Excerpt from my book “Never Despair: : Trials and Triumphs of Golf’s Great Champions”

            “Golf is the closest game to the game we call life.  You get bad breaks from good shots; you get good breaks from bad shots – but you have to play the game where it lies .”  So claimed O.B. Keeler, the famed golf writer who, from 1916-1930, travelled over 120,000 miles covering the career of Bobby Jones.  We do indeed play the game where it lies.  Each day is different, even if the course remains the same, and the challenges are at once maddening and intoxicating.  We play the game.  It doesn’t matter if frost covers the ground in winter, if rain water fills the cups on the greens in the spring, or if wind blows sand in our eyes after a bunker shot in the summer. 

            We just love to play.  Walter Simpson, in his 1892 book The Art of Golf, seemed to understand the golfer’s psyche.  He wrote that the game “has some drawbacks.  It is possible, by too much of it, to destroy the mind. ”  His admonition notwithstanding, true golfers rarely get enough of it.  We know that if we keep plugging along and keep trying, sometimes good things come to us when we least expect them, just as in life.

            Golf is a game with incredible staying power, having been played for over 500 years.  Men and women; young and old; royalty and artisans; CEOs and taxi drivers; people with bad backs and creaky knees; amputees and the blind, all play it.  A few even play from wheelchairs. What is it that draws people to golf and holds them in its grip until they are too old and feeble to play any longer?  The reasons are many.  The game engages both body and mind in a very particular way, and some might argue, the soul as well.  

            James Balfour, who began playing golf in Scotland in the 1840s, explained it this way in Reminiscences of Golf on St. Andrews Links

It is a fine, open-air, athletic exercise, not violent, but bringing into play nearly all the muscles of the body…It is a game of skill, needing mind and thought and judgment, as well as a cunning hand.  It is also a social game, where one may go out with a friend or with three, and enjoy mutual intercourse…It never palls or grows stale, as morning by morning the players appear at the teeing ground with as keen a relish as if they had never seen a club for a month.

It is a game requiring not only physical skill but the ability to control our emotions, as we try to beat our best scores each time out, as well as the scores of our friends who join us in the endeavor. 

            The game is different because the ball must wait for us.  It isn’t baseball or tennis where a ball comes towards us that we have to react to in a split second.  The golf ball just lies there passively, sometimes seeming to taunt us.  It’s up to us to make it go.  “There is no hurry,” wrote John Low in Concerning Golf, “we fix our own time, we give ourselves every chance of success.”  It is this deliberate quality of the game which “makes it so testing to the nerves; for the very slowness which gives us opportunity for calculation draws our nerves out to the highest tension…”  

            Golf certainly can make our stomachs churn and scramble our brains.  Mark Train famously described it as “a good walk spoiled.”  In the short space of the fifteen minutes or so it takes to play a hole, it’s possible to experience a full gamut of emotions – you name it and it can be felt, in a million different combinations.  Fear and trepidation of the opening tee shot, followed by joy and relief after a great drive nailed straight down the middle, then anger and consternation at the fat second shot plunked into the water, and ending with sadness and disappointment when we walk off the green with a triple-bogey.  Herein is the great part of the golf’s attraction . 

            People are also drawn to the game because it takes them into the great outdoors; to open spaces away from the office. Theodore Haultain discussed the tactile lure of the course, each with its own personality and varied terrain, in his book The Mystery of Golf .  Speaking of the delights of the game in 1910, he described the varied elements that stimulate our senses:

The great breeze that greets you on the hill, the whiffs of air – pungent, penetrating – that come through green things growing, the hot smell of pines at noon, the wet smell of fallen leaves in autumn, the damp and heavy air of the valley at eve, the lungs full of oxygen, the sense of freedom on a great expanse, the exhilaration, the vastness, the buoyancy, the exaltation. 

“We live in small spaces,” wrote Henry Leach in The Happy Golfer, “with many walls and low roofs .”  Away from the city, and its cacophony of angry noises that strangle silence, the golf course provides us with a few hours of refuge.  Steaming asphalt and concrete, honking horns, and the incessant buzz and clatter of people coming and going gives way to a quiet oasis of cool grass, green trees, chirping birds and the smell of pine needles.  “A golfer on the links is uplifted to a simpler, freer self,” claimed Leach.    

