No player, except perhaps Walter Hagen or Lee Trevino, got more fun out of golf than Jimmy Demaret. Many of his colleagues believed that Demaret could have become one of the top two or three golfers in history if he’d had the killer instinct or dedication of a Ben Hogan.
But Demaret believed that the whole point of playing golf was to enjoy yourself, and if you can make money at it, why, so much better. So, dressed in flashy colors and with a perpetual smile on his face, Demaret toured the links, and became one of the game’s most successful and popular players.
Demaret was the first man to win three Masters championships (1940, 1947, and 1950). He was the leading money winner and Vardon Trophy winner (avg. 69.90) in 1947 and achieved 31 career victories. Six wins were Four-Ball championships, which Demaret halved with Ben Hogan. Demaret played on three U.S. Ryder Cup teams and was unbeaten in six matches. He was named to the PGA Hall of Fame in 1960, the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in 1957 and was on the three retired professionals inducted and was one of the three retired professionals inducted into the inaugural Texas Golf Hall of Fame in 1978.
The flamboyant golfing legend of the 1940s and 1950s was a companion of the Hollywood stars, heads of state and royalty. He was a fair-to-mid’ling warbler and once sang on network radio. Author Dan Jenkins once wrote that Jimmy Demaret first broke into national prominence by winning the 1939 Los Angeles Open and life had been one, big party ever since. New York restaurateur Toots Shor “roasted” Demaret when most folks thought a roast only involved a pig and a rotisserie. Toots came down to Jimmy’s hometown to partake in another Demaret social a half-dozen years later.
As proof positive that Demaret’s friends were legion, more than 1,000 paid $100 a pop to roast and toast Jaunty Jim at the Shamrock Hilton in 1977. A legend in the strictest sense, bon vivant, the Beau Brummel of his day, the happy-go-lucky Demaret achieved just about everything except the scaling of Everest. After he finally left the tour, Demaret devoted the majority of his time to the operation of the Champions Golf Club, which he and fellow-pro Jack Burke, Jr. established in Houston.
James Newton Demaret was the fourth of nine children born to the John O’Brien Demarets, who migrated to Houston from their native Washington, Louisiana. Jimmy, the son of a house painter-carpenter, arrived on May 24, 1910. He first saw the light of day in a house on Center Street in the West End of Houston, jokingly called “Worst End” by the kids in Jimmy’s block.
He attended Thompson Elementary School on Thompson Street, a block off Washington Avenue; West End Junior High, near Shepherd Drive, and old North Side High School, which later became John Marshall Junior High. He became a golf professional before he could earn his diploma, so he qualifies as one of Texas’ most celebrated high school dropouts.
Demaret retained a vivid memory of his first golfing experience. “A bunch of us kids were playing baseball near Camp Logan one morning,” he said, “when a Major Stinson (initials unknown) interrupted our game and told us he needed some caddies at the golf course.” “We got a dime a bag. We were all seven or eight years old and we’d never seen that much money. When I was nine, I was the caddy master, meaning all I had to do was round up caddies.” Camp Logan was activated during World War I and the golf course served as a rehabilitation center for U.S. Army personnel. It was located near Memorial Park, now in Houston’s Inner city.
A man named Mills Bennett gave Demaret his first golf club – a wooden-shafted niblick. At the risk of being called a “sissy,” Demaret hit golf balls all the way home from school to the golf course every day. A star was born.
Demaret helped pioneer golf in Houston and was educated by the likes of early-day professionals Carl Barker (Hermann Park), Jack Burke, Sr. (River Oaks) and John Bredemus, who also was a golf-course builder.
Jimmy had a number of assistants’ jobs and even tried the tour for a spell until he found his niche in Galveston. He got his first head pro job at Galveston Muny in 1932. “Galveston is where I really learned to play in the wind,” said Demaret, who was one of the best wind players of all time. “Because it was so windy on the golf course, we didn’t have any players till it eased up in the afternoon. That left the mornings free to practice. I would practice hitting with a side wind, so I could learn to hold the ball into it. Then, I’d practice hitting in a downwind and holding the ball on the greens. I got four years of the greatest experience of my life on Galveston Island.”
Equally important was Demaret’s blossoming friendship with Sam Maceo, entrepreneur and night club czar whose family owned several beach-front casinos. Galveston was wide open in the free-wheeling 1930s and 1940s and the big-name entertainment snubbed Houston to perform in the Maceo cabarets 50 miles away.
Maceo and orchestra leader Ben Bernie persuaded Demaret to play the tour part time. Jimmy, encouraged by his success on the Texas circuit, headed West in 1938 and beat Sam Snead in the finals of the San Francisco Match Play tournament. In 1939, he opened the season with a victory at Los Angeles, but Demaret returned to Texas when the tour reached Arizona.
A year later, the tour began to flourish under the promotional guidance of Fred Corcoran. Demaret, approaching his 30th birthday, decided to give it a go.
He played in 13 events in 1940, winning six of them, the Masters included. Demaret never won the Houston Open, but his victory in the 1940 Western Open at River Oaks was one of the most memorable wins of his career.
Demaret always had a club affiliation in his 20 years of touring. Unlike the golfing nomads of today who play for 6-digit purses, Demaret and his colleagues struggled to make ends meet. They built their tour schedule around their club jobs. The Nicklauses, Palmers, Players and Trevinos would jet around the world later to play their high-stakes game. Demaret and other poor pros piled into old-model jalopies, slept three to a bed and skipped man meals when they played their tournament golf.
Demaret hung around long enough to cash in. After his Champions venture was established, Jimmy jetted to every continent as narrator on the Shell Wonderful World of Golf TV series. And he even made a comeback in the Legends of Golf tournament at Onion Creek in Austin. Not only did he get a piece of the 6-digit tournament, but the dern thing was played on his course.