Archive for the ‘Golf History’ Category

Texting Old Tom

August 16, 2011

Today I decided to wrestle with my phone. Perhaps you have experienced similar deep emotions and bruising ego setbacks with this maddening appliance, as I have. It’s a pain in the butt, it constantly finds new ways to vex me, and no doubt it spends its time in the darkness giggling and smirking as it does everything in its power to run up my bill.

Running up excessive bills is why smart phones were invented, with little concession, the right word surely, to providing the customer with value commensurate with the cost.

A lady I met at a party recently tried to reverse my opinion by demonstrating how she could enjoy reading rare books on her phone. She had downloaded them to her iPain courtesy of the nice people at the Gutenberg Project. (This is an organization which has been busy digitizing old books, making them available in electronic format.) This made an impression, since my lovely wife and I have spent far more than is reasonable on books, yet we cannot seem to quell our thirst. The lady at the party explained that a huge variety of books was available — for free — and in seconds could be relayed from the library in the sky down into one’s phone. Then, one could at one’s leisure read the book and generate those lovely chemical pleasure reactions in the brain. Me want some of that.

So after spending far too much time today grappling with unwieldy and cumbersome HR software to apply for  jobs — I think we should be paid for our Herculean efforts, doing HR’s job for them — it seemed a fair deal to reward myself with a wee treat and get me some books. So I hunted and cursed and fell into the Internet mud, but finally after battling my way out, the Kindle book-reading software was installed on my phone, and I was soon reading a complimentary novel, “Treasure Island.” It worked! But now I wanted more.

There were already books on my laptop, made possible by “Kindle for PC,” and if I knew where the books lived on my laptop and on my phone, theoretically I could copy them from one device to the other. Then I could have sweet revenge on my evil black phone, and read a book on my laptop when it suited me, or if desired on the Devil Droid.

To get started I went looking for a new Kindle book from Amazon, and did a search on “golf.” (If you are looking for a regular, non-Kindle book, there are over 22,000 golf titles available through Amazon.) This search turned up some 1200 titles, high on the list of which was one by the golf scholar Valerie Gray. Her impressive work was entitled, “Getting Naked for Tiger Woods: or, I Was A Wanton Golf Tramp.” Yours — the book, that is — for $2.99. (Here I would like to assure my wife that I did not purchase this historical work, and no, I will not be tricked into saying anything like if the movie will be better.) Seeing that my search parameters were ill-chosen, I narrowed the field by selecting “golf history.” This yielded more desirable fruit, rather than the low-hanging variety provided by Ms Gray.

If you have looked around my blog, you found a story (“Golf Literati Dinner”) relating one of the most amazing events of my life, a banquet in St Andrews, overlooking the Old Course, for golf historians and writers, golf collectors, and one of the most famous golfers in history. (I sat next to him.) One of the singular characters of that evening was David Malcolm, a former University of St Andrews biology professor and at the time a redoutable golf historian. I will never forget him, and I am sad to say that this larger-than-life fellow passed away recently. He and his colleague Peter Crabtree had labored for years on a majestic biography of one of golf’s most important figures, Old Tom Morris. This work was published in 2008 in extremely small quantities, a hefty and exquisite tome that I simply could not afford, my ancestors having squandered the family fortune on whisky.

The Kindle Store search under “golf history” gave up 76 titles, and much to my amazement there was David’s book, “Tom Morris of St Andrews: The Colossus of Golf 1821-1908.” A Kindle version was available (for under $9) and I could be reading it in just a few moments. Wow. Soon I was transported, reading the early chapters, learning about the origins of golf, the seminal “Rabbit Wars” and life in early 19th century Scotland, completely absorbed. Then I came across a passage that had me drifting back to my own childhood, when my dad, like countless other dads, took an old golf club, sawed off a chunk, and handed it to their young sons as their first golf clubs. It’s how we got started playing the ancient and wonderful game. The quote, from Old Tom, includes some impenetrable Scottish terms and phrases, so let me help you.

There are a few meanings for the Scottish phrase “chuckie stanne” but the important one here is for ‘throwing stones,’ or small stones that were the right size for tossing or chucking. The earliest golf “balls” were small rocks, followed in the next experimental phase by wooden balls, which were then replaced with such improvements as leather stuffed with feathers, and then balls made from solid rubber. “Bairn” is Scottish for baby. Webbed feet are recognizable by anyone raised in moist places like Seattle.

“I began to play when I was six or seven, maybe younger. A’ St Andrews bairns are born wi’ web feet an’ wi’ a gowf club in their hands. I wad be driving the chuckie stanne wi’ a bit stick about as sune’s I could walk.”