            Michael Murphy, in his classic book Golf in the Kingdom, spoke of golf in terms of “walkin’ fast across the countryside and feelin’ the wind and watchin’ the sun go down and seein’ yer friends hit good shots and hittin’ some yourself.  It’s love and it’s feelin’ the splendor o’ this good world .”  To David Forgan, who crafted “The Golfer’s Creed” in the late nineteenth century, golf offers “a sweeping away of mental cobwebs, genuine recreation of tired tissues….It is a cure for care, an antidote to worry.” As Balfour and Murphy point out, golf is also a social game, one we play with fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and friends in our Saturday foursome. We even play with strangers who join us on the first tee when we sneak out for a quick nine holes after work. The game allows time for conversation between shots. “How’s the job going?” “How are the kids?” “What about that game last night?” “How’s the new car?” There is also considerable time for thought directed at how we are succeeding – or failing – in getting the ball from the teeing ground to the hole, as we commiserate with each other around the course.

            We may enjoy the park-like setting of the golf course, the competition, and the chit-chat, but the most intriguing element of the game is trying to hit that little damn ball where we want it to go.  “Without doubt,” wrote Hautlain, “the ball must be impelled by muscular movement; how to coordinate that muscular movement – that is the physiological factor in the fascination of golf .”   

            When one considers the physics involved, this is a daunting task.  We apply about 32 pounds of muscles to swing a golf club almost four feet long in an arc of twenty feet around our body, while shoulders and hips turn, arms move up and down and five separate torques may act upon the club .  All of this motion is focused on making contact with a ball 1.68 inches in diameter squarely in the center of a two inch square club face on a path that will propel the ball with sufficient force to send it the correct distance to the target. 

            The ball is in contact with the face of the club for half a thousandth of a second (as the club travels about three quarters of an inch), and the margins of error are incredibly slim.  If the club face is open or closed just 2 or 3 degrees with a driver, the ball will fly 20 yards or more off line, depending on the speed of the swing .  Sometimes just hitting the ball at all is a challenge, and a proper club/ball contact that sends the ball straight to our intended target seems a minor miracle.  All of these gyrations are produced with one objective: to put that ball in a four and a quarter inch hole placed in the ground hundreds of yards away.  All the while around we have to negotiate water hazards, bunkers, trees, and perhaps wind and rain – in addition to our own nerves and tempers.

            Yet, in spite of these considerable challenges, on the occasions when things work, by design or divine intervention, and the ball is struck solidly online, it provides a palpable physical thrill.  The feel of an iron crisply pinching the ball off the turf and whistling it to the green; the drive smacked right in the middle of the clubface and blasted down the fairway; the 40-foot putt stroked with perfect line and speed and rolled into the bottom of the hole.  As the old golf adage goes, “one good shot keeps you coming back.”  All the rest, the ones topped in the water or sliced into the woods, are shoved aside, as we choose to revel in our modest successes.  “I did it once,” we say to ourselves.  “I can surely do it again, even better.”  Our minds and muscles drive us, and our memories plug into feelings of how we did it right yesterday, a week ago, or ten years ago .

            Pembroke Vaile, an intriguing and pensive man from the last century, wrote expressively on the “soul” of golf.  Among its elusive elements, he claimed, is “the sheer beauty of the flight of the ball,” and the almost “sensuous delight which comes to the man who created that beauty, and knows how and why he did it .”  There is something intoxicating in the harmonically pure meeting of club and ball.  Ben Hogan, one of the best to ever play the game, loved to practice and hit golf balls from sunup to sundown.  He once said that the perfectly struck shot “goes from the ball, up the club’s shaft, right to your heart .”  This is the true essence of what has attracted people to the game for 500 years.  For whether it’s a hickory shafted club from the 1800s or a modern graphite shafted titanium driver, the player still has to execute the shot properly.   

