Adam Scott’s Redemption

April 16, 2013

I was pulling for “El Pato” Cabrera in the last round of the Masters, but you have to give credit to Adam Scott for making birdie putts down the stretch to win his first major in another stunning playoff. (As an aside, I knew he’d make his putt because no Masters sudden death playoff has ever gone more than 2 holes, which in itself I find incredible). After losing last year’s British Open in such a dramatic and gut-wrenching fashion to Ernie Els, Scott can now rest easy, knowing he has the stuff to win down the stretch. No more “what ifs” for him. And what a contrast in styles of the two players. I love Cabrerra. He lumbers down the fairways like a guy looking for a beer and a sandwich at the 19th hole, but goes after that ball with a ferocity reflective of his hardscrabble life growing up in Cordoba, Argentina. Scott, on the other hand, is the pretty boy with the chisled body and mechanical swing that’s as powerful as it is pretty. I only hope he can keep winning. Don’t be Stewart Cink buddy, that is, win your major and disappear. Win some more, or at least challenge, and you can do that even with the short putter when the anchoring ban takes effect. Scott is still young, and if he wins a couple of more majors and at least 15 tournaments, I’ll get over him denying Angel of his third major.

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In Memory of Francis Ouimet’s “Shots Heard Round the World”

February 16, 2013

At 360 yards with a sharp dogleg left, the 17th hole was no brute. A birdie could be had, and he needed one desperately. His second shot, piercing through the cool grey sky, settled fifteen soggy feet from the hole. Surveying the putt, he knew it was now or never. Feet squished in the turf as he took his stance. Just give it a chance. The putter swept back and forward into the ball, and it clicked off toward the hole. The line and pace down the slippery slope were perfect. The large crowd held its collective breath as the ball curved right and rolled quickly toward its target. Slow down! It struck the back of the cup hard, bounced into the air, and disappeared from sight. An explosion of ecstatic shouts, whistles, and applause reverberated through the moist autumn air, and may well have shaken a few leaves off the trees.

Twenty-year-old Francis Ouimet had done it! He was tied for the lead in the U.S. Open with Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. A hard-earned par on the last forced a playoff, a fitting conclusion to a story few people would believe had it not really happened. “In years to come it will become more famous,” declared the American Golfer. “Not a soul who witnessed it, including Vardon and Ray, will ever forget.” Nor shall we.

A century is a long time, a hundred years of yesterdays and memories long since forgotten. The participants in this battle entered their eternal sleep generations ago, but the events of those three days in September, 1913 at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts will always be remembered by those who love golf.

The Bible tells us that “time and chance happen to them all.” Mr. Oumet’s time was married to that place, to that championship. How else can one explain an unknown amateur, with one modest Massachusetts State Amateur title to his name, beating men who had won British Opens and competed in major championships since young Francis was a child? It was simply meant to be.

As Ouimet noted later, “fortune has to deal kindly with any golfer in winning a championship. There are times when things seem to go just right with a player and others when everything goes wrong.” Pretty much everything went right for him, and it all began across the street from that fateful 17th green. “I have often wondered,” Francis wrote in his book, A Game of Golf, “what my golfing activities would have amounted to if my father had not bought a home bordering on The Country Club.”

His opportunities in the game were certainly blessed by his proximity to the course, which in later life he would consider hallowed ground. His older brother Wilfred got a job caddying at the club, and Francis became enamored with the game on his walks back and forth across its green fairways on his way to school. Hunting for golf balls in the tall grass along the way was a fun and beneficial fringe benefit. Francis and Wilfred laid out a 3-hole, homemade course in the cow pasture behind the house, and Francis practiced every chance he got. His father Arthur was not a golfer and looked down on the game, and his mother Mary thought he “had gone crazy because golf was the only thing” he seemed interested in. Parental feelings notwithstanding, he never wavered from his path.

At eleven, Ouimet joined his brother as a caddie and was able to see many great golfers play in tournaments at the club – Jerome Travers, Willie Anderson, and Walter Travis among them – practicing aspects of their techniques he deemed useful. A kind member, Samuel Carr, gave the young boy some discarded clubs; a driver, lofter (similar to a 7-iron), midiron (2-iron), and putter, and more fully armed, Francis kept building his game. Rising at 4:30 or 5 a.m., he’d play a few holes at The Country Club “until a greenskeeper drove me away. Rainy days, when I was sure no one would be around, I would do the same thing.” Francis formed a golf team at his high school, and at sixteen won the Boston Interscholastic championship. When the U.S. Amateur came to his home club in 1910, he tried to qualify, but failed by one stroke. He tried again the following two years, but again failed, each time by a single agonizing stroke. He’d keep trying.

By the time 1913 rolled around, Francis had earned a certain reputation in his home state. In June he won the Massachusetts State Amateur, closing out his semi-final match by playing the last 6 holes in an incredible 6 under par. Two weeks before his tussle with Vardon and Ray, he finished second in qualifying at the U.S. Amateur in New York, then gave eventual winner Jerry Travers a game fight in their second round match before losing 3&2.

