Back in My Day… “Wild Bill” Mehlhorn

By John Fischer III

Bill Mehlhorn (1898-1989), frequently known as “Wild Bill,” wasn’t from the Wild West, but Elgin, Ill., who got involved in golf at an early age. He was called “Wild Bill” because he could go “wild” shooting a string of low scores, but he always wore a wide-brimmed cowboy hat, adding to the belief he’d been a cowboy. Mehlhorn won 20 tournaments including the Western Open, the Texas Open (twice), and had 14 top tens in the majors, including runner up to Walter Hagen in the 1925 PGA Championship. He was also a sales representative for Golf Illustrated and for Hillerich & Bradsby golf clubs. Mehlhorn had a lot of theories on how to swing a golf club which were valued by his fellow professionals. Unfortunately, Wild Bill may have been one of the early victims of the “yips” on the putting green. But let’s let Wild Bill tell you part of his story himself, bearing in mind Wild Bill could switch topics in mid-sentence —

I went one year and one week to high school, and the only reason I quit was I threw my arm out pitching baseball. We won the Cook County Championship — I went to New Trier High School — and I pitched three days in a row. The athletic director tried to stop me, but I insisted I pitch because we had to win the tournament. I struck out 17 men in seven innings. Later in life I ran into Babe Ruth and bet him I could throw a golf ball farther than he could. Now, mind you, he had been a pitcher. I threw the ball 42 feet farther than he did. When I had my golf school in Chicago, I bet a bunch of baseball pitchers I could hit a golf ball with a full swing more accurately than they could throw it. And you talk about your pitchers cutting corners with their pitches. They said I was crazy. One of the pitchers was Charley Root, of the Cubs. I had a canvas with a six inch hole and I used a three-iron. I didn’t care if they only tossed it, not threw hard. Three different times I hit seven out of ten through the hole, and each one of the pitchers did it only once. They said it was unbelievable, and I said I used the golf club the same way you use a fungo bat.

“Wild Bill” Mehlhorn

I say you must swing a golf club at approximately a 45 degree angle to the ground. It varies slightly according to the length of the shaft — the shorter the club, the more vertical you swing it — but it is basically a sideways move. I don’t call it flat, I call it a sideways move. One guy said Mehlhorn was trying to change all the language, but, goddamn it, a wall is flat. Where are you swinging a golf club flat to that? A wall is flat, but a golf swing isn’t. 

All my life I did everything in a hurry, but I swing my club slower than my natural tempo. Tommy Armour said to me that every time he played with me he got mad because I hit it so far so easy. What does that imply to you? It goes right along with what I’ve been preaching. Muscles and joints have to be at ease in their performance. Joints are there to be used, not to be kept stationary. Go look up the word “stationary” for yourself and  you’ll use it again in golf. It says “immobile, fixed.”  That’s why I believe in bending your left elbow in the backswing. If you keep the left arm straight, you don’t use it, you lock that joint. Harry Vardon bent his left elbow almost at right angles. That’s what I learned from him. I started out as a hooker of the ball, but after playing with Vardon in 1921 I changed. I worked 13 months on it, to hit the ball from left to right. But not only that, to hit it easier.

The one thing Vardon said to me was to never use more than two thirds of my effort, except on rare occasions, and be sure those are near the end of your round, because if you do it earlier you may lose your timing and play a poor round. When you use all your effort, how consistent can you be? You’ve got to be within yourself. In anything. Suppose you had to cut down a lot of trees, that was your job. How much effort do you use in every blow? You don’t even use 75%, because you couldn’t last. So that’s what I came to.

Who were the great players of this century? To start with, Harry Vardon. Next is Bob MacDonald. I copied them more than anyone else, because they looked so easy doing it. They never had to be contortionists to do it. I say that if you do everything absolutely according to your physique, there’s no way you can hurt your back. Now the greatest player today, Jack Nicklaus, has hurt his back. In my day in the ‘20s no one ever hurt their back hitting a golf ball. No one ever had a pinched nerve in his neck or hip. Just think how many guys in the last 20 years have hurt their back or had pinched nerves. If you do things naturally, you can’t hurt yourself. Someone says, “It’s natural for me to do it in this way, why shouldn’t I keep doing it?” I say you can keep on doing it, but it’s unnatural if you hurt yourself. It’s a habit, not natural. It’s the same as the guy who learns to drink a lot. He’s a drunkard. It’s a habit. He smokes a lot; it’s a habit. Or go to the guy who eats a lot. That’s not natural, that’s a habit. Well, muscle habit is even more so.

So how did Nicklaus win so much? Because he could finish a hole better than anyone else. As a player he’s the greatest of all time, but as a golfer I can’t even put him in the first 50. Hogan had the greatest swing — not Snead — because Hogan had a more sideways movement.