The Swing for a Lifetime!

By

Jim Healey

 

He played golf with Bobby Jones at Augusta National at Jones' invitation! He finished ahead of Byron Nelson in 1945 at the Memphis Open the year Nelson won 18 Pro events, including 11 in a row!! He won a pro tour event in 1943, the Decatur Open shooting 198 for three rounds. In 1945 he won the Chicago Victory Amateur and the Great Lakes Amateur along with the Tam O'Shanter World Amateur title against the best amateurs in the country. He finished 2nd in the British Amateur and won the North and South Senior twice. He played on a Walker Cup team at age 48, competed in 3 Masters, 14 US Amateurs and 6 US Opens. And that's what he did outside of his home state. In Missouri he won the State Amateur 4 times, the St. Louis District title 8 times, the State Senior title 5 times, the District Senior crown 8 times and at least 13 titles competing against pro and amateur alike. His career began in 1931 when he won the Western Junior and the St. Louis Junior, with his last crown coming in the District Senior in 1982 at age 71. He is, of course, Robert E. Cochranthe Old Grey Fox.

Today, when you think of the many outstanding golfers who have "teed 'em up" throughout the area many familiar names come to mind... Goalby, Irwin, Haas, Wargo, Delsing, Rankin along with current amateurs standouts Holtgrieve, Port, Bliss and Thomas. Great players who have had terrific careers! Bob's name comes up, but usually only after a little more recollection. His career tends to be associated with Missouri golf, rightly so in light of his 4 state titles, but most know very little of his exploits on the national level, since most of them occurred over 50 years ago, and Bob has been out of the competitive limelight for over 15 years. But he was a competitor like none other as he dominated the local and state scene for over 40 years. The fire in his belly still burns, but the normal decay of the years prevents him from competing more vigorously.

Born in that magical year of 1912 - the same year as Nelson, Hogan and Snead ­ Bob attended McBride High and later St. Louis University. A talented athlete, he played basketball as well as golf. (In fact, one fond memory of Bob's does not revolve around golf, but basketball. In the 30's St. Louis U. traveled to Purdue where Bob covered their standout All-American, a talented guard named John Wooden!)

Despite his early wins in the Junior events, it would be another two years before the trophies would begin to come his way by the truckload. He would claim several area titles from 1933-1939, as he supported himself during the Depression with a sales position. A Norwood Hills member for over 60 years, it was Bob who introduced some of his customers to Midland Valley CC in Overland in the early 30's. The depression had hit the club hard, and it was experiencing financial difficulties. Thanks to Bob's introductions, they purchased the club in 1934 and renamed it Meadow Brook CC, and the club remained at that site until 1960, when it moved to its present site on Clayton Road. Retaining membership at Meadowbrook until recently, it was during this period that he played against the top amateurs of the previous era, Jimmy Manion and Eddie Held. Like others who would follow, their careers would begin to brake when they met Bob in area matches. But it wasn't just amateurs who had to deal with Bob. Area pros such as Bennie Richter, Bill Mehlhorn, Ralph Guldahl, Clarke Morse, Alex Ayton, Frank Moore and others would battle with him through the 50's.

During the 1940's Bob joined other top amateurs on the fledgling Pro Tour. Money was tight in those days, Bob made more in his sales position than most of the pro's did in a full season, and purses seldom topped $15,000, with first place receiving $1,000-$3,000 in most events. Among the best amateurs of the day were Freddie Haas (who broke Nelson's streak of 11 in a row when he won at Memphis), the popular ladies-man of the day Frank Stranahan (heir to the Champion spark plug fortune) who would go on to win three pro events, and a young Cary Middlecoff fresh out of the army. During those 4 years (1943-1946) he competed against names which are legends today...Horton Smith, Gene Sarazen, Jimmy Demaret, Lawson Little, Dutch Harrison, Jug McSpadden, Ralph Guldahl, Craig Wood, Herman Keiser, Bob Hamilton, Lew Worsham, Porky Oliver, Herman Barron, Vic Ghezzi, Lloyd Mangrum and of course Nelson, Hogan and Snead. He would win one event, finish 2nd a few more and in the top 10 numerous times.

Raising a family at the time, Bob would compete every-other week, and usually only in events in the midwest. But many were more than just memorablethey are the classic stories of legends! At Nashville in 1945 he went head-to-head with Ben Hogan as they were paired in the final round. On the opening hole, a long par 5, Bob recorded a rare Double Eagle, while Hogan could only manage a birdie. Bob went out in 30 and had Hogan on the ropes. Bob closed with a 35 on the back, but Hogan, the tenacious competitor, birdied the last five holes and shot a 64 to claim the title! Bob also competed at Southern Hills later that year and finished 3rd as Sam Snead topped all comers. Hogan would reward Bob for his efforts in their earlier matches with an invitation to his Colonial Tournament. Once again, against the Pro's, Bob made the cut and competed well. His real mark came at a tournament in Decatur at Southside CC in 1943 where Bob shot a 198 over 54 holes (65-66-67) - an average of 66 per round - and won the tournament.

