24 Champion Golfers Who Died Tragically Too Young
Once a year, in late October, the thoughts of golf fans and golf media turn to Payne Stewart, whose life was tragically cut short in that month of 1999 when he perished in a plane crash. Unfortunately, Stewart’s is not the only death of a golfer that was tragic and too soon. Here are 23 champions from the history of golf who died tragically and too young.
The tragedy of Stewart’s death is among the most recent on this list; he died at the age of 42 on Oct. 25, 1999, in a plane crash. It was a bizarre incident that played out over several hours on television, as cable news networks tracked a plane whose occupants weren’t flying up the middle of the United States, seemingly without human control.
Stewart was a hugely popular golfer, both with fans and his peers. He was known for wearing throwback outfits of plus-four trousers and tam o’shanter caps. And he was a 3-time major championship winner. His last of 12 PGA Tour victories was at the 1999 U.S. Open, where he edged Phil Mickelson by a stroke by sinking a tough final-hole putt. A statue of Stewart in his celebration pose after that putt now stands at the site of that tournament, Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina.
On the morning of Oct. 25, 1999, Stewart was among several passengers who boarded a plane to fly from Orlando, Fla., to Texas. Somewhere around 9:30 a.m., investigators later determined, the plane suffered a catastrophic loss of air pressure, incapacitating the six passengers, including the two pilots.
But the plane had made a northward turn just previous and continued flying on autopilot for several hours, news channels and Air Force jets following along. It finally crashed into a field in South Dakota, killing all aboard.
Since 2000, the PGA Tour has annually presented the Payne Stewart Award to “a player sharing Stewart’s respect for the traditions of the game, his commitment to uphold the game’s heritage of charitable support and the professional and meticulous presentation of himself and the sport through his dress and conduct.”
Allan was the winner of the first British Amateur championship played at Muirfield, which took place in 1897. According to Peter Alliss’ The Who’s Who of Golf, Allan rode his bicycle to Muirfield each day of the tournament and played in his everyday shoes. He died of tuberculosis one year later (1898) at the age of 22.
Anderson was born in Scotland but achieved his golf fame in the United States, where he won four of the five U.S. Opens from 1901-05 (1902 was the year he didn’t win). He also won the Western Open – the second-biggest pro tournament in the U.S. at the time – four times from 1902 to 1909.
But he died in 1910, only 31 years old. Cause of death? Sources differ. Anderson was a heavy drinker, and that surely played some role in such an early death. Some sources say the official cause of death was epilepsy, but the World Golf Hall of Fame cites arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).
Balbuena was a Spanish golfer who had never played outside Spain when he entered the 1976 Portuguese Open. He won it. He won again in Morocco in 1977.
On May 10, 1979 – one day before the start of the French Open – Balbuena was dining with fellow Spanish European Tour members Antonio Garrido, Manuel Pinero and Jose Maria Canizares in Lyon, France, when he collapsed. He died in the ambulance before reaching the hospital of an apparent heart attack. Balbuena was 29 years old.
One of the most dashing and creative players of his – or any other – era, Ballesteros was the driving force behind the emergence of a proud, competitive European golf scene in the 1970s and 1980s. And he bedeviled the Americans every two years in Ryder Cups.
He also won five majors – two Masters, three British Opens – lastly at the 1988 British Open. He won the money title on the European Tour six times and was Player of the Year three times.
His game started going south in his mid-30s, and his final win was at age 38 in 1995. In 2008, not long after playing in his first Champions Tour tournament, Ballesteros fell ill in Spain. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor and eventually underwent four surgeries to try to remove the cancer.
Ballesteros died on May 7, 2011, at the age of 54. His death hit fans hard around the world but especially was difficult for his many former peers and adversaries, and those younger pros across Europe whose inspiration he had been.
Celia Barquin Arozamena
Celia Barquin Arozamena was a student at Iowa State University when she was murdered on a golf course by a stranger on Sept. 17, 2021. The golf course was Coldwater Golf Links in Ames, Iowa; the cause of death was multiple stab wounds. She was 22 years old.
Barquin Arozamena, a member of the Iowa Hawkeyes women’s golf team, was the 2021 European Amateur Champion, and played in the 2021 U.S. Women’s Open. She also won the Big 12 Conference championship in 2021.
Barton was a top amateur golfer in England before World War II – the event that later took her life.
Barton’s first big win was the French Amateur Championship in 1934 when she was 17. In 1936, she won both the British Ladies Amateur and the U.S. Women’s Amateur, only the second golfer to win both in the same year. She won the British Ladies again in 1939 and also played in two Curtis Cups.
After Britain entered World War II, Barton volunteered, first as an ambulance driver, then as a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. She was killed in a plane crash at a Royal Air Force base in Detlin, near Maidstone, Kent, England, on Nov. 13, 1943. She was only 26 years old.
The winner of the British Ladies Amateur each year receives the Pam Barton Memorial Salver.
Blasberg was considered an up-and-comer from a young age, drawing attention for her game but also for her California-girl looks. She was, many believed, the next “it girl” in golf.
