Monday, April 21, 2014

Over Par

The crowd, which only minutes before had welcomed golf’s recent breakout champion to the 17th hole at the 1927 Shawnee open with hopes to see an unforgettable display of golfing precision, were now bristling with a mixture of confusion and horror.  At the tee was Tommy Armour; a tall and handsome man whose signature black hair had begun surrendering to the deep veins of silver that would ultimately brand him the “Silver Scot” - golf’s greatest teacher and one of the most enigmatic names to ever play the game.  After a year of consistently scoring ahead of such names as Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones, both drinking buddies and golfing legends in their own right; Tommy Armour was fresh off his win at the US open, just the week before.  Despite undeniable skill and talent, he now found himself placing yet another ball on the tee after hitting 7 consecutive shots in the water hazard.  The Scottish iron master had given up all hopes of securing a victory after the second ball took a bath, and now his common sense was in question as he aimed once again towards the water.  When he finally walked off the green, he had given up 23 strokes on a par 5.  This travesty was the worst single hole score in PGA history…a title which still holds to this day. 

 The spectators believed they were witnessing a man coming apart at the seams - the result of a game that mirrors the everyday pressures of life.  In golf, as in life, a man cannot hide behind the talent of the many or ride the coattails of a team, but instead must rely on his facilitates alone if he wants to find himself being cheered on the approach to the 18th green.  To understand what happened that fateful day, you first must examine the man behind the tee.  The layout of that par five would have told any reasonable golfer to follow the given formula: Drive conservatively far right, lay up around the bend on the fairway and reach the green in 4, maybe 3 shots, max.  However, Tommy did not look for routes that were “safe” or “easy” – in golf, or life.  Instead, I like to think he saw a shot in his mind directly over the vast water that none before had dared try. With a confidence and grit attained by many men that have seen war, he decided the overall total of his score was no excuse for choosing the “easy shot”, when the “right shot” was staring him in the face. 

If you haven’t already guessed, I am speaking of my grandfather.  I grew up knowing very little about him, other than the stories I was told from my family and what small nuggets of information are available through the internet.  The best glimpse into his mind is accessible through his published works on golf; “A round of golf with Tommy Armour,” and “How to play your best golf all the time”.  My father did not tell me much about him, but, to be fair, my adolescent concerns were so full of x-men knowledge and late night Showtime adult line-up scheduling, that perhaps his attempts to go over my heritage fell on deaf ears.  I find it ironic that a boy, so caught up with fictional superheroes, did not see the connection between the extraordinary and my own heritage.  For every documented feat of golfing prowess he achieved during his career, there are countless other tales of his life off the course that have defined his larger than life persona.

The 1920’s were a decade that could very well be considered the golden years of golf in America.  Far removed from the bright and colorful magazine covers of the modern golfer, the sepia-toned images of this era capture the pioneers of the game; men who walked the fairways in pressed suits and fedoras.  This was a gentleman’s game, played without the influence of multi-million dollar sponsorships and payouts.  The prize for these men was holding that silver cup in front of their peers, rather than hoisting the over sized cardboard check.  This practice makes understanding that fateful hole complicated, seeing how pride and fortune were both slipping away from the Silver Scot as he fired shot after shot into the water, with little more than a shake of the head and a cool determination to “get it right”.  Seemingly out of character for such a talented and competitive player, this curious hole can easily be explained away as the result of bad judgment, or, more likely given his reputation, a bad hangover.  However, in context, I believe there is an all but forgotten lesson to be found in his actions that day; an ideal of why golf is more than just a game, but an examination of character.  Who better to give this lesson but my grandfather; a man who was named the "teacher of the century" by Golf Magazine, but a legend.    

As with every great hero, Tommy came from humble beginnings.   The cold and rainy links of his native Scotland served as both playground and battlefield for young Tommy.  The local course of Braid Hills is where he cut his teeth in competition.  As there were no tournaments back then specifically for boys, Tommy was allowed to compete against the men; ultimately forcing his way into the amateur team at a very young age.  It was here that Tommy gained a confidence that would stay with him though life.  Over the years, dogged determination coupled with raw talent elevated him through the ranks, making him among the leading Scottish amateurs at the age of 18.  There is much to be said of his upbringing, and how the right circumstances tempered the raw metal in young Tommy to become the Silver Scot he is known as today, however it is not my intention to write a full biography here; I will leave that more knowledgeable men like Ed Dixon and Dr. Milton Wayne, whose articles on my grandfather are available in the links below.  As Ed put it; “The world for Tommy Armour must have been looking mighty fine at the end of the 1914 golf season...unfortunately for Tommy, as for thousands of other young men, the golden days were about to vanish in a haze of gun smoke.”

