When in February the PGA Tour changed its dress code to allow shorts during practice rounds and pro-ams, players immediately—and happily—exposed their knees to the breeze. Dare they hope, however for still more ventilation? Would there be a day when the world’s greatest golfers play in “knee length, tailored and neat” shorts during tournament rounds?
No way, you say. But we searched for precedent and, surprisingly, we found it. In fact, the winner of one the most notable tournaments in history accepted the trophy while showing his shins. Yet the 1945 Memphis Open is remembered not for its champion or for what he wore but rather for who didn’t win. Byron Nelson finished fourth, big news, because he had won a record eleven straight heading into the event.
The weather that year was seasonal for Memphis in mid-August, with temperatures at Chickasaw Country Club hovering around 90 degrees. The air, though, was so saturated you had to chew it before you could breathe it. An official of some sort—we don’t know who—green-lighted a change to the usual look for at least one competitor.
“I won the Memphis Open in shorts,” Fred Haas, Jr. recalled in 1997. “Not too many people know.”
Haas, a 30-year-old amateur from New Orleans and the 1937 NCAA champion, was no prevaricator, but Nelson, a dedicated pants man, sounded skeptical in his autobiography. “I read recently that Fred was supposed to be wearing shorts during the tournament,” Byron wrote in How I played the game. “But I surely don’t remember that he was.”
But he surely was. The Associated Press coverage of the third round, in which the eventual champ shot 64, included this: “Haas, playing in unorthodox white shorts and like other competitors finishing in a driving rain …”
Here we should mention that adult legs were mildly shocking to mid-century Middle America. A number of villages and hamlets even bothered to ban shorts for anyone older than age 16. “We are a modest town, not a bathing beach,” observed a Honesdale, Pa., solon. Quite so.
Again, we don’t know who approved it (the man’s identity lost to history), why it was for that one lone week or any of the particulars. But it turned out not to be the last time legs were bared again. A repeat of the circumstances occurred at the 1955 All-American Open, which was by far the richest and in some ways the wildest event on the tour. Among other innovations, tournament sponsor and course owner George S. May invited families to picnic in the lush rough next to the fairways at his Tam O’ Shanter Golf Club in suburban Chicago, and in ’53 he invited in television cameras. When Lew Worsham holed a full wedge on the final hole to win by one, the commentator in the first-ever national golf telecast exclaimed, “son of a bitch!”
The commentator was Demaret, the three-time Masters champ, who was always being noticed. “Just before he would step on the first tee everybody would say, ‘I wonder what he’s going to have on today?’ ” his daughter, Peggy, told Golf Digest in 2007.
Haas again: “Anyway, it was really hot one year at the tournament in Chicago. So we all decided we’d wear shorts the next day. Everyone wore sort of longish Bermudas. But Demaret comes out in what looked like a very short, very tight bathing suit. Every color of the rainbow! The next day the word came down: No more shorts!”
The Chicago Tribune of Aug. 7, 1955, confirms that Sunny Jim bared his dimpled knees that week (although the paper ran no photo and our search for visual proof went for naught):
James Newton Demaret, crooner, wit, author, and fashion plate marked his return to tournament golf … with a neatly turned 70 for a 212.
The 45-year-old’s buddies in Houston’s Fifth Ward would hardly have known him in the orchid Bermuda shorts in which he outshone his juniors.
We can think of only two other times we’ve seen a tour player’s gams in competition: During the 1983 U.S. Open at Oakmont, Forrest (Fuzzy) Fezler was mad at the USGA. How might he express his unhappiness? He had an idea: Just before FFF hit his tee ball on 18 in the final round, he slipped into a Port-a-Potty and slipped on a pair of short, dark shorts. Fezler nearly whiffed his drive, hit a horrid second shot and barely made a bogey, but his legs got a standing ovation.
The other comes with an asterisk. At the Colonial in Fort Worth in 1993, Ian Baker-Finch removed his shoes, socks and trousers and played a shot in his blue-green boxers from the muddy edge of the pond in front of the 13th green. Fan reaction was overwhelmingly positive, bordering on bedlam.
Fezler’s and Baker-Finch’s fashion follies were one-offs, of course, with no lasting impact. But the tour may have at least an institutional memory of Demaret’s squatty body shoehorned into a multi-colored Speedo. It’s a cautionary tale: Anyone can wear shorts. Not everyone should.