            Golf is a game that has been called a microcosm of life, as every day offers a new set of challenges.  To succeed you must work hard to develop your gifts, possess healthy doses of self-confidence and patience, and persevere when times get tough.  Golf has been described as a “self-reliant, silent, sturdy,” game, which “leans less on its fellows,” and “loves best to overcome obstacles alone .”  Success or failure depends on one person, ourselves.  There are no teammates to help us out when things go wrong, and unlike baseball, we have to play our foul balls.  To

excel at the highest levels, particular and rare talents are required.  Not only physical skill, but a strong and resolved character is necessary in order to overcome the adversity that will undoubtedly come.  As Charles Blair Macdonald, one of the founding fathers of American golf put it in 1898:  “No game brings out more unerringly the true character of a man or teaches him a better lesson in self-control .”

            The people in this book all possessed confidence in their abilities and were dogged in their pursuit of excellence.  But without natural talent, they would never have been heard from.  Each of us is born into this world with certain gifts, which, if fully exercised, lead us to the life path we are meant to follow.  There are different kinds of gifts, and different kinds of work, but the same God works those gifts in all men  and women.  So says the Bible.  To express our gifts and build a fulfilling life around them is the highest expression of our true essence.

            These champions – all of whom, with the exception of caddy Bruce Edwards, are members of the World Golf Hall of Fame  – came from different times and had different backgrounds, but they all shared a gift for the game of golf.  This is what defined them, just as our gifts define us.  Horton Smith, winner of two Masters Tournaments, claimed that “golfing genius strikes seldom.  It is something that cannot be attained by practicing any more than a really great voice.  It can be developed but before a man is a genius at golf, he must have within him a spark that is the gift of the Almighty .”  Three-time British Open champion Bob Ferguson said over a century ago that nerve, enthusiasm, and practice are the three essentials to succeed in golf.  But to be great requires the gift .  

            To be great requires the gift.  It is this unique and branded gift that set the truly great above all the rest.  The men in this book: Harry Vardon, Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Charlie Sifford, Ken Venturi, Bruce Edwards; and the lady, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, all had gifts they exercised freely and rigorously, never squandering them, even when circumstances might have forgiven them for fading away quietly. They never quit, even when things looked bleak. Bobby Jones  claimed that golf “is the most rewarding of all games because it possesses a very definite value as a molder or developer of character.”  It was character which guided these people’s lives and girded them against persistent struggles in the face of adversity that threatened their very lives.

            Harry Vardon was at the peak of his game when struck down with tuberculosis, but he resolved to play on, winning two more British Opens, and acting as a mentor to promising new players; Bobby Jones was stricken with a rare and debilitating spinal disease that would confine him to a wheelchair when he was still a young man, but he kept building the Masters Tournament, writing about golf, and being an ambassador for the game; Ben Hogan nearly died in a car crash that permanently damaged his body and caused him chronic pain for the rest of his days, but he came back and won six more major championships, and built a company bearing his name. 

            Babe Didrikson Zaharias was struck down by colon cancer but wouldn’t quit.  She became a spokesperson for the American Cancer Society and was an inspiration to fellow sufferers, especially after winning another Women’s U.S. Open before the cancer returned; Charlie Sifford was the victim of incessant racism which included harassment and death threats, but he never bowed, and was a winner at the highest levels of the game, paving the way for the likes of Tiger Woods.

            Ken Venturi lost his game after a car accident and later to carpal tunnel syndrome, but would capture the U.S. Open in some of the most trying conditions the championship ever produced and later have a successful broadcasting career; Bruce Edwards was afflicted with ALS, or “Lou Gehrig’s disease,” but kept going and inspired people with his fight, carrying the bag for one final major victory with boss Tom Watson before succumbing to his illness.  What kept them going?  They all loved the game.  It was what they did.

            “However mean your life is, meet it and live it.”  These words of Henry David Thoreau could describe the lives of all the people in this book, who faced tremendous physical and emotional trials in their lives, yet persevered and overcame. The strength and resilience of the human spirit – indeed, its stubborn persistence – was a common denominator in facing their struggles. Golf can be a vexing and cruel game, and teaches us much about ourselves. 