In 1946, none other than Bobby Jones called Cochran the Top Amateur in the country, and honored him with an invitation to the Masters. Many of his friends knew of the invitation and on the weekend prior to his leaving for Augusta, Bob received what he thought was a prank phone call. "Mr. Cochran" the conversation started, "this is Bob Jones, I would like for you to come down to Augusta for an afternoon round with me on Wednesday", stated the caller. Bob, thinking this was one of his buddies responded, "...well, Mr. Jones, if this really is Mr. Jones, I will be most happy to come and in fact I would even walk to Augusta for the opportunity to play a round with you!" To which the caller replied, "well then Mr. Cochran I suggest you start walking!" It indeed was Bob Jones! When Cochran arrived at Augusta, not only was Jones present but also Byron Nelson and Masters Champ Herman Kaiser. It was to be just the four of them as the course had been closed for this exhibition. Bob was slightly terrified at the thought. At the practice tee, with the others already present, Bob, at the urging of the anxious crowd, reluctantly took his spot next to Jones and prayed he could just make contact. When he approached the first tee, his name was announced as having the honors. As he stepped forward to tee his ball, his hand was trembling. Nelson noticed this and jokingly offered to tee the ball for Bob! Regaining his composure, his tee shot sailed over the corner bunker, and he ultimately toured the classic in 70! During the event Bob shot two rounds in the 70's and made the cut.

But life also has its downside, and for Bob it was the death of his wife Lenore in 1952 that forced a respite in his career. For several years prior to this, as his wife grew more ill, Bob put the sticks in the corner and focused on his personal life. Only at her insistence did he compete in the 1952 District and, with her encouragement, he finished 2nd in a match that found him physically on the course but emotionally with his wife. It would be some time before Bob would muster the desire to compete and for several years it would be sporadic, competing in a few local events and the occasional National championship, as he focused on raising his family as a single parent.

But by the mid-50's he would be competing once again and would match up against the likes of 1954 Masters-champion-would-be Billie Joe Patton (who told Bob that, given the situation, he would still go for the green in two at the 13th!) and two time US Amateur Champ Harvie Ward. His daughter Bonnie recalled how she would tag-along with Bob during these years, her brothers Bill and Bob were off at college, as she toured the country with her dad.

As the 60's began, Bob was now in his late-40's, but he was far from finished. He competed in the 1960 and 1961 Masters, and was selected to the 1961 Walker Cup team, based in no small part on his 2nd place finish in the 1960 British Amateur a year earlier.

Bob had gone to Ireland to compete in the 1960 British Amateur, and like the great players who preceded him, he made the most of it. Bob made it to the finals of the Amateur at Royal Portrush where he met Joe Carr, one of Irelands' all-time greats. Bob had played a terrific match in the semi-finals, perhaps his best golf of the championship, winning a tough match on the 38th hole. (Bob often related that if that had been the final round, he would have been the Amateur Champion). On the morning of the finals, Bob's caddie for the previous rounds, Johnny Likenn was no where to be found. Finally he came up with Bob's bag, dressed in his Sunday best, but told Bob he couldn't caddie for him that day. "Why?" asked a puzzled Bob. "Well 'ya see sir", he began, ""mi bratha is totin for Mr. Carr, and I put down a fiver on him for the match!" To which Bob replied "Johnny, you just pick up the bag, leave the playing to me, and we'll have a great day!" However, Carr was just too much as Bob lost 8 and 7 on the 30th hole. Carr, who would win 3 Amateur titles, was one of the best in British golf history and was a crowd favorite. However, once the spectators became aware that Bob was also of Irish descent, and that Bob's ancestors had come from just down the road, he too was treated as a favorite son! He loved this experience and it is one of his most cherished memories.

At the 1961 Walker Cup at the Seattle CC, which the US squad won by the lopsided score of 11-1, a pair of 48 year olds Bob and former St. Louisan Gene Andrews, defeated Michael Bonallack (present Secretary of the R&A) and Ronald Shade 4 and 3. Bob and Gene were playing so well that they had the Brits seven down after 27 holes. This was an upset of major proportions. Bonallack and Shade were heavily favored as Shade was one of the best players on the squad and Bonallack was a former Amateur champion, plus they had the option of picking their competition for the match and had elected to play Cochran and Andrews! Bonnie recalled the Walker Cup with great enthusiasm. Watching her dad compete on the same squad as Jack Nicklaus, Deane Beman and company was one of her biggest thrills. She recalled how a Bob Broeg article in the Post-Dispatch following Bob's win in the 1958 State Amateur, had commented that a Walker Cup berth would be the perfect ending to a great career! Less than two years later it would come true!

The ultimate amateur, his record below speaks for itself. His victories in the Missouri Amateur were over the best players of the day, including Jim Colbert in 1962 and Buddy Godwin in 1965. Against Senior Tour great Colbert, Cochran was more than equal to the task, defeating him soundly three times. (When Bob attended a recent Senior Tour event, he ran into Colbert with his caddie on the putting green. Seeing Cochran coming, Jim told his caddie to "look out, here comes the guy who beat me twice", Bob of course, knew it was actually three times, and he jokingly wanted to know if Colbert wanted a re-match!) From 1931 till he joined the Senior division in 1973, he reached the third round or better 15 times where he compiled a record 78-27 mark. As good as this record is, it almost pales in comparison to his feats in the District Championship. His eight victories are five more than anyone else as his victories came over former titleholders like Tom Draper, Jack Geiss, Jonas Weiss, Dick Bockenkamp, Les Slattery and Elliott Whitbread.

