Tommy Bolt (1916–2008)
Tommy Bolt was one of the top golfers on the Professional Golf Association (PGA) tour in the 1950s. The winner of the 1958 U.S. Open, he was also a pioneer in the development of the PGA’s senior tour that emerged in the 1960s. He later retired and settled in Arkansas.
Thomas Henry (Tommy) Bolt was born on March 31, 1916, in Haworth, Oklahoma, to Walker Jeter Bolt and Adreon Geneva Jones Bolt. Little is known about Bolt’s youth beyond the fact that his mother died when he was two. With his father working in construction, the family moved to Shreveport, Louisiana, when Bolt was six. Bolt dropped out of Byrd High School as a sophomore, and like many professional golfers, he caddied at the local club while growing up. However, Bolt also worked in construction and as a carpenter until he joined the U.S. Army with the advent of World War II. Finishing his stint in the army working as a golf instructor in Rome after its liberation by the Allied forces, he turned professional upon his return to the United States in 1946. However, still working construction part time to pay his bills, he was not able to join the PGA Tour until 1950 at the age of thirty-four. He won his first PGA Tour event, the North and South Open Championship, the following year.
The high quality of his game was often overshadowed by the outbursts that were fueled by his volcanic temper. He was known for throwing multiple clubs over the course of a round, and his actions earned him a variety of nicknames, including “Thunder” and “Terrible Tempered Tommy,” as well as numerous fines, reprimands, suspensions, and warnings.
Bolt was one of the tour’s top golfers in the 1950s. Although they were opposites in temperament, he and the quiet Ben Hogan were friends, with Hogan having a high regard for Bolt’s talents as a golfer. Hogan helped Bolt change his grip to combat a hook that threatened to derail Bolt’s career. Following that adjustment, Bolt played on the U.S Ryder Cup teams in 1955 and 1957 before achieving the highlight of his career, a victory in the U.S. Open in 1958. That year, facing scorching heat and brutally high rough in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the forty-two-year-old Bolt dominated the field at Southern Hills, winning the U.S. Open by four strokes over runner-up Gary Player. The last of Bolt’s fifteen PGA wins came in 1961 when he won the Pensacola Open, but he remained competitive after that. In 1971, he was tied with eventual champion Jack Nicklaus through sixty-three holes at the PGA before ultimately finishing third.
Bolt’s ball-striking ability made him someone to whom fellow professionals often turned for counsel. In addition, having never forgotten his own rocky climb to the professional ranks, Bolt regularly undertook unpublicized efforts to help young golfers, offering both career advice and financial assistance to many young pros. In his later years, he supported local golf teams as well as Native American students in their golf training. He also provided equipment and sponsored a tournament for an assisted living center.
As he got older, Bolt became a leader in the developing world of senior tour golf. He won the 1969 Senior PGA Championship, won the U.S. National Seniors Open five times, and was one of the leaders of the effort that created the Senior PGA Tour (which later became the Champions Tour). In 2002, the veterans’ committee of the World Golf Hall of Fame selected him for induction.
Bolt and his wife, Mary Lou Bolt, had one son. He published an autobiography titled The Hole Truth (1971), which recounted tales of life on the tour. Bolt retired to Arkansas, settling in Cherokee Village (Sharp and Fulton counties), where he was active in his church while regularly working with young golfers. Bolt died on August 30, 2008, and is buried in the Evening Shade-Sharp Cemetery.
For additional information:
Bolt, Tommy, with Jimmy Mann. The Hole Truth: Inside Big-Time, Big-Money Golf. Philadelphia, PA: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1971.
Litsky, Frank, and Bruce Weber. “Tommy Bolt, a Top Golfer Who Was Known Better for His Temper, Dies at 92.” New York Times, September 3, 2008. Online at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/04/sports/golf/04bolt.html (accessed April 6, 2018).
“Tommy Bolt.” World Golf Hall of Fame. http://www.worldgolfhalloffame.org/tommy-bolt/ (accessed April 6, 2018).
“Tommy Bolt, PGA.” Professional Golf Association, October 14, 2015. https://www.pga.org/articles/tommy-bolt-pga (accessed April 6, 2018).
William H. Pruden III
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