Ralph Guldahl stands alone in golf history as the best player ever to suddenly and completely lose his game. Guldahl was born the year before Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson, and he shot to the top more quickly than any of them. In fact, during a dazzling stretch from 1936 to 1939, Guldahl was the brightest star in golf, winning two U.S. Opens, a Masters and three straight Western Opens. And then, mysteriously, he never won again.
Born in 1911 in Dallas, Texas, the precocious Guldahl joined the pro golf tour in the early 1930s, winning the 1932 Phoenix Open. In the final round of the 1933 U.S. Open at the North Shore Golf Club outside Chicago, the tall 21-year-old picked up nine strokes in 11 holes on Johnny Goodman, and on the 72nd holed needed only a four-footer to force a playoff. He missed it and essentially gave up competition for nearly three years.
Guldahl went home to Dallas and became a used-car salesman until he was asked to lay out a nine-hole course in Kilgore, Texas. The project inspired Guldahl to take up the game again. He began practicing and, on the advice of doctors caring for his sickly son, moved his family to the California desert. In 1936, a rededicated Guldahl finished eighth in the U.S. Open and a few weeks later won his first Western Open.
The 1937 season was his best. Guldahl won the Western Open again, as well as the U.S. Open at Oakland Hills, where he closed with 69 for a total of 281 that stood as the championship record until 1948. He would have had three Major titles but for an incredible reversal at the Masters. Guldahl was four strokes up with only seven to play, but he hit into the water on both the 12th and 13th holes to score a 5 and 6. On the same holes, Byron Nelson scored a 2 and a 3 to blow past Guldahl and win by two.