My Friend, Dow Finsterwald
Reflections on a man and a champion who worked behind the scenes to make the game better
By Ted Bishop
November 9, 2022
As memory serves, it was in the fall of 2011 when the PGA of America gathered in Savannah, Ga., with a sizable group of former Ryder Cup captains. The purpose was to discuss the most recent U.S. Ryder Cup loss, at Celtic Manor the previous year, and look to the future with suggestions on how to improve the awful play of the Americans.
It was a formidable group. Dave Stockton, Lanny Wadkins, Curtis Strange, Tom Lehman, Ben Crenshaw, Arnold Palmer, Tom Kite, Paul Azinger, Hal Sutton and Dow Finsterwald were seated on the sides of a long banquet table. Corey Pavin, who led the team in Wales, and Davis Love III, the captain at the upcoming Cup at Medinah, were at the end of the table. PGA officials were mixed in with the captains.
The wine was flowing and the conversation was lively. Looking back, the scene resembled a group of tribal chiefs sitting around a campfire passing firewater and lamenting recent battles. Pavin and Love seemed rather uncomfortable in the moment.
I was seated next to Finsterwald, who captained the 1977 Ryder Cup squad featuring Wadkins and fellow rookie “Tommy” (as Dow always called him) Watson. Dow’s team had whipped Great Britain and Ireland, 12.5-7.5. The matches would never look the same, as by 1979 Jack Nicklaus had successfully advocated for the addition of players from continental Europe, making the Ryder Cup far more competitive.
The dinner in Savannah was my first encounter with Finsterwald, who was quick to tell me that two of his best PGA Tour memories had taken place in my home state of Indiana. That surprised me given that the Hoosier State was not readily identifiable with the Tour. But Finsterwald’s first Tour victory came in 1955 at the Fort Wayne Invitational, and his final victory was eight years later at the 500 Festival Open Invitational in Indianapolis.
Finsterwald had a tremendously diverse career in golf that went far beyond his accomplishments on the PGA Tour, and he laid out all the details for me during the pre-dinner chit chat at the captains’ gathering. He was the club professional at the Broadmoor Golf Club in Colorado Springs for 29 years. “When I found out they only had two golf pros in the last 50 years, I thought the job would be a good fit for me,” Dow said with a laugh. He went onto be inducted into the Colorado Sports and the Colorado Golf Halls of Fame. He was instrumental in bringing major championships to the Rocky Mountain State.
Finsterwald was proud that he served as president of the Colorado PGA from 1976 to ’78. He even told me he had made an unsuccessful run at the presidency of the PGA of America. “Our association can be pretty political at times,” Finsterwald said, in what I now consider a prophesy.
Just as dinner was being served, Dow rose from his seat and tapped his water glass with a spoon. “Gentleman, I have enjoyed the conversation,” he said. “I have had too much red wine and I have nothing more to add.” And then he left! Vintage Dow.
I was always impressed by Dow when we were on the Masters Rules Committee, a role he began in 1978. Here was a former major champion who volunteered to work Rules at the Masters for nearly 40 years. Dow also served on the USGA Rules Committee from 1979 to ’81.
On Masters Friday in 2014, when Dow and I were working the 9th hole together, I mentioned a conciliatory letter I had written on behalf of the PGA of America to his good friend Arnold Palmer. The subject was Deacon Palmer, Arnold’s dad, and the gap in Deacon’s PGA membership in the 1930s. Arnold was convinced the PGA had excluded his father because in his own words, “My father was a cripple with a club foot.” Palmer had never responded to my letter.
“I am having lunch with Arnold next Wednesday at Bay Hill and I will find out what is going on,” said Finsterwald.
Sure enough, the following week I got a call from Finsterwald. “We had lunch and went up to Arnold’s office,” he reported. “I asked him about your letter. He opened his desk drawer and pulled it out. I said, ‘Why haven’t you answered the man?’”
Palmer responded, “I haven’t figured out what I want to say.”
Long story short: The wheels were put in motion by the PGA of America to create a national award named after Deacon Palmer, which would be given to a PGA member who had overcome a major obstacle to become a steward of the game. Dow played a huge role behind the scenes and helped the PGA of America resurrect a relationship with Arnold.
The night before I presented the idea to Palmer, Dow and I had dinner at Bay Hill so he could coach me up. He delicately brought up another subject, that contemporary Ryder Cup competitors are given a ring to commemorate their participation but that the old-timers missed on such a treasured keepsake. In the summer of 2014, the PGA of America board of directors approved giving all Ryder Cuppers prior to 1990 a ring.
I suppose it is unavoidable that Finsterwald will be remembered most for his win at the 1958 PGA Championship and his 11 other PGA Tour victories. But he was much more than that. What does it say about a guy when he is Arnold Palmer’s best friend?
As is the case with many men, Finsterwald’s physical size shrunk with age. Late in life he was well shy of his published 5-foot, 11-inches and 160 pounds. However, his stature in the game only grew after his playing days. Dow Finsterwald leaves us as one of the giants of his era.