            Golf has been described as “a contest, a duel, or a melee, calling for courage, skill, strategy and self-control.  It is a test of temper, a trial of honor, a revealer of character.”  Jerome Travers, the great amateur of the early 20th century, believed the character of an individual is laid bare under “the microscope of golf influence.  The good and bad qualities in our make-up are exposed to view under the spell which golf casts over man …”  In the end, as with most of life, our success hinges on the character and spirit we possess. 

            How would our tempers be tested if we were struck down by a serious illness, a near-fatal accident, or some career-threatening injury from which we would never fully recover?  How would our honor be preserved if we had people telling us we were washed-up, unwanted, and persona non-grata on the golf course? 

            How would our character be revealed if Lou Gehrig’s disease robbed us of the ability to walk and talk?  

            How would we face the fear?  Would we give in to self-pity, or persevere and keep going?  Where would we find the strength to actually carry on with our careers with any measure of success? 

            The people in this book displayed their character vigorously by not giving up or giving in to the suffering that afflicted them.  This is not a chronicle of the tournaments they won and lost, but an examination of how they applied their gifts and pushed themselves to achieve success.  Champion golfers have been identified as sharing certain qualities; among them tough-mindedness, confidence, self-sufficiency , and emotional stability – all of which provide players with the armor to press on when things look hopeless.  The very nature of the game prepares one for adversity, and rewards a persevering spirit that doesn’t accept surrender without a fight.  “It is merely a blessing,” claimed Jerome Travers, “if our temperament is such that we are able to blind ourselves to the drudgery which usually goes with indomitable persistence and hard application ” in overcoming obstacles. 

            The stories of these champions bear witness to their courage and discipline, but also to the love and support of family and friends who helped them.  As Robert Tyre Jones, grandfather of Bobby Jones, claimed, “No man ever accomplishes anything really worthwhile alone.  There are always two additional forces at work – other people and Providence .”  Their families and friends bolstered them, but the game itself offered them refuge and therapy for both body and mind when they were suffering. 

            In recent years Golf Digest magazine has featured a series called “Golf Saved My Life,” which focuses on this therapeutic side of the game.  Whether the men and women telling their stories have struggled with cancer, autism, bipolar disorder, or serious injuries brought on by war or accidents, they all reveal how the game has helped give renewed purpose to their lives. 

            This theme is nothing new.  In 1965 Golf Journal ran the story of a James Ranni, 62-years old at the time, who had suffered a major stroke years earlier.  The neurosurgeon who saved his life was a golfer, and had come to see the game “as an additional therapeutic measure to help patients overcome serious handicaps and regain health that has been lost.”  As for Ranni, he claimed that when people spoke of “how close you can get to God on a golf course,” he knew exactly what they meant.  “I can’t tell you how important it is to me to be an example of what golf can do in rehabilitating the disabled .” 

            The National Amputee Golf Association was formed in 1954 in response to World War II veterans returning home with missing limbs and wanting to get back into the game.  It has followed the motto, “It’s not what you’ve lost, but what you have left that counts.”   Bert Shepard, who lost his right leg in WWII, spoke to Golf World in 1997 of how people claimed he had “the guts to go out and play golf and all that.  What about some credit to the game of golf?  I’ve seen guys who never got out of the house get fascinated with golf, and it changes their lives .” 

            Thomas M’Auliffe is a wonderful example of doing his best with what he had left.  In spite of losing both arms in a horrible accident when he was 9-years old, he learned to play golf.  In 1915, the then 22-year old told his story to The Golf Monthly.  By gripping the club between his cheek and shoulder, he was able to hit the ball 100 yards with a driver.  With a “combined swing and jerk of the body and shoulder,” the article explained, “he is able to give the ball a telling stroke,” and it noted that he had shot 108 at the Buffalo Country Club.  M’Auliffe was certainly a positive thinker.  “I never permit the thought of my accident to take possession of my mind,” he declared, “nor do I think of anything being impossible for me to overcome.  When the time comes, I just go ahead as best I may, and somehow, someway, I generally get there without any great difficulties .”

