Play Your Own Game
NOT SO LONG ago a golfer, almost at the end of his patience, observed cynically that, while many professionals made a fair living by giving lessons, few of them wore their heels down from lugging their brains around. He observed further that their theories were often in conflict and that, as far as he was concerned, he could take their advice or leave it alone. From that point on, his game began to improve.
There is a lesson of some kind for everybody in his experience. Maybe the lesson is that if you have any talent for the game you must develop it yourself and in your own way, though you can’t be too sure even of that since everything about this subject is a bit befogged. It would seem, though, that what was important in his experience was his realization that the opinions and theories of the golfing great did not always jibe and that led him quite naturally to distrust most professional advice. It was only when he had gone that far with his heresy that he began also to go places with his game. It is with his experience in mind that this article has been put together; the pious hope behind it being that it will make you sceptical of all instruction, and so prove useful.
There was a time when professionals treated each other with scant courtesy. If something suddenly went wrong with your swing and you rushed frantically to the nearest pro for advice, the first thing he did was inform you that what your last instructor had told you was the bunk and you had best forget everything he ever said. That was before the formation of the professionals’ collective enterprise, the P.G.A., which was designed as much as anything else to give an appearance of solidity and harmony to the profession.
It wasn’t long after the Professional Golfers’ Association was organized that you began to hear the expression “standardized instruction.” Nobody knew exactly what it meant, but for a while it kept popping up wherever muddled golfers met and exchanged greetings. From this distance it seems that “standardized instruction” was simply an echo from the industrial trend of the time toward standardization and mass production methods.
But the P.G.A. soon came to realize that it had left the human element out of its calculations; that all golfers were not constructed alike, either physically or temperamentally; that the golf swing, unlike motor cars and clothes and cigarettes, could not be standardized and mass-produced and sold profitably to the golfing masses. So the term “standardized instruction” quietly disappeared from golfing jargon, while the professionals began to explain that the only way to teach golf was to examine the qualifications of each pupil separately and develop in each an individual style.
That is just the point. The kind of golf you play depends entirely upon yourself; upon your nerves as well as your muscles; upon your head as well as your feet; in short, upon
They all play their own game.
your entire personality, whether it be split as wide open as Dr. Jekyll’s and Mr. Hyde’s, or as unified as Mussolini’s. The great golfers have all had one thing in common; they have been intense individualists, with very definite ideas of what was important in playing successful golf. Well, that is as it should be. All it signifies is that they have discovered the best methods of developing the talent they brought
originally to the game. But, while their theories may work perfectly for them, that is no assurance that they will work so well for v\ another person whose mental and physical
make-up is probably entirely different.
To get down to concrete cases, Tommy Armour, for example, has always contended that strong wrists and fingers are necessary for first-rate golfers. The strength in his own digits is amazing. There is a story told about his having been invited to the same house for dinner with Jack Dempsey and, after dinner, being conducted by the host into the billiard room for a quiet game. The talk was mostly sport talk and the host began to tell them about a friend of his, a football coach, who had said to him, “When recruits report for football practice I always look at their hands and feet first. There may be exceptions, but as a rule the good ones all have big mitts and something substantial to stand on.”
Dempsey agreed with the host in regard to hands. “You never saw a champion yet without good hands,” the ex-champion said. “They’re just about the most important part of a fighter’s equipment. If they’re too small he can’t sock, and if they’re too brittle they break. They’ve got to be big and strong and tough.” And he described how he had soaked his own hands in brine day after day and month after month to toughen them.
Then the host said: “Well, Jack, I’d like to bet you that Tommy here is stronger in the hands than you are.” Dempsey was incredulous. "No kidding?” he said.
“I mean it,” the host insisted.
Dempsey looked again at the fragile Armour. “All right,” he said. “If you’re serious, I’ll bet you anything you like.” They made the bet and then searched around for some way of making the test. Armour finally picked up a billiard cue. He turned his hand over so the palm faced downward and placed the tip of the cue between his first and second fingers, the heavy end extending upward toward the ceiling. He held the cue there steadily for perhaps fifteen seconds and then handed it to Dempsey. The burly ex-champion couldn’t duplicate the feat. When he gave up trying, Armour replaced the cue between his fingers, placed another cue between his middle and third fingers, and still another between his third and little fingers, establishing beyond any doubt the abnormal strength he has in his fingers and hands. The host, it seems, refused to take Dempsey’s money, because he knew about Armour’s nut-cracker fingers and how he got that way.
