Little Known Herman Keiser Wins 1946 Masters
Digging around in the lesser known byways of golf history can be a lot of fun, as one runs into a lot of new names, places, and events. We realize at those times how detailed the game’s history is, despite the fact that we thought we knew a great deal about it. Take, for example, the case of Augusta, the Masters, in 1946. Many of us know that the famous tournament wasn’t played for three years because of World War II. However, when they got back to it, shooed the turkeys and cattle off the course, and resupplied the green jackets, competition took some strange turns of events. Herman Keiser was a case in point.
Keiser was not a bad golfer, all in all. He did win two events on the PGA Tour through the years, and lost one or two others in playoffs to the likes of Sam Snead and Ben Hogan. He was a native of Springfield, Missouri, eventually landing the position of head pro at the Firestone Country Club in Ohio. At one point, he was ranked somewhere around the bottom of the top ten, but when the greats, which at the time meant Snead, Hogan and Demaret got together for the 1946 Masters, no thought was given to a club pro from Missouri ruining the party. The betting between members of Augusta reached high stakes, and little of the money was put down on anyone but the big three.
Somehow, Herman Keiser found himself leading Ben Hogan by five strokes coming into the last round. Sitting in the clubhouse, he watched Ben put together a furious rally, arriving at the 18th green needing a birdie to win and a par to force a playoff. One might suppose that four exhausting rounds at Augusta by someone who never really expected to find himself in the lead could be fatiguing. The only thought in Keiser’s mind was that it was all right to win or lose, just so he didn’t get thrown into a playoff. He prayed for Hogan to either win it with a birdie, or lose it with a bogey or worse. It didn’t appear that the great one was going to lose it, sitting ten or fifteen feet from the pin putting for birdie.
Ben Hogan was infamous for his hatred of putting, and on that auspicious day, Herman Keiser could see the reason, as the white-capped wonder three-putted from such a modest distance, and lost the Masters to his astonished competitor. Hogan had lost the Masters a few years before in a playoff to Byron Nelson, in part because of putting. Perhaps that’s where his hostile remark to Billy Casper has its origins, that if he wasn’t allowed to putt, no one would ever have heard of him. Ironically, Keiser had not played golf for around three years, serving in the Navy abroad. To that point, his biggest victory anywhere was a four-ball tournament. His demeanor on the course earned him the nickname, The Missouri Mortician, so seriously did he concentrate. Ben Hogan was no life of the party, either, and the two of them playing together might have created the basis for Grumpy Old Men.
Keiser took his practice rounds at Augusta with former champion Horton Smith. Smith taught him an invaluable lesson, that the greens don’t break nearly as much as they seem to, especially for shots of 100 yards plus; Golfers were not yet in the age of the big dollars, and Keiser took home around $2,500 for his trouble. However, he took home an extra $1,000 from the bookies, having bet on himself to win at 20 to 1 odds. So many members lost so much money in Keiser’s victory that he was perennially afraid to attend the champion’s dinner. On one such visit, he told his son that many from the club hoped he would come down with food poisoning and not show up. His son jovially disagreed, and was probably correct
The 1946 winner of the Masters played his emotional cards close to the vest. He would, on occasion, wistfully comment on the beauty of the course, but he claims that attending the champion’s dinner brought him a $1,500 check every year, claiming that it was all about the money. We’re not so sure, though. I’m going to guess that with the beautiful course and the modest check, the stories from meeting Bobby Jones and the line of greats that followed was a huge draw for Keiser. Still, the most beautiful thing of all was beating Ben Hogan, the one he considered to be the best of them all.