People in the know were impressed with Francis. The tall, angular-faced lad with the ready smile had a cool, even temperament that complimented his shot-making and putting skills. Bernard Darwin, the famous British golf writer, affirmed at the time, “Mr. Ouimet stepped at a bound into the forefront of American amateurs.” He had talent, but how far would it take him?

Time and chance then took the stage. The first bit of luck was getting into the field for the U.S. Open. Based on Ouimet’s good performance in the U.S. Amateur, Robert Watson, president of the USGA, encouraged him to play. “He thought I should enter,” recalled Ouimet years later. “I argued with him about the folly of such a thing, and he won the argument.” The main draws were undoubtedly Vardon and Ray. The stoic Vardon, 5-time British Open champion, at age 43 was still the game’s consummate ball-striker, but erratic on the greens. The burly 36-year-old Ray, winner of the British Open in 1912, was one of the game’s longest hitters, but also possessed a wonderful short game. “If only Harry could putt like Ted,” people whispered.

The two had been touring the U.S. since August playing exhibition matches and exciting crowds wherever they went, including an eleven-year-old boy in Atlanta named Bobby Jones. The strong field also included two-time defending champion Johnny McDermott, Mike Brady, Jerry Travers, Macdonald Smith, Jim Barnes, Jock Hutchinson, and Walter Hagen. Wilfred Reid, another strong English player, and Louis Tellier of France added to the international flavor.

The Country Club course they faced measured 6,245 yards, a hardy enough test in the days of hickory shaft clubs when a 250-yard drive was a monster. Francis successfully negotiated the two qualifying rounds, and did more than hold his own in the first rounds of the tournament proper. After smother-topping his opening tee shot about 40 yards into the rough and starting 6-6-5, his nerves smoothed out, and he shot rounds of 77-74. He trailed Vardon and Reid by four shots, Ray by two, and Barnes and Mac Smith by one.

Friday’s final double round was played under horrible conditions. Rain began to fall heavily at two o’clock in the morning and kept up throughout the day. Today, play would be called, but in 1913 they slogged on. Windswept rain soaked contestants to the bone, and made it difficult to hold onto their clubs and take a solid stance. It also saturated the greens to such an extent that long shots were prone to bury under the surface. There was no relief provided, and a number of players had to hack the ball out with mashies (5-irons) or niblicks (9-irons). The USGA took pity on the field in the final round, and allowed players to lift embedded balls on the greens. Francis had played in weather like this many times, and gladly accepted the challenge.

After three rounds Ouimet was still right there, shooting a par 74, tying Vardon (78) and Ray (76) at 225. The final round would validate Bernard Darwin’s assertion that never “was there a championship in which the fortunes fluctuated in so amazing a manner.” Ray was finishing up his round of 79 as Francis walked to the first tee. Francis began well, parring the first four holes. While playing the sixth he was told that Vardon had tied Ray with 304. “There are three or four still out there who will beat us,” Vardon told a British reporter, lamenting that his putting had let him down once again. Ray was beside himself. “I played rotten, and to make matters worse Harry went out and did the same thing.” But those chasing, including Hagen and McDermott, all came up short. The only hope for an American victory rested with Mr. Ouimet.

“I will admit that my pulse beat a trifle faster,” he recalled, “for I felt confident that I could turn in a round of 78. Right there I made a mistake, for I began to play safe.” He made double bogey at the fifth, then after finding out where he stood, went bogey, par, double, par, double – dropping seven shots in six holes. After the double bogey on the 140-yard 10th, he said to himself: “It’s done, forget it. Instead of dwelling upon the play at the tenth I began to figure what I would have to do on the remaining holes. Possibly I was so wrapped up in this calculation that I did not have a chance to get nervous.”

Walking to the 11th tee he heard someone in the gallery say, “‘It’s too bad, he has blown up.’ I knew he meant me, and it made me angry. It put me in the proper frame of mind to carry on. There was still a chance, I thought.” Champions find a way, and he steadied himself with pars on 11 and 12. “Standing on the 13th tee, I realized I must play those last six holes in two under par to tie.” After a good drive, he missed his second on the 320-yard hole and was left with a 30-foot shot from the fringe, but chipped the ball right into the hole for a three and “was still in the hunt.”

The cheers brought Vardon and Ray out to the 14th to watch him finish, “and a great finish they saw,” noted one reporter, “which impressed them enormously even if in the circumstances it did not exactly delight them.” Ouimet parred the 470-yard par-5 fourteenth and saved his par on the 370-yard fifteenth with a delicate pitch over a bunker that he played to perfection, leaving him a yard from the cup. Time was running out. The 16th was a short 125- yard par-3. A birdie from 18 feet seemed possible until he left his putt short – 9 feet short – but somehow he coaxed the next one in.

By the time he reached the 17th tee, an estimated 10,000 spectators had come out to watch him, a huge crowd for that time. Something special was happening, and they wanted to be part of it. Ouimet’s mashie second was struck well and opened the door to a putt. One thought filled his head as he looked over his 15-foot downhill, side hill winder – get it there! A car honked its horn repeatedly as he putted, a horn he never heard, so “thoroughly was my mind centered on the business of holing the putt.” He stroked it as firmly as any putt he ever hit and knew he holed it “the moment I struck it.” Bernard Darwin reported that amid the tumult of cheers, catcalls, and yells, the people appeared, “one and all, like madmen.”

