By JOHN REITMAN
The choice of whether to spend World War II playing golf as the resident pro at an Army golf course, or on the frontlines staring across the battlefield at Hitler’s Wehrmacht might seem like a simple one. It certainly was for Lloyd Mangrum.
One of the most successful PGA Tour players of the post-war era, Mangrum ranks 13th with 36 career wins and was subsequently inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, Texas Golf Hall of Fame and Texas Sports Hall of Fame. Because of his stature on Tour, Mangrum was offered a wartime appointment as the pro at the Army’s golf course at Fort Meade, Maryland, where he could have spent the remaining years of the war playing golf and glad-handing government VIPs.
Mangrum was a natural choice for such a position. Before the war broke out in 1939, he had traded the dirt and dust of his native Texas for the bright lights of Los Angeles. With his tall, thin frame, even thinner moustache and slicked back hair that later won endorsement deals from Vitalis, Mangrum looked like a club pro. Few could have blamed him for taking up his clubs and serving out the war as an ambassador for the game. Instead, he reached for a rifle and a bayonet and chose active duty.
While Mangrum’s feats on the golf course were many, his accomplishments on the battlefield were far greater. In fact, while players such as Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson grabbed many of the headlines during that era, it was Mangrum who set the standard for wartime golfers. He fought in arguably the two bloodiest and momentum-changing campaigns of the European Theater, earned four Battle Stars and three times was awarded the Purple Heart for battlefield injuries.
Seventy years ago today, Mangrum was among the 150,000-plus Allied troops who landed on the French beaches of Normandy during Operation Overlord, known otherwise as D-Day. The invasion, which numbered more than 320,000 troops over the next week, was the push that sent Germany on the run and turned the tide of the war.
By Christmas of 1944, Mangrum and the rest of Gen. George Patton’s Third Army had advanced to the Ardennes forest in Belgium where they spent five weeks fending off Hitler’s last-stand attempt to defeat the Allies in the Ardennes counteroffensive. Known later as the Battle of the Bulge, the Ardennes skirmish has been called the fiercest and most violent battle in modern warfare. Some 19,000 U.S. troops were killed in the Ardennes, and another 70,000 were injured, including Mangrum, who took shrapnel to the face.
According to an article published in Golf Magazine, by the war’s end Staff Sgt. Mangrum was one of only two surviving members of his original unit.
He earned his first Purple Heart at Normandy when a jeep in which he was riding was blown off the road and he luckily suffered only a broken arm. Although there were other professional golfers who served during World War II, including Bobby Jones and Jack Fleck, few walked in Mangrum’s footsteps.
Born in 1914 on an east Texas onion farm, Mangrum was as tough on the golf course as he was in battle, and arguably became more grizzled after the war, prompting Snead to famously say that because of the war “some of us weren’t sure he was quite right mentally.”
According to the PGA Tour, Mangrum said upon re-entering competitive play after the war: “I don’t suppose that any of the pro and amateur golfers who were combat soldiers, Marines or sailors will soon be able to think of a three-putt green as one of the really bad troubles in life,”
In a 1966 Dallas Morning News article commemorating his induction into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, Mangrum said he had two dreams while growing up in Trenton, Texas — to play golf and play the piano.
At age 14, he dropped out of high school after just two weeks to pursue his first dream. Within a year, he was the assistant pro at Cliff Dale Country Club in Dallas where he worked under his older brother Ray, who also was the head pro. By 1930, he had moved to Southern California to focus on becoming a playing professional. He joined the PGA Tour in 1937, having never competed as an amateur. Although Mangrum never learned to play the piano, he did take up the organ after his golf career was over. He said in that 1966 article that he was a self-taught golfer who learned by watching others.
“I learned a lot by just observing,” Mangrum said. “Heck, I was too stupid for anyone to teach.”
Though he won five times before entering the Army, Mangrum’s greatest success on Tour came after the war.
He won the 1946 U.S. Open, his only major title, at Canterbury Golf Club near Cleveland in a 36-hole, three-man playoff over Nelson and Vic Ghezzi, played on four U.S. Ryder Cup teams (1947, 49, 51, 53), and was player-captain in 1953. Mangrum topped the Tour’s money list in 1951 and won the Vardon Trophy for lowest scoring average in 1951 and again in 1953. His opening-round 64 in the 1940 Masters established a low-round record that stood for 46 years. His best year as a pro was in 1948, when he won six times and had 21 top-10 finishes.
Mangrum’s greatest success in a single tournament was in the Los Angeles Open at Riviera Country Club.
After Hogan had won there three times (1942, 47, 48) in seven years, Riviera earned the infamous nickname “Hogan’s Alley.” After Mangrum won the event four times (1949, 51, 53, 56) in eight years, a sportswriter of the era reportedly suggested renaming Riviera “Mangrum’s Meadow.”
A survivor of multiple wartime injuries, Mangrum was forced by heart disease into early retirement. He died of a heart attack in 1973 at age 59.
Throughout his career, Mangrum won more than $400,000, a tidy sum for that time. But his career was overshadowed by the likes of Snead and fellow Texans Hogan, Nelson and Jimmy Demaret, prompting Jim Murray, the late Los Angeles Times columnist, to call Mangrum “the forgotten man of golf.”
Overlooked by fans, Mangrum had the respect of fellow Tour players who knew him as Mr. Icicle for his steely putting skills. And like many Texans, he was especially deft at hitting low-flying shots that cut through the wind.
Nelson, himself a winner of 52 PGA Tour events and one of the game’s great ambassadors until his death in 2006, once said of Mangrum: “He was a tough competitor and an excellent putter. Any time you beat him, you could know you were playing well.”
In 1949, Mangrum authored an instructional book: Golf: A New Approach (Whittlesey House). In the forward, Bing Crosby wrote that Mangrum had “an ideal golfing temperament, great competitive spirit and what most folks consider the finest putting touch in the game today.”
He enjoyed that respect and admiration until his death.
Lifelong friend Eddie Zimmerman said of Mangrum in 1966: “Lloyd worked hard to reach the top.
“When he reached the top, he never forgot his friends. He never has tried to big-shot anyone and he made a lot of friends because he was so likeable.”
He was likeable because he was good, and he was humble, even in the face of danger. He didn’t consider himself a war hero, and even said in ’66 of being a three-time recipient of the Purple Heart: “It means I was so dumb I was in the wrong damn place three different times.”
Like so many who served at that time, he was the right man in the right place.
John Reitman is director of news, editorial and education for TurfNet.com, a news and information service for golf course superintendents. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.