Harry Vardon

Simply the best of his time


Harry Vardon died in 1937 when I was but a lad of 6. I never saw the great man play, but my father, Percy, a fellow golf professional (who played on four Ryder Cup teams in the ’30s) played with him on several occasions. Father was always impressed with Vardon’s rhythm and balance, also the effortless way he applied power, even though he was then in his early 50s.

The other great players of the day gave the impression they were trying to smash the ball to smithereens. His rivals-Taylor, Braid, Ray-were “hitters,” whereas Vardon “swept” the ball away.

Compared to Vardon, the grips of his rivals were crude, particularly by today’s standards. Vardon employed a light grip using the overlapping method, which still bears his name even though it was used earlier by a Scottish amateur, John Laidlay.

Vardon was born in Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, renowned today as a haven for tax avoiders. It was there he learned the game as a caddie. He came to England as an assistant professional in 1890 when he was 20. In 1903 he was appointed head pro at the South Herts Golf Club in north London, where he remained until his death. He lived modestly in a small house no more than 300 yards from the clubhouse.

Vardon’s greatest achievement was winning the British Open six times between 1896 and 1914. Braid and Taylor each won five, as did Peter Thomson and Tom Watson in modern days. I feel Vardon has been poorly treated by his appraisers, who inevitably rank Nicklaus, Hogan, Jones, and Palmer as the century’s greatest players. I’ve always thought the century should be divided in two, due to changes in equipment, but I can’t comprehend how anyone could be so certain that Vardon does not rate a place at the top, especially if victories in major championships is the primary measurement.

Vardon won seven, but aside from his three visits to the U.S., the only major available to him was the British Open. If it had been “convenient” for Vardon to play in every U.S. Open up to 1920-and also let’s imagine the existence of the Masters and the PGA Championship the outcome might have been very different. It’s possible Tiger Woods would be chasing the record of Harry Vardon rather than Jack Nicklaus.

Vardon won the British Open a record six times (1896, 1898, 1899, 1903, 1911, 1914), and was runner-up four times. He won the U.S. Open in 1900.

Harry Vardon

Seventeen: It’s The Greatest Hole in Golf – Part 2

Which is why, every March, the crowds fill the basin to its brim, and they holler and take bets and eat hot dogs and, most important, they have fun, feeling better about their place in the world: The island is a leveler. It takes the greatest players on earth and makes them … ungreat. We might never get a chance to look like them, but this hole can make them look an awful lot like us, and that makes us happy. If only for a single swing, it closes the gap.

Last year about this time, Charles Howell III tried to look cool walking up to the tee, swallowed by a gallery anxious for wrecks. Friday afternoon had been long and windless; standing among the slow-cooked fans, you could feel them almost willing Howell’s shot into the water, bumping his car off the road just so they’d have a story to tell. They were forgetting that Howell was one of golf’s next big things. I figured he was good for two bucks to make it.

charles howell 3

It helped that Howell was a comfortable +1 for the first two rounds, one shot under the cut line. A couple of parts and he’d be playing on the weekend, pocketing himself at least fourteen grand in walking-around money and an outside shot at the trophy.

He dug in his spikes and narrowed his eyes. He took a swing, dropped his shot on the dry ground, and watched, bone dumb, as his ball ran back inches left of the hole, off the shortest grass, through the island’s thin collar of fringe, and into the water.

He threw his head down into his hands.

Double or nothing? Too slowly, Howell walked to the drop area, a tough sixty-yard bump, one of those cursed half swings. The hole began whispering in his ear: Whatever you do, Charles, don’t hit another one into the water.

Charles flew the green by a hundred feet.

With the crowd quiet but vibrating, amplifying his pain, Howell took his fifth shot and finally stuck it. He took two putts for a 7, from a near hole-in-one to a quadruple bogey, and from one shot under the cut line to three shots removed. He’d also cost me four bucks.

Afterward, he emptied the locker that he thought would be his until Sunday and walked from the clubhouse to the parking lot. He opened the trunk of his black sedan, dropped his belongings inside, and stood there, in front of his still-open trunk, resting his chin in his hand, staring out into the nothingness. He stood like that for fifteen minutes,

long enough for the memory to sink in good and deep, the latest ghost in a ghost story country.