Armour has always had exceptionally long, strong fingers and sinewy w’rists. After the war, when he first thought of becoming a tournament player, he reasoned that if they were even stronger, he could achieve complete mastery over his iron clubs. He began to carry a golf ball in each of his coat pockets. Always, except on the course, he went about with his hands in his pockets methodically squeezing the golf balls between his thumb and each finger in turn. Today, when you see Armour hit one of those amazing iron shots and think you would like to be able to do it, you know one way it may be done.
But, in case you think it necessary to walk the streets from November to April pinching golf balls before you can learn to master your irons, listen to this: It is a well-known professional, tutor to some of the best women players in the game, speaking.
“Examine the scores in the national amateur championships for both men and women,” he says. “You’ll notice right away that the men’s performances are terribly spotty. The women play a far more consistent brand of golf. What do you think that indicates? To me, it only means that women as a whole play a better short game than men. They can’t give that old ball the same kind of a shellacking off the tee, so they must make it up with their accurate iron play.”
The average woman is certainly not as strong in the wrists and fingers as the average man, yet here is pretty good proof that the average woman golfer is a better iron player than the average male golfer. So Armour’s theory is not universally applicable.
Should One Concentrate?
LET’S PASS on to Walter Hagen, who is already begin* ning to be remembered for his eccentric behavior as a golfing figure rather than for his wonderful record in tournament play. He seldom wins a major event nowadays, yet the mob is always at his heels. They expect him to do something characteristic, that is to say, odd. Galleries everywhere are familiar with his nonchalance both in and out of the clubhouse, his strutting and wisecracking, his long pauses betw-een shots. These things have always been put down as part of the Hagen showmanship. But Horton Smith, a partner of Hagen’s on many exhibition tours, now says that if it is showmanship it also serves a very practical purpose. He claims that Hagen has to be in the right mood to play golf and that, when you see him stalling on the course, studying his lie for several minutes or so and making
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irrelevant remarks to his caddy, he is simply waiting until he is in the proper frame of mind before attempting the shot.
Now if anyone in the Old Country comes close to being the equivalent of Hagen, it is George Duncan. He has won all the big championships abroad more than once, and has had the honor of captaining the British Ryder Cup Team many times. Yet Duncan holds some kind of a record for playing the fastest tournament round in the history of golf. He hardly seems to look at his ball before making a shot. He simply walks up to it. gives it the most perfunctory kind of glance, pulls a club from his bag, steps up and, without any preliminary waggle, bangs away.
“I don’t believe in giving myself time to develop nerves,” he explains.
His methods would certainly give Hagen the heebies, and Hagen’s antics would have the same effect on him. Yet both these men are great golfers. Suppose you were to approach a shot the way either of them does. Do you think you could do your best?
Perhaps you belong to the army that spends its leisure hours reading books of instruction and syndicated articles. If so, you may be interested in the experience of Joe Kirkwood, the Australian who won the Canadian Open in 1933. Kirkwood, as one of the brilliant brigade of stars who follow the lure of the big-money tournaments up and down the continent, has been approached many times by distressed golfers in widely separated sections of the country and asked to advise them what was wrong with their swings. Usually he has had some success in giving advice; so much so that a couple of years ago he decided to cash in on this aptitude and write a book on golf instruction. With the book in mind, he began to make notes on the most commonplace faults of golfers, with his own suggestions of how to correct them. What he discovered to be at the bottom of most of the trouble—or so he says—was that most golfers were impressed by the difficulty of the thing they were trying to do, causing them to stiffen and tighten up instead of relaxing and allowing their muscles full, easy play. The game became a struggle with them instead of a pastime.
Having found this out, Kirkwood described as briefly as possible his own theories on how to reduce scores. Time passed and the book failed to appear. One day, a friend who knew about it, asked him when it was to come out.
“Never, I guess,” said Kirkwood. “All I know about golf can be printed on a single page of paper. And I don’t know any publishers who want to bring out a one-page book, do you?”
But contrast with this the philosophy of a phenomenal amateur, John Montagu by name and a stranger to tournaments thus far, who was dug up by Grantland Rice in California this past winter. According to Sports Writer Rice, Montagu is a longer hitter than Jimmy Thompson, the professional, who is usually conceded to be the longest hitter in the game. Rice claims that not only will Montagu outhit Thompson nine times out of ten, but the rest of his game is on the same high level. Negotiating 450-yard holes over soft fairways with a driver and a niblick is a habit with him. Apparently he is not interested in tournaments, though well aware of the superiority of his game, as he is ready and willing to take on all comers.
“Any amateur or pro who wants to lay his dough on the line can play with me,” Montagu is quoted as saying. “And that bars nobody.”