When Ouimet chipped up and sank a 4-foot putt on the final hole to secure his place in a playoff with Vardon and Ray, “there was a briskness and decisiveness about every movement, and whatever he might have felt, he did not betray it by as much as the movement of an eyelash.”

The crowd was euphoric, young Ouimet’s performance had been grand, a dream – but surely he’d blow sky high in the playoff. “That their boy hero, after a night to sleep on it, should go out in cold blood and beat, not one, but two champions, was too much to hope for,” added Darwin.

From Francis’s point of view, “it would be nonsensical for me to say that at the start of the playoff I felt confident of defeating Vardon and Ray. While I did not feel nervous, I did realize the formidable task in hand. Two things and one person, in particular, helped me amazingly. The person was my little caddie, Eddie Lowery; one of the two things was the appeal which he made to my patriotism; the other thing was my determination that Vardon and Ray should not be able to say that my tying them for the championship was a fluke, which I felt they could say if I ‘went to pieces’ in the playoff.”

On the first hole he made a 4-footer for a five to tie his fellow competitors. When it fell, “almost instantly any feeling of awe and excitement left me completely. I seemed to go into a coma.” After 6 holes Vardon was one up on Francis and two on Ray. This heartened Ouimet, who realized “my opponents were not infallible in their play.” They all turned in 38 strokes and Francis took the lead on the tenth with a par. “Once he got the lead I was very much afraid for our British representatives,” wrote correspondent Henry Leach, “and I think they were a little afraid too. No man ever looked less like cracking than young Ouimet.” By the 12th, Francis realized that “even against two such wonderful players there might be a chance of landing the title, with which thought I resolved that if they beat me it would be only by playing better than par golf.”

A hole later he was still one up on Vardon and two in front of Ray. A double-bogey at the 15th took Ray effectively out of it, but Vardon stayed one behind going into the penultimate hole. In need of a birdie, Vardon tried to cut the corner of the dogleg, and instead, found the bunker that now bears his name. When Francis saw where Vardon ended up, he felt, “for the first time in the match, that the title was mine and I felt absolutely sure of it when, after getting safely on the green in two, I sank the putt for a three.” A par on the last gave him a 72 to Vardon’s 77 and Ray’s 78. Victory! The multitudes rushed in and gathered up the beaming champion on their shoulders, as delirious cheers filled the air.

How did it happen? How could it happen – especially on the course Francis grew up on? Harry Vardon claimed he played the worst golf of his entire tour that week of the Open. What if he had played his best? The Sunday before the championship began, Francis played two warm-up rounds with friends at Wellesley Country Club, shooting a pair of wretched 88’s. What if he had done that in the tournament? What if he had failed to convert his putts on 17 and 18 that final round? What if ten-year-old Eddie Lowery, who Francis claimed was “a veritable inspiration all the way around,” had not been his caddy? Golf, like life, isn’t about “what ifs,” it’s about what happens at a particular moment in time.

Francis Ouimet won for the same reasons Bobby Jones won at Inwood in 1923, how Ben Hogan survived a near-fatal car crash and then won at Merion in 1950, how Arnold Palmer won at Cherry Hills in 1960 and lost at Olympic in 1966, how Larry Mize won at Augusta in 1987 and Tom Watson lost at Turnberry in 2009. Time and chance happened to them all. It was meant to be. It was golf.

Ouimet’s victory was a watershed moment. As Herbert Warren Wind put it, the luckiest thing “that happened to American golf was that its first great hero was a person like Francis Ouimet.” He wasn’t a rich kid; he wasn’t a hard-nosed professional. “Here was a person all of America, not just golfing America, could understand.” Ouimet, the ex-caddie, the working-class boy who quit high school to help support his family, the boy who played for the love of the game, remaining an amateur to his final days – the boy who grew into the man who mentored other great champions like Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen. No one-hit wonder! After this day he went on to win two U.S. Amateurs, the last in 1931, and was a member of eight Walker Cup teams. He was a gentleman, without scandal in his life, and the ideal of an American hero.

Harry Vardon wrote in his autobiography that Ouimet’s performance “was one of the finest exhibitions of courageous golf which I have ever witnessed.” He was also firmly convinced that it was from this victory that the seeds were sown for what “was to become the remarkable improvement in the play of golfers from the United States.” In 1913 fewer than 350,000 people played golf in the U.S.; ten years later the number had increased to 2,000,000. With Ouimet’s victory, America had graduated as a first-class golfing power. As one reporter put it, “Francis Ouimet, besides having achieved immortal fame among golfers, has done something splendid for the good of that game.”

Time and chance brought Arthur Ouimet and his family to that house on Clyde Street across from the 17th hole at The Country Club, and for that we can be forever grateful.

The Golf Ball Went Too Far 100 Years Ago!