There was Jeff Sluman, who in 1987 was in a sudden-death playoff with Sandy Lyle and lining up a six-foot putt for birdie and the win … when a boy cheerleader named Hal Valdes jumped into the water on a buddy’s dare, causing Sluman to back off, miss the putt, get good and rattled, and lose to Lyle on the next hole.

There was Robert Gamez, who in 1990 carded a record-bad 11, one ball after another after another splashing into the water until it was so painful, everybody started toeing the ground.

And maybe worst of all, there was Len Mattiace, who in 1998 was one shot back of Justin Leonard in the final round when some invisible switch was tripped. With his dying mother watching from her wheelchair behind the ropes, Mattiace put his first shot in the water, his third shot into Dye’s bunker, and his bunker shot over the green and into the water all over again, on his way to a snowman and a lifetime of half-buried regret.

Each of them, in turn, stood in the parking lot, staring out into the nothingness. Each of them became a story to tell.

I blew into my hands again. I stole one last look at the island–which looked smaller all of a sudden–regripped a few more times than usual, and took a swing.


Another swing.


Both had missed left. I turned my feet a little away from my target, hoping to make up for whatever hitch I’d just found in myself. This time, of course, I hit it straight, which meant, because of my failure of faith, that I’d hit it dead right, clear over the live oak that stands on the hole’s second island.


Three balls lost in the water, joining the 150,000 alligator eggs laid each year, waiting in the mud to be scooped up by divers and bundled over to the range. A very honest someone once carded a 66 here. It’s that hard to let go.

I wasn’t about to, either, although the morning was coming fast. A deep breath, a shimmy, and this was it: just one good swing.

The connection felt true. There was no vibration, almost no sound. The ball lifted up and began to come down. It looked good. Somehow, it was. It landed with a quiet echo, glowing white against the green, and rolled back to within a few feet of the pin. Now the sun was rising high, and the birds started singing, and just like that, my three goofs were erased. The fluke, that’s the shot to take home. That’s the shot that’s better than what Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, and poor Charles Howell III could muster last year. And that’s the shot that makes this the greatest hole in American golf.

Nothing in the game compares to the feeling of finding the island. There’s nothing like walking across that bridge for the first time, over the water, closing the gap.

Mickey Wright

10She sought perfection on every swing

Member, LPGA Hall of Fame

As people watched Mickey play golf during her career on the LPGA Tour, what they saw was a nearly perfect golf swing, a display of power not exhibited since Babe Zaharias, and golf shots unlike any that had been produced by women golfers up until then. They also saw an attractive, polite, soft-spoken, dignified young woman who accepted applause and praise with great humility.

What they didn’t see was a woman consumed by the need to win tournaments. Mickey’s drive to excel at golf, indeed to be the best golfer in the world, started the day she picked up a club for the first time, and it finally helped send her into early retirement.

Mickey was a perfectionist about most things she did, but she took it to an extreme with her golf swing. Mickey didn’t just want to hit a golf ball onto the green and close to the hole, she wanted to do it with exactly the right ball flight a ball that had a maximum carry, with a slight draw, that hit softly and stopped on the green. To attain the shots she wanted, Mickey strove for the perfect golf swing throughout her career, and she came close to achieving it.

As a teenager in California, Mickey drove from San Diego to Los Angeles once a week to work with golf professional Harry Pressler. Mickey never stopped believing in the principles she learned from Harry and has used the same basic swing she developed as a youngster for almost 50 years.

Mickey’s record in golf is phenomenal. She stopped playing regularly on tour in 1969, a mere 10 years after her first LPGA victory. During a 10-year span from 1959 to 1968, she averaged 7.9 wins per year. In 1963 she had an amazing 13 victories! Her 82 victories include 13 “major” championships and other records that probably won’t be broken. Just a golf swing, no matter how good, won’t produce performances like Mickey’s. Of all the qualities that led to Mickey’s success, her drive to be the best was the thing that fueled her career. Mickey had to win. She felt that a lessening of her obsession diminished her chances of winning. Mickey could never tolerate being anything but the best, and she knew herself well enough to know when the time came that being the best took more out of her than she had to offer. These feelings, along with a foot problem that made it difficult to play in golf shoes, led to the end of her playing regularly after the 1969 season. In the 15 years of full-time play, she averaged a truly remarkable 5.4 victories per year.

