Unheralded Local Pro Parks Produces Stunning Win in 1935 U.S. Open
By Mike Dudurich
This story recounting the 1935 U.S. Open Championship, when unheralded local professional Sam Parks Jr. edged Jimmy Thomson by two strokes, is the 10th in a 16-part series detailing every USGA championship contested at Oakmont Country Club in suburban Pittsburgh, which is hosting its ninth U.S. Open in June.
When the U.S. Open Champonship was contested at Oakmont Country Club for the second time in eight years in 1935, the field was loaded with most of the best names of the day: Gene Sarazen, Walter Hagen, “Lighthorse” Harry Cooper, Byron Nelson, Horton Smith and Henry Picard.
So how in the name of William Fownes did a guy named Sam Parks Jr., the virtually unknown golf professional at nearby South Hills Country Club, end up holding the trophy at the end of 72 holes?
Elementary, my dear Watson.
The 25-year-old from suburban Pittsburgh stopped at Oakmont every morning before work and played nine holes on the world-class layout, gaining valuable knowledge and insight.
This young professional of just three years had some experience on the big stage, having competed in three previous U.S. Opens, including a tie for 37th in 1934, and was invited to the first two Masters (called the Augusta National Invitational until 1939), where he tied for 15th in the spring of 1935. But he still arrived at the U.S. Open under everybody’s radar.
Well, almost everybody’s. Sarazen was contracted to write a column for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and he issued a warning to the rest of the field.
“It will be interesting to see what Sam Parks, the Pittsburgher, will do in the Open,” wrote Sarazen, who gave Parks a lesson when he was 12. “He has been improving rapidly. His knowledge of Oakmont and its pitfalls should be a great asset.”
Parks didn’t get off to a bad start, but his score of 77 was bettered by 23 other players in the 159-man field. A pair of 73s in the middle two rounds vaulted him up the leader board. Buoyed by an eagle-3 on the par-5 ninth, Parks managed to pull into a share of the 54-hole lead with one of the big hitters of the day, Jimmy Thomson.
As if the course wasn’t playing hard enough, with its furrowed bunkers and lightning-fast greens, an afternoon storm during the fourth round made things even more challenging for the competitors.
Parks managed a 76 to win by two shots over Thomson, who had a chance to ramp up the already terrific pressure on Parks on the 302-yard, par-4 17th hole. Thomson’s drive reached the front edge of the green, but instead of executing a soft chip to get the ball close, Thomson’s title hopes ended when he bladed his shot over the green. He shot a final-round 78.
Two players who finished tied for 26th – Ted Luther and Frank Walsh – each posted 73s for the round’s best score, while some of the biggest names struggled. Smith, the 1934 Masters champion, carded a 75 to earn a share of sixth. Hagen, who finished third, and Denny Shute shot 76s, while Picard and two-time U.S. Open champion Sarazen each posted 79s. Not a single golfer among the top 25 going into the final round broke the par of 71.
Parks, who finished at 299, was the only competitor to break 300. The irony is Parks’ 72-hole total was the highest winning score since 1927 when Tommy Armour, of Scotland, and Cooper each finished at 301, with the former winning an 18-hole playoff. That was the first U.S. Open contested at Oakmont.
“I played all the golf I had in me. I was scared to death down the stretch,” admitted Parks, whose final round included bogeys on three of the last four holes. “But I tried to hang on with what I had.”
Parks’ 1935 U.S. Open win at Oakmont was his only major championship, with his only other top-10 major finish coming four months later in the PGA Championship.
His other big career moment also occurred in 1935 when he played on the United States Ryder Cup Team. He faced Alf Perry, the reigning British Open champion, marking the first time the Open champions of the U.S. and Britain from the same year played each other in the Ryder Cup. On the 36th hole of their singles match, Parks made a 30-foot birdie to win the hole and halve the match.
His U.S. Open triumph a few months earlier remains one of the more remarkable upsets in golf history.
And Oakmont Country Club’s second U.S. Open went a long way toward solidifying its status as one of the world’s great championship layouts.
Mike Dudurich is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer.