SI Vault
 
California awaits the Amateur
Richard Pollard
September 01, 1958
On September 8, the nation's leading amateur golfers gather at San Francisco's Olympic Club to compete for one of golf's most coveted titles: the U.S. Amateur championship
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
September 01, 1958

California Awaits The Amateur

On September 8, the nation's leading amateur golfers gather at San Francisco's Olympic Club to compete for one of golf's most coveted titles: the U.S. Amateur championship

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

HOLE

YARDS

PAR

HOLE

YARDS

PAR

1

530

5

10

417

4

2

423

4

11

429

4

3

220

3

12

387

4

4

433

4

13

187

3

5

457

4

14

410

4

6

437

4

15

144

3

7

281

4

16

603

5

8

139

3

17

425

4

9

420

4

18

337

4

OUT

3340

35

IN

3339

35

 

3340

35

 

TOTAL

6679

70

Californians, looking forward to the U.S. Amateur golf tournament next week in San Francisco, must occasionally look back nostalgically to those wondrous, smogless days when, in almost every sport, the West was producing not just winners but legendary figures. Indeed, one must really look back. For the past 20 years hardly compare to the period from 1928 to 1938 when Californians dominated almost every sport. It was a golden decade—a wonderful time to live through, and it is a wonderful time to look back upon.

The University of Southern California's football teams under Howard Jones and track teams under Dean Cromwell were winning everything. San Francisco's Joe DiMaggio was hitting .398 in the Pacific Coast League, and he and brother Dom were heading for the majors. Another Italian lad, Angelo (Hank) Luisetti, who went from San Francisco's North Beach Italian district to Stanford, was being called the greatest basketball player of all time. Also at Stanford, a skinny, shuffling, bespectacled sophomore named Ben Eastman in 1932 broke Ted Meredith's 16-year-old 440; he broke it so decisively, in fact, that the puzzled clockers thought they had made a mistake. Pasadena's Charlie Paddock, finishing off his fabulous career, was now running second man on the Los Angeles Athletic Club sprint team, anchored by the new Paddock, a curly-haired youngster named Frank Wyckoff, who made the Olympic team while still at Glendale High School. And over at Pasadena High there was a bony lad named Ellsworth Vines who was to later win two national tennis titles.

It was inevitable that California's golden decade should produce a legendary golfer. His name was W. Lawson Little Jr., the son of an Army doctor. The bull-shouldered lad learned golf the hard way on the hilly, fog blown slopes of San Francisco's Presidio golf course, where a level lie is a novelty and biting winds a certainty. In 1929, at the age of 19, Lawson entered the U.S. Amateur at the famed Pebble Beach course, the first U.S. Amateur to be held in California. An awesome hitter but a wretched iron player, he barely qualified with a 155. While Little was winning his first morning's match, Johnny Goodman, a few holes back, was fashioning one of golf's historic upsets, his victory over Bobby Jones. Accounts of the Jones-Goodman match filled the newspapers. Very little was written about young Lawson's victory over Johnny Goodman that same afternoon. But for the stocky Californian this was the beginning of an illustrious, almost unique career. It was also the beginning of a lifelong friendship with Goodman, who in 1936 was best man at Little's wedding.

Those who saw Little's defeat of Goodman and his 36-hole match with Francis Ouimet the next day (which he lost) saw a promising golfer. However, for the next few years it seemed he would be no more than that. He was beaten early in the 1930 and 1932 Amateurs. He failed to qualify at all in 1931. After going to the semifinals at Kenwood in Cincinnati in 1933, he decided, at his father's urging, to stop off in Chicago on his way home and see Tommy Armour. Little realized that his iron game was inadequate for championship play. His drives were incredibly long, and he played a bold game, but he under-clubbed unnecessarily and hit far off his right foot. He had, as they say, a drive and a wedge mentality.

Last week Little recalled Armour's advice, as he stood in the trophy-lined study of his Spanish home off the first fairway at Pebble Beach. He spread his feet awkwardly wide. "This is the way I stood to the ball. It worked all right with woods. On my irons Armour told me to get my feet together and explained what my hands were for." Little brought his feet close together, opened his stance slightly and brought his hands up in a simulated swing, his small mouth set in that strange, offside smile. Or was it a smile? His opponents were never sure. He continued: "Armour taught me the finesse shots—three-quarter irons, wedges. He also taught me how to think a round of golf."

Lawson Little went back to Stanford University and set about remaking his game. Within six months he was no longer just a power hitter. He had become a golfer. He won the British Amateur at Prestwick in 1934, and British sportswriters called him "the greatest match player who ever lived." He earned this praise after the final round of a match with an unfortunate Scot named James Wallace. On the morning round, Little had an unbelievable 66, leaving him 12 up at lunch. In the five holes that afternoon, he had three birdies and two pars. Unable to win a single hole, Wallace lost by a record (it still stands) 14 and 13.

Little went on to win the U.S. Amateur the same year, repeated both triumphs in 1935, the last golfer to accomplish this improbable feat. During this stretch he won 32 consecutive matches. No wonder British and American writers, at this point, were proclaiming Little a better match player than Bobby Jones. Some, in their enthusiasm, wondered if he might not be the equal of Jones in any kind of play. Little promptly answered this riddle: he turned professional. Though he went on to win the U.S. Open in 1940—certainly a creditable feat—and played extremely well, his record does not approach that of the incomparable Bobby Jones.

Little's dramatic victories in the British Amateur—the high points of California's glorious athletic decade—were tonic to the West. It was fine to win at track and football—even tennis. But it was even more satisfying to win at a game which had been dominated by Great Britain and the eastern seaboard.

Enough reminiscing...it's 30 years later, and the U.S. Amateur is to be played next week. The site of the tournament is the demanding Lake Course of San Francisco's Olympic Club, built on the sloping east side of the high headlands between the Pacific Ocean and Lake Merced. Directly to the east across the lake is Harding Park, where young Ken Venturi learned his golf and where his father, Fred, runs the pro shop. Beyond this fine municipal course are rows and rows of gleaming white houses—peculiarly San Franciscan—stretching almost to the top of Mt. Davidson.

Although the Lake Course is near enough to the ocean to be fogbound and dampish most of the year, it has none of the characteristics of a seaside links. As a matter of fact, on only one hole, the first, does one see the ocean at all, though her fresh and erratic breezes are ever-present and, distressingly, seem always to be blowing toward the tee.

Continue Story
1 2 3