob Rosburg:
  Those were some good old days around El Rio, the Tour was more fun then. You were out there trying to make a living, and there wasn't a whole lot to play for.
  I remember Bolt winning. I always got along great with Tommy. He always got along with the young guys.
  El Rio was sort of depressing, seeing the shacks around it, especially on one nine, I think it was the front nine. But the course was fun.
  I always enjoyed the city. We used to go to the University of Arizona basketball games. We always hoped Arizona would have a home game when we were there.
  You didn't sit around and watch TV back then, because there wasn't a lot of it to watch.
  Tom Lambie, a friend of mine from Stanford, was living there, and I always stayed with him. He hated to wear a necktie and he always envied me, because when he went to work, he put a tie on, while I just put my golf clothes on and went out to play.

George Bayer:
  The first hole at El Rio was very short. I thought the first few holes there were a matter of positioning the ball, and if you didn't position it well, you'd have problems. Apparently, that was my problem.
  Once I was playing with Porky Oliver and Jimmy Demaret, and I drove it on the seventh green [440 yards]. The gallery was quite surprised - and so was I. I two-putted from 30 feet for a birdie.
  There were a number of holes there like no. 3 and no. 4 where if you got into those little scrubby-looking trees along the fairway, you had problems.

Mike Souchak:
  You had to learn to play off caliche at El Rio. I was born and raised in Pennsylvania and went to school in North Carolina. We didn't have any caliche either place.
  You had to play a lot of funny shots. You might hit a putter from 20 yards off the green because you couldn't get the club on the ball and up in the air. And the greens had a lot of funny little bounces to them.
  There were a couple of par-4s at El Rio that you'd be playing back to [after a tee shot]. You'd hit the caliche and the ball would run for 10 minutes.
  I played Tucson a lot in the 1950s. Ricki Rarick was a neat guy. He took it on almost single-handed and did a great job [organizing the Tucson Opens]. He made it a nice week for us.

Ted Kroll:
  Dow Finsterwald and I had a close match in 1956. I was leading by one, then I birdied the 71st hole. All I wanted to do was make a 5 on the last hole, but I got lucky and made a 4. I think Dow had a 5, and I won by 3 shots. Celebrate? When we were lucky enough to win back then, we had steak that night.
  I was leading there one other time with Lloyd Mangrum [1951], but I had a bad last round, and he won it. He wasn't too shabby. He was one of the great ones.

Bob Toski:
  They don't play any golf courses like El Rio anymore, tight and short. The scores were very low there.
  I was playing in a Sportsman's Fund benefit at El Rio once with George Bayer, Lloyd Mangrum and Errie Ball [former Tucson Country Club pro]. On the first hole, about 350 yards, George overdrove the green. He almost hit the flag on his tee shot. His ball rolled up against a tree. He had to hit it sideways to get it away from the tree, then he pitched on the green and made a 5. Lloyd and I both made 3s from in front of the green.
  Lloyd remarked to George, "Gee, you almost made a hole-in-one, and you wound up with a bogey."
  George was so mad that he had horns coming out of his ears by the time he got to the second tee.
  On No. 18 one year, Fred Hawkins knocked one out of bounds. He tore his pants going over the barbed-wire fence to get his ball. He crawled under the fence on his way back and tore up his shirt.

Dow Finsterwald:
  Don Whitt and I tied after 72 holes at El Rio in 1957. We had an 18-hole playoff on Monday. The PGA staff went on ahead to the next tournament. The guy that ran the playoff, Ed Keating, carried a holstered gun. That was just part of his attire, he also had a cowboy outfit on. He was a very nice man. The galleries weren't like they are today, behind the ropes. People walked down the fairways with you. Ed was directing the crowds. Was that the last time I ever had an armed official at a match? I hope so.

Ken Venturi:
  You know the 17th hole at El Rio? That little par 4? I remember playing with Stan Leonard one year, and we both had wedge shots left to the 17th hole. The sun was glinting off his wedge into his eyes, and he couldn't see. I couldn't see, either, and I'm wondering how you play a shot you can't see.
  So Stan went to the side of the fairway and stuck his wedge into the mud to cover the chrome so it wouldn't shine. Then he wiped off the face and hit a pretty good shot. I did the same thing.
  I never saw that before, but I use it all the time now.

Don January:
  I played early in the day on Friday in 1960 and posted a reasonable score. In the afternoon, the winds came up so bad that you could hardly see with all the dust blowing. El Rio had grass fairways and dirt in the rough. It was like a sandstorm. I was finished and sitting in the clubhouse, so that was an awful good break.

Tom Foust, Sportswriter:
  The 1960 tournament sticks out in my mind. A big, friendly man by the name of Dutch Harrison was the host pro at El Rio. No one really knew his age, but we guessed something past 50. When he went into the final round only a shot out of the lead, practically everyone at the course was rooting for him.
  On the seventh hole he sliced his tee shot into the lake in front of the sixth tee for double bogey. January won, with `Mr. Dutch,' as we called him, tied for third. My suggestion to name the pond `Lake Harrison' never stuck.