She won six NCAA tournaments in two seasons (2003-04) at the University of Arizona, was the Freshman of the Year, an All-American, and played on Team USA at the 2004 Curtis Cup.
She turned pro in 2004, but never enjoyed the success many prediced for her. Blasberg suffered from depression and struggled with waning enthusiasm for continuing her LPGA career. On May 9, 2010, at the age of 25, she took her own life.
J. Douglas Edgar
Edgar was born in England and won the French Open at age 30 in 1914. He then emigrated to the United States, and on the early PGA circuit twice won the Canadian Open, plus one more tournament now counted as a PGA Tour victory.
His win in the 1919 Canadian Open was by 16 strokes, which still shares the PGA Tour record for largest margin of victory.
Edgar’s golf swing was much watched and much admired by his contemporaries. He was the coach to a young Tommy Armour, and some – including Peter Alliss – have argued that Edgar’s was the first “modern” swing (full shoulder turn against a restricted hip turn).
Edgar was found bleeding profusely from a deep wound to his thigh on an Atlanta street on Aug. 8, 1921. He bled to death in the street. It was long assumed – police never solved the case – that Edgar had been mugged. In a book published in 2010, author Steve Eubanks suggested Edgar was murdered by the husband of a woman with whom he was having an affair.
Farr was a terrific amateur golfer who never really got the chance to become a great LPGA Tour player. She died of breast cancer (that widely metastasized) at the age of 28 in 1993.
Farr was a 3-time state high school champion in Arizona, and won the 1982 U.S. Girls Junior Championship and 1984 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship, and played for Team USA in the 1984 Curtis Cup. She turned pro in 1985 and over the next three seasons had a best finish on the LPGA Tour of third.
In 1989, at age 24, Farr was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her fight was an extremely difficult one, but one she faced with dignity, humor, and optimism. The New York Times obituary of Farr explained that after her July 1989 diagnosis, “Farr underwent more than 15 operations, ranging from a radical mastectomy to breast reconstruction to bone marrow transplants and spinal surgery.”
Twelve of her LPGA peers were in the hospital with her when she died. Since 1994, the LPGA has awarded the Heather Farr Player Award to honor golfers “who, through her hard work, dedication and love of the game of golf, has demonstrated determination, perseverance, and spirit in fulfilling her goals as a player; qualities for which Farr is so fondly remembered.”
Golden was a 9-time winner on the American PGA tour of the 1920s and 1930s and favorite partner of Walter Hagen. Captain Hagen had Golden on the first two U.S. Ryder Cup teams (1927 and 1929) and they partnered to two victories in two foursomes matches.
Golden was admitted to a hospital in Stamford, Connecticut, early in 1936 with pneumonia. He died three days later, on Jan. 27, 1936, at the age of 39.
Hugh won the 1891 British Open, beating his brother Andrew – the runner-up – by two strokes. He was a club professional and clubmaker. He died of an unspecified respiratory illness at the age of 29 in 1897.
“Champagne Tony” Lema was one of the stars of the PGA Tour in the early 1960s, winning 12 times from 1962-66. That included the 1964 British Open.
Lema was killed in a plane crash on July 24, 1966. He was 32 years old.
One of the most popular players with fans and media, Lema earned his nickname by fulfilling a promise to have champagne delivered to the media room if he won the 1964 Open.
Lema’s final tournament was the 1966 PGA Championship at Firestone Country Club. After the PGA, Lema and his wife boarded a chartered airplane to fly from Akron, Ohio, to the site of an exhibition tournament in Illinois. The plane ran out of fuel and, unable to make it to the nearest airport, crashed. All aboard were killed.
The airplane crashed into a water hazard on a golf course.
We call Tommy Morris Jr. “Young Tom” to differentiate him from his father, Tom Morris Sr. (Old Tom Morris). But we could also remember him as Young Tom because he died so young: He was just 24 years old when he died on Christmas Day, 1875.
Young Tom succeeded his father as a 4-time winner of the British Open in that tournament’s earliest era. Tommy’s victories were in 1868, 1869, 1870 and 1872. That was actually a streak of four consecutive wins – never duplicated in any other professional major – because there was no Open in 1871.
Three months before his own death, Morris’ wife died during childbirth, and the baby didn’t survive, either. Legend has it Morris died of a broken heart. His father, Old Tom (who outlived his son by 33 years), dismissed that, saying if that were true then he, too, would be dead.
But the problem really was Morris Jr.’s heart: the official cause of death was a pulmonary hemorrhage.
Ed ‘Porky’ Oliver
Porky Oliver weighed around 240 pounds, which doesn’t seem like all that much today (at least in the supersized United States). But in the late 1930s, when he arrived on the pro golf scene, that made him a very large man.
Oliver won eight PGA Tour tournaments, including three in 1940. His last win was in 1958. He also finished runner-up in the Masters, the U.S. Open and PGA Championship, but never won a major.
In fact, at the 1940 U.S. Open, Oliver was tied for the lead after 72 holes. But he was disqualified because he teed off the final round early – ahead of his tee time – in advance of approaching storms. Oliver once scored 16 on a par-3 hole during the Bing Crosby Pro-Am.
