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The net effect of all these things—improvement in balls, clubs and golf course maintenance—seems to me to have made the game easier. A better ball, better lies through the fairway, more regular and smoother putting surfaces, clubs better suited to their intended purposes and, perhaps above all, the more perfect balancing and matching of sets, all must contribute to the making of lower scores.
Then there has been one very great change in the psychological side which has had its effect upon scoring in our big championships. In a way, I think it bears close resemblance to the psychological barrier that apparently was once erected against the four-minute mile. In my day every player set out in an open championship with some sort of feeling—often well defined—that he had to have at least one bad round. There was even a saying to the effect that "those who do not blow up in the third round will in the fourth."
I award to Ralph Guldahl the credit for breaking the barrier in golf. First at Oakland Hills in 1937 and again at Cherry Hills in 1938, Ralph made it clear that in order to win you had to play four good rounds, not just three. It has been that way ever since, and that difference of four to seven strokes accounts for most of the improvement in championship scoring since the '30s.
With all the changes in equipment and golf course upkeep, it is not unnatural that the question should often occur: What changes have come about in method? Is there a modern method, a modern golf swing which is essentially different from that of 25 or 30 years ago? Actually, I think not, and I believe that as long as man is constructed as he is, which seems to be a fairly reasonable prospect for the predictable future, the order of the movements necessary to the complete, sound golf swing are not likely to change. In two respects only am I able to find any difference, and these can scarcely be called fundamental in nature.
The first difference I note is in the somewhat restricted length of the backswing, and perhaps in the greater speed of it as well. I still think that the long, leisurely swing is best for the average golfer. I think he should always try to make certain that he gets the club back far enough and that his change of direction at the top of the swing should take place in a leisurely manner, because nothing can so seriously upset his timing and execution as hurry at either one of these points.
The second difference seems to involve a more careful, even meticulous, "sighting" of the shot. While we still have many graceful, comfortable-looking players, there are a number who have the appearance of being excruciatingly stiff as they strive to place themselves in precise alignment for the delivery of the blow. Some of these players are very effective—once they have settled into a satisfactory position, the quick, convulsive stroke seems to send the ball very straight indeed toward the objective—but I must admit I do not find the performance pleasing to the eye, even though the scores produced leave little to be desired.
All things considered, while I think it is true that the best of the oldtimers could play all the shots as well as anyone around today, it cannot be denied that the top few in any tournament today will make fewer mistakes than their counterparts of earlier days. The game of golf today is a more precise game than it ever was before, and the modern player has attained a more complete control over his own physical shotmaking machinery. He has also, through increased experience, learned a lot more about the management of himself and his game in tournament play.
This latter was something I had to learn the hard way, in a day of fewer golf courses and greater individuality, many years ago.
I began playing golf a few months after I became 6 years old, in the summer of 1908. My mother and father had started a procedure which was to become a habit: they took boarding quarters in a small summer colony near the East Lake Country Club. East Lake is only six miles from the center of downtown Atlanta. Yet in 1908 it was, in truth, out in the country. Simultaneously, my parents began to play golf.
One evening a golfing friend of my father's gave me an old iron club, called in those days a cleek, which he had cut down to a length suitable to my size. Perhaps I should explain to golfers of this modern era that a cleek was an iron club with a blade only a little more than a half inch wide, with a loft approximating that of the present-day two-iron.