Al Besselink:
  Back in the '40s and '50s, we drove to all the tournaments. I used to travel with Jimmy Demaret. He was the king of the world. Every day was Christmas. Every year they were waiting for us in Tucson.
  El Rio was a course that we'd try to shoot 60 on. Guys like Johnny Palmer, that were so straight, tried to shoot real low scores there. That Indian - what was his name? Ricki Rarick? - always took care of us. El Rio was one of our favorite stops. The ground was hard, the ball would roll, it was subject to a lot of low scores.
  The night life was great. In our day we didn't play for much money. We enjoyed good camaraderie. We all stuck together. We were like a big happy family.
  It was a different life. We'd get there Monday or Tuesday to gamble with the members. That's where we made our money. If you won $200, $300 or $400, that was like $5,000.
  The kids nowadays don't enjoy themselves or have any fun. The money's so big and everything's so important. Everybody's on their own.
  Demaret was always telling jokes, kidding. He was as funny as Bob Hope.
  And don't forget, Demaret was one of the greatest players in the world. He was so straight, so good. He won three Masters, but he'd party and have fun doing it.
  I was like a little kid, just out of the Army and 23 or 24 years old. Here I am traveling with one of the greatest human beings who ever lived. He could play, he was sensational, he loved to sing, play jokes on people, and he dressed unbelievably.
  At the start of every year, we'd gather in Houston, me, Demaret, Shelley Mayfield, Art Wall, Doug Ford, Jerry Barber, Bob Toski, Ted Kroll, Mike Souchak. We'd make up a caravan of three or four cars and drive to Los Angeles for the first tournament of the year.
  We'd be out of the middle of nowhere, and Demaret would have me pull over in a little town. Then he'd say, "Take a left here," and we'd stop at a taco stand. He knew 'em all. He'd say, "This is the greatest Mexican food in the world."
  Every day was a party, like Christmas or New Year's.

Gary Player:
  One of the first tournaments I played in the United States was at El Rio, I believe in the late 1950s. I'm a great lover of the desert. I love the cactuses, the big rocks, the way the houses and the pools set in there.
  The people were extremely nice, although they did have a little trouble understanding my South African accent. I used to say, "Can I have a Coke please?" and they thought I was saying "cake."
  They'd say, "Gee, I like your accent," and I'd say, "Gee, I like yours."
  Playing with fellas like Arnold and Jack, Hogan and Snead, it was such a wonderful time in my career. You know, memories are the cushions of life.

Dave Marr:
  I remember one round at El Rio where after everyone practiced, there was a big community tub filled with soap and water to scrub off the caliche that was on the clubs from the practice tee. A bunch of players had taken off on the first hole when they found out that a bunch of the clubs had gotten mixed up.
  These nice young Mexican kids were cleaning the clubs, just trying to pick up some money. They didn't know one club from another or how many were in a bag. They probably figured the more the merrier.
  Some players had 16, some players had 10. And there were penalties everywhere.

Jack Fleck:
  If you didn't shoot 63 at El Rio, you lost ground. I was not a good putter so I didn't do that well.

Arnold Palmer:
  Naturally, my fondest memories of the Tucson Open are of 1967, when I won the tournament. [Apparently his appearances at El Rio, starting in 1955, weren't as fond since he didn't win there?]

Jack Nicklaus:
  My first year on Tour, 1962, I played six straight tournaments. Tucson was seventh that year, but I took some time off to visit my parents in Florida.
  I don't remember which course we were playing in 1963 [it was the 49ers Country Club, the first year the Tucson Open was played anywhere but El Rio], but I'll never forget the first hole I ever played in the Tucson Open. I opened the tournament with two out-of-bounds shots and started with a 9 on the first hole. I shot myself right out of it.
  Did I ever do that anywhere else? No.
  I can't see myself playing Tucson again. [He never did]

Many thanks to Mark Stewart, former Sports Editor of the Arizona Daily Star for supplying these comments
from a special section published on January 18, 1994 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Tucson Open.


This next one has nothing to do with El Rio, since the tournament was known as the Dean Martin Tucson Open in 1973-1975, but I can't resist including it here:

Dean Martin:
  I drink to what used to be the Dean Martin Tucson Open on its 50th anniversary. I always enjoyed the people of Tucson and the tournament. But remember something. I'll drink to anything.


And, finally, I'll have to add some comments of my own:

Bob Bish, found of this web site:
  There's just something very special about teeing it up on the same grounds where the likes of Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer and Babe Zaharias have teed it up. How many recreational golfers can do that on a municpal golf course where the greens fees are low? Not many. Whenever I get into any trouble at El Rio, I ask myself, "What would Ben Hogan do?".
  When I finish no. 18, I like to think that I did better on it than Jimmy Demaret did. He once made a 14 on that hole. I've never come anywhere close to that! That's because I can hit a slice off that tee rather than trying to cut the corner.
  I made the best score of my life at El Rio when I shot an even par 70, including a 31 on the back nine, on June 11, 2003, although I'll have to admit to a mulligan or two that day. I scored my only-ever (as of this writing) hole in one on the 13th hole on May 26, 1999.
  For a few years I worked at a radio station around the corner, near Grant and Silverbell. I would be busy in the mornings and late afternoons, so could take long lunch hours. I kept my clubs in a locker at El Rio, and would go there at lunchtime, grab a burger, and play nine holes before going back to work. That was great!
  HERE are some of my own El Rio stories as I remember them.