In 1960, Oliver was diagnosed with lung cancer and had part of one lung removed. But the cancer returned. Oliver was named the captain of the 1961 Ryder Cup team but was unable to serve due to the disease. He died at age 45 on Sept. 21, 1961.
Smith burst onto the pro golf scene with 10 PGA wins in 1928-29, including eight in 1929 alone. He eventually won 32 times in tournaments now counted as PGA Tour victories.
Even had he done much less than that, Smith’s place in golf history was secured when he won the very first Augusta National Invitation Tournament, i.e., the 1934 Masters. And in 1936 Smith became the first 2-time Masters winner.
Smith’s last PGA Tour win was in 1941, but he continued winning regional PGA events into the mid-1950s. In 1957, Smith had a lung removed due to cancer. He died at age 55 on October 15, 1963, due to Hodgkin’s Disease.
Willie Smith was part of the famous family of golfers from Carnoustie, Scotland. Both Willie (1899) and his brother Alex (1906, 1910) were U.S. Open winners. Another brother, Macdonald, is credited with 24 PGA Tour victories.
Willie Smith took a job as golf professional at the Mexico City Country Club in 1904. When the Mexican Revolution broke out in 1910, Smith was caught in the crossfire – literally. The country club, as a symbol of wealth, was attacked by Zapatistas in 1914. Smith was injured, hiding in the cellar, during shelling.
He recovered from that hardship and returned to Scotland. But in December of 1916, Smith died of pneumonia at the age of 41.
A native of St. Andrews, Scotland, Strath won the sixth Open Championship played in 1865 at Prestwick. He died of tuberculosis in 1868 at age 32.
Swaelens was a Belgian golfer who won the 1967 German Open and won his home country’s national championship, the Belgian Open, five times.
In 1974 he finished in the Top 10 at the British Open, which earned him an invitation to the 1975 Masters. But Swaelens never made it to Augusta National. He withdrew after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died, at age 39, two weeks after the 1975 Masters.
Tait was a Scottish golfer and career amateur, but that career ended at age 30 when Tait was killed in battle during the Second Boer War in 1900. Tait won the British Amateur championship twice, in 1896 and 1898, and had best finishes of third in the Open Championship in 1896 and 1897.
The Second Boer War took place from October 1899 through May 1902, and the outcome was the annexation by the United Kingdom of much of what is today known as South Africa. Tait was a lieutenant in the “Black Watch,” the 3rd infantry battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, and was killed leading a charge at Koodoosberg Drift on Feb. 7, 1900.
Every year, the low amateur in the South African Open Championship is presented with the Freddie Tait Cup.
In 1924, Walker won the U.S. Open. In 1948, he died in a jail cell in Hackensack, New Jersey.
Walker was born in Manchester, England, in 1892 and moved to the United States in 1914. His first victory in a professional tournament was in 1917, and in 1924 he beat runner-up Bobby Jones by three strokes to win the U.S. Open.
A very short death notice in Time magazine at the time of Walker’s death stated that Walker died of pleural pneumonia after going to the jail voluntarily, seeking shelter. Walker, the obit says, “gradually drank himself out of big-time competition, at one time worked as a caddie, ended up a dishwasher.”
He is credited with seven wins on the PGA circuit of the time. Walker was 56 years old at the time of his death.
Walker was one of the slowest players in golf history. According to a story told by Paul Runyan, tournament officials at the Los Angeles Open once had him arrested on the golf course for disorderly conduct when he refused to speed up.
Weetman was a fixture on British Ryder Cup teams in the 1950s and ’60s, playing in every one from 1951 through 1963, and captaining in 1967.
He won at least 13 tournaments on the British PGA circuit of the era, his biggest wins being the British Masters (twice) and the News of the World Match Play (twice). He had six career Top 10 finishes in the Open Championship.
Weetman died on July 19, 1972, at age 51, from injuries suffered in a car accident.
Wininger was a 6-time winner on the PGA Tour, first in 1955 and last in 1963. Money on tour was had to come by for many mid-level golfers in that era, and Wininger – even after winning three tournaments – walked away from the PGA Tour in 1959 to enter private business. But he later returned and won his other three titles.
Wininger died at age 45, on Dec. 7, 1967, after suffering a stroke.
Zaharias is one of the most important figures in LPGA history, arguably the greatest female golfer of all-time (I rank her fourth), one the greatest female athletes of all-time. She did it all: Zaharias won Olympic medals in track and field, she boxed, played baseball, basketball, was a competitive swimmer, a great pool player; she played football, fenced and wrestled. Among other things.
And she won three amateur majors in golf (two U.S. Ams, one British Am) and 10 professional majors. And her fame and celebrity kept the fledgling LPGA Tour alive through trying times in the early 1950s.
She was first diagnosed with colon cancer in 1953 and underwent surgery. She returned from that to win the 1954 U.S. Women’s Open by 12 strokes.
But the cancer returned in 1955. Zaharias won the last tournament she played. Months later, barely able to walk, she had a friend drive her to Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth so she could touch the grass one last time. She died on September 27, 1956, at the age of 45.