Legendary Golfer and Musician Don Cherry
By Tom Ward
Texan Don Cherry is truly golf’s version of “The Music Man.” He would barnstorm across the country, singing his heart out to the locals in the evenings and teeing it up in whatever big tournament was in the town the next day. Talk about burning the candle at both ends. Don was multi-tasking decades before the word came into existence. He’s one of those rare individuals blessed with an over-abundance of talent; being a great singer and a terrific top notch golfer. Unfortunately, he was caught in a revolving door, with one foot in the entertainment industry and the other on the golf course. Both came calling and Don was eager to answer. He was so good at both that he has the unique distinction as the only person in history to have ever had a top 10 song and a top 10 finish in the U.S. Open. The Wichita Falls native had a sweet golf swing and even a sweeter singing voice. From 1957- 1966, Don was the voice behind the iconic Mr. Clean commercial jingle, which became one of the most popular in television advertising history. In real life Don is Mr. Clean, as he has never smoked or drank, which is amazing considering the environment he was exposed to in the sports & entertainment field.
Don’s list of close friends is like a who’s who of the most famous people in the sports and entertainment industry. People like Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Mickey Mantle, Phil Harris, Bobby Layne. One of his best friends still with us is fellow Texan Willie Nelson, with whom he has recorded a few albums. Don and Dean Martin were best of friends because of Dean’s love of golf and respect of Don’s singing talents. Don was a regular guest on Dean’s very popular TV variety show in the mid to late 1960’s. And Don could hold his own on the golf course with the likes of Jack Nicklaus (still a close friend) and his longtime buddy Arnold Palmer whom he almost beat in the U.S. Amateur and U.S Open. Some of his other golfing pals included the late Sam Snead, Tommy Bolt and Jimmy Demaret. Don played in 9 Masters and 8 U.S. Opens. In 1960 at Cherry Hills in Denver, Don was an amateur who started the back nine of the final round only two shots behind the leader. This tournament is considered one of the most compelling in the annals of U.S. Open history, as a real changing of the guard was happening. The great Ben Hogan was trying to win his 5th Open, which to this day has never been accomplished. Hogan was paired with another young amateur from Ohio named Jack Nicklaus, who was right in the hunt as well. Arnold Palmer’s legend was made at this event when he drove the first green a par 4 in the final round trailing by 7 shots and shot 65 to pull off the incredible comeback win. Don was paired with his good friend Sam Snead and had a short birdie putt on the 14th green. As he was lining it up, Sam told him excitedly that he believed Don was going to win the Open. Well, Don missed the putt and struggled a bit down the stretch, but finished in the top 10. He eventually turned pro in 1962 and carved out a nice career while still maintaining a highly productive singing career. Texas golf great Ben Crenshaw said,” You can sum up Don Cherry in one word- Talent.” The legendary Ben Hogan once said, “Don Cherry was the best iron player I’ve ever seen.” The accolades go on, whether you’re talking about his smooth swing or his magnificent singing voice. Athletes have always wanted to be singers and vice versa for decades, and Don was the physical embodiment of that.
In 1955, during one of the 2 Walker Cup matches in which he was involved, Don was invited to do something that no other golfer to this day has ever accomplished and probably never will. After the matches, which the U.S. squad won, Lord Brabazon, the Captain of the Royal and Ancient golf Association, announced to the huge crowd, “Bing Crosby and Bob Hope tried to make it to the Walker Cup as players, but never did…now we have finally found a golfer who can sing. Would you please honor us with a song Mr. Cherry?” Don told me he sang the song “I Believe” on the steps of St. Andrews that day surrounded by 10,000 Scotsmen-and you could have heard a pin drop. Another great highlight for Don occurred in 1995 when he was inducted into the Texas Golf Hall of Fame, along with our 41st President George Bush. For a man who seemingly had it all, there was one tragic moment that brought his life to a standstill. On September 11th, 2011 his son Stephen was killed in one of the World Trade Center towers that unfortunate day. Don told me he didn’t want to give up like he saw his old friend Dean Martin do when he lost his son in an airplane crash. Don decided that he needed to sing and stay busy so he went to Florida to help raise money for a 9/11 memorial. It was his way of paying tribute to his son and all the others that lost their lives that day. Don said, “Singing always helped to lift me up. It made me feel better.” These days Don and his lovely wife Francine live in Las Vegas. Don is now 88 years old. Don’s wife Francine told me that there is a movie in the works about Don’s life. This column doesn’t even begin to touch on the life of such an extraordinary man like Don and all that he has accomplished throughout his long career on and off the golf course. To learn more about Don and his amazing career checkout his website at www.doncherry.us. Through his website you can purchase his classic music CD’s and his biography “Cherry’s Jubilee”.
Tom Ward can be reaached at www.teetimewithtom.com