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“Just step up and give it a swat”

Golf tips have become ubiquitous. Pick up a golf magazine, turn on the golf Channel, or check your favorite golf Internet sites and you are likely to be offered lots of concisely packaged ideas to improve your game. This observation led me to Tweet the following two liner a few months ago:

Golf Tip Twine

A thousand tips from Jan to December,
But when you need one, will you remember?

I do not deny that tips are seductive. But they are also often conflicting or incomplete. Sometimes they solve one problem only to create another. They are most similar to whispered betting advice, leading possibly to a few winners, but not many.

When I began playing golf, I benefited from hours of golf instruction given by PGA professionals. From there I went on to study, practice and swear. And now, many years later as a senior golfer, I just try to remember a few fundamentals as I play. At least for me, golf has become more of a game to be enjoyed and less of an application of lessons learned and tips remembered.  In short, the pressure is off.

An anonymous poet, whose poem “The Reason” in included in Lyrics of the Links (1921) by Henry Litchfield West, seems to agree with me.

The Reason

“You are old, Father William,” the young man said,
“And your swing has become very flat,
And yet you incessantly lay the ball dead.
Pray what is the reason for that?”

“In my youth,” Father William replied, “it is that
I studied and practised and swore;
But now I just step up and give it a swat—
What reason for anything more?”

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Golf and the Great War

The American Golfer, a popular golf magazine of a 100 years ago,  included a monthly column called “Foreign Notes” written by Henry Leach, its British correspondent. Leach wrote for the magazine for many years bring its readers the golf news from Great Britain. It should not be surprising, then, that after the start of the First World War, Leach often included war news when it intersected with golf.

Leach reported on professionals, amateurs and caddies that had signed up to serve; there were many in each category. He also reported the deaths of a number of well-known golfers, men and women. And once in a while he included a story that showed how inescapable golf is even in war-time. An example from the March 1919 issue:

Shorty after the British forces occupied Bagdad (sic), a course was laid out, and when it was completed thoughts were soon turned to contemplation of the first championship of Bagdad. A competition was duly organized, and the news of it spread for miles and miles over the surrounding country where the British golfers were. . . .

An English club  professional  named Hardman, a gunner in the War and three days travel from the course, resolved to play. And with a score of 70, won. Leach ends his piece with “Such is a little romance of the war and golf.”

The American Golfer also occasionally included a poem that related to the War. In the June 1915 issue, a poet who signed as “Hari-Kari” contributed a long poem titled “Any Links in War Time.” It begins:

There’s a ceaseless pulse o’er the course all day like the throbbing of phantom drums,
And we strain our ears in the midst of our stroke for the news that never comes;
The dormy house is an hospital—it’s all that it’s wanted for;
And the oldsters play their round per day, but the boys have gone to the war.

The fourth stanza continues:

I am told three score of the Club, or more, are serving the country now,
For Colonel Bogey is no old fogey when once it comes to a row.
There’s twenty-one of the caddies gone, and we’ve lost our assistant pro;
And our greenkeeper’s son died saving his gun—he was one of the first to go.

And the poem ends with these lines:

We think no shame to stick to the game that has kept our youngsters fit
And sent them forth to the game of War with the genuine golfer’s grit.
But though perforce we stick to the course, our hearts are away in France,
As we pray that the guns may spare our sons in “the day” of the great advance.

I wonder what impact Leach’s reporting and poems like this one had on American readers of the magazine.

Note: Since I wrote this Post I have found out that “Hari-Kari” was a pseudonym used by Robert H. K. Browning. Also since writing this Post I have written three Posts that including Browning poems written under his own name.

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Remembering Tom Watson at the 2009 Open

Just after last year’s British Open I wrote a poem to commemorate Tom Watson’s memorable performance. Since then I have revised the poem slightly. You might also enjoy the poem I wrote about Doug Sanders at the 1970 Open.

Watson At Turnberry – The 2009 Open

From the tee at eighteen
He looked down towards the home hole
Like a pitcher with a one run lead looks
Toward home plate needing one more out.

As he drove his ball
We knew what the magic number was.
When the camera showed a safe white speck
We exhaled in unison and counted one.

Now it was an eight iron to the green
Or was it a nine?
A question to be answered twice,
The first time by Watson alone.

He was thinking nine but hit the eight
And as we watched with growing anxiety
The ball bounced hard and rolled too far.
We held our breath and counted two.

Again a choice: to chip or putt.
“One of the best chippers of all time,”
The words of an old pro in the booth.
But the third stroke would be a putt.

From off the green the ball raced up
Then by the hole a good eight feet.
He said he had seen grain.
Down to one, we saw trouble.

Once more a putt to win the Open,
But this was not a kid with a dream
This was a Champion Golfer five times over.
Yet now we feared the worst.

While he took two short practice strokes
We lost interest in counting
And as the ball rolled weakly off his putter
We lost all hope as well.

“I made a lousy putt,” Watson’s words;
“Then it was one bad shot after another.”
A self-stated epitaph marked the close:
“The Old Fogy Almost Did It.”

And so the golf writers lost their story
To an illustrious sage from an earlier time.
It wouldn’t be about Watson winning or losing –
But how he had played the Game.

And did he ever!

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Haskell on the Brain

The golf ball has gone through relatively few fundamental changes in the last 460 years. The first ball to be documented was wooden and was played in 1550. The feather golf ball, or “featherie” was introduced in 1618. In 1848, the Gutta Percha ball or “Guttie,” made from the rubber like sap of the Gutta tree began to be played at St. Andrews and then more widely. In 1898, Coburn Haskell introduced the one-piece rubber cored ball. By 1901 it was universally accepted. Finally in 1972 Spalding began selling the first two-piece ball, the Executive, which was the first basic improvement on Haskell’s design. Now it seems like there is a new and better ball every week, leading to the Twine:

If last week’s ball by this week’s is outdone,
We’ll soon be reaching every green in one!

Getting back to the fundamental progression in golf ball technology, the early changes at least led to conflict and controversy. The change from featherie to guttie, caused a split between Allan Robertson and Tom Morris. Morris who worked making featheries in Robertson’s shop, played a guttie one day. When Robertson got word that Morris was playing the new ball, he fired him.

The Haskell was the first new ball to be made in America. And this caused at least one British golf poet to write some verses in protest. The poem as it appeared in the magazine Punch in November 1902 is as follows:

A GROWL FROM GOLFLAND

Bores there are of various species, of the platform, of the quill,
Bores obsessed by Christian Science or the Education Bill,
But the most exasperating and intolerable bore
Is the man who talks of nothing but the latest “rubber core.”

Place him in the Great Sahara, plant him on an Arctic floe,
Or a desert island, fifteen thousand miles from Westward Ho!
Pick him up a twelvemonth later, and I’ll wager that you find
Rubber filling versus gutty still and solely on his mind.

O American invaders, I accept your beef, your boots,
Your historical romances, and your Californian fruits;
But in tones of humble protest I am tempted to exclaim,
“Can’t you draw the line at commerce, can’t you spare one British game?”

I am but a simple duffer; I am quite prepared to state
That my lowest round on record was a paltry 88;
That my partner in a foursome needs the patience of a Job,
That in moments of excitement I am apt to miss the globe.

With my brassy and my putter I am very far to seek,
Generally slice to cover with my iron and my cleek;
But I boast a single virtue: I can honestly maintain
I’ve escaped the fatal fever known as Haskell on the brain.

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