Reading that made me want to get out on the golf course as soon as possible, where my thoughts will be with Old Tom. And you can bet your golf spikes I will not have my phone with me.

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The Masters

April 7, 2011

This is the week of the Masters, one of the greatest golf tournaments of the season, and I, for one, am excited. It was founded by Bobby Jones, the American golfing legend on the right, and was first held in 1934. My younger readers may wish to stop and reflect that this was before cell phones and the Internet; in that era golfers didn’t keep score using an app on their smartphones, rather they used a paper scorecard and an odd tubular device called a pencil.

There are many competitive events for amateur and professional golfers played during the year, and the Masters is considered one of the most important ones, which are referred to as the “major” tournaments. These days we think of the four majors as the US and British Opens, the PGA and the Masters, of which the Masters is the youngest. (The oldest is the British Open, which was first played in 1860.) There is more prestige for a golfer to have won a major tournament than one of the lesser events. Part of this is because of the historical significance, since as we’ve seen some of these golf tournaments go back 150 years, and the major tournaments are typically played on the best and most difficult golf courses. Part is because of the degree of the internal pressure involved, from those damn little voices inside a golfer’s head. And part is because of the presence of the best players in the game breathing down your neck, the external pressure of great competition.

Then there is the issue of money, millions of dollars. While some tour events offer more prize money than some of the majors, the prestige from having won a major translates into more sponsorship money and more bragging rights in the locker room. (Ladies, no blushing, please!)

As of this writing Jack Nicklaus, born in 1940, is the king, the all-time leader in major tournament wins. Nicklaus won 18 majors spanning 25 years: 6 Masters, 4 US Opens, 3 British Opens, and 5 PGA’s. Many golf historians think his record of 18 majors is unbreakable. The greatest golfers in history, such as Walter Hagen, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, have each won “only” 11 or less, so in comparison, having won 18 majors is staggering. Many top golfers play for years before winning one, and obviously many more have never won a major tournament, or even any tournament at all. We call these golfers “teenagers.”

No one has ever won all four of the professional major golf tournaments in one calendar year. This holy grail has been named the “Grand Slam.”

The professional golfer with perhaps the greatest chance of catching Nicklaus is Tiger Woods, who so far has won 14 majors: 4 Masters, 3 US Opens, 3 British Opens and 4 PGA’s. He won his last major, the US Open, in 2008. Woods seemed on a collision course with destiny, if we apply our friend mathematics in a simplistic way. If it took Woods roughly 12 years to win 14 majors, then it should take about 3.5 more years — meaning in around 2011 or 2012 — to win the 4 additional majors he needs to catch Nicklaus. We might conclude this if we  make all sorts of naïve assumptions.

Instead, Tiger Woods found himself on a different collision course in 2009, when his Cadillac Escalade — one of the dumber vehicles ever invented — ran into a tree and other impediments while evading his wife, on whom he had been cheating.  He has now gone some 20 tournaments without winning, his career stalled like the monster SUV he crashed. He had won an astonishing 71 tournaments — including majors — over a 14-year span. So averaging about 5 wins a year, one would expect that in the last year and a half, he should have won 7 or 8 events, of which at least one would have been a major. However, he has played in about 20 tournaments since his imbroglio (Italian for major screw-up), and he has not only not won a single tournament, but in only one of the events he entered did he finish any higher than 20th. He’s way behind schedule.

But enough about Woods, let’s talk about Bobby Jones. We mentioned earlier that nowadays the Grand Slam consists of the four most important professional golf tournaments of a given year. Back in 1930, Jones stunned the world by winning the earlier version of the Grand Slam. Back then, as now, some events were tougher challenges and more prestigious than others, and those four special tournaments were: the US Amateur and the British Amateur, and the US Open and British Open. An “open” tournament is one which anyone can enter, both amateurs and professionals; one must simply qualify. As you may well imagine, these are the most prodigiously difficult tournaments to win because all the best players show up. Notice that back then, that august group of four tournaments included two amateur events, which means that professional golfers would not have been able to play. This casts an interesting light on Jones’s career, since he retained amateur status through all those years, and yet he beat, in “open” tournaments, the best professionals of the day!

He would have won a great deal of money had he been designated a professional, but he chose to remain an amateur. As an amateur, the rules were very strict in that he was not allowed to collect prize money. On the one hand the professionals he beat suffered from a loss of face — losing to an amateur would do that — but on the other hand they welcomed the first place money, even when they came in second.

Another interesting sidebar is that in 1930, both amateur events were what is called match play, in which the gladiatorial contest is man against man, and the winner is determined by who wins the most holes. The other kind of event, which we see most often today, is called stroke play, in which each golfer plays (usually) four rounds of golf, and the lowest score wins. Some consider match play to be a real pressure cooker, and a more rigorous test than stroke play.

