Born: June 30, 1922
Albert Cornelius Besselink was born June 30, 1922 in Merchantville. Tall and athletic with a gregarious streak, Al stoked his competitive fires in a wide range of sports as a boy, but eventually found his best fit on the links. He had amazing hands and was lethal with a wedge. Al and his brother, Ben, learned the game at the Merchantville Country Club, where both caddied. There Al also learned how to play for money.
After graduating from high school, Al hoped to play college golf, but his career was interrupted by World War II. He enlisted in the Army, rising to the rank of corporal. He endeared himself to officers with his golf skills and beaming personality. He entered tournaments when he could during the 1940s.
After the war, Al enrolled at the University of Miami and quickly became the star of the Hurricanes golf team. He competed in pro-ams and honed his game against the golf hustlers and country club swells around Miami, making thousands of dollars while maintaining his amateur status. Al played varsity golf from 1947 to 1949 and won the Southern Invitational Championship twice while a student.
Al turned pro in 1949 and played in the 1950 U.S. Open, finish in a tie for 12th at +1. He broke through on the pro tour in 1952 when he won his first PGA event, the Sioux City Open, pocketing nearly $3,000. That same year he also won the Colombian Open in Bogota—one of several winter events he played in South America over the years. He also won the South American Open and Baron Cay Open (in Venezuela) during his career. Al teamed with the legendary Babe Zaharias to win the 1952 Orlando Open and the 1952 International Two-Ball Open, as well. Al’s finest performance in 1952 came at the Masters, when he finished in a tie for third with Jim Ferrier and Tommy Bolt.
The tour win in Sioux City qualified Al to play in the inaugural Tournament of Champions, which featured a 20-man field made up of event winners from the previous 12 months. It was held at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas in 1953 and underwritten by Cleveland mobsters. Before teeing off, Al bet $500 on himself at 25-to-1. He edged Chandler Harper by a stroke at 8-under and won a wheelbarrow full of silver dollars, which totaled $10,000, along with the $12,5000 payoff on his bet. He donated half the winner’s purse to a cancer research organization, having just learned that Zaharias had been diagnosed with colon cancer. Legend has it that he gambled away the rest of his winnings within 24 hours. His good looks and go-for-broke style made him especially popular on the Las Vegas strip.
Al remained competitive throughout the 1950s. He was the glamor boy of the pro tour—a favorite among players and fans alike, and he dated more than a few Hollywood starlets. He won three more PGA events, finished second seven times, and won a handful of other tournaments. Al had three Top 10 finishes in the Masters and made the cut in 12 majors during his career.
In 1961, Al quit the tour to become head pro at the Philmont Country Club for three years, then rejoined the tour on a part-time basis while working for other clubs as a playing pro. He had held similar positions in the 1950s, including a stint at Grossingers in the Catskills.
In 1964, Al survived a triple-bogey on the next-to-last hole to win the Azalea Open. Because of his reputation as a swashbuckling gambler, local bookies suspected he was up to something and called the tournament suggesting officials hold up his check. Later that year the PGA put him on probation for his wagering activities. He won the Pennsylvania Open once and Philadelphia Open twice in the 1960s and notched his final tournament victory in 1969 in the Philadelphia PGA Championship.
Al was married three times—to the daughter of a Texas oilman, the daughter of a Main Line millionaire and the daughter of a Las Vegas builder. Each marriage ended in divorce. He retired to South Florida and continued to play old haunts like Miami Shores and the La Gorce Country Club in Miami Beach, and was enshrined in the University of Miami Athletic Hall of Fame. Al also designed clubs for makers like Golfcraft, including his beloved pitching wedge. In 2011, biographer Court Stewart published a biography of Al entitled Al Besselink: The Prince of Merchantville, New Jersey. He was still chipping onto the greens at 95 at this writing.