Bores, Burns, Bombs Can't Kill Game of Golf
Book tours are funny business. Many established authors I know detest them, owing I suppose to the stress of travel and rigid appearance schedules, unprepared interviewers, and any number of unpredictable circumstances from lumpy hotel beds to disappointed fans.
One time a cute little old couple in faded farm clothes waited about 30 minutes in line to say hello and have me sign their books. When they realized I wasn’t the Christian broadcaster James Dobson, they weren’t the least bit happy. But that’s another story.
Even after 10 books — bottom line — I still enjoy getting out and meeting my readers face to face, taking their questions and hearing their thoughts, like a fellow facing a friendly firing squad. Increasingly, I’ll admit, owing to my busy work life with PineStraw and O.Henry magazines, I prefer doing radio shows from the comfort of my own office and toddling only a little way from the hutch to speak to organized groups and events that might have some deeper interest and knowledge in my chosen subject.
With the Masters magic upon us, and my latest subject being the seismic influence Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson played in establishing the modern age of golf, I’ve recently done half a dozen delightful golf club evenings and maybe four times that many radio interviews just in the past two weeks. Boy, am I sick of the sound of my own voice. But that’s another story, too.
Curiously, almost every time I embark on the speaking circuit, one question seems to pop up time and again.
This go-round it’s this: “Given the way golf has declined in recent years, what do you think will be the future of the game?”
In fairness, it has been a terrible three or four years for the golf industry, with a record number of courses and swanky resort clubs closing their doors or being sold off at fire-sale prices, rounds plummeting, and many public courses and private clubs hanging on by their fingernails. Golf’s once robust growth has flat-lined, and one statistic I saw not long ago notes that during the past decade more people have quit playing golf than taken it up for the first time in nearly half a century. Everyone is talking about how to grow the game again, looking for a magic solution to bring back the boom years.
As I like to remind my book audiences, however, the game of golf is a 400-year-old game that’s survived plenty of good times and bad, world wars and economic catastrophes, and always managed to eventually grow again at the grassroots level.
But as I point out in “American Triumvirate,” and have written about here before, what’s really ailed golf over the past dozen years is the absence of a great golf rivalry like that of Arnie and Jack, Hagen and Jones, or Byron, Ben and Slammin’ Sam Snead.
As I spend roughly 400 pages establishing, going back to the founding fathers of the sport, anytime golf has had two or more leading rivals — preferably three or four — the game has prospered tremendously. Its fan base expanded dramatically, and its technologies advanced by leaps and bounds.
Little wonder, for example, when two thirds of Britain’s so-called “Great Triumvirate” — J.H. Taylor and Harry Vardon — arrived on our shores in 1900 to embark on lengthy golfing exhibitions to promote newfangled rubber-cored golf balls, the game’s popularity in this country exploded. In their wake, thousands of golf courses opened up for business and the beloved if erratic “guttie” ball soon joined the famous “feathery” ball of antiquity in collector cabinets across the planet.
Next came the somewhat uneven triumvirate of Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen, delighting fans and swelling galleries throughout the Roaring Twenties, a “Golden Age” when many of the nation’s finest layouts — including several here in the Sandhills — opened and spurred even greater popular interest in the game.
With Jones’ retirement in 1930 and the coming of the Great Depression, golf’s fortune took a major hit. By one estimate, as many as half the clubs and courses in the nation either shut down for periods of time or closed their doors completely.
Fortunately, a trio of incomparable and very different fellows named Hogan, Snead and Nelson rose from rural poverty and anonymity to effect a rebirth of the game as the 1930s waned — brilliantly dominating tournaments, attracting huge numbers of fans back to the game, vaulting coverage of the professional game back to the country’s newspapers, and innovating practices that are standard procedures in the game. Without question, the American game’s first serious athletic star was Sam Snead, its first great strategic thinker Hogan, its finest people’s ambassador Byron Nelson.
The American Triumvirate, as I call them, set the stage for the coming of yet another game-changing group — the so-called Big Three plus one: Palmer, Nicklaus, Player and Billy Casper. (The next time you need to win a beer, here’s a great trivia question: Who won more tournaments than anyone else in the 1960s? The answer is quiet Billy Casper, whose memoirs, by the way, also just came out and are well worth reading.)
The late ’70s to the early ’90s witnessed a stream of charismatic stars, a broader cavalcade of great players like Seve Ballesteros, Tom Watson, Johnny Miller, Greg Norman, Curtis Strange and a young newcomer named Phil Mickelson. On any given Sunday, any of these talented and charismatic chaps could dazzle fans and claim the hardware. Their collective rivalry and visible passion for the traditions of the game — not to mention human accessibility — made them fan favorites and continued to grow the game at a healthy clip.
In the late 1990s, however, perceiving a windfall to be made, everyone wanted a piece of professional golf. Corporate America flooded the game, plastering its name on everything in sight and escalating the purse money like the runaway federal budget. It was a bubble that couldn’t last. Booms go bust and character reveals itself, including the lack thereof. In some ways, all sad, Tiger Woods is merely a poster boy for the greed and vanity that took hold of pro golf in the late 1990s.
Ironically, when you watch the Masters telecast today, keep in mind that Masters founder Clifford Roberts actually warned back in 1960 that the one thing that could damage golf’s growing popularity was too much money and corporate influence in the game — the reason the tournament has no named corporate sponsor to this day and the fan, rather than any single player, is accorded the greatest respect of all. For this sole reason, not surprisingly, the Masters is the most popular golf tournament of them all.
The good news is this: With Tiger Woods — the game’s truly first corporate player, a fellow worth millions before he ever even took a swing as a professional — sidelined these past two seasons with his personal issues, a splendid new generation has risen to pump new life into the tournament game by displaying refreshing amounts of passion, humility and even gratitude.
It’s hard not to admire the way Rory McIlroy cried at Charlotte or marvel at how Rickie Fowler dresses or simply appreciate the classy manner in which Keegan Bradley and our own Webb Simpson play and respect the game.
In short, as yet another splendid Masters week expires its lease today like the azaleas of Amen Corner, there is much to be hopeful about in all corners of the reviving game. Gone are the Wall Street sharpies and cigar-chomping big-shots and other opportunists, swept away by their own over-reach. Here to stay — and grow again — are the real, and human, stars of an emerging golf nation.
Proof of this splendid circularity is a wonderful bit of history a dear friend and sometime golf pal named Jimmy Jones from Greensboro sent me earlier week.
It places any question about golf’s “survivability” in a brave new light.
Please note this delightfully calm notice from the venerable Richmond Golf Club southeast of London.
“Temporary Rules, 1940
Players are asked to collect Bomb and Shrapnel splinters to save these causing damage to the Mowing Machines.
In competitions, during gunfire or while Bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.
The positions of delayed action Bombs are marked by red flags at a reasonably, but not guaranteed safe distance therefrom.
Shrapnel and/or Bomb splinters on the Fairways, or in Bunkers within a club length of the ball, may be moved without penalty, and no penalty shall be incurred if a ball is thereby caused to move accidentally.
A ball moved by enemy action may be replaced, or if lost or destroyed, a ball may be dropped not nearer the hole without penalty.
A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a Bomb may play another ball from the same place. Penalty: One stroke.”
I was fortunate enough to play this delightful course a decade or so ago. My, how the members there love the game.
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