Walter Hagen once called Cary Middlecoff one of the best ball strikers to ever come out of American golf. Middlecoff won two U.S. Opens (1949 and 1956) and lost another (1957) in a playoff against Dick Mayer.
Middlecoff also won one Masters title (1955) and had two seconds at Augusta National. He reached the finals of the 1955 PGA Championship and in all had 40 wins from 1945-61, which puts him in a seventh-place tie for all-time Tour wins with none other than Hagen.
Middlecoff also had 30 second-place finishes, 23 thirds, and 181 top-10s. His first important victory came in the 1945 North and South Open, an auspicious accomplishment in that he was an amateur at the time and still a lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
Emmett Cary Middlecoff was born in 1921 in Halls, Tennessee, the son of a dentist. He attended the University of Mississippi and played on the school's golf team, then went into the military during World War II, serving as a dentist.
Middlecoff would share his father's practice on and off for a time after his discharge from the Army, but he was encouraged by his father to give professional tournament golf a try.
"Doc" Middlecoff joined the pro Tour full-time in 1947, but he would occasionally work at dentistry to keep up his skill should the golf not work out. As it happened, after 1948, he never filled another cavity other than those on golf courses.
A tall, slender man, Middlecoff had an intense, nervous manner that seemed unsuited for a game that prizes calm and patience. But he found a way to counter his nature, purposely developing a swing technique that distinguished him from the great majority of golfers -- a distinct pause at the top of his backswing.
Middlecoff was also one of the more deliberate players in the game, fidgeting over the ball at address for some time before beginning his swing. Joked writer Dan Jenkins: "A joke on the Tour used to be that Cary gave up dentistry because no patient could keep his mouth open that long."
Actually, Middlecoff's slow play was mainly because of physical problems that plagued him for most of his career. Middlecoff was born with an extra lumbar vertebrae. And while in dental school, standing for long periods in a dentist's position, he developed back problems. Golf exacerbated the condition.
Middlecoff also had trouble with his left eye, the result of a piece of Carborundum coming off a disc while treating a patient in the Army. It hit him in his left eye, which became ulcerated and was never the same again. He always wore a green visor on the golf course to kill the glare of the sun.
On top of the physical problems, Middlecoff suffered from hay fever, beginning in 1955.
"One of the main reasons I took a lot of time over the ball was that I couldn't see very well," Middlecoff recalled. "The hay fever was part of it, and the problem with the left eye was also a factor." Finally, he had to give up the game in the 1960s when he couldn't control the yips.
Middlecoff was always described as a "streaky" player, punctuating stretches of relatively ordinary golf with rounds -- if not weeks and years -- when he was at the pinnacle of his profession.
For example, in winning his one Masters title, he outdistanced the second-place finisher, Ben Hogan, by seven shots. In winning his first U.S. Open, he bunched his best play -- a second-round 67, a third-round 69 -- to take a three-shot lead into the last 18 holes.
In defending his U.S. Open crown in 1957, Middlecoff got hot with two 68s in the last two rounds to force a playoff with Mayer. The 136 total tied a record for the final 36 holes of the championship.
He also had a knack for sustaining excellent, winning golf over a full year. In 1949, he won seven times on the circuit, including a dramatic U.S. Open in which he fended off Snead and Clayton Heafner by one stroke. He won six times in 1951 and matched that record again in 1955.
Middlecoff played on three U.S. Ryder Cup teams (1953, 1955, and 1959) and in 1956 won the Vardon Trophy with a stroke average of 70.35. Middlecoff's last victory, at the Memphis Open, came in 1961 in his hometown. As an author, he wrote the insightful books Advanced Golf and The Golf Swing.
For all his obvious high achievements, Middlecoff was not sufficiently recognized as the golfer he was. To date, he has not been inducted into any of golf's Halls of Fame. This may be due in part to the fact that he was in his prime when Hogan and Snead were dominating figures, and personalities, in American golf.
Be that as it may, Middlecoff's record speaks for itself. He was listed as the ninth best American golfer of all time, according to the 1989 PGA Tour rankings.
For more information about golf, see:
- The Best Golfers of all Time
- How Golf Clubs Work