GORDON WHITE: Family Continues Golf Tradition
Vitale Turnesa, an Italian orphan who immigrated to the United States in 1889 at age 14, quit his ferry job on the Hudson River to work on the grounds crew at a new golf club in Elmsford, New York, just 100 years ago.
He remained as the Fairview Country Club grounds superintendent for 52 years and, more notably, as patriarch of one of the most famous golfing families in the world until his death in 1960.
One of Vitale's great grandsons, the 30-year-old Marc Turnesa, posted his first victory on the PGA Tour a week ago today when the NC State grad won the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in Las Vegas. Marc became the eighth rookie to win on the PGA Tour this year and the umpteenth Turnesa to win a notable golf event over the past century.
This family of golfers, whose members learned the game on the classic old courses in Westchester County, New York, has been winning, teaching, living and breathing golf since Vitale and his wife, Anna, moved to Elmsford in 1908 where they raised their seven sons and two daughters. Six of the sons became golf pros. They were Phil, Frank, Joe, Mike, Jimmy and Doug. Each of them worked as a head pro at one or more golf clubs in the New York Metropolitan area during their lives.
These six golf pros insisted that the youngest brother, Willie Turnesa, get the college education none of them had. So they pooled their money and sent Willie to Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. He graduated in June of 1938 and never turned pro.
Shortly after graduation, Willie won the 1938 United States Amateur Championship at Oakmont CC in Pennsylvania. It was there that Bernard Darwin, the famed British golf writer, gave Willie Turnesa the sobriquet, "Willie the Wedge", because of his spectacular bunker play during the final round. Willie got up and down in two shots from greenside bunkers 13 times on his way to a lopsided 8-and-7 victory over B. Patrick Abbott in the final round scheduled for 36 holes.
Marc Turnesa is the grandson of Mike Turnesa and son of Mike Jr. Mike served as head golf pro at Knollwood CC in Westchester County, 1943--1987, after working as a pro at Metropolis CC in Westchester County and Inwood CC on Long Island.
Some of these Turnesa brothers were also quite successful on the old pro tour in the days when club pros made up the great majority of the tour competitors. Mike played the tour for 18 years prior to taking the job at Knollwood, one of the half dozen oldest golf clubs in the United States.
Mike and Joe Turnesa played in the first Masters Tournament at Augusta National in 1934. Jim Turnesa won the 1952 PGA Championship at Big Spring Country Club in Louisville, Kentucky. Joe Turnesa represented the United States on three Ryder Cup teams and eventually became the head pro at Rockville Links on Long Island. He was succeeded at Rockville Links by Mike Turnesa Jr., father of Marc.
John Derr, the senior golf journalist in North Carolina and a resident of Pinehurst, remembers Jim Turnesa's 1952 victory in the PGA Championship quite well. Derr was there when the PGA Championship was still a match-play tournament.
"Jim Turnesa won by only 1 up over Chick Harbert," Derr told me last week. "After the round was over, Harbert said, 'I got caught up in a clump of threes.' You see, Jim Turnesa made four straight threes on the back nine to get the lead he held on to for the victory."
The seven golfing Turnesa brothers grew up in Westchester County when that part of the Metropolitan Golf Association's territory was the booming ground zero for the game of golf in the United States. It was this Met region where so many of the best courses in the nation were being designed and built between 1890 and the Great Depression years of the 1930's.
Westchester County was considered "Turnesa County" by many golfers even though that was the area that produced Gene Sarazen, Tony Manero , Paul Runyon and Harry Cooper, champion pros between the two world wars who grew up on Westchester golf courses.
Ben Hogan, a Texan by birth, served as an assistant pro at Century CC in Westchester County, as Byron Nelson, another Texan, was an assistant pro at the nearby Ridgewood, New Jersey, CC.
Strangely, Vitale Turnesa, who started this clan of legendary golfers, never played the game of golf in his life. He and his wife, Anna, did not necessarily want their sons to be golf pros and Vitale often chased his sons off the Fairview course when they tried to sneak on after school to play some holes. But each of the sons caddied at Fairview while in grammar school.
Anna Turnesa banished all golf trophies to the basement of their Elmsford home that was quickly loaded with silverware as these golf-crazy youngsters of hers began winning everything in sight for juniors in the Met area. Mrs. Turnesa wanted Willie, her youngest son, to become a priest. Instead, he became one of the best amateur golfers of his day and a successful sales manager for a shipping company.
As these Turnesa siblings grew older there came more silverware as Joe won 14 events on the professional tour and came in second to Bobby Jones in the 1926 United States Open, losing by just one stroke. A year later Joe lost on the final hole of the final round to Walter Hagen in the PGA Championship.
Jimmy, the tallest of the Turnesa brothers at 6 feet 1 inch, beat Byron Nelson and then Ben Hogan in the 1942 PGA Championship before losing in the final round to Sam Snead just ten years before winning that major title.
Willie played on three winning Walker Cup teams and captained the 1951 U.S. Walker Cup team. He won the British Amateur Championship at Carnoustie in Scotland in 1947 and a year later won his second United States Amateur Championship at the Memphis CC.
But he always claimed his proudest achievement in golf came in 1956 when he was one of the founders of the Westchester Golf Association Caddie Scholarship Fund which has awarded millions of dollars to college-bound students who once totted golf bags over those hilly Westchester courses.
I played a round of golf with Willie Turnesa in 1983 at Quaker Ridge Golf Club, one of my half dozen favorite inland courses. A. W. Tillinghast, who designed the course, laid out a series of cross bunkers straddling the 14th fairway about 120 yards from the middle of a small green at this uphill, par-5 hole.
Turnesa put his second shot into one of those cross bunkers. Without much delay, Willie, who was then 69 years old, went into the bunker and hit a pitching wedge shot of more than 120 yards to within one foot of the hole.
Bernhard Darwin was absolutely correct when he named him "Willie the Wedge".
These sons of Vitale and Anna Turnesa had their own sons who taught golf and won tournaments and had their own sons. So there is a fourth generation of Turnesas who play winning golf. Family members claim Marc may be the best playing Turnesa in the 100 years since Vitale first pushed a lawn mower or pulled a weed at the old Fairview CC in Elmsford.
That Fairview course, designed by Donald Ross in 1908 and tweaked years later by Albert W. Tillinghast, no longer exists. The club moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, where Robert Trent Jones designed the current Fairview course after Vitale died in 1960.
Willie the Wedge was the last of the seven brothers to be born and the last to die as he passed on in June of 2001 at the age of 87.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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