Bob competed at Pinehurst several times in the North & South, where he competed against (and often roomed with) the top amateurs. In 1959 he made it to the semifinals where a young amateur from Ohio State ended his run. It was, of course, none other than Jack Nicklaus. Among the highlights of individual rounds he has had, Bob remembers another special round also at Pinehurst during the North & South Senior where, on the #2 Donald Ross gem, he shot a 29 on the front side, including an ace on #9! He would shoot a 37 on the back for a brilliant round of 66. Another round, where remarkably another 29 was involved, came at the 1958 Missouri Amateur at the Kansas City CC ("one of my favorites") where Bob faced-off against Tom Stephenson of Kansas City, who made the mistake of predicting that he would handle Cochran with ease! Bob shot a so-so round of 73 in the morning, but was still five up. He then went out in 29 in the afternoon round and the match mercifully ended on the 27th hole as Bob closed him out 11 & 9, for the largest margin of victory ever in the State Amateur Final. Bob told me that on that day the hole seemed as big as a fruit basket and his wedges seemed to never stray very far from the flag!

When he speaks about Jim Tom Blair ("...he could knock it a mile...") and Jimmy Jackson ("...greatest long putter I ever saw") it is with a sense of longing for the competitive days they enjoyed. Though each was separated by a decade, with Jim Tom being the youngest at 65 today, they fought each other like lions on the course, with the elder Bob being the leader of the pride and Jimmy and Jim Tom waiting for their shot. They each had their moments of glory, though fate would stop the younger pair from still greater honors.

Today, Bob is in his mid-eighties and you might think he is slowing down. Well, a little maybe. He no longer shoots below par, "...usually between 70 and 77" says Bob. Recently Bob's son, Bill related to me a round they played in south Florida. "Bob was a little upset he shot a 75!"

But all of Bob's activities haven't taken place on the course; he has spent hundreds of hours donating his time toward raising money for worth-while charities. One such event was associated with the St. Mary's Home for Boys (often called Father Behrmann's Home) which Bob chaired as part of the LPGA events held here during the late 50's and early 60's. Using his selling skills to their utmost, he convinced many friends and associates to write checks for this effort, which raised thousands of dollars over the years. Another of his favorite causes was for St. Louis University, and in particular toward their golf team. For over 20 years, Bob championed events that helped raise money for scholarships to put worthy students through St. Louis U., while, at the same time, enabled them to continue to pursue their golf talents. Whether it was a full scholarship or a few hundred dollars, dozens of golfers benefited from Bob's hard work.

Bob is a past President of the St. Louis District Golf Association, a three-time President of the Missouri Golf Association, a 50 year member of the Missouri State Amateur Board and the USGA Board. He was inducted into the Missouri Hall of Fame and the St. Louis University Hall of Fame, and has been honored by the Elks as athlete of the year among numerous awards. A more recent honor was given to Bob when the Michelob Light LPGA committee recognized Bob with their Judy Rankin Lifetime Achievement award. It is fitting that the LPGA event has honored Bob, for during his competitive years he competed in many mixed-events. Colorado-native Barbara McIntire was a favorite partner during these years, and in one event they won with a best ball of 66!

Outgoing and affable, the years have not dampened his competitive spirit. He speaks about the golf swing like describing a beautiful woman, for in many ways golf has been his mistress. But Bob is also a true and loyal friend. When Jim Jackson was ill, Bob visited him almost every day ("the hospital wasn't far from here", was his only comment, downplaying the depth of their friendship). Despite their rivalry, Bob cared greatly for Jackson and was devastated at his passing He also spoke of Hord Hardin's recent death, as well as that of long-time friend Howard Zachritz. He recalled competing against almost every St. Louis golfing legend, amateur and pro alike, from Jimmy Manion to Bob Goalby. His memory is sharp as he recalls shots made in 1945 like they were made yesterday!

Today there appear to be three things for which Bob has deep passions...his wife Kathy, whom he married in 1974, his children and his grandchildren. He speaks about his grandson Bobby, who competes on the Hooters Tour, and hopes to make it on the Tour someday, and he marvels at the talents displayed by the Florida State grad. On a recent visit to his home his 10-year old grandson had just left, following a putting lesson from "grand-dad", and Bob spoke of his other grandkids, several of which are playing high school and college golf today.

The walls of his home are filled with memorabilia of his career; the Masters buttons, the US Open medals, the State and District trophies and plaques (only a small portion of these) and numerous pictures of his family.

At his best, Bob was the steely-eyed competitor who would let nothing deter him from victory. To have the opportunity to visit with Bob would be a cherished memory for any avid golfer.

 

Excerpts from this article are from the book "Golfing Before the Arch", A History of St. Louis Golf, by Jim Healey. The book is available at golf shops and book stores throughout the St. Louis area.

©Copyright Jim Healey 1998