FARGO — Tom Hoge is one shot behind leaders Lee Hodges and Paul Barjohn after three laps of the American Express near Palm Springs, Calif. In an earlier, simpler time in history, this tournament was known as the Bob Hope Desert Classic.
Hoge, who graduated from Fargo South in 2007, is in his eighth full year on the PGA Tour. He is yet to win a tournament, but has amassed $7,784,962 in career earnings. That includes $680,690 this season, which kicked off in September 2021.
If Hoge finds a way to win on Sunday — at under 17, he’ll need several birdies to get closer to the usual 23- or 24-under-par score — he’ll become the third North Dakota to win on the PGA Tour.
The first two were Paul O’Leary of Bismarck – but best known as the longtime pro club of Lincoln Park Golf Course in Grand Forks – and Mike Morley of Minot.
Morley got his first Tour card in 1970 and played until 1984. That was 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 win came in 1977, when he won the Ed McMahon-Jaycees Quad Cities Open by two strokes over Bob Murphy and Victor Regalado.
Morley was good enough in 1976 to be featured in Sports Illustrated, when getting into Sports Illustrated was the biggest thing in sports.
The article detailed Morley’s fine game at this point in the 1976 season, allowing the golfer to offer that quitting drinking and smoking on an off-season trip to Arizona had helped his game. come up with a good joke.
“For a week, whenever I wanted a cigarette, I would go out and run,” Morley said. “I almost killed myself, but after a week, I didn’t feel like smoking anymore. Or running.”
But it was O’Leary who was the real persona of the two North Dakota PGA Tour winners. He was the pro club at Lincoln Park Municipal Golf Course in Grand Forks from 1961 to 1993, but long before that he carved out a legend as one of North Dakota’s greatest golfers.
O’Leary won seven straight Bismarck All-City titles starting at age 13. He won three consecutive state championships in high school and did the same in the state amateur, winning from 1946 to 1948.
And then very good things started.
According to a 1994 profile on O’Leary in the Grand Forks Herald, O’Leary turned pro at age 20 and left to find fame and fortune in 1948. Funded by Harold Schafer, father of future Governor Ed Schafer and owner from the Gold Seal Co., O’Leary hopped on a bus to Los Angeles to begin his professional career.
“I’m green, I’ve never left 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 LA. It’s just me, my golf bag, my golf shoes and a small satchel.
“The bus depot was down in wine country, but I wasn’t scared. I was arrogant and naive. You know how you feel when you’re 20.”
O’Leary’s destination was the famous Riviera Country Club, the only thing he knew of Los Angeles, but he didn’t know where it was. He knew it was on the Pacific Ocean, so he took a city bus in that direction.
“After I got off the bus, I had to walk 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 7½ years he was on tour. Everything was free.
According to the Herald, O’Leary has also performed with famous entertainers and actors Dean Martin, Johnny Weismuller, Ray Milland and James Garner. He would make a few dollars playing with them on the course.
“Trust me,” O’Leary told the Herald, “Dean’s drinking wasn’t just an act. He wasn’t as good as his handicap said. He was accepting three side-kicks.” Then afterwards, he would take me to dinner.
O’Leary was the PGA Tour Rookie of the Year in 1949, finishing 32nd on the money list. He was 39th the following year. He won two PGA Tour events, the 1956 Imperial Open and the 1957 Erie Open. O’Leary played in four US Opens.
This was long before big purses in professional golf. When O’Leary finished 32nd on the prize list in 1949, he won around $6,000. It’s worth around $70,000 today. Hoge could drop to 24th place in today’s American Express final round and win over $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 on the fairway and Palmer looks at me with contempt, like I was a big chicken,” O’Leary recalled. “Then he cuts the dogleg and hits it close to the green.
“Then over a beer Arnie told me I was playing too conservative. I told him I wish I had the guts but was too scared to do a double bogey. I just wanted to make sure I have a check.”
O’Leary played the tour until 1960. He continued to play tournaments until his senior years and retired from Lincoln Park in 1993. The summer after retiring from Lincoln Park, O’ Leary shot under the age of 66 at least a dozen times at the par-71 track. He matched his age half a dozen more 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 Dakota to win a PGA Tour event today and in the process would earn $1.368 million. It would also open other doors for him, including a possible invitation to his first Masters tournament.
So, perhaps, Hoge could be on his way to legendary O’Leary status.