FARGO — Tom Hoge is one shot behind leaders Lee Hodges and Paul Barjohn after three rounds of the American Express near Palm Springs, Calif. At an earlier, simpler time in history this tournament was known as the Bob Hope Desert Classic.
Hoge, a 2007 Fargo South graduate, is in his eighth full year on the PGA Tour. He’s yet to win a tournament, but has banked $7,784,962 in career earnings. That includes $680,690 this season, which began in September 2021.
If Hoge finds a way to win Sunday — at 17-under he’ll need birdies galore to get somewhere near the usual winning score of 23- or 24-under par — he’ll become the third North Dakotan to win on the PGA Tour.
The first two were Paul O’Leary of Bismarck — but best known as the longtime club pro at Lincoln Park Golf Course in Grand Forks — and Mike Morley of Minot.
Morley earned his first Tour card in 1970 and played until 1984. These were the days when $100,000 was the benchmark for a good full season. Morley’s best years were 1976 and 1977 when he earned $88,349 and $86,719 respectively.
Morley’s only Tour victory came in 1977, when he won the Ed McMahon-Jaycees Quad Cities Open by two shots over Bob Murphy and Victor Regalado.
Morley was good enough in 1976 to be the subject of a Sports Illustrated article, when getting in Sports Illustrated was the biggest thing in the sports world.
The article detailed Morley’s fine play to that point in the ’76 season, allowing the golfer to offer that quitting drinking and smoking during an offseason trip to Arizona helped his game. It also allowed him to offer a fine quip.
“For a week every time I wanted a cigarette I went out and ran,” Morley said. “I just about killed myself, but at the end of a week I didn’t want to smoke anymore. Or run.”
But it was O’Leary who was the true character of the two North Dakota PGA Tour winners. He was the club pro at the Lincoln Park municipal golf course in Grand Forks from 1961 to 1993, but long before that carved a legend as one of North Dakota’s greatest golfers.
O’Leary won seven straight Bismarck All-City titles beginning at age 13. He won three consecutive high school state championships and did the same at the state amateur, winning from 1946-48.
And then really good stuff started.
According to a 1994 profile about O’Leary in the Grand Forks Herald, O’Leary turned pro at age 20 and set off to find fame and fortune in 1948. Bankrolled by Harold Schafer, father of later Gov. Ed Schafer and owner of the Gold Seal Co., O’Leary hopped a bus to Los Angeles to begin his professional career.
“I’m green, having never been out of North Dakota except for a trip to Minnesota,” O’Leary told the Herald. “I take a bus from Bismarck that drops me off in downtown Los Angeles. It’s just me, my golf bag, golf shoes and a little satchel.
“The bus depot was down in wino country, but I wasn’t scared. I was cocky and naive. You know how you feel when you’re 20 years old.”
O’Leary’s destination was the famed Riviera Country Club, the only thing he knew about Los Angeles, but he didn’t know where it was. He knew it was by the Pacific Ocean, so he took a city bus in that direction.
“After I got off the bus, I must have walked four miles with my bag,” O’Leary told the Herald. “I walked into the pro shop and introduced myself to the pro.”
The pro gave O’Leary a break and allowed the North Dakota golfer to use the exclusive course as his own. O’Leary used Riviera as his home course for the 7 1/2 years he spent on tour. It was all free.
According to the Herald, O’Leary also played rounds with famed entertainers and actors Dean Martin, Johnny Weismuller, Ray Milland and James Garner. He’d make a few bucks gambling with them on the course.
“Take it from me,” O’Leary told the Herald, “Dean’s drinking was not just an act. He wasn’t quite as good as his handicap said he was. He’d accept three shots a side. Then afterwards, he’d take me out to dinner.”
O’Leary was the rookie of the year on the PGA Tour in 1949, finishing 32nd on the money list. He was 39th the next year. He won two PGA Tour events, the 1956 Imperial Open and the 1957 Erie Open. O’Leary played in four U.S. Opens.
These were the days long before big purses in pro golf. When O’Leary finished 32nd on the money list in 1949, he made about $6,000. That’s worth about $70,000 today. Hoge could fall to 24th place in the final round of today’s American Express and earn more than $70,000.
It was a different world.
But O’Leary had stories.
He told the Herald he once played with the great Arnold Palmer in the 1957 Chicago Open and recalled a 390-yard dogleg hole.
“I put my tee shot safely onto the fairway and Palmer looks over at me scornfully, like I’m a big chicken,” O’Leary remembered. “Then he cuts the dogleg and hits it near the green.
“Afterwards over beers, Arnie told me I played too conservatively. I told him that I wished I had the guts but I was too afraid of making a double-bogey. I just wanted to make sure I got a check.”
O’Leary played the tour until 1960. He continued to play tournaments until his later years and retired from Lincoln Park in 1993. The summer after he retired from Lincoln Park, O’Leary shot below his age of 66 at least a dozen times at the par-71 track. He matched his age another half-dozen times.
O’Leary was inducted into the North Dakota Golf Hall of Fame in 1999. He died in 2009 at the age of 80.
Hoge could become the third North Dakotan to win a PGA Tour event today, and by doing so would earn $1.368 million. It would also open other doors, including a possible invitation to his first Masters tournament.
Then, perhaps, Hoge could be on his way to the legendary status of O’Leary.