‘Life of the party’ on PGA tour

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Texas History 

Jimmy Demaret trailed Dr. Cary Middlecoff by one stroke with five holes to go in the fourth and final round of the Thunderbird tournament at Palm Springs on Jan. 22, 1956.

Jimmie Newton Demaret was born the fourth of 10 children in 1910 in Houston. He was bitten by the golf bug at an early age, when an army officer asked the 7-year-old to lug his clubs around the military course at Camp Logan.

Demaret grew up caddying and playing on the public links in the Bayou City. He studied the swings of adult duffers, imitated the best and developed into a promising young golfer. At 15, he dropped out of school to work as an assistant to Jack Burke Sr. at the River Oaks Country Club.

Demaret started playing for money around the Lone Star State while in his teens. He was the resident pro at the municipal course in Galveston, when he finally came out on top winning the first of his five Texas Professional Golfers Association championships.

“Then as now,” Demaret reminisced 40 years later, “I’d jump up on the stand and croon a ballad or two with the orchestra if given the slightest encouragement.”

“Yeah,” chimed in lifelong pal and business partner Jack Burke Jr., “and he’d always make certain one of his friends furnished the encouragement.”

After belting out a couple of songs onstage at a Galveston nightclub in 1935, the struggling golf pro was propositioned by the bandleader: “Jimmy, how would you like to sing for us full-time?”

The offer was tempting, but he could not give up on his dream.

Demaret soon got his big chance courtesy of gangster Sam Maceo, who provided the financial backing for him to go on the PGA tour. He came into his own during the 1939-40 season with six major tournament victories and his first green jacket.

Sick as a dog from some bad shrimp he had eaten, Demaret began the third round of the 1940 Masters deadlocked with Lloyd Mangrum for first place. But sheer determination and an amazing wedge shot on the 15th hole put him a stroke up on the fellow Texan.

The final 18 was anticlimactic. Demaret crafted a one-under-par 71 to Mangrum’s 74 to win the Augusta classic by three shots.

Demaret spent World War II in uniform and did not return to the professional golf circuit until 1946, but the long layoff had not hurt him one bit. In fact, as he soon showed, he was better than ever.

In 1947, Demaret was the king of the tour. He won seven tournaments, including his second Masters, the most money and the coveted Vardon Trophy with an average round of 69.9 strokes.

Demaret stayed at the top of his game through the rest of the 1940s and into the next decade. He consistently ranked among the top 10 money winners, played in four Ryder Cups without losing a match and, in 1950, became the first threetime winner of the Masters. The Thunderbird in Palm Springs was one of Demaret’s favorites. He won all the marbles at the desert tournament in 1953 with a birdie on the 17th hole and an eagle on the 18th to beat the incomparable Ben Hogan.

Three years later at the Thunderbird, Demaret shared the lead with Cary Middlecoff halfway through the 72-hole event. The Texan shot a 67 on the third day, but the dentist responded with a 66 for a one-stroke advantage.

Demaret finally caught Middlecoff on the 14th hole of the decisive round. He put his approach shot 2 feet from the pin and sank the short putt for a birdie, then he ended the suspense with a long birdie putt on the next green that put him ahead for good.

Even at a distance, Demaret was easy to spot. His colorful attire might include purple shoes, green slacks and a three-tone cardigan sweater, but he always wore a big smile.

Today Demaret would be called a “party animal.” He stayed up half the night drinking and swapping stories, often nursing a hangover through the front nine, but never regretted his wild ways.

“I lost some sleep,” he once said, “but I made thousands of friends.”

As the sun started to set on his touring days, Demaret, together with old friend Jack Burke Jr., opened Champions Golf Club in 1958 on the northern outskirts of Houston. In the 1970s, he designed the Onion Creek course in Austin, site of the first seniors tournament known as The Legends of Golf.

Demaret was a natural for television, which brought golf into everybody’s living rooms in the 1960s. As co-host of “Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf,” he entertained millions and even taught them a thing or two about the sport he loved.

In December 1983, Demaret died of a heart attack in his hometown of Houston. At the time of his death, he ranked ninth on the all-time tournament winners list with 35 titles.

Many remember Jimmy Demaret as the life of the party instead of a great golfer.

“I’m sure his personality kept people from recognizing just how good he was,” conceded Jack Burke Jr. who turned 97 in January. “He didn’t have to practice as much as Hogan. He was a much more natural player than Ben. So he had more time for fun.”