Before he could answer the call to professional golf, Tommy was compelled to fulfill his call to service.  WWI had broken out and introduced the world to a new terror of industrial war-time innovation - the tank.  These iron giants roamed the front lines like mechanical monsters, and young Tommy would be among the first tank gunners for the Allied forces to face them head on in France.  He rose quickly through the ranks of the Tank Corp, earning many medals for bravery and the reputation as the “fastest machine gunner in the British Army.”  Lifelong friend and future PGA star Bobby Cruikshank, who served alongside Tommy in France, later recounted the infamous story of how Tommy single-highhandedly captured a German tank and strangled the German officer to death with his bare hands when he refused to disarm.  His military career, however, was cut short by a mustard gas explosion which rendered Tommy blind in both eyes.  Months later he would slowly regain use of his right eye, however his left eye was rendered virtually useless for the rest of his life.  With metal plates in his arm and skull, along with the loss of his depth perception, a post war career in any kind of precision sport - especially golf, seemed impossible.

After the war, his good fortune returned when, on a voyage to the states, Tommy crossed paths with another up and coming golfer; none other than Walter Hagen.  The ‘Haig’ took a liking to Tommy and, by the time they entered New York harbor, Tommy had talked his way into a job at the Westchester-Biltmore Club as the ‘club pro’, with Hagen’s recommendation.  Soon, Tommy had adjusted his game to compensate for the loss of his right eye, and once again gained a reputation as one of the best golfers around.

The man who had mastered the iron giants of war torn Europe seemed equally lethal on the fairways.  With his powerful hands, Tommy could compensate nearly every other facet of his golf game with superhuman power and precision in his iron game.  It is said that he could tear a deck of cards in half.  To put his strength in context, Jack “the Manassa Mauler” Dempsey, Heavyweight boxing Champion of the world from 1919-1926, challenged Tommy to prove his strength during a smoky social gathering.  Tommy, always the showman, grabbed a billiard cue by the tip and held it out level at arm’s length.  The Manassa Mauler picked up the tab that night. 

By the time he had turned pro, Tommy was a naturalized US citizen and had earned a reputation as a fierce competitor.  To add to his many amateur and exhibition titles, he had 27 professional tour victories that included two Majors; the U.S. Open in 1927, the PGA championship in 1929.  Never one to be singularly labeled, his career would see him earn many titles ranging from “war hero” to “master storyteller”.  His famous ‘iron-like’ hands, which were once described as resembling a ‘bunch of bananas,’ also knew the gentle touch required to play the violin, which he did at a concert level.  Sports author Ross Goodner said of him: "At one time or another, (Tommy Armour) was known as the greatest iron player, the greatest raconteur, the greatest drinker and the greatest and most expensive teacher in golf."   

When I look at those old photographs of my grandfather, I see a quiet confidence in his eyes that seems to define a forgotten generation.  The sheer effort and determination required to get ahead - not just as a golfer, but in any field of the depression era, is a lesson we can all benefit from today as we consider what it is we hope to accomplish in our own lives.  I wonder how clear the line between what is ‘right’ and what is ‘easy’ has been in the decisions of my past.  The thought of my grandfather on that fateful day; a man who had already attained the success and reputation as a master of his craft, yet boldly sacrificing not only a decent score, but the entirety of any hopes of contention in pursuit of ‘the right shot’, is one of the most prized images I hold in my heart.  To have such a clearly defined stage by which to confront all the subtle influences and conflicting motivations of a man’s character is a rare moment, and I believe any good student of life can benefit from a little introspection during trying times. 

With friend and golf student Babe Ruth
The ability to hold ones composure under stress is one of the most admirable and useful traits among men, and, in the world of golf, more valuable than anything you can buy at the pro shop.  My grandfather had the kind of grit and moxy in his soul which made him as well suited for the chaos and smoke of a battlefield as he was for the heart pounding pressure of a 18 hole playoff.  It is a testament to the bloodline to point out that my brother, Tommy Armour III, currently holds the PGA record for best total score in a 4 day tournament.  What irony it is to know stubborn determination has led two Armours - a generation apart - to set two PGA records; the ‘best’ round of golf , and the ‘worst’ hole of golf.  While his accomplishments and bravado are envious alone, it was his stubborn resolve that I found most impressive.  A single hole, nor a single tournament, was worth changing his fundamental belief to always strive for excellence; no matter how impossible a task it may seem.

I am not a golfer, nor am I half the things my grandfather was, but I have always been a good student.  Above all the great titles he held, ‘teacher’ is the one that has forever attached itself to his legacy. When I think of the collective gasps of the crowd as they watched him set the world record for ‘worst hole in golf history,’ I am reminded of ‘The Road Not Taken,’ by Robert Frost.
I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.
It is widely understood that Frost meant his decision to take the path of the few had lead him to a different destination than those who took the more popular route, but I disagree.  He tells us this with a ‘sigh’, as if to say the decisions of our past do not weight on one or two diversions through the woods – we will end up at the same clearing given the lengthy stroll of our lives.  Rather, it is the willingness to diverge – the scars we gain by foraging on through the thicket of our doubts and fears that will define us in the twilight of our lives. 

As in life, the ‘right thing to do’ can be an inconvenient observation.  It might be the knowledge that we must sacrifice for a greater good, or for the deeply instilled instinct of ‘self-preservation’.  Most men can shake it off in the name of ‘practicality.’ Most men want to make par – not to risk a comfortable life for the slim chance of a glorious one.  Most men quit when they know they cannot win, or abandoned their principles in times of great struggle. Most of us compromise, some more than others. Most men, however, are not legends.