Mickey today is a delight to be around. She has a great sense of humor, curiosity about the world around her, interest in other people and absolutely no need to be the center of attention. She won’t play golf with people, but she loves to go out by herself early in the morning with one club and play nine or 18 holes. She still loves the game, still works on her golf swing, still hits golf balls, but now she has fun doing it.

Mickey Wright won 82 LPGA Tour events, including 13 in 1963 alone. She won 13 major championships, including the U.S. Women’s Open (1958, ’59, ’61, ’64), the LPGA Championship (1958, ’60, ’61, ’63), the Titleholders Championship (1961, ’62) and the Western Open (1962, ’63, ’66).

Hit the ball hard

Apart from our comparative lack of strength, too many women possess an even greater weakness on the golf course. Women don’t hit the ball as hard as they can. Too many women are so concerned they won’t look graceful swinging hard that they end up with a most ungraceful powder puff caricature of a swing, looping, lunging, limp. Too many don’t hit the ball hard enough to leave the imprint of their swing on the turf, let alone know when or why they should take a divot.

Mickey Wright

Tom Watson

His swing and character remain true

USGA President, 1978-’79

Tom Watson is a name that sounds like the name of a golfer. In my book, a golfer is someone who:

  • Appreciates the privilege of being able to play the game;
  • Respects its values and traditions;
  • Respects the game’s rules, and plays accordingly;
  • Handles success with charm;
  • Handles failure with grace;
  • Adds something positive to the experience of those with whom he or she plays.

Tom Watson certainly qualifies on all counts, so the name fits. There are, moreover, additional factors that identify Tom.

He has an exceptional golf swing. It manifests a no-nonsense approach to hitting the ball. Throughout all the good years and all the not-so-good years it has remained beautifully intact.

He has a real reverence for the game, which adds a distinctive quality to watching him play. Verve, heart, intelligence and imagination are characteristics that have added so much to his career. He has the capacity to focus on the shot to be played. Perhaps more than any other single characteristic, it is the intensity of such focus that separates the great players from the rest.

His duels in the sun with Jack Nicklaus are legendary. The last two rounds of the 1977 British Open at Turnberry when Tom shot 65-65 to win by one over Nicklaus, who shot 65-66, surely rank with the most sensational performances in the history of the game. Hubert Green, who finished third, was 11 shots back!

Tom’s record, however impressive, cannot express how he relates to the game and the people with whom he plays. I’ve had the privilege of playing a wonderful lot of golf with him in a wonderful lot of places. Those experiences included playing with him over a period of 20-plus years in the Crosby/AT&T.

One episode revealing how he deals with failure occurred when his game was in an awful slump. The slump seemed to have reached its nadir when he made a desultory double bogey on the 17th hole that caused him to miss the cut in the AT&T. Later, when we were leaving the clubhouse after a late lunch at Cypress Point, he checked the time. I said, “Why are you looking at your watch?” He replied, “It’s only 4:30, and we have time to play nine holes.” My noting that we had no clubs, shoes or sweaters and that there was a cold, damp mist blanketing the course chilled by a stiff wind did not deter him. With borrowed gear and clubs borrowed from Hank Ketcham (the creator of Dennis the Menace), off we went into the mist and the rapidly declining light. If there is the more sheer joy to be derived from playing golf than that we shared in that setting, I have not experienced it.

Another illustration of how he relates to playing the game occurred at Dornoch in Scotland. We had played around in the late afternoon in heavy rain and a stiff wind in front of a large gallery of people who somehow had learned that Tom Watson was playing the course. As we played the 18th hole at about 6 p.m. he said, “Let’s tell the caddies to go home and come back in an hour so that we can play again without the gallery.” They and we did so. As we were playing the third hole in the fading summer light he stopped and said, “I have something I want to say, Tatum.” I said, “What do you want to say, Watson?” With the wind whipping his rain suit and the rain splattering on his face he replied, “This is the most fun I have had playing golf in my whole life!”

This, in essence, is Tom Watson.

