History of the Helmet
One of golf's most distinctive trophies is earned in Tucson, where it has endured for four decades
March 09, 2015
By Mark Williams, PGATOUR.COM
- March 09, 2015
- Phil Mickelson, seen here in 1995, first won the helmet in 1991 as an amateur on the PGA TOUR. (J.D. Cuban/Getty Images)
In 1966, the Tucson Open became Tucson’s first sporting event to be broadcast live on national television. When Arnold Palmer won the tournament in 1967, a year after the newly-formed organization called the Conquistadores took over the right to control the event, Palmer took home a giant piggy bank trophy and a check for $14,000. It was that moment that the Conquistadores collectively decided a new trophy was required to recognize the winner of the Tucson Open. A Spanish helmet, a choice inspired by the organization's logo, was the result, but finding one wasn't easy.
After hunting locally with no success, a member of the Conquistadores, who was on vacation in Spain, was asked to return with sample helmets from which a suitable design was chosen.
George Knudson was awarded the first helmet after winning the tournament in 1968. It was made in Toledo, Spain, an area known for its fine steel-making since the fifth century B.C. The raw steel helmet weighed five pounds; the material was more historically accurate than it was practical. Subsequently, the trophy was made lighter and plated with gold-colored chrome. Its production remained in Spain until 1994, when Tucson’s Caid Metal Works took over the job.
During the 1991 prize-giving ceremony after Phil Mickelson famously won the tournament as an amateur, he cut himself while trying to put the helmet on his head. Even though he won two more times, Mickelson didn’t attempt to wear it again. Johnny Miller, known as the ‘Desert Fox’ after winning prolifically in the region, managed to wear the helmet four times without hurting himself.
Lee Janzen claimed the helmet in 1992 and it is prominently displayed in his trophy case at home in Orlando, Florida. “Guests at my house still like to put the helmet on,” said the two-time U.S Open champion and 2015 ACE Group Classic winner. “But you have to be careful when you put it on as it’s pretty big and it has a screw that sticks out on one side.”
“I guess I looked a little goofy when I put it on in 1993,” said former Masters champion Larry Mize, who keeps his helmet in the bookcase in his great room at home in Columbus, Georgia. “I like that trophy a lot. It’s unique.”
Jeff Sluman’s friends come down to his basement to look at the helmet in his trophy case at home in Chicago, Illinois. Sluman won the tournament in 1997 and remembers being asked if he minded having the helmet placed on his head during the final-green ceremony. “For some reason, I thought it was going to be fitted to my head,” recalled the 1988 PGA Championship winner. “It definitely wasn’t. I think it went over my head and was resting on the bridge of my nose. I had to hold it up on both sides so I could see. It would be great to have a second one of those in 2015.”
Jim Carter won the tournament in 2000 in his 272nd start on the PGA TOUR. Carter had tears flowing when the golden helmet was placed on his head and he couldn’t wait to get home to Scottsdale, Arizona, to show his three young sons the prize.Geoff Ogilvy won the coveted helmet in 2005 and wore it proudly. (Steve Grayson/Getty Images)
In 2005, Geoff Ogilvy, who had always admired the distinctive trophy since making his first start in 2001, finally won the tournament. “Oh, I love the helmet,” said the Australian. “It’s probably one of the cooler trophies going around in the golf world.”
Another cool moment occurred in 2005 when the Conquistadores held a surprise ceremony to belatedly award Palmer the helmet for his victory in 1967.
Kirk Triplett was the last player to claim the iconic trophy when he won in 2006. “I remember getting a note from Curtis Strange, letting me know that I now had one of the best trophies in golf,” said the four-time Champions Tour winner. “I thought for a second and then remembered that he had two U.S. Open trophies. How can a Conquistador helmet be as good as the U.S. Open trophy? I thought that was pretty cool.”
Triplett’s helmet sits in the office of his Scottsdale, Arizona, home. “It’s definitely one of the most unique trophies in all of golf. It shows the history of the tournament.”
Triplett will be in the field at this year’s Tucson Conquistadores Classic at Omni Tucson National. Other past winners who currently compete on the Champions Tour include Carter (2000), Sluman (1997), Mize (1993), Janzen (1992), David Frost (1988), Mike Reid (1987), Jim Thorpe (1986, ’85), Tom Watson (1984, ’78), Gil Morgan (1983) and Craig Stadler (1982).
The trophy was not restricted to men – or golf. Several women professionals wore the helmet after winning the LPGA event staged in Tucson from 1983 to 1987. Tennis legend Billie Jean King also spent time with the helmet following her victory at the 1972 Virginia Slims Grand Prix tournament at the Tucson Racquet Club.
Upon occasion, Honorary Membership status is bestowed upon individuals whose values and service to the Conquistadores makes them kindred spirits. NBC Sports anchor Dan Hicks joined this select group in 2012, which includes identities such as Bob Hope, Gerald Ford and John Denver. Hicks said at the time, “I was surprised and very humbled to be welcomed into an organization I have admired for decades since I grew up in Tucson. It’s a privilege to be included among them. Their charitable work speaks for itself and their enthusiasm for golf and spirit for the game is second to none.”
It’s not known if Hicks ever donned the helmet, but one thing is guaranteed – a golf legend over 50 will again wear the helmet on the final green at Omni Tucson National on a Sunday evening in March.