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GREAT MOMENTS OF GOLF
Bernard Darwin
September 03, 1956
Written especially for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED Every game has its intense moments which fix themselves forever in the memory. To the swifter-moving games belong those instants of victory or defeat which pass almost as the speed of thought. The historic moments of golf are slower and more drawn out and, for that very reason, perhaps the harder to bear. The hush that falls upon a golfing crowd as the player studies a fateful putt is full of agony. I have many visions from Scottish links of a big, black square of people watching and waiting around the green with only the cry of curlews overhead to break that eerie silence.
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September 03, 1956

Great Moments Of Golf

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Written especially for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED

Every game has its intense moments which fix themselves forever in the memory. To the swifter-moving games belong those instants of victory or defeat which pass almost as the speed of thought. The historic moments of golf are slower and more drawn out and, for that very reason, perhaps the harder to bear. The hush that falls upon a golfing crowd as the player studies a fateful putt is full of agony. I have many visions from Scottish links of a big, black square of people watching and waiting around the green with only the cry of curlews overhead to break that eerie silence.

These moments are apt to be capricious. While some have been obviously filled with impending doom, others have been apparently trifling accompaniments to the big show, and yet it is they that remain when the rest have faded. It is now 70 years since golf and I were first acquainted, and I will try to pick out of memory's storehouse a few instants of golfing time which are to me unforgettable. I will choose those in which American golfers have played some of the chief parts.

I shall presently dive back into the past, but I am going to begin out of chronological order with a fairly recent instance from our Amateur Championship at St. Anne's, which was won by that cheerful and imperturbable young golfer from Texas, Joe Conrad. It was in the final in which he met Alan Slater from Yorkshire, a good and resolute player, of whom no one had dreamed that he would get so far. Conrad had been 4 up after 18 holes, and he won the first after lunch. Five up—he was palpably in Easy Street. And then came one of those spurts that are the most thrilling things in golf, and the holes began to slip away, in the old phrase, like snow off a dike. Down to 4, to 3, to 2 and, after the 8th, down to one. The 9th is a short hole; Slater was perhaps 20 feet from the hole and Conrad 10. Slater holed his long one, and a mighty shout went up to heaven; surely the last hole of the lead was gone. But Conrad was not thus tamed; he holed likewise for a half in 2, and still he held his one hole. Instantly to the experienced watchers, skilled in omens, it seemed that a crisis was past; the attack had spent itself and now would come the counterattack. So it did; Conrad won the 11th and 13th and was never again in serious peril.

I give that as an example of the kind of decisive moment that I have in mind, and now I go back over 50 years to Walter Travis' victory in our Amateur Championship at Sandwich in 1904. If it did not actually found the American golfing empire, it certainly gave the foundations of the British one a very definite shake. What I may call the Travis terror came on by degrees as he holed more long putts with his then strange center-shafted putter, and, as our players went down before him one by one, we, who had at first esteemed his chances lightly, became more and more fatalistic. But this happened so gradually that I have in my mind's eye only one comprehensive picture of that small, vaguely sinister figure with the black cigar. He is standing still as a statue, Schenectady putter in hand, watching his ball rolling inexorably towards the hole. Yet one particular moment does come back to me. I am by the first tee in company with that enthusiastic American golfer, Devereux Emmet, waiting for Travis to drive off. Emmet turns to me with an expression of rapt ecstasy and says solemnly, "You may not believe it, but this man is one of the great golfers."

He was quite right, and I have never forgotten it. Now after an interval of nine years, I come to another great golfer, Francis Ouimet, whose marker I was when he beat Vardon and Ray in the historic playoff for the Open at The Country Club in 1913. But before we get to the tremendous events at Brookline, I must have a little light relief from Garden City. I went there first to watch the Amateur Championship and had the good fortune to see what is still, I imagine, the record tie in the qualifying rounds; 11 players tied for 10 places. Among them were the illustrious Jerome Travers, destined to win the championship, who had gravely endangered himself by a calamitous last hole; Robert Watson, who was, I think, then the president of the USGA; and Heinrich Schmidt, who had considerably distinguished himself in our championship at St. Andrews earlier in the summer and returned with a souvenir in the form of a thick, voluminous knickerbocker suit of a pronounced check. This he wore despite the blazing weather, and I think some of his competitors held that this was carrying the worship of Scotland ostentatiously far. If so, it added a spice of malice to the "very tragical mirth" that followed.

The method of playing off a tie, all 11 setting out at once at the first hole, was new to my British eyes. Since there was room for all but one within the fold, steadiness rather than brilliance was wanted. The drive must be straight; after that there remained a straightforward pitch over a boarded bunker, and any approach well over the green would probably be good enough, since one or two players were in trouble from the tee. Not so Heinrich Schmidt, for he was the longest and straightest of all the drivers. A five would clearly serve, but the gods meaning to destroy poor Heinie first rendered him mad. He took some much lofted club and played a high shot, very nearly perfect but alas! not quite. It just failed to carry the bunker; with his next the ball bounded back from the boarded face; with the next again it was gently fluffed back into the bunker. That was 4 and there was another—I think he was Mr. Ulmer—who had also played 4 and was not yet on the green.

It would have been painful enough if the two poor wretches could have played it out there and then, but they could not. They had to wait in their agony while nine other players got 4s or 5s amid much jocose handshaking. How long it took I cannot say, but to the two victims it must have seemed a foretaste of eternity. At last their turn came. Heinrich Schmidt got his 7, and it seemed as if he might live to fight another hole; but Mr. Ulmer (if it was Mr. Ulmer) holed a good long putt for 6. The ordeal was over, and the hero of St. Andrews eliminated. It was like the most ghastly game of musical chairs ever played.

A curly downhill putt

The account of Francis' triumph over Vardon and Ray has been written many times. The rain, the sodden ground, the puddles on the polo field, the damp, raw fog hanging above the treetops, the towels to keep the clubs dry, the crowds pouring out from Boston to see the heroic young defender of his country, the blare of the megaphones—they are still fresh in memory after three-and-forty years; but one moment stands out among the many, not from the playing off of the tie but from Francis' great spurt on the day before which made a tie of it. Several others had had their chances of catching the two Englishmen; one by one they had fallen down; only Francis had held on and he had nearly fallen. Now there are only two holes left to play, two good stiff par 4 holes, and he has got to do them in seven strokes to tie. At the 17th he plays a beautiful second but is still left with a curly downhill putt. How long? I do not now trust myself to say, but will hazard 15 feet. The ball takes the curve to perfection, and in it miraculously goes. And then comes the unforgettable scene. I look at the people round me, substantial citizens of Boston, and they all seem to have gone suddenly mad. Their mouths are wide open, their eyes jumping out of their heads, their hats waving in the air. And if ever people had the right, nay the duty to shout, they have it now.

Much the same scene is enacted at the same green next day when Francis holes the very same downhill putt for another 3. But the madness cannot be quite so glorious again. The first time it had come from the joy of being unbelievably saved; this time it is only the confirmation of certain salvation. Nothing can stop Francis now, and yet it is a comfort to see his ball soaring over the sodden cross-bunker to the haven where it would be. I suppose I signed the winner's card and handed it over to the constituted authorities, because I have seen it since at The Country Club, but I must have done so in a state of semiconsciousness.

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