Watson collected eight major championships, including five British Opens (1975, ’77, ’80, ’82, ’83), two Masters (1977, ’81) and the U.S. Open (1982). He won 34 tournaments on the PGA Tour, was leading money-winner five times and Player of the Year a record six times. He is a three-time winner of the Vardon Trophy. His Ryder Cup record is 10-4-1.

How to chip from the rough

I tend to use either a sand or pitching wedge and play chip shots out of the rough in much the same way I play sand shots. With the ball back at least in the middle of my stance, I open both my setup and the clubface. I take the club up more abruptly on the backswing by hinging my right hand sooner, to avoid as much grass as possible on the takeaway. On the forward swing, I slide the clubhead under the ball with the face held firmly open by the last three fingers of my left hand. I can even hit slightly behind the ball, as if I were in the sand, with good results. Remember that the ball will tend to run farther out of the rough than from a regular lie.

Tom Watson

Seventeen: It’s The Greatest Hole in Golf – Part 1

JUST THE THOUGHT OF IT woke me up before my alarm. Outside my hotel room window, it was still black and quiet, too late for the night owls and too early for even the earliest birds. I got dressed, sneaked through the empty lobby, and stepped into the predawn air, cold enough to turn my breath into smoke.

The Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass was a walk through the chill away: up the long curving driveway, past the million-dollar motor homes of John Daly and Davis Love Ill, humming in the darkness, and toward the only light on the course, spilling from the caddie hut. I already had a couple of lucky irons, longer than I’d like to admit, and now I’d lifted a bucket of balls, too. I was ready.

I’d looked at maps and photographs; like any good burglar, I’d scouted things out. I knew I had to make my approach from behind. The easiest way, I decided, was to find the green at number eighteen and follow the rest of the hole like a bread-crumb trail–look for the grandstands, go through the tunnel under them, and from there take the path that stretches back to the eighteenth tee. Then comes a ridge of old-growth trees, a camera tower, and, up and to the right, a white beer tent. And down to the left, there it sits the Island.

The black was just starting to turn blue. Through the mist steaming off the water, the island looked bigger than I’d dreamed it would, almost welcoming. Four clipped shrubs marked the entrance to the causeway across to its shores, but there’s only one first time, and I’d made up my mind to do it right: I wouldn’t step on the island until a ball waited for me there.

A different, longer path runs back along the lake. That’s the one I tiptoed along, in front of the hill that would soon be packed with sun-drunk fans, past the drop area marked with white paint–careful to avert my eyes–and to the back of the postage-stamp-sized tee box, 140 yards from the cup. Here, in a few hours, Tiger Woods and Ernie Els and Vijay Singh would share the same vista, but for now, it was mine alone.

Tiger Woods

The dawn was really beginning to break. Sunlight leaked through the trees, burning away the mist. The black waterfall that water turned orange, then yellow, then blue, then black again. I tipped over the bucket, making worm trails in the dew, pulled a tee out of my pocket, picked up a ball, and dug it in.

I took one last look around. Everything was perfect. Not even the groundskeepers were out. There was plenty of time to swing away. I blew into my hands to warm them and lined up. A pair of nesting blue herons stirred nearby. They would be my only audience.

The greatest hole American golf was born from an alligator pit found by a southern gentleman named Vernon Kelly in the summer of 1979. Today, it’s hard to imagine anything else having taken root at seventeen; everything seems to fit, put together as neat and tidy as Main Street. The biggest hazard this side of Pebble Beach’s Pacific is vaguely rectangular and deep enough to look bottomless, even along its manicured shore. The tee box is at one end. At the other is the island green, heart-shaped and more like blue in the heat, rising a couple of feet above the water’s surface, which, nearby, is interrupted by another island–this one smaller, prettier, and perfectly round. It’s anchored by a great live oak, and during tournaments, it’s d10ressed up with pink azaleas. The herons fertilize them to death in the days afterward, however, a reminder that this place is always on the precipice of reverting to what it once was.

It was Africa-hot that summer in ’79. But Vernon Kelly had his jacket on because he’d been asked to push through the ungodly tangle of this four-hundred-acre bog in northern Florida that another man–Deane Beman, then-commissioner of the PGA Tour had bought for a dollar with the intention of turning it into a showcase for the game.

