A person who seeks to be a true master in his chosen profession should know the history of the trade. Engineers that design high-rise oceanfront condos best be aware of the catastrophes of the past. Golf course superintendents have learned that certain things need to be done to their courses at certain times of the year to avail the best course conditions. These lessons are learned by studying history of chosen professions.
I believe people are more apt to fall in love with the game of golf, if they know some background on the sport. The younger generations have difficulty truly appreciating players from earlier days, due to a number of factors: The lack of discussion of golf’s history in the golf media today; they cannot fathom how a player could be considered great when he drove the ball only 265 yards with a driver; and they’ve never used a wooden-headed driver with a steel shaft hitting a balata ball.
I experienced one of my earliest lessons on the history of golf from Hank Smallwood, head golf professional at Bonnie Crest Country Club in Montgomery.
Some of Alabama’s best players cut their teeth on this golf course, including PGA Tour players Mac McClendon, Bill Rogers and Buddy Gardner. Tremendous amateur players also called Bonnie Crest home, including Ed Brown, Buddy Carothers, Emile Vaughn, Steve and Wes Campbell and a long host of others.
Mr. Smallwood was one of the few golf pros that hosted an annual junior golf tournament open to any young golfer. During that time, there were no junior tours and few junior tournaments.
I visited Bonnie Crest when I was about 19 years old, and Mr. Smallwood, who must have been in his early 60s, invited me to accompany him for the day at his cabin on Lake Martin. This was around 1975 after my father had passed away. I had no idea if Mr. Smallwood was going to take me for a boat ride to show me the lake or what his plans were, but I believed he felt I needed some adult consulting after losing my dad. All I knew was that I was going to be able to spend an afternoon with a gentleman who I admired, and that was good enough for me.
I met him at his home around 10 a.m. When I arrived, he had his station wagon packed with some groceries for a day at the lake. I had only been to Lake Martin a couple of times, so as we made our way from Montgomery, I had no idea where we were or where we were going. I recall us driving through Wetumpka on U.S. Highway 231; and then, I am certain that we made our way up state Route 63. We then went off another road until we arrived at one of those roads that had a sign with multiple property owners’ names painted on them.Smallwood was somewhere on that sign.
I remember that we took what seemed to be a hundred sharp left and right turns before we came upon his graveled driveway. The driveway was quite steep, leading to the cabin; and then, farther down to the lake. I hoped that the car wasn’t going to skid down the gravel path and have us end up in the water, but Mr. Smallwood had made that entrance countless times and sure enough, he parked his station wagon just where he wanted it.
When we got out of the car, Mr. Smallwood asked me to grab the brown paper grocery bags as he made his way up the steps to unlock the cabin and turn on the water. In the kitchen, I unloaded the grocery bags to find a loaf of bread, potato chips, peanut butter, jelly, peanuts, a couple sodas and four six-packs of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
I don’t recall whether his boat was not working well or if he even had a boat at all, but rather than go for a boat ride, we sat on the cabin’s covered deck. Facing the water, we spent the day talking, with an oscillating fan blowing toward us. We both had a couple PB&J sandwiches. Mr. Smallwood drank his beer, and I drank the soda.
Mr. Smallwood spent the day quizzing me on my knowledge of the history of golf. I was pleased with myself whenever I could answer one of his questions, but for the most part, he stumped me. I was being educated. He talked about former players dating back to the 19th century. He talked about how the game had evolved from earlier years to the 1970s. We talked about the majors and older players, some who he knew, had seen or had played with and a host of others about whom he recalled stories.
It was a day of history lessons that I will never forget. He suggested that if I was going to become a golf professional that I needed to learn and study the history of the sport. That day, I gained a deeper affection for the game of golf.
To me, golf’s history makes the game so much more interesting. I feel a responsibility to pique the interest of my players by educating them on the history of golf. Last week, I gave my golf team a 10-question quiz to see what they knew. I was pleased when they answered any questions correctly.
Let’s see how well you do. The answers will be at the end of the article.
1. Who is known as the Father of the overlapping grip?
2. Alistair McKenzie is mostly known for this.
3. Before the Golf Hall of Fame was moved to Florida, its home was where?
4. Gutta-Percha relates to what?
5. Who was the player-captain for the USA in the first Ryder Cup?
6. Who created the sand wedge?
7. Before graphite and steel shafts, shafts were made from this material.
8. Name the first company in Japan to produce golf clubs.
9. In 1421, golf in Scotland was banned because it conflicted with this activity.
10. In golf, an Albatross refers to what?
If you have children or grandchildren or friends who are taking up the game, give them a taste of the game’s history. If they learn how the game has evolved, they may gain a greater interest in it and become more devoted.
To learn more about the game of golf, I gave each member of my golf team a topic on which to write a two-page paper. In early December, they stood in front of the team and were able to speak about and answer questions on their topics. The nine subjects they reported on were: five architects of famous golf courses; evolution of the golf ball; how to become a class “A” golf professional; what exactly the USGA does; history of the four major championships; golf club evolution; the influence electric and gasoline carts have made on the game today; five famous putter designers; and The Walker Cup.
It is my hope that this will spur their interest in learning more about where the game of golf has come from.
Golf is a game that has a long and beautiful history full of interesting characters and athletes. The best of the best players in the world know their trades’ histories. Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Ben Crenshaw all are golf historians. Besides their amazing careers, they are students of the game. Not only is golf a lovely walk in the park, it is also the host of many interesting and exciting stories. Read up on the past; you’ll find stories that will astound you.
Answers for the golf history quiz: 1. Harry Vardon; 2. Golf course architect of Augusta National Golf Club; 3. Pinehurst, North Carolina; 4. The golf ball in the mid-1800s; 5. Walter Hagen; 6. Gene Sarazen; 7. Hickory; 8. Mizuno; 9. Archery practice; 10. A double-eagle.
Merry Christmas to one and all, and go Trojans!
~ Dave Jennings is the men’s golf coach at Central Alabama Community College.