Asked to define his attitude toward the game, he said: “Golf means almost endless concentration if you are under pressure. And there is no thrill in any game unless you are under pressure.”
How does that sound alongside Kirkwood’s pronouncement that the mistake most golfers make is in considering the game a struggle rather than a pastime? Both apparently are pretty capable golfers. Whose advice would you take?
Sarazen and Jones Disagree
' I 'IIIS BRINGS us to a consideration of T Gene Sarazen. You must all remember the time, about three years ago, when it was pretty generally admitted that Sarazen was all washed up as a tournament threat. Bobby Jones had retired, and the insiders were giving Horton Smith the nod as his probable successor, when Sarazen suddenly emerged with a brand of golf he hadn’t displayed since 1922, when he first won the American Open. But Sarazen had an explanation.
“I was getting heavy,” he said, “and my legs didn’t seem to be as good as they once were. You’ll notice my scores were never bad in the opening rounds, but I always blew in the final stages of a tournament. That was because I was tired. My problem was to lose some weight and strengthen my legs at the same time. You know, when an athlete begins to go, the legs go first.”
Sarazen’s theory about legs is an old one among athletes, especially baseball players and prize fighters. Ty Cobb, now a legend around the Detroit Tiger Club, and Riggs Stephenson, late of the Chicago Cubs, are examples in jxfint. These men still had keen eyes and could hit all kinds of pitching when they could hardly stagger down to first base. Similarly, Dempsey was the old Dempsey in his last fight with Tunney except for his legs. When he had Tunney on the way out he couldn’t run fast enough to catch him; the groggy Tunney ran faster backward than the eager Dempsey could run forward. But to get back to Sarazen. The winter before his amazing comeback was spent in California. He lived in a house high up on a hill. A long steep flight of steps led up to the house.
“I went on a diet,” Sarazen said, “and began to practise on those steps. I used to walk up and down them and run up and down them a dozen times a day. After a few months I was minus about twenty pounds and had legs of iron. That summer I was as fresh on the last day of a tournament as at the beginning.”
In the light of that experience, let’s consider the case of Bobby Jones. When the great Jones was at the height of his fame, it was noticed that on the third and fourth days of tournament play he was always at his best. It hapjxmed too often to be mere coincidence and he was asked for an explanation.
“By the third day I’m always tired,” Jones replied. “Too tired to press. When I’m almost too tired to swing the club, I never force my shot. The clubhead just swings itself.”
There you have what seem to be irreconcilable statements from two of the greatest the game has ever known.
From the foregoing, certainly the only conclusion you can reasonably come to is that methods vary with the individual. The great golfers have first turned the searchlight inward and discovered things about themselves, about their physical and mental qualities, and then decided how to go about making the most of them. Of the world’s outstanding golfers, the only one who ever admitted he owed anything to anybody is Jones. He says that Stewart Maiden taught him his swing before he was ten years old. Walter Hagen says he developed himself in his off hours as a caddy by hitting mashie pitches at his coat placed carefully a hundred yards away on the fairway. Sarazen and all the rest have similar stories. Not that an instructor who was a mixture of psychoanalyst, anatomist, physical director and
golfer might not be able to help you. but there don’t seem to be many around answering this description.
Joe Kirkwood is right when he says the greatest obstacle golfers face is the idea they have in their own minds of the difficulty of the thing they are trying to do. Many men who are competent enough, even distinguished, in their other activities become oddly pathetic the moment they step on a golf course. They are not sure of their grip, or where to tee the ball, or what club to use, or a dozen other details; and they will ask and accept anybody’s advice, most often their caddy’s. They are dominated by the small boys carrying their clubs, and the caddies know it if the golfers do not.
There is a story told about a nationally known banking executive who, weather permitting, plays golf almost daily through the summer months. The caddies dodge him because of his habit of asking advice before each shot and then, if he foozles the shot, passing the buck to them. It seems that one
day toward the end of last summer a new boy appeared at the caddy-house and, not knowing his way around any too well, got stuck with the banker. On Saturday night as he was leaving the course another caddy fell in step with him.
“Cheer up,” the older boy said. “You won’t have that old guy to look after tomorrow.”
“How’s that?” the new caddy asked.
“He thinks it’s wrong to play golf on Sunday.”
“Well,” said the new boy. “It’s wrong any day. the way he plays it.”
So you see this dependence is bad for the boys, too. It makes them arrogant. Nobody ever told them how difficult the game was, with the result that many of them have learned to play it passably well their own way. They can’t understand why a grown man doesn’t walk up and sock the ball without fuss and uncertainty—and, if you think about it for a while, you will end up agreeing with them.