September 6, 2012

In today’s game, tour pros launch the ball so far and high into the atmosphere that you can’t see their drives land.  I am reminded of the repeated entreaties of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player that the golf ball must be reigned in for the greatest players in the world, otherwise golf courses will all have to be 8,000 yards long.  The impact of “juiced up” golf balls on the game is not a new dilemma.  As Harry Truman was fond of saying, the only thing new under the sun is the history we don’t know. 

Over one-hundred years ago John Low wrote that the “character of golf has been considerably changed by the introduction of india rubber into the composition of its balls.”  This was a year after the Haskell ball was introduced and the old gutta percha ball went the way of the dodo bird almost overnight. 

“The reason for this change is not far to seek,” he explained in his book Concerning Golf, “nor could it have been prevented except by prompt and decisive legislation.  But the legislators were neither prompt nor brave enough to carry out their own convictions, and thus an irredeemable opportunity was lost.  The committee which was supposed to be acting did nothing.”

As in today’s current debate concerning the anchored putter, Low lamented that the genie had been let out of the bottle.  “After resolving that ‘the new balls were not suited to the courses as at present laid out,’ they were incapable of offering any proposal, either as to the balls or the courses, which should restore the game to its proper position; they were too timid to risk defeat at the hands of the vulgar, who were from obvious reasons only too ready to greet the advent of the rubber balls with satisfaction.  A simple announcement of a negative character, prohibiting the use of balls containing india-rubber in competitions would have…fixed the game in a scientific position.”

The “vulgar” would seem to refer to the average golfer – the duffers of the world.  Of course we like to hit the ball further, but our less than perfect swings don’t propel it 350 yards.  And even though we are all hitting the ball farther than we did twenty years ago, the average scores for amateurs have not decreased.  We may be 15-30 yards closer to the green off the tee, but still take 4-5 shots more to get the ball in the hole.

But for the pros, it’s a different story.  “A glance at the play on any well-known course,” Low continued, “is sufficient to show the change which has taken place in the character of the game, whether the scores be changed or not.  When we find the iron used where the spoon did duty in the former days; when we find the second shots played from a point nearer the hole; when we find the men who carried three or four wooden clubs carrying but one; when we find, not perhaps the advisability, but the necessity for long straight tee shots diminished, then we know that the character of golf has been modified.”

The character of the game is an evolving thing.  Harry Vardon won most of his championships with the gutta percha ball.  “I personally shall always regret the passing of the guttie ball,” he related in his autobiography, published in 1933.  “In my own mind I am firmly convinced that with its passing, much of the real skill had gone forever….In the days of the solid ball it was necessary for the drives to be properly struck if anything approaching a good round was to be recorded….On the other hand if the solid ball had remained as the recognized one to be played, there is no doubt golf would never have taken such a hold on the community.”

Vardon was nostalgic for the old days, as was John Low before him, and to a lesser degree perhaps Messrs. Nicklaus, Palmer and Player.  The USGA may one day change the nature of the ball, but it’s not going to force a return to persimmon head drivers and hickory shafted niblicks. Those days are gone, and the game will continue to evolve.  What is important is that the genie in the bottle doesn’t change the nature of the game to such an extent that in 100 years it will be unrecognizable.   We can only hope that the “legislators” John Low spoke of will be prompt and brave enough to preserve the essence of this great game.

ESPN and the British Open – Help!!

July 23, 2012

It was a dramatic finish at the Open, but ESPN still has problems bringing it together. I love Paul Azinnger but Mike Turcico never knows when to shut up and Scott Van Pelt tries to be too cute.  Oh for a Jim Nantz or Dan Hicks to provide the play-by-play! And poor Paul Azinger erroneously claimed that Tiger could have taken an unplayable lie and dropped outside the bunker on #6 with a one stroke penalty.  Wrong!  Nobody got in his ear and said no Paul, that’s not correct.  He stated this 3 or 4 times before someone finally set him straight.  And they posted Snedeker’s final score incorrectly, giving him a par on the last hole instead of a bogey.  Sloppy stuff. When Tom Watson – my all time favorite – made a 25 footer to make the cut on the number Friday, Turico talked the whole time as the ball made its way to the hole. Shut up already.  I love Azinger and Judy Rankin and Andy North, even Bill Kratzert isn’t too bad, but the rest need to go.  This is a major, not a Golf Channel event folks!

Ernie Wins Another Open Championship

July 23, 2012

Ernie Els shot a great 68 in the final round – including a 32 on the back side, to grab his second Claret Jug.  Adam Scott lost, but he didn’t choke it away.  He was more like Ed Sneed at the 1979 Masters, who bogied the last 3 holes but really didn’t hit terrible shots, he just could make any putts.  I feel badly for Adam, but Ernie has had a lot of his own trials, and he is such a deserving champion –  he hit the ball the best from tee to green and made it happen when he had to.  Ten years between majors and wins in three different decades.  That is truly Hall of Fame stuff from a Hall of Famer.  Way to go!

