Omaha's Golf Champion: Johnny Goodman

Nebraska native rose from limited means to become the last amateur to win the U.S. Open


In 1933, Omaha native Johnny Goodman won the U.S. Open. He remains the last amateur to accomplish the feat. (USGA Museum)
By Robert Alvarez, USGA
July 8, 2013

Johnny Goodman is a member of an elite group of five players – including Bob Jones, Francis Ouimet, Jerry Travers and Chick Evans – who have won the U.S. Open Championship as an amateur. In the middle of a heat wave and in the throes of the Great Depression, Goodman would hoist the U.S. Open Trophy; in doing so he become the last amateur to win our national championship. His story is symbolic of tough times in America, but it also demonstrates that with hard work and perseverance anything is possible.

Johnny Goodman was born on Dec. 28, 1909, in South Omaha, Neb., to Lithuanian immigrants William and Rose Goodman. Goodman’s parents first settled in Pennsylvania but later moved to Omaha, where employment opportunities in stockyards and slaughterhouses were plentiful. Many Midwestern communities were composed of ethnic neighborhoods where families who shared common beliefs and customs could live together while adjusting to a new country.

Goodman’s father and two older brothers worked long hours in a packing house and returned home every night exhausted. Working conditions were poor. Employees were exposed to foul odors, dangerous equipment and the ever-present threat of going weeks without work. Many, including Goodman’s father, found an escape in alcohol. A working-class child growing up in an atmosphere like Omaha, which is hosting the U.S. Senior Open at Omaha Country Club July 11-14, in the early 1900s would have been very likely to follow the same path.

Goodman was introduced to the game of golf when he found a ball near a railway line that cut across the Omaha Field Club and was offered a nickel for the ball by a member of the club. When Johnny learned that he could earn 50 cents for carrying a bag for 18 holes, he was hooked. Goodman developed a fascination with the game, studying the Rules and learning the ins and outs of the Field Club’s layout. He quickly became the club’s top caddie and made a good impression on the members with his enthusiasm for the game. In an otherwise rough-and-tumble youth, Goodman found a safe home at the Omaha Field Club, which would host the U.S. Amateur in 1941.

In 1922, shortly after he won the British Open, Walter Hagen came to the Omaha Field Club to play an exhibition match against trick shot artist and touring professional Joe Kirkwood. There was no doubt in the caddiemaster’s mind who to choose when Hagen asked for the club’s best caddie. Goodman caddied for the legend, earning a good tip and the opportunity to learn from one of the game’s brightest stars.

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Hagen inspired Goodman to take the game more seriously. Similar to Francis Ouimet practicing at The Country Club when the course was emptied by rain, Goodman would sneak onto the Field Club early in the morning or late in the evening to practice, in addition to playing the course every Monday afternoon. His first significant victory came at the Metropolitan Golf Tournament on Aug. 21, 1925. The next day he showed his sister the trophy and explained what a golf tournament was and that he had won. His family did not understand his infatuation with the game.

Goodman earned his high school diploma in 1926 and found a new idol in Bob Jones. He admired Jones’ dedication to the amateur ideal, and his golf swing. Three years later, now a tournament-tested veteran, Goodman would face down his idol in a first-round match at the 1929 U.S. Amateur Championship.

With support from home, Goodman was able to purchase a train ticket to the 1929 U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach Golf Links in California. On prior trips, Goodman was known to travel by cattle car or “Fast Mail” car, a train which carried mail but also had one passenger car. When he arrived at the course, Goodman was questioned regarding his amateur status because he had once held a job as a clerk for the Spalding Company. He was also questioned regarding his membership status at Lakewood Country Club in Omaha. The truth was that Goodman was practically broke. After a nervous interview, Goodman was granted permission to compete in the championship.

After a close opening-round match, Goodman would come out on top against Jones, the greatest player in the world and his hero, holing a putt to win the match on the famous par-5 18th hole. He had accomplished the unthinkable, beating the best player in the world in the prime of his career – Jones had been co-medalist of that year’s championship and had won the U.S. Amateur four of the five previous years. The victory launched Goodman into the ranks of the elite players of the era.

Defeating Jones was a life-altering event for Goodman. No longer an unknown, he was interviewed by the press and even invited to play a round with Bing Crosby. Upon returning home, he was asked if he would consider turning professional; he said no, preferring to make a career in business. Goodman wanted to play the game because he loved it, but he did have to make a living, and the Great Depression was about to bring the nation’s economy to a grinding halt. He eventually found work as an insurance agent.

In 1932, Goodman advanced to the semifinal round of the U.S. Amateur to face another of his heroes, Francis Ouimet. Ouimet had won the Amateur in 1931, 17 years after he won his first Amateur Championship and 18 years after his famous U.S. Open victory. Goodman won the match, but lost in the final to C. Ross Somerville of London, Ontario.

The following summer Goodman would produce his greatest accomplishment at the North Shore Golf Club in suburban Chicago. He held off some of the game’s greatest professionals, including Ralph Guldahl, pre-championship favorite Gene Sarazen, and even a late challenge from the man he had caddied for so many years earlier, Walter Hagen.

Goodman would go on to capture the U.S. Amateur in 1937, defeating Raymond Billows in the championship final at Alderwood Country Club in Portland, Ore. Goodman’s victory marks the last time a player won the U.S. Amateur after winning the U.S. Open. The next year, he married his sweetheart from home, Josephine. Still an amateur, Goodman did not capitalize on his skill or fame and instead struggled to make a living. He joined the service during World War II and was stationed in India. Shortly after returning home, he broke his arm in a car accident, making it nearly impossible to play the game he loved so much. He died in 1961.

The USGA Museum has in its collection a group of portraits taken by noted photographer George Pietzcker, one of which features Johnny Goodman holding the U.S. Open Championship Trophy and showing off his trademark smile. Pietzcker’s work appeared in popular magazines such as American Golfer and Golf Illustrated. After documenting Ouimet’s victory in the 1913 U.S. Open, Pietzcker signed on as the USGA’s official photographer, capturing championships and personalities for the Association for more than two decades.

Robert Alvarez is the collections manager of the USGA Museum. Email questions or comments to ralvarez@usga.org.

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