Orlando, Florida, May 1942: The deeply tanned tour pro rapped his three-foot putt towards the 18th hole, only to watch it spin around the cup and finish on the lip facing him. It wasn’t the first putt he had missed that day, and his playing partners looked in every direction but towards the broad shouldered man who was now bent over, shaking with anger and glaring malevolently at the putter in his hands. Suddenly he stood up and walked off in the direction of the car park behind the green. The other players watched disbelievingly as Ky Laffoon opened the trunk of his car, removed a pistol and proceeded to shoot his putter three times, shouting: “Take that you son-of-a-bitch! That’s the last time you three-putt on me!”. Milton Wayne, HK Golfer Magazine
Professional golf has known its share of players with tempers. The most famous was probably Tommy Bolt, whose outbursts were the stuff of legend. Tiger Woods has been known to let an occasional f-bomb make it onto live TV. And local kid Ky Laffoon was a member of that group as well.
Ky was born on December 23, 1908 in Zinc, Arkansas. His parents moved to Miami at a young age. His father Elmer ran Laffoon Transfer and Storage. Ky was a bowler, the first time the Daily Record mentions him from their online archives was in 1928 as carrying a respectable 149 average.
Two years later, Ky joined the professional golf tour. Now keep in mind that in those days, amateur golf held all the prestige. The year Ky joined the pros, amateur Bobby Jones achieved his Grand Slam of winning the US and British Open and Amateur tournaments. Pros played for piddling purses and were looked at disapprovingly compared with the amateur heroes.
But Miami was still proud of her son.
Ky was a club professional (Miami Country Club) at age 15. He later picked up a gig caddying for Titanic Thompson. Thompson was sort of a notorious character, he made his living by gambling and hustling, and playing a good game of golf. It’s not surprising that lunch with Al Capone would result from such a friendship. Thompson also testified as an eyewitness to the murder of mobster Arnold Rothstein.
According to Milton Wayne, “Thompson would beat all comers, shake his head, then indicate his scruffy club-bearer, and tell them, “Hell, even my caddie could beat you; double or quits?” Ky would proceed to double the winnings.”
But that was the state of pro golf back then. It was a living. And it certainly took genuine skill to make it and prosper on the tour.
Laffoon’s first win came in 1933, the Nebraska Open. In 1934, he won four tournaments, his best year. He was selected to play on the Ryder Cup team the following year.
Laffoon had a respectable record in the three US professional majors: the US Open, the PGA, and the Masters. He had twelve top-ten finishes in 17 years. And WWII postponed a number of chances. His final tally was ten victories in official PGA events, and two other tournament wins.
He also helped raise the level of professional golf. Despite hanging out with Titanic Thompson, he was scandal-free during his career, and by the time he retired, a couple of fellows named Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson had shown up, raising the status of professional golf and further distancing it from the hustling, betting days of the 30’s.
But he was still an interesting character. His car trunk typically carried handguns, rifles, multiple sets of clubs, wads of cash, chewing tobacco and whiskey.
When things didn’t go right, he would give himself as much abuse as his offending golf club. In one case, he threw his putter in the air, it came down on his head and knocked him unconscious. In another case, he hit himself in the head and knocked himself out. And when he missed a gimme in Sacramento, he kicked his putter, knocked the head off, and broke his toe.
He did love his strong drink. That contributed to his retiring from the pro tour at age 42. But he still played well, and made a living with his game. He once spotted a mark at Schifferdecker golf course in Joplin, a lanky player with rusty clubs. He asked the stranger his handicap and was told 15, to which he responded that he was a 16 himself, but would be willing to play straight up for a $50 Nassau. Later he was seen sadly lounging around the clubhouse and was asked if he had lost. He replied, “No, but you just can’t trust people these days. I had to shoot a 67 to beat the lying son-of-a-bitch!”
In 1982, Ky was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Two years later, he checked out on his own terms, killing himself at home with a gunshot.
Had he kept better control of his temper, and maybe had a little less whiskey, he might have won more tournaments. But Miami has plenty of reasons to be proud of its most famous golfer, Mr. Ky Laffoon.
Thanks to HK Golfer Magazine for providing facts for this article.