Bobby Jones won his first major tournament, the US Open, in 1923, and ended his competitive golf career in 1930 with a total of 13 majors: 4 US Opens, 5 US Amateurs, 3 British Opens and one British Amateur. It is very impressive that over that span of years, he entered 21 major tournaments and won 13 of them, for an incredible 62% winning percentage. No one else has come close.

As you can see, any discussion of the history of major tournaments and grand slams is like comparing apples and oranges, since in some cases amateur events and match play are involved, and in other cases professional events and stroke play.

Jones retired from competitive golf after his amazing year of 1930, but continued to play somewhat more relaxed rounds with his father and old friends. He never lost his considerable passion for the game, and sought other outlets, other ways to contribute to the game that had given him so much. That opportunity arose in his grand slam year of 1930, when he discovered a decrepit, overgrown horticultural experiment gone awry, dating back to the Civil War, in Augusta, Georgia.

Fruitlands Nurseries had been a successful provider of exotic fruit trees and flowers for many years, but had suffered a downturn and neglect. Like many great people who see things others can’t, Bobby Jones saw the 365 acre property, and imagined a great golf course. With a little financial help and a similar helping of golf course design savvy from one of the greatest golf course architects, Jones’s dream turned into reality, and the old nursery became Augusta National Golf Club. This course, Augusta National, is where the Masters has been hosted since 1934.

One of the reasons for the tournament’s uniqueness is that it is always held at the same course. It is considered one of the most beautiful golf courses in the world. (You should watch the tournament on the biggest high-definition TV screen you can find.) Other major golf tournaments like the US Open and the British Open are held on different golf courses each year. (It might be more correct to say that the British Open — or simply the “Open Championship” in the UK — is held on a course selected from a finite rota or set of links style golf courses every year. Links style courses are those that lie along the sea shore, so that the weather plays a key role.) It is this continuity and rich history of the Masters that renders it so special, a hallowed ground for golfers.

My wife and I have a tenuous but precious link to Bobby Jones. In 1958 he went to St Andrews, Scotland, where he had both won and lost life-changing tournaments at the Old Course, the most famous golf course in golf history. By that time he had been suffering from syringomyelia, a serious disease that dissipated his spine, and turned a vigorous athlete into a hobbling and delicate old man way before his time. He was to be the non-playing golf captain of an American team of amateur golfers competing in an international event.

Before he left for Scotland he had received a letter from the town’s clerk, who asked if Jones wouldn’t mind accepting an award while he was there. Jones inferred that this award was to be like so many other keys to the cities he had graciously received from towns big and small over his illustrious career. It turned out that the honorary title, Freedom of the City and Royal Burgh of St Andrews, was far more rare and special, and had been bestowed upon only one other American — to Benjamin Franklin, in 1759. Keep in mind that St Andrews is roughly one thousand years old…

The award ceremonies, featuring an emotional speech by Jones — which forces me to use at least six kleenex every time I read it — were held at Younger Hall.  The large and grand building, part of the University of St Andrews campus on North St, is where I met my wife.

It was the fall of 2006, the morning of the orientation for foreign post-graduate students. I was in a quiet, private mood, and so instead of joining the boisterous crowd in front of the entrance, I was across the street. What happened next was one of the weirdest things to ever happen to me.

In the crowd I noticed a girl with really nice blonde hair. Friends who have known me for a while would have said, right off the bat, that this was strange, because I love red hair. (One day I’ll tell you more.) She was in the crowd with her back to me; all I saw was her hair.

Then, a little voice said, “Go talk to her.”  I swear, it’s the truth.

I thought, “OK, I’m in Scotland now, nothing stopping me from recreating myself, and there’s nothing wrong with talking to her.” As I started to walk across the street, the massive doors to Younger Hall opened, and the crowd began to pour in. I thought, “Huh, I’ve lost her.” A few moments later and I was in the large room, looking at a multitude of metal folding chairs, many with butts on them. After a quick scan — and I can remember it like it was this afternoon — I saw her maybe 25 feet away from me. There was one empty chair next to her. So I sat down. I took a couple breaths and introduced myself. A moment later the principal of the University (the UK version of the president) came out onto the stage, and welcomed us.

Then he said, “Look around. One out of three of you will meet your future spouse here.” At that point I took another quick look at her, and thought, “Nah, she’s too young, and she’s out of my league.” Later, she told me that she glanced at me and thought, “Not him. He’s too old!”

The next fall, I proposed to her at Edinburgh Castle, in Scotland’s capital city, and we married a year later in Hingham, Massachusetts. She promised to love and obey, and to caddie for me when I play at Augusta National.

He’s Hired!