For the moment, that seemed a long way off. Waist down, Kelly was sunk in brown water; waist up, he was attacked by a thicket of sawgrass and thorns, the sort of razor wire that can skin a man. He wasn’t walking then so much as he was lunging, pushing his feet into the soggy bottom and throwing his weight against the jungle. Until all of a sudden, it gave way and he fell headlong into the open water.

Kelly struggled to find his legs. He spits out the swamp and wiped the muck from his eyes. Flies buzzed around his ears. His nose was filled with the heavy smell of rotting meat. He knew what he’d found; lucky for him, the alligator wasn’t home.

Lucky for us, this place remains what it was back then: a casino of fate. The alligator’s either home or away, and you’re either dead in the water or alive. Skill matters less here than it does just about anywhere else. What’s 140 yards for a pro? For most of them, it’s a wedge, the sort of shot they’ve made thousands of times without a thought. There’s not much sport in that. But what matters here, more than anything else, is luck. It’s a whole purpose–built for gamblers.

Every March, when the Players Championship comes around and Daly and Love and every other good player in the world roll into town, big money changes hands. Heavy with side-betting galleries–and with a million-dollar purse waiting for the tournament’s winner–seventeen becomes the world’s biggest craps pit.

The best spot along the rail is down toward the island but not behind it, where the ball is harder to follow. It’s a popular perch, though, and it can be hard to shoulder in. Lawn-chair-bound addicts will have rooted themselves in place, turning scarlet in the sun. They will sit here from Thursday morning till Sunday evening, taking in the loopiness and a few dozen hot dogs as well as a case of beer and a lifetime’s worth of vitamin D. In one lobster claw will be a starting-time sheet, golfers turned into horses; in the other will be a fistful of dollars. No action is refused. Every once in a while, one of them will puke on the path to the beer tent, and then they’ll take bets on who’s going to step in it: that woman in the red sundress or the kid eating the ice cream? The vomit pots can get big–big enough that sometimes golfers will stand on the tee waiting their turn and wonder what all the noise is about. The noise is about some woman in a red sundress stepping in puke.

Every year, of course, purists tutu at the carnival. But Deane Beman knew that tradition would carry the game only so far. For golf to succeed in egalitarian America, it needed to be opened up to the masses. It needed areas. It needed fun.

After Vernon Kelly had scouted out the alligator pit, he handed it over to Pete Dye, an architect who doesn’t design golf courses so much as he unearths them. He drew his first plan for Sawgrass on the back of a napkin; not far from Kelly’s tumble, he mapped out a traditional par 3 at seventeen, a gentle breather before his final hole’s great test.

But that corner of his napkin had grander plans for itself. Because Beman’s hog remained wet even after a mile-long canal had been built around it, the few veins of solid material that had emerged were hugely valuable. One of the best pockets of sand sat where Dye had hoped to plant his par 3; instead, it was trucked off to shore up other more important holes, and what was left behind was a pond that turned into a lake that might as well have been the ocean.

In this almost primordial place, Dye found himself stuck. One night when he was having trouble sleeping, scratching the day’s bug bites and this bigger itch, his wife, Alice–a good golfer and architect herself–suggested piling up an island somewhere in the middle of the void, if only because it might make for a nifty bit of theater. Dye dismissed the idea as something like the windmill, the old boots under the outhouse door, the miniature Eiffel Tower. He built golf courses, not amusement parks.

But like the swamp, Alice’s idea refused to submit. It disturbed his dreams when he finally fell asleep and come morning, he put in an order for enough lumber to build the bulkhead for an island. He couldn’t say why, exactly, but it turned out heart shaped.

Later, he put a bunker at the front of it, just to make things interesting. Beman loved it. This nasty psych job was just the sort of thing golf needed to turn spectators into fans. The view helped. The guaranteed fireworks didn’t hurt.

The course immediately became the permanent home of the Players Championship. Almost as immediately, those players expressed their hatred for the island. They hated the island because it pushed them over some invisible line between the two halves of their collective brain, lifting them out of the safety of their subconscious. In other words, it made them think. And then it opened a space between thinking and doing and filled it with 140 yards of wind-whipped alligator pit.