Walter Hagen and a Feel for the Game

July 10, 2012

When Bubba Watson hooked that spectacular wedge shot 40 yards around the trees and onto the green to win the Masters, he said simply “I got in these trees and hit a crazy shot that I saw in my head.”  He saw it, he felt it, and he hit it.  Walter Hagen would have been proud.  For Hagen, learning to control the swing by feeling rather than by thought was the only route to a sound golf game.  Feel, art, imagination, experience, and mental toughness were his requisite qualities that made a champion.  Hagen’s understanding of golfing artistry was marked by a tolerance for a diversity of styles, whether technically perfect or not.  For him, it all boiled down to “sensibility,” a concept he coined and one nearly lost in today’s era of mechanical golf.  “Acquire and cultivate the feeling of the swing, by visualizing it,” he maintained.  “The club generally follows the inclination of the mind.”

The great Henry Longhurst once poignantly noted that in spite of Walter Hagen’s 11 major championships “it is Hagen, the man, who will be remembered more than Hagen, the golfer.”  He was “the Haig,” “Sir Walter,” a larger than life figure in the game.  We remember Hagen as a swashbuckler, the guy with a sway in his swing that sent the ball into parts of the course unseen by most golfers, but possessed of a magical short game that saved him time and time again.  Few ever consider his theories for playing the game, or the ideas that made him a great teacher.

His theories have a historical context and had an impact on some of the finest teachers of the last 50 years – Harvey Penick, Bob Toski, and Jim Flick among them.  Moreover, his ideas of imagination and feel have been embodied by players of various generations – such as Seve Ballesteros thirty-five years ago and Bubba Watson today.  It is helpful to demonstrate the evolution of the game and politely remind people that the likes of Butch Harmon and Sean Foley did not invent golf instruction.

Fate Wins Out Again

June 18, 2012

Webb Simpson wins the U.S. Open, continuing the Olympic streak of lesser known winners.  Nice guy, nice player, but I was pulling for Jim Furyk, Ernie Els, and Lee Westwood.   But the fates deemed it was Webb’s champioship and that was that.  Just as Bobby Jones always contended.  It is a changing of the guard – Ernie, Jim, Phil, Lee, Vijay, and the “old timers” will never win another major, and the new crew is here to replace them.  Just as Palmer, Nicklaus, Trevino, and Watson faded away, so it is now.  That’s golf.  That’s life.  I just hope Webb can be a true champion, win at least 10 tournaments, and not peter out.  Same for Bubba, Rory and all the other one-hit major winners of the past 5 years.  WIN!!!!

Who Will Be the Next Great Mistake at the U.S. Open?

June 4, 2012

The U.S. Open returns to Olympic Club in a couple weeks – a venue where Dan Jenkins believes the wrong man has always won.  With the exception of Billy Casper beating Arnie in 1966, I have to agree with his assessment.  Mr. Casper is a Hall of Famer with 51 tour wins, the others will never make it there.  But that’s golf, and the Open.  Fleck beat Hogan in a playoff in 1955 thanks to heaven sent putting down the stretch, Casper beat Palmer in a playoff, coming from 7 down on the back nine Sunday to tie, shooting a 32 – the stuff of champions.  Scott Simpson beat my man Tom Watson in 1987 with an unbelievable up and down from the sand late Sunday, and Lee Janzen beat Paine Stewart in 1998.  It was their time.  Golf doesn’t care that they aren’t among the game’s greats.  Neither were Joe Lloyd in 1897; Willie Macfarlane, who beat Bobby Jones in a playoff in 1925; Sam Parks in 1935; Tony Manero in 1936; Orville Moody in 1969; or Lou Graham in 1975.  Andy North won two U.S. Opens and only one other tournament in his career.  But for that week they were the best, and their names are on that trophy forever.  So who will win this year?  How about Mark Wilson in a four man playoff against Tiger, Phil, and Rory.  Stranger things have happened.  Just ask the spirit of Ben Hogan.

The Untold Story of the St Andrews’ “Rabbit Wars” of 1801-1821

May 17, 2012

Legendary golf writer Bernard Darwin devoted a small chapter of his 1932 book Out of the Rough to “The ‘Ifs’ of Golf History.”  What if steel shafts hadn’t been legalized and we still played with hickory?  What if the gutta percha ball hadn’t been replaced by the rubber-cored “Haskell” ball?  What if the Old Course in St Andrews, Scotland had been rendered unplayable by rabbits and abandoned in the early 1800s?  What?  Actually, Darwin left that one out of his book, but it’s an interesting question to consider.  People may know about hickory shafts and the Haskell ball, but have no idea what rascally rabbits had to do with the most famous golf course in the world.

Golf had been played for more than 200 years over the Pilmor (or Pilmure) Links of St Andrews when a brouhaha erupted between the gentleman golfers of the Royal and Ancient (R&A) Golf Club and the family that leased the land the links occupy, triggering the so called “Rabbit Wars” that almost brought things to a grinding halt.

It’s an odd tale that began with politicians mucking things up – what a surprise!  St Andrews, in decline at the end of the eighteenth century and run by an inept Town Council, was in need of cash to keep it afloat.  In February 1797 it persuaded two local merchants, John Gunn and Robert Gourlay to advance the town £2080 Sterling.  As security against the loan the two men acquired a bond over the links that gave them the right to sell “whole or part of the subjects” at public auction.