May 29, 2008

After a mid-May interview at Framingham State College, your Blogmaster General was hired as new full-time temporary faculty in the Department of Economics and Business Administration. I had a nice long chat and lunch with Bob Wallace, the department chair, and after a pleasant walk around the typically leafy New England campus I met with Dr Robert Martin, the Vice President of Academic Affairs.

These meetings were followed by email salary negotiations, and after all parties were satisfied, I signed a contract to teach three courses for the first semester of the 2008-2009 academic year. Subsequent discussions led to my decision to teach an additional course one night a week, which will bring in a little supplementary income to what will be in late October a new family. The contract provides for my employment at the College for one year, and Bob gave me assurances that this foot-in-the-door could lead to long-term employment.

I had sent out dozens of email applications to colleges and universities in the Boston area, aiming at deans and department chairs at schools that offered business degrees. Since I could not find Bob Wallace’s email address on the Framingham website, I sent him a résumé and cover letter through snail mail. When I write a cover letter for a job application, I try to put a little zing into it. The résumé should be dry and just the facts; the introductory letter should contain some of the writer’s personality. My introductory letter included not only a summary of my teaching experience and an assertion that I would make a great fit at Framingham, but also told a little of my Scotland adventure, of how I hoped to study golf history at the University of St Andrews and then how I planned to marry a nice Boston girl when I returned to the USA this summer. It also noted that I had discovered how Bob, an economist, had published a paper on the economics of tipping, and as a former bartender and wine steward, I looked forward to comparing notes with him. Bob sent back a letter saying, “I loved your letter!” And yes, Virginia, he included that enthusiastic punctuation mark.

He also told me that he had been to Scotland a few times and had played golf at St Andrews and other Scottish courses — there was no doubt a bond had already formed. Further emails enhanced our new relationship, and it was clear he was close to hiring me, except for the tiny detail of not having yet met me in person. My decision to travel to Massachusetts for an interview unquestionably helped to seal the deal. Amazing to think that of all the applications I sent to colleges and universities in the Boston area, most sent back a tepid ‘thank you’ accompanied by assurances that my credentials would be “kept on file,” while Framingham’s response was so positive that it led to a job offer.

I have really good feelings about working with Bob at Framingham State College, and I can’t tell you how much weight it takes off my shoulders to know that I have a good job waiting for me back in Boston.

Golf and Restaurants, Part I

May 2, 2008

I have been thinking recently of the important relationship between golf and restaurants. Those of you who do not play golf — you civilians — may not see the connection, but it is a long and significant one. On a wonderful day at the course with your friends, who would not think of getting a hot dog and a beer at the turn? (For you civilians, that’s the break between the front and back nines.) This is an ancient tradition that dates back to about 1132, when Farkus the Flatulent was beating Bagdir the Bellicose in a no-handicap match, and Bagdir pounded the daylights out of Farkus’s favorite yak with his 6-iron, and then ate it before teeing off on the next hole. As everybody knows, the first hot dogs were made of ground yak.

It is a popularly held myth that John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792) invented the sandwich, but golf historians agree that it was actually invented by a hungry Scottish golfer, when he tucked a small sheep between two pieces of bread. This is also how the expression “to pull the wool over his eyes” came about: his opponent chose the moment when his vision was blocked by his large sandwich to cheat.

There is considerable debate over the nature of the evolution of golf balls. Many feel the earliest balls were simply small, round stones, which were hit with crooked sticks by shepherds. In later years wooden balls were used, then featheries (leather pouches stuffed with feathers), then gutta percha (a kind of rubber), and then the Haskell ball, the first to be constructed of multiple layers consisting of a small rubber core surrounded by wound elastic thread covered by a tough outer layer. Recent documents suggest that one of the early balls, and Peter Lewis of the British Golf Museum disputes this, was in reality a very small haggis. Heavily smudged records show that customers of Cornelius Corstorphine, “the worst butcher in Fife,” often used small units of haggis for their games, since Corstorphine’s haggis was considered unfit for consumption.

When the first golfing clubs were established, such as the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers in 1744, or the Crail Golfing Society in 1786, they did not have what we would recognize today as a clubhouse. Instead, after their rounds of golf were over, the gentlemen would repair to a nearby inn or roadhouse, and enjoy a banquet. The Edinburgh “Gentlemen golfers” usually convened at a local tavern called Luckie Clephan’s, while the men from Crail dined at the Golf Inn, to this day a cozy spot with a nice fireplace.

On tomorrow’s post I will describe in more detail what one of these après golf dinners was like, and some of the unusual customs. You’ll be astounded at the quantity and variety of courses, and quantity and quantity and quantity of strong and satisfying beverages. Let’s just say that little pain was felt.

See you tomorrow.