Ask someone to name the greatest golfer in the 100-year-history of the SCGA and you'll probably start an argument. Or perhaps you won't.
The list of contenders is formidable: Paul Hunter, winner of five SCGA Amateur championships; George von Elm, who won the SCGA and California Amateur in 1925 and the U.S. Amateur a year later; Craig Steinberg, a four-time SCGA Amateur winner who also captured the 1996 SCGA Mid-Amateur; and, of course, a fellow named Tiger, whose amateur accomplishments include a record-setting performance in the 1994 SCGA Amateur and three consecutive U.S. Amateur titles.
And then there's Johnny Dawson, the man once termed "Golf's Uncrowned King".
Born in 1903, Dawson and his four brothers grew up caddying in their hometown of Wheaton, IL "where there were only 3,400 people and three golf courses," Johnny would later say. One of his regulars was the western manager for Spalding, and when Dawson was graduated from Wheaton High School in 1920, he went to work for the sporting goods company traveling the golf circuit to sign up professionals to represent Spalding.
The USGA eventually ruled that Dawson's job was a violation of amateur status rules so Dawson resigned from Spalding in 1929 to compete in the U.S., British and French Amateurs and the French two-ball championship.
After winning the two-ball and being a semifinalist in the British and French Amateurs, Dawson headed to Pebble Beach for the U.S. Amateur. There was, however, an obstruction looming: Spalding had refused to accept Dawson's resignation. Despite being assured by USGA officials that he would be welcome to compete, Dawson arrived at Pebble Beach (and set a course record in a practice round), only to have the USGA reverse itself. Dawson refused to fight the decision; he returned to work for Spalding and limited his competition to non-USGA events. He was runner-up in the 1935 Western Amateur to Johnny Goodman, defeated George Matson to win that prestigious event the following year, and also captured the 1940 Trans-Mississippi Mid-Amateur.
Dawson eventually relocated to Arcadia and became a member at Lakeside Golf Club. In 1942, he entered the SCGA Amateur Championship for what was to become a remarkable 10-year-long string. In so doing, he epitomized the second great "golden era of golfers" in Southern California.
At age 39, Dawson defeated Ralph Wolf, 5 & 4, in a quarterfinal match at The Los Angeles CC. In the semifinals, he blitzed 1939 SCGA Amateur champion Frank Hixon, 7 & 6, and in the 36-hole final match wiped out another future amateur golf legend, Bruce McCormick, 10 & 8, the largest final-match margin since 1925.
Later that year, Dawson returned to Pebble Beach to win the California Amateur; no player since has won both the SCGA and state titles in the same year.
The following year, at Hillcrest CC, Dawson went down in the semifinals to 1940 champion Smiley Quick, who went on to win the title, the only time in a four-year span that Dawson didn't capture the SCGA championship.
A year later, at Lakeside, Dawson was on top of his game again, knocking out Dave McElvoy, 6 & 4, in the quarterfinals and destroying Leonard Srere, 8 & 7, to reach the championship. His opponent again was fellow club member, McCormick, who pummeled Tom McAvity, 11 & 10 in their semifinal match. Dawson again prevailed, but only after going 37 holes in the final match. It was the only time to that point that two club members had met in the final match on their home course.
McCormick finally got his revenge in 1947 as he defeated Dawson, 4 & 3, in the championship, which was held at San Gabriel CC. That same year, Dawson again resigned from Spalding and this time the USGA invited him to compete in the 1947 U.S. Amateur, again at Pebble Beach. At the age of 45, Dawson astounded everyone outside of Southern California by reaching the finals, only to lose, 2 & 1, to another Southern Californian, Robert (Skee) Reigel.
The following year, Dawson teamed with Ben Hogan to win the Bing Crosby Pro-Am. Perhaps with a measure of apology but certainly in recognition of his stupendous talent, Dawson was invited to compete on the 1949 U.S. Walker Cup team where he and McCormick teamed to win a foursomes match, 8 & 7, and Dawson rolled over Irish golf legend Joe Carr, 5 & 3, at Winged Foot GC.
But Dawson wasn't done yet. In 1952, at the age of 49, he returned to Hillcrest CC and won his fourth SCGA Amateur title, defeating Bob McCallister, 2 up, in the finals.
For good measure, Dawson served on the SCGA board of directors for several years and was the association's president in 1952.
However, Dawson's most enduring legacy isn't his magnificent golfing achievements. Rather, it is his vision that you could actually grow grass in the desert, a belief that led him to purchase the Thunderbird Dude Ranch in Palm Springs and turn it into the Coachella Valley's first real estate development and second golf course, Thunderbird CC.
He followed that with Eldorado, La Quinta, Marrakesh and others in the desert, as well as Pauma Valley in northern San Diego County and Marin GC and Silverado Resort in Northern California. When you play one of the Coachella Valley's nearly 100 courses today, tip your cap in memory of the man who started it all: Johnny Dawson.