They did just that in November 1797, selling part of the land to Thomas Erskine for £805.  In August 1799, Erskine sold the feu [right to the use of land for an annual payment] to Charles Dempster and his son Cathcart.  With a name like Cathcart you knew something weird might happen, and trouble ensued.

The Dempsters rented the land for £130 a year to one James Begbie, who bred rabbits on their behalf, selling the pelts and meat.  For almost two years the rabbits did what they do best, until their numbers overwhelmed the links, with the scrapes and holes they made in the ground becoming an increasing nuisance to the golfers.

The situation came to a head in October 1801, when George Cheape, Captain of the R&A, wrote a letter to the Town Council complaining of the “destruction of the links” by the infestation of rabbits.  The members of the club kept playing and complaining, but precious little changed.  When Hugh Cleghorn became Captain in 1802 he upped the ante.  On 15 January 1803 he moved to have members of the club contribute to a fund “sufficient for vindicating their right before the Court of Sessions…,” and twelve members formed a committee “for the purpose of carrying on the prosecution against the Dempsters.”  Contributions poured in – even from far flung places like India and the West Indies – as the fund reached almost £1000.  For another two years a case was built against the Dempsters, and in December 1805 a “State of the Process” report was issued.

The plaintiffs maintained that the inhabitants of the city, the gentlemen in the neighborhood, and “all others who chose to resort thither for the purpose of playing golf, have, for time immemorial, enjoyed the constant and uninterrupted privilege of playing golf” on the ground known as Pilmore Links or Links of St Andrews, and that privilege was being threatened.  They pointed out that the magistrates and Town Council had historically restricted tenants – they were not to plough up “any part of the said golfing course” or do anything that might injure the course.  The plaintiffs declared that the “tenant should not have it in his power to make use of the said links as a rabbit warren…”  If action was not taken the links “will soon be rendered altogether unfit for the purpose of playing golf” and they moved that the Dempsters get rid of the rabbits and “keep and preserve the said Golf Links, or course of golfing, in the same state of good order, and entirely as they have been for ages in time past…”

Witnesses testified to the condition of the course, with most agreeing that it had declined perceptibly.  Charles Robertson, who for twenty-five years had served as the greenskeeper, had resigned from that position four years earlier because he could not keep up with the repair of the scrapes created by the rabbits.  George Mitchell said that before the Dempsters and their tenant arrived, there were very few rabbit scrapes or occasions when his ball found one, but now he claimed on one occasion his ball found “a scrape three holes running.”

George Robertson, who had been a caddie for twenty-five years, claimed that before the Demptsers rabbits were not numerous and people had the right to kill them.  There had always been “small holes or scrapes likewise in the course, but there are fifty now for one there was formerly…”  The total number of scrapes and holes was even entered into the record – 895, with the most being the 232 found between the 7th and 8th holes.   

The Dempsters, for their part, denied that the links had been rendered unfit for playing golf, asserting they were “actually just now, and have been, since the commencement of the process, in the best possible order.”  The plaintiffs’ argument seemed to resonate with those whose opinion mattered.  In May 1806 court magistrates issued an interlocutor to the effect that the society of golfers had the right to destroy the rabbits, and that it was the clear responsibility of the defendants to see that no damage be done to the golfing ground.

Two months later a defiant Cathcart Dempster published a signed advertisement addressed to “the Inhabitants of St Andrews.”  “You have been stimulated by unsigned advertisements,” he began, “in the name of the Magistrates and Golfers, to destroy the private property of my father and I on the Links of St Andrews, on the ground that you had an undoubted and legal right to do so – but I would advise you to pause, before you venture to act upon such vague authority.”  You can almost see the blood rushing to his face as he wrote down the words.  “Far be it from me,” he continued, “to encroach upon any of your lawful privileges, but…killing of rabbits on these Links is NOT one of them.”

He next addressed the uproar “raised against the proprietors of the Links, for using them as a Rabbit-Warren, as if they had done an unlawful deed.  I must, however, inform those who make this noise, that they labour under a great mistake; for the doing so is strictly lawful being particularly recommended by an ACT of PARLIAMENT.”

He had a point to make, and made it.  As far back as 1726 the Town Council had allowed William Gib to put “his black and white rabbits in the Links, during the Council’s pleasure; that he shall have the privilege of disposing them; but the Links are not to be spoiled where the golfing is used, and the Council may recall the grant at a month’s notice.”  The precedent had been established.  What was in question was whether the rabbits were spoiling the grounds.

Dempster argued that at the time “the Town Council of St Andrews granted my father and I a Disposition to the Links, they were actually under a tack [lease] for 19 years as a RABBIT WARREN: and which tack we were taken bound to fulfill.  But, you’ll naturally ask, who granted this tack and who wrote it?  Why, I’ll tell you! The then and present CHIEF MAGISTRATE of St Andrews GRANTED IT, and the then and present TOWN-CLERK of St Andrews WROTE IT!!!” 