            A decade before Thomas M’Auliffe, there was the story of Old Tom Morris.  His son Tommy, who like his father won four British Opens, died on Christmas Day 1875, three months after his wife and baby died during child birth.  Old Tom would see his wife and all five of his children die before him, and he claimed that if not for his God and his golf, he would not have found the strength to go on .  The game sustained him – he died in 1908 at the age of 86 – and played up until the end.  The game was a soothing therapy for him and others, just as it would be for Vardon, Jones, Hogan, Zaharias, Sifford, Venturi, and Edwards.

            Golf is a test, Arnold Hautlain claimed, “not so much of the muscle, or even of the brain and nerves of a man,” as it is a test of his or her innermost self…

…of his soul and spirit; of his whole character and disposition; of his temperament; of his habit of mind; of the entire content of his mental and moral nature… it is a physiological, psychological, and moral fight with yourself; it is a test of mastery over self .

            What is there to learn from the challenges these golfers faced and how they overcame them?  Why should we care?  Hautlain once again offers insight.  “In a picture, a sonata, a statue – the color, the sound, the form assuredly may interest us,” but these “are but vehicles for the artist’s thought and emotion.”  He continues:

It is the artist’s conception of life that is so interesting.  So it is with sport.  We like immensely to know exactly how a man boxes or fences or drives; but underneath this, we like immensely to know how he fights the battle of life; for he will do the one as he does the other – that we feel. [italics added]  So there is a great kinship between artist and sportsman.  Each reveals himself in his work; and it is in this self-revelation that humanity takes an absorbing interest. 

The professionals play golf, while we play at it; they know they can succeed, we hope we can.      For those who have the gift of golf, we wonder what it is that makes them special.  This is especially true when they triumph over adversity that could just as well crush them.  What are they really like?  As a spectator once asked a reporter who was covering Babe Zaharias, “Is she tough?”  “Is she nice?” “I’d sure like to know how she really is.  I mean, how she really is .”  We want to know about their lives, but are at the mercy of what they tell us, or want us to know.

We do our best to find out what they are really like?  In the heat of battle, how do they react?  How do they deal with victory and defeat, both on and off the course?  These are questions this book attempts to shed new light on. 

            These individuals, with the exception of Mr. Sifford, have all passed away, but their struggles are as relevant today as ever.  They were connected, in more than a casual way, to each other by the game.  Consider Harry Vardon, the greatest player of his era, knew Old Tom Morris and played with Bobby Jones in the latter’s first U.S. Open in 1920.  He told reporters the young Jones would be one of the very best golfers ever seen, and was right.  After Jones retired in 1930, he played an exhibition in Houston attended by Babe Zaharias, which “fired up” her own golf aspirations.  Earlier that same year, Jones started the Masters Tournament, which Ben Hogan won twice.  Jones used to say if he had to choose one man to hit one shot to win a major championship, he would pick Hogan because of his “spiritual ” assets.  Hogan, late in his career, saw a tenacity in Ken Venturi that he admired, and took him under his wing.  They became great friends, and Ken was a pallbearer at Hogan’s funeral. 

            Venturi befriended Charlie Sifford in those days when racism dogged him.  When the restaurant at Pensacola Country Club wouldn’t let Charlie eat there, Venturi spoke up, and took his own breakfast and joined his friend in the locker room.  Bruce Edwards worked for Tom Watson, whose teacher was Byron Nelson, the same man who tutored Ken Venturi.  The first tournament Edwards and Watson won together was the Byron Nelson Classic.  Amazingly, the chain of golf history is often connected by one or two links, much less than the well known “six degrees of separation.”  

            The talent of the seven people in this book, in concert with character, defined the lives and created more links in a chain going back to the beginnings of the game.  Today, we still remember them.  When Old Tom Morris died over a hundred years ago, his achievements as a golfer were well known and documented, and were sure to endure.  The greatest moral of his life, it was stressed upon his passing, was that “no matter in what sphere, it is character that achieves the greatest victories.”   As Arnold Hautlain wrote plainly, “It all comes back to character; not intellect or acumen or ability…just character .”

            In many ways, the legacy of how these champions dealt with the physical and emotional trials life handed them is more impressive than the records they set on the golf course.  “We define and admire greatness,” wrote Mark Frost in his wonderful book, The Greatest Game Ever Played, “not only by the magnitude of achievement but also for the degree of difficulty that person has to .”


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