Doug Ford, Oldest Masters Champion, Dies at 95

Doug Ford, who honed his golfing skills on a public course in the Bronx and went on to win the P.G.A. Championship and the Masters as a leading tour player of the 1950s, died on Monday in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. He was 95 and the oldest surviving Masters champion.

The PGA Tour announced his death.

Ford’s golf roots were far afield from the more traditional Sunbelt origins of pro golfers. But his father and three uncles were pros, and he developed a brilliant short game along with superb putting.

A broad-shouldered, muscular figure who walked the fairways briskly, Ford became one of golf’s fastest players. But he had been in no hurry to turn pro. He waited until he was 27; he had been making more money playing would-be hustlers and winning bets than he could have earned on the tour in his era.

“If you want to be a good tournament player, you’ve got to learn to handle the heat,” Ford once told The Palm Beach Post. “The only way to prepare for that is to play for your own dough.”

Ford won 19 PGA Tour events, including his two victories in majors, and was a four-time Ryder Cup player.

Long overshadowed by contemporaries like Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer, he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2011 in the veterans category.

He won the 1955 championship by defeating Cary Middlecoff, the 1955 Masters champion and once a practicing dentist, in a match-play final at the Meadowbrook Country Club outside Detroit.

That victory came with an assist from Ford’s 10-year-old son, Doug Jr.

“Doc was as slow a player as ever walked this Earth, and I had my son carry a chair for me in to sit in when it was Doc’s turn to play,” Ford told Golf Digest, referring to Middlecoff.

As Ford related it, Middlecoff lit a cigarette at a green late in the second match-play round and continued to study his putt until he finished puffing away. The gallery, on a sweltering afternoon, grew impatient, but a seated Ford remained placid.

“That chair saved my legs,” Ford said in recalling his 4 and 3 victory (four holes ahead with three to play) en route to selection as player of the year by the PGA of America.

Ford won the 1957 Masters with a three-stroke come-from-behind victory over Snead, who was seeking a fourth Masters championship.

Going into the final round at Augusta National Golf Club, Snead had been ahead of Ford by three shots. But the day would belong to Ford, whose charge to overtake Snead was punctuated by a pair of memorable shots.

Rejecting his caddie’s recommendation that he use an iron on the 15th hole and lay up in front of a water hazard on his second shot, Ford chose a 3-wood for greater length and sent the ball over the water and onto the green. He two-putted for a birdie 4.

On the 18th hole, Ford had a plugged lie in a bunker, a predicament in which a ball is partly buried in sand. He holed out of the bunker, banking his shot off the green’s slope for a six-under 66 in the final round.

As a young man, Ford had spent time in pool rooms, which he said gave him “a natural feel for angles.”

“I was so excited that I tossed my club in the air, lost it in the sun and nearly crowned myself,” he told Golf magazine in 2012. “Boy, that would have been a great story: ‘Masters champion kills himself with his own club.’ ”

Doug Ford was born Douglas Michael Fortunato on Aug. 6, 1922, in West Haven, Conn., where his father, Mike, was a teaching pro.

Finding a similar job in the New York metropolitan area, his father moved the family to Upper Manhattan when Doug was a youngster. It was a rough neighborhood, Ford told Golf Digest; his closest friends became either F.B.I. agents or mobsters, he said, leaving him as “the only one who didn’t end up carrying a gun as an adult.”

He graduated from George Washington High School in Manhattan and made the public Van Cortlandt Park Golf Course in the Bronx his home course.

His father changed the family name to Ford for professional reasons.

“The Italians in New York at that time, they could work as caddies, but the club pros were all Scots and English and Irish,” Doug Ford told Sports Illustrated in 2009.

After Coast Guard service in World War II, he became a leading amateur in the New York area, then turned pro in 1949 and settled in Yonkers. He scored his first victory on the PGA Tour at the Jacksonville Open in 1952.

Coming off his triumph in the 1957 Masters, Ford finished in a tie for second place the next year, one shot behind Palmer. Palmer benefited from a ruling late in the final round that saved him two strokes by supporting his contention that a ball he had sent into soggy grass on the 12th hole was an embedded lie, which allowed him relief. That was the first of Palmer’s four Masters triumphs.

Ford’s last PGA Tour victory came at the Canadian Open in 1963. He later played in senior events on what is now the Champions Tour.

Besides his son Doug Jr., Ford is survived by another son, Mike; a daughter, Pamela; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. His wife, Marilyn, died in 1988.

Ford’s short game — shots from 135 yards and in — won admiration from his fellow pros, including Snead, Don January, Miller Barber and Doug Sanders. Ford said he drew on his father’s form and would also imagine how a particular shot would play out as he approached the ball.

Sanders recalled seeing Ford hit a chip shot with a 7-iron that bounced into a bank and rolled up to the hole.

“I said, ‘Doug, how did you do that?’ and he told me to go learn on my own,” Sanders told Sports Illustrated. “So I offered to take him to dinner, and after two carafes of wine and a $3.95 steak, he finally told me.

“It cost me $25. It was the best hustle of my life.”

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