Cathcart made a valid argument, and it gives one pause to consider the politics of the case.  On the one hand there were the proper gentleman golfers, many of whom represented the inherited wealth of their forefathers, resenting the pesky rabbits that were interfering with their leisure pleasures.  On the other hand were the Dempsters, successful merchants who were also members of the golfing society but whose money perhaps was not “old” enough.  Even if they had the law on their side, Charles and Cathcart were outnumbered.  As Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “It’s a court of law, not a court of justice.”

In a public reply a week later to Cathcart’s testy defense, the magistrates of St Andrews and the Society of Golfers countered that a rabbit-warren on the links was “certainly unjustifiable in itself, because, at the time the feu of them was disposed of, the Magistrates never meant that this use should be made of them.” 

Referring to the suit that had been brought and the interlocutor issued two months earlier in favor of the plaintiffs, the Dempsters were not “supported by that Law to which they say they have appealed.  So very much to the contrary – on their protesting against form of the GENTLEMAN of the GOLFING SOCIETY, who went out in open day to assert their unquestionable right to destroy the Rabbits, and on their applying to the Lord Ordinary for an interdict to prevent such conduct in future, the interdict was refused…”  The killing of the rabbits had been upheld, but hostilities continued.  New battle lines were drawn by the two sides, and détente would not be achieved for more than a decade.

The minutes of the R&A from November 1806 indicate that a committee was formed “to guard against any encroachment made on the links, particularly a dyke [a low wall] that Mr. Dempster is now making between the third and fourth holes.”  In March 1807 a letter was presented to the club by a member of the R&A, John Fraser, who had been attacked and nearly murdered two months earlier by one of the Dempster’s men as a reprisal for events of the previous June.

One can only imagine how unsettling it was for the golfers who ventured out to play in such a hostile environment.  Each round must have been akin to entering a combat zone.  The records are scant as to the specific behavior of the parties during these years, but we know that in 1812 the matter went on appeal to the House of Lords.  After a four day hearing Lord Eldon found that there had been inconsistencies in the decisions of the lower court and referred it back to the Court of Session in Scotland.

The court found as incompetent the finding that the plaintiffs had the right to destroy the rabbits.  With regard to the golfing grounds, the town council had “no rights whatsoever in so far as respects it, so long as their feu duty continues to be regularly paid.”  In deciding the case Lord Eldon noted that if it were possible to feed cattle on the land, golf balls might have found their way into what cattle occasionally leave behind them, and the golfers would have been “in a worse scrape than if he got into a rabbit scrape.”  There is no evidence of any further proceedings by the parties after this point. 

Lasting peace finally came in 1821, when James Cheape, a wealthy landowner and former Captain of the R&A, purchased the links.  As a young man Cheape went to India and was employed in the civil establishment by the East India Company, for many years at the presidency in Bombay.  He returned to Scotland and in 1782 acquired the estate of Strathtyrum, which adjoins the southern boundary of the links.  He joined the Society of St Andrews Golfers and five years later he won the Silver Club, which carried with it the captaincy of the club.

Cheape lived a quiet life on his estate, but was drawn into the rabbit wars when crops on his Balgrove farm were destroyed by rabbits, which consumed “the corn, turnip, and potatoe [sic] crops…”  One of the witnesses in the 1805 case, George Russell, who had owned a rabbit warren of his own, estimated that there were 900 rabbits on the links, and testified that they could travel a mile to search for food, which they found in abundance on Cheape’s farm.

It’s hard to know why James Cheape bought the links, perhaps he wanted more land, perhaps it was his love for golf.  But when he became the owner in 1821 he changed the history of the course.  His agent, John Govan notified him in a letter dated 13 July of that year:  “I give you joy of becoming the purchaser of the Pilmor Links, which I have this moment effected at the upset price of £3150…I hope you continue to be satisfied with your acquisition, which always seemed to me to add very much indeed to the dignity of Strathtyrum, whose eastern boundary will now be washed twice a day, so long as the world remains, by the German Ocean [North Sea].” 

George Cheape congratulated his brother on becoming “the Laird of St Andrew Links, and I sincerely you will enjoy them…I don’t say they will ever be a profitable concern…[but] I have no doubt but the people will be very happy they have at least come into your hands.”  Little did George know that today St Andrews would have seven courses and players would come from all over the world to play some 45,000 rounds a year on the Old Course alone.  Certainly George, it has become a profitable concern.

It was quite fortuitous that James Cheape became the owner of the links when he did.  Although he had the legal right “of having a Rabbit-Warren there whenever he chooses,” wrote his agent John Govan, “on the contrary, wishing to evince his good will to the Honorable Company of Golfers, of which he is himself one of the oldest members, he has ordered his game keeper and has given permission to his friends to destroy the Rabbits to prevent the possibility of injuring the links – so that at present few of those animals are to be seen.”

Cheape also took steps to define the boundaries of the course by having it surveyed and marked with march stones denoting the edges of the golfing grounds.  In a letter to Colonel Bethune of Blebo dated 7 December 1821 he explained: “I have a letter from Mr. Alex Martin, the Gentleman whom I employed to survey the links of St Andrews…to say that he would be on the ground as on this day, with his Plan, so as far as it could be done until the March Stones were placed.  The stones are ready and I hope there will be no obstruction to their being placed, as I am ready to give my consent to any extention [sic] of the Golfing Ground that may be judged reasonable.”  