“You never think you’re gonna make a 7 on that damn hole,” Fred Funk said last year, shortly after making a 7. “It’s a big target. There’s no reason you should hit it into the stupid water. It’s just a mental thing. Even though you try not to think about it, you know it’s coming, and you seem to really pucker up when you get there.”


Walter Hagen

30Golf’s greatest showman could really play, too

Winner, PGA Championship, 1934 and ’38

I knew Walter Hagen as well as I ever knew anybody whose lifestyle was totally different from my own. I always went to bed early and ate good foods. I had good spending habits and was a teetotaler. Hagen was just the opposite, except he never drank as much as people say he did.

Hagen was underrated. I think that his winning four PGA Championships (at match play) in a row should be compared favorably with Bobby Jones winning the Grand Slam, considering that two of the Grand Slam events Jones won were amateur events and he won them handily because there was virtually no competition. Hagen consistently beat the best professionals of his time. And he wasn’t afraid of Jones. They once played a series of match-play exhibitions, and Hagen beat Jones easily.

It was often written that Hagen had to scramble all the time because he was a wild hitter. They said his swing was unorthodox. Well, the hell it was. He was a very long, very straight driver, and his swing was magnificent. He did sway a bit on the backswing, but he moved the ball beautifully. He was marvelous with the putter, and under pressure he was outstanding.

Hagen was disturbed by so few things. Playing the Western Open at Olympia Fields in 1927, he came to the 18th hole early in the tournament and had an 18-foot putt for an eagle. His putt rimmed the cup and stopped six inches below the hole. He slowly tapped his next one and it rimmed the hole again and his ball was now 18 inches from the hole. He missed that putt, too. He announced, “I guess I better try on this one.” It cost him the lead, but he still won by several shots. The point is, nothing ever bothered him.

Hagen was an extremely cordial man. He never walked past you without saying, “Good morning,” shaking hands and asking how your family was. On the other hand, Hagen was a ruthless competitor and master strategist who would do anything to win, anything that was legitimate. For example, the stories about not showing up on time to play, of making his opponents wait, are true. At the Augusta Open one year we had to play 36 holes the last day. I had played very well in the morning round and was supposed to tee off with Hagen in the afternoon round at 12:05 p.m. Well, Hagen showed up at 12:40 p.m., and after we had played one hole it started to rain. Joe Kirkwood was playing well ahead of us and had to play only one hole in the rain. We played 17 holes in the rain and even though I shot a miraculous 75, I lost by one shot. Hagen came up to me on the 14th green with a sheepish look on his face and said, “I’m sorry for what I’ve done to you.”

I said, “Don’t worry about it. It will never happen again.”

But it did happen again. I partnered with Hagen in the International Four-Ball Matches in 1932, and when our tee time arrived, Walter was nowhere on the premises. I was sure we would be disqualified, but just as they called us to the tee for the last time, Walter drove up in a taxi and got out wearing a tuxedo. He had partied all night and hadn’t even gone to bed. He apologized for being late and proceeded to pick up on the first five holes. We were 2 down after those five holes, but then Walter went seven under par on his own ball the rest of the way, and we won in 39 holes. Walter apologized to me. He said, “Tonight I’ll get a good night’s sleep, and we’ll be better tomorrow.”

Hagen got a good night’s sleep. The next day we lost, 4 and 2. Truthfully, I wished he had arrived in the taxi and the tuxedo.

Hagen won 11 professional majors, including five PGA Championships (1921, ’24, ’25, ’26, ’27), four British Opens (1922, ’24, ’28, ’29) and two U.S. Opens (1914, ’19). He won 40 tournaments in the U.S. alone and played on five U.S. Ryder Cup teams from 1927 through ’35.

Control your mind

Top-quality golf requires concentration on every shot. And right here is where I always have an advantage. A thousand and one things can happen to distract and upset the tournament golfer. Some minor incident, perhaps something he did wrong, gets him brooding. Once he sets off on a wild trail of thought like that he might as well give up unless he can concentrate on the job at hand. Luckily for me, I realized long ago that I’m no machine. I’m going to make plenty of shots that will make me look like the rankest beginner. But if I let a blunder like that get to me, I’d have kicked away every championship or challenge match I’d ever played.

Walter Hagen