Nobody knew where that ancient hickory-shafted ladies' mashie came from. It turned up one day in 1943 at Stalag Luft 3, Hitler's main prisoner-of-war camp for RAF officers in the forest of Sagan, and worked a remarkable change in the lives of hundreds of men.
Stalag Luft was one of the better camps. The Luftwaffe, which ran it, believed in a velvet glove policy toward POWs, on the principle that, if they were left alone and made reasonably content, their will to escape would be lessened. There was little of the bullying arrogance and stupidity common to other camps and, within severe limits, the prisoners could pursue their own activities. In their half-life of noise, dirt, insufficient food, discomfort and lack of privacy, what made life bearable for the prisoners of Stalag Luft was sport.
Soccer and Rugby—seven a side on a half-size pitch—softball, introduced by the Canadians and swiftly popular, and even cricket were played with an intensity and passion the like of which I have never seen since. Years of frustration were sublimated in games that could become tough and even brutal. The Germans soon banned Rugby because the sick quarters were filled with broken collarbones, torn ligaments and the rest.
One sport the camp failed to provide—at least before I got there—was golf. Then, shortly after I arrived, that little mashie turned up! I seized on it like a starved dog would seize a bone. Eager to put it to proper use, I and another man, a journalist named Sydney Smith, made ourselves a ball by wrapping yards of string around a lump of wood and covering it with cloth. It was not much of a ball, but it served, and we chipped it 50 yards back and forth for hours and hours. Others wanted to play, but Smith was firm. "Go make your own balls," he said, "and we'll let you use the club." And so they did.
Within days several new balls appeared, some even better than ours. As more people began to swing that overworked mashie, we designed a course, using doors, tree stumps and telephone poles for holes. Soon there were 12 of us, enduring the tolerance and good-humored scorn of the rest of the camp. The game was revolutionized when Danny O'Brien, a scratch golfer in Scotland, used some strands of rubber in his ball and outhit us by miles. Like the golfers of old, who mistrusted the Haskell rubber-cored ball and bemoaned the passing of the gutty, so we resented the usurping of string as the essential ingredient, but progress would not be stayed. By now balls were covered with elastoplast, the innovation of Ronnie Morgan, another scratch golfer, and tremendous pressure was put on the officer in charge of the medical stores for supplies, but this phase passed. The revolution in ballmaking was really under way, and the first one made entirely of rubber appeared.
The ingenuity of prisoners was considerable, and the collective skills of 800 men within a confined space were almost limitless. Within months ballmaking had become an art, rubber more priceless than food or tobacco, and its value soared on the camp market exchange. It came from soles of shoes, tobacco pouches and air cushions, and people wrote home for these things to be sent in quarterly clothing parcels. Brandnew rubber-soled shoes would be torn to shreds on arrival, the precious rubber cut into thin strands with a razor blade, wound round a core of metal and covered with leather, usually from the shoes.
Trial and error soon achieved the right tension in the winding and the right weight. The method of covering was similar to that of a baseball: two figures of eight. Thread and twine became commodities precious beyond reckoning. Eventually we were making balls exactly to the British specifications of 1.62 ounces and 1.62 inches diameter. These homemade affairs would fly true and could be hit to within 10 to 20 yards of a proper ball with a medium iron. From dawn to dusk every day, balls of every kind flew like tracer bullets around the camp; the miracle of it was that no one was seriously injured. Our finest ballmaker was an Australian named Samsom, and a sample of his work is now enthroned in the Royal and Ancient museum at St. Andrews.
Within a few months real balls began to arrive in answer to our fervent appeals to friends in Switzerland, Turkey, Britain and even some occupied countries. Better even than the new balls, some of our friends sent us real clubs and the precious mashie could at last be rested. I calculated that it had hit more than 300,000 shots, been tossed from one player to another thousands of times and yet its sturdy little shaft never yielded. It must have been 15 years old.
Among the new clubs was a limber-shafted driver. Its use was banned because of potential lethal effect within so small a space, but temptation was too strong for me. One frozen day when everyone was inside I teed a real golf ball at one end of the camp and let fly. The ecstasy of that impact, the first full shot in four years, was unforgettable; so was the apprehension as it soared away in a great booming slice over the kitchen building. The inevitable plunk followed and, as I soon discovered, the occupants of the room had flung themselves down as the ball crashed through the window, thinking a bored guard had opened up with a gun.
The Germans protested against the breaking of windows, which was not as amusing as it seemed for they had to be boarded up with wood. The highlight of such episodes happened when a friend of mine shanked his tee shot into the window of a German lavatory in the kitchen building. An Unteroffizier was showered with glass, but the only repercussion was a request to move the tee. The original course included all kinds of spectacular holes, with blind shots over huts, but these had to be abandoned as more and more people played. Anyone standing by a window was in the target area.