In one way, this series of articles that I have written for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED encompasses my life, for in it I have tried to summarize the mental attitudes and physical techniques that I have developed in nearly 30 years of playing golf. But in a literal sense, of course, it is not the story of my life, for it has not explained how I learned this game that gives me so much pleasure, or what occurred in those years that I was working up to the handsome living that golf gives me today. Yet I feel that some of this has to be included, too. It completes the picture of the My Game part of this series, and it may enhance your understanding of the and Yours aspect of what I have written.
I was born in Latrobe, Pa., and I started swinging a club at the age of 4. I was completely hooked on golf by the time I was 7 or 8. We had some caddies at the Latrobe Country Club who played a good game, and because I was the pro's son they let me play. Soon I was beating most of them, despite the age difference, and it was a wonderful feeling. Like most other boys, I had been interested in baseball and football, but I gradually pushed these other sports into the background. Somehow I felt that golf was more competitive, that it had more thrills and satisfactions. I was on my own at golf. I did not have to depend on anybody else. If I won, it was my victory.
Even in those days, I hated to hit a bad shot. It made me feel awful. Without constant pressure from my teachers I would never have done my school homework, but nobody had to urge me to do my golfing homework. When something went wrong with my shots I couldn't wait to get back to the practice tee and go to work.
I began caddying at 11 and eventually became caddie master at Latrobe. All through the golf season, I worked around the course as a sort of third assistant greenkeeper from 7 a.m. until noon, had lunch, then worked in the pro shop until 7 or 8 p.m. My father says I was the worst caddie master he had ever seen or heard of in his life, because when no one was looking I would lock up the place and go to the practice tee. I don't think I was half as bad as he insists. I learned how to whip a golf club and do a professional job of shellacking a wood by the time I was 14. (I am glad I did, for working on my own clubs is now one of my greatest pleasures, and may give me a competitive edge over the pros who cannot do such things for themselves.)
We had a high school golf team at Latrobe, and I could hardly wait to graduate from elementary school and join it. I could beat most of the high school players when I was in the seventh and eighth grades. In my first match on the team, as a freshman in 1943, I shot a 71 and defeated a left-hander from the town of Jeannette. His name was Bill Denko, and that match with him gave me almost as big a thrill as winning my first Masters.
The more I played, the better I got, and the better I got, the more I wanted to play. A junior amateur championship in 1946 in Detroit was my first national tournament, and none of us could get even close to Bob Rosburg that year. But something happened that was even better than winning. It was there that I first met Bud Worsham. He persuaded me to go to Wake Forest College with him. The next three and a half years were in many ways the happiest of my life. There were six or seven topnotch golfers at Wake Forest, and we spent all our spare time playing against one another, a dollar a match. It was more than any of us could afford, and we played our hearts out.
After Bud Worsham was killed in an auto accident, school was never the same for me. The same scenes and same companions I had once enjoyed so much were no longer endurable. I quit college and, without really knowing what I was doing, signed up with the Coast Guard for three years.
For a year I played hardly any golf at all. Then I was transferred to Cleveland and found myself in the company of some fellows who had been scratch-to-12-handicap shooters in civilian life. I took up the game again—avidly. Not even winter stopped our group. We would go to a course called Lake Shore and play when the pins were frozen solid in the cups. We played eightsomes, bundled in our winter gear, with a hand warmer inside each heavy mitten and another one inside our pockets to keep the golf balls from getting as solid as stones.
When I got out of the Coast Guard I was 24, and I went back to school. This was the only thing, I realized, that made any sense. But my heart still was not in it. I quit again, with one semester to go on my degree. I returned to Cleveland to work as a salesman, and to try to make something of myself as an amateur golfer.
At the time, I still had no real thought of turning pro. Although it is hard to remember now, in these good new days when the pros play for $2 million a year in tour prize money and are more than welcome wherever they go, there was a time not so long ago when the golf professional was not even admitted to his own clubhouse. I knew some of the disadvantages of the business from listening to my father, and I was too proud to live my life like some kind of second-class citizen. So I had a vague hope of becoming a businessman and a top amateur golfer, too, playing in all the country's big amateur tournaments.