In the same letter Cheape made note of a meeting he had on September 28 with thirty members of the club, and his desire to relinquish the right to pursue any legal action with regard to his right to use the land for any means he wished.  He “was ready to confirm the entire privilege of the Golfing Ground, as the Society at present proposed it.”  Cheape reminded Blebo how the members had “received this my declaration to put a stop to all future litigation.  I may say, they approved of it by acclamation as they honored me with three hearty cheers on the occasion.”

James Cheape’s magnanimity thus effectively ended the Rabbit Wars.  The survey he commissioned is the oldest known plan of the Old Course and defined not only the boundaries of the course but also outlined each hole and its yardage.  His legacy is apparent today, as march stones can be seen around the course (covered with artificial turf to blend in with the grass).  The Strathtyrum course, built in 1993 is another reminder of his influence, along with a bunker on the 2nd hole that bears the family name.

James Cheape died in 1824, leaving no children.  He was succeeded by his brother George, twenty years his junior, who was Laird of Strathtyrum until his death in 1850.  It was George who was the first to warn the Town Council in 1801 of the damage being done to the links by the rabbits.  His grandson James, himself a member of the R&A, sold the links to the Club in 1894 for £5000, but the family remained in control of the estate.  In the family papers preserved at the University of St Andrews there are account books kept by this James Cheape.  They indicate him selling, from 1904-1910, to Robert Pratt, butcher in St Andrews – what else – rabbits!  Today you still see a hare or two while walking the Old Course, but the war waged against them ended almost two hundred years ago, allowing the course to survive – and thrive – in peace.

David Joy and the St. Andrews Golf Festival

April 28, 2012
David Joy as Old Tom

David Joy as Old Tom at Younger Hall, March 31, 2012

I have written about my time spent in St. Andrews, but feel the need to give a public thank you to Mr. David Joy, author, artist and the man who since 1990 has been doing his one-man show on the life of Old Tom Morris, who was kind enough to meet with me and give me a tour of his studio.  Some of you may David from the commercials he made with John Cleese for Titleist golf balls a few years ago, or from his books The Scrapbook of Old Tom Morris and St. Andrews & the Open Championship. Anyway, I contacted Mr. Joy before leaving, telling him I was a big fan and asked if we might be able to meet.  He thanked me for the kind words and told him to ring him when I got into town. 

I did and we met for a pint and a chat at the Dunvegan, a wonderful bar/hotel two blocks from the Old Course that has a room devoted to David’s illustrations of Open Champions.  The place has a warm, friendly atmosphere and before I left he invited me to come out to his studio the next week.  He lives a couple of miles outside of the city in the bucolic countryside, and it’s a lovely walk to his house.  He was gracious enough to allow me to spend most of the day in his company, chatting about Old Tom and golf history while he worked on an illustration for a job he was doing.  He has a large collections of books in his collection and let me peruse them, and even allowed me to go out into his front yard and swing the replica clubs he has that are like those Old Tom and Allan Robertson used.  Very neat stuff.

During the course of that afternoon we talked about all sorts of stuff – his dealings with Jack Nicklaus, Ben Crenshaw, and Peter Alliss, of the fun he had working with John Cleese on the commercials, of Jim Caviezal doing push-ups during the filming of Stroke of Genius, the movie about Bobby Jones, and how a scene with David was sacrificed to the cutting-room floor.  Oh, I had a hell of a time.  He also informed me that the first annual St. Andrews Golf Festival was to take place the following week, five days of speakers and exhibits on all things golf.  How lucky could I be, I thought?

I saw him at events during the Golf Festival, including his opening night talk on Old Tom and the awards show at Younger Hall, where Bobby Jones had received the Freedom of the City award in 1958, joining Benjamin Franklin as the only Americans to be bestowed this honor.  David did a Q and A session with the evening’s hostess Pat Norton for about 40 minutes, and they showed videos of Bobby Jones and Mike Reeder, a Vietnam vet who shot a 79 on the Old Course from a wheelchair in 2010.  It was a wonderful evening full of emotion and the director of the festival, Richard Wax, did a heck of a job in pulling it all together.

The last night I was in St. Andrews I was able to catch up with David one last time at the Dunvegan, and bought him a couple pints as he offered his impressions of the Festival and how they can make it better.  I volunteered my services for the next one, since I consider myself a good manager of projects.  Before I left he showed me again the seat Tip Anderson used to occupy as a regualr of the place.  Tip caddied for Arnold Palmer and helped Tony Lema win the 1964 Open.  People come and people go, I thought to myself, but the memories remain and nobody can take those from us.

David told me before we parted that night that we’d keep in touch, and I hope we do.  He is a character in the nicest sense of the word, an artist, an actor, a scholar, a wonderful raconteur (have him tell you the story of Gladys Cheape and the wedding), and a very gracious gentleman to put up with my million questions.  Thank you David and I can’t wait to see your new book (with illustrations of all the Open champions).  I hope to see you again soon.