EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a series of four releases regarding 25-year segments of the Michigan PGA Professional Championship, which will be played for the 100th time Aug. 16-18 at Prestwick Village Golf Club in Highland. The second group of 25 tournaments were presented from 1947 to 1971.
By Greg Johnson, Michigan PGA
Chick Harbert, whose real name was Melvin, hit the long ball, as in drives over 300 yards in an era well before metals and more were used in club production and he won the Michigan PGA Professional Championship six times between 1946 and 1959.
He first worked at Battle Creek Country Club, near where he spent his high school years (Lakeview High School) and from 1946 to 1960 was the head golf professional at Meadowbrook Country Club in Northville.
In the broader world of golf he is best remembered for beating the best golfers in the world in winning the 1954 PGA Championship. He is considered one of the last “club professionals” to win the major championship before it gave way to being won by full-time touring professionals and switching from a match play format to stroke play in 1958.
Harbert was a do-it-all golf professional with world-class playing talent and confidence who had great success in match play, but he also identified as a proud PGA professional and golf businessman.
But did we mention he could hit the long ball?
The PGA Championship started a long drive competition in 1949 that it held sporadically over the years in conjunction with the championship. It has been presented once again in recent years. Bryson DeChambeau, scientifically devoted to swinging as hard as possible, won the 2018 contest with a drive of 331 yards.
Chick, who preached purging complicated thinking from the golf swing and had what could loosely be called a baseball-bat grip, won the inaugural event at Hermitage Country Club in Richmond, Va., with a drive of 305 yards.
His talent for the long ball and his overall game helped make him the dominant golfer in the second set of 25 Michigan PGA Professional Championships. His six wins are third to the nine won by Al Watrous between 1922 and 1954, and the eight won by Scott Hebert between 2006 and 2016.
On the national stage his win in 1954 in the PGA Championship followed the 1953 championship won by Walter Burkemo, another Michigan PGA professional from Franklin Hills Country Club who also won the 1955 Michigan PGA Professional Championship.
In fact, it was Burkemo who fell to Harbert in the final match in the ’54 PGA played at Keller Golf Course in Minneapolis, Minn. The PGA Championship was decided via match play from its start in 1916 through 1957. Harbert had a sparkling 24-10 record in match play in his 22 appearances in the PGA.
Match play was in Harbert’s wheelhouse with his intimidating long drives. He played in the 1955 PGA won by Doug Ford and was the host-pro because it was played at Meadowbrook. He lost in the second round in that one, but he was runner-up in the national championship twice, falling in 1947 to Jim Ferrier when the PGA was hosted by Plum Hollow Country Club in Southfield, and falling to Jim Turnesa in 1952 at Big Spring County Club in Louisville, Ky.
Match play success helped make him the U.S. Ryder Cup playing captain in 1955 where he won in singles and led the team to victory. He also played on the 1949 team and won his only match.
In all, he played in 65 majors, 21 Masters, and 22 times each in the PGA and the U.S. Open.
While in the first 25 years of the PGA Professional Championship the winners were often pros dedicated to their own games while holding club pro jobs or affiliations in Michigan to supplement income, the second 25 years gave way to golfers like Harbert, who competed nationally but also served in management and ownership of the golf shop as the role of the PGA club professional evolved.
Harbert even worked behind the tournament scenes at the national level, serving as vice-president of the PGA of America and co-chairman of the PGA Tournament Committee in the 1950s. The tournament committee role was especially significant in the years before tour stars pushed for a split from the PGA of America and the establishment in 1968 of what is now the PGA Tour.
Jack Berry, long-time Detroit News golf writer who like Harbert is a member of the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame, remembered that Harbert would routinely drive the green on what was then the No. 1 hole at Meadowbrook along Eight Mile Road.
“He would start his rounds that way,” Berry said. “He and George Bayer, who was over at Detroit Golf Club, were two of the longest hitters of their time.”
Berry said his ownership of the cart fleet at Meadowbrook and the club’s desire to share in the revenue may have played a role in him eventually leaving the club. Harbert moved to the Traverse City area and added another line to his resume – designing nine holes at the Torch course at A-Ga-Ming Resort.
“That was really the last we heard from him,” Berry said.
Melvin R. “Chick” Harbert died in 1992 in Ocala, Fla. He was 77.