The Old-School Pro: Dow Finsterwald
Close friend to Arnold Palmer and a stickler for the rules, Dow Finsterwald embodied American golf’s Greatest Generation
By Michael Bamberger
November 9, 2022
Tom Watson is smart, talented and almost comically brusque. Dow Finsterwald, who died at 93 on Nov. 4, was smart, talented and had a cutting wit that his many friends, Arnold Palmer chief among them, knew well. It was, like the man, understated and intelligent. At the 2005 Masters, because of a rain delay, Watson was finishing his Thursday round on Friday. Circumstances required him to go from the 18th green directly to the 1st tee, to start the second round. Watson wanted to duck into the clubhouse between rounds.
Finsterwald was standing off the 18th green, the picture of propriety, in his gray trousers and tailored black blazer, his every gray hair slicked back and in place. The old-school pro. He had been the pro forever at The Broadmoor, the grand Colorado Springs resort. He was at Augusta National, as he was every year, as a rules official. He knew the rules. One, in particular, he learned the hard way. More on that in a bit.
By the way (does any sport do by the way better than golf?), if Palmer and Watson had what Finsterwald had, a win in the PGA Championship, there would be seven male golfers with the career grand slam. Finsterwald won it in 1958, at Llanerch Country Club, on the outskirts of Philadelphia, in the first year it was contested at stroke play and the first year the tournament appeared on CBS. Frank Chirkinian, the legendary TV producer, was a CBS guy in Philadelphia, and he talked his bosses into airing it. Chirkinian was born in ’26 and Finsterwald in ’29, as was Palmer, four days after Finsterwald. They were all representatives of American golf’s Greatest Generation, which came of age in the post-war manufacturing affluence of the 1950s. That generation, which included Mickey Wright and Kathy Whitworth, had the outer grace and the inner fight that makes golf golf. Or it did. Professional golf is in a code-red alert right now as money bombs are being dropped on it, but this story has nothing to do with money. It’s about pros being pros, Watson being Watson and Dow being Dow.
“Is there a backup on the 1st tee?” Watson asked Finsterwald. He had handed his putter to his caddie, Neil Oxman. The other players in the threesome were Jim Furyk and the Scottish amateur Stuart Wilson, captain of last year’s GB&I Walker Cup team at Seminole.
“I don’t know,” Finsterwald said.
“Well, you should know,” Watson said.
As Watson marched off to the clubhouse, but while still within earshot, Finsterwald said to the back of Watson’s pink Ralph Lauren Polo shirt, “OK, Tommy.” However you’re interpreting that last word is most likely correct.
Finsterwald grew up in Athens, Ohio, and on Sept. 25, 1958, there was an exhibition at the Athens Country Club called Dow Finsterwald Day. It featured Finsterwald, the PGA Championship winner (and future Ryder Cup captain, above photo); Palmer, the reigning Masters champion, and Jack Nicklaus, a promising 18-year-old amateur. Arnold and Jack met that day, and their friendship and rivalry has been chronicled for more than 60 years now.
But Dow and Arnold had already been friends for a decade. Peg Palmer, the older of Palmer’s two daughters, will tell you that Arnold never had a closer friend than Dow. Arnold had great friendships. Dick Ferris from United Airlines was a close friend, as was Russ Meyers from Cessna. Tim Neher, a cable executive, and Charlie Meacham, the former LPGA commissioner, were business confidants and friends. But Dow went to his maker carrying the secret dreams of Arnold Palmer.
It might sound crude to say they were drinking buddies, though they were. Both had condos at Bay Hill, they both had golden labs that looked more like lions and they both had the discipline to wait for 5 p.m. Dow would wander over to Arnold’s garage/workshop in the late afternoon. There was a dorm-room fridge filled with cold ones. Arnold would look at his Rolex as 4:59 came and went. They’d clap their hands and pop two open.
They had said all there was to say about the ’60 Masters (Arnold won, Dow was two shots back) and the ’62 Masters (Arnold won, beating Finsterwald and Gary Player in an 18-hole Monday playoff). They might have talked about Tiger Woods, sales of Arizona Iced Tea, and the green speeds at Bay Hill once or twice or more. No saying how many dinners Arnold and Dow and their wives, Winnie and Linda, had over the years. Hundreds. In the early years, there was a cloud of smoke over their table and the men wore sport coats. They were creatures of their time and place.
During the second round of the 1960 Masters, Finsterwald was playing with Billy Casper and about to take a practice putt after holing out on the 1st. Casper stopped him before he did. Such practice was permitted in match play but not stroke play. Finsterwald had done the same thing in the first round. He told a rules official what he had done. On that basis, he had signed an incorrect scorecard for his first round. And per the rulebook, he should have been disqualified.
But a tournament committee and tournament organizers always retain the right to administer justice as they see fit, and the 1960 Masters rules officials, with Bobby Jones presiding, assessed Finsterwald a two-shot penalty instead. In that light, the two-shot penalty Woods incurred at the 2013 Masters, when he signed an incorrect scorecard after taking an incorrect drop, seems just. Finsterwald was a Masters rules official then and had been since 1978.
He was not a starter. Not a course ranger. He was a rules official. It wasn’t his responsibility to know if there was a backup on the 1st tee just because Tom Watson wanted to pop into the clubhouse.
That was a good one, one among a million.
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at [email protected]