1912: A Very Good Year

Were they still alive, Ben Hogan would have been 100 last August, Sam Snead the same age last May and Byron Nelson the same last February. It was a good year for golf, 1912. As Martin Davis, the historian, says with authority in American Triumvirate, the made-for-TV film on Golf Channel: “Hogan, Snead and Nelson were truly the American Dream.”
Those years just before World War I were the dying embers of a high old time in Britain. The end of the Edwardian Britain meant an end to ladies in tight bodices and long skirts. The Titanic went down in 1912. You might remember that year for these events alone. I remember 1912 because that was the year after my father was born.
My father had two sporting loves in his life: golf and rugby. As a teenager more than 80 years ago, he had played on the wing for Tredegar County School on Saturday mornings and in the same position for Tredegar RFC in the afternoon.
Remembering those days as if they were yesterday, he often talked of a game in which the players were so disenchanted with the referee that they threw him into a nearby canal. He recalled being sent off for rough play – he always said it was a case of mistaken identity – and how he had played for the weeks of his suspension under an assumed name – AN Other.
When he turned to golf, he pursued it with vigour, playing most Saturdays and Sundays. He had a smooth swing with a pronounced in to out movement. “That’s the secret, John,” he would say to me. “In to out.” Even his putts, hit from a closed stance, went from in to out. He must have modelled himself on Bobby Locke.
Little did I know how this instruction to take the club back so that it practically brushed my right ankle (and thus was miles offline at the top) would hobble me for years. Meant as a gem of fatherly wisdom, it became a piece of nightmarish advice as my swing created first a loop as I got it back on plane at the top, and later, a pronounced hook.
Nonetheless, my father communicated his enthusiasm for golf to me and I shared it. I remember as a child he took me with him to watch a Shell Wonderful World of Golf programme when it was shown at Stinchcombe Hill, my father’s golf club in Gloucestershire.
He once took part in a competition to beat Hogan’s score on a given day and the certificate that he had done so – his net score against Hogan’s gross – was kept with pride in his wardrobe.
Years later, I watched Nelson and Snead at Augusta, and in 1999, when Snead was 87, I interviewed him at The Greenbrier where he had just been appointed professional emeritus. Expecting him to be talkative, I found him garrulous. The interview over, he invited me for lunch and posed a question: “Do you play, kid?” I said, “Yes, but I’m a hooker. I can’t hit the ball straight.” He paused, twirled his knife and fork, and said, “Come outside. I’ll have a look at you.”
Not only didn’t I have any clubs, I didn’t have any footwear. Snead lent me a pair of his. Not fit to tie his shoelaces, I was now wearing his shoes.
The lesson was not a success. After watching me hit a few poorly hit strokes, he moved to his cart and drove away, reluctant, perhaps, to intrude any longer on private grief.
My father’s amateur golfing idol was Albert Evans, the farmer who played for Wales for years and was rightly described as the “Granddaddy” of Welsh golf. When Ross Golf Club, Albert’s club, played a friendly against Stinchcombe Hill, we would invite him to our house on the course for tea and crumpets and Welsh cakes.
My father’s professional idol was Henry Cotton, the public school educated Englishman who won the Opens of 1934, 1937 and 1948. He was to British golf what Hogan was to American golf, and my father never swung his woods with such pride as the day he bought a set of woods, a driver, a brassie, a spoon and a 4-wood, with the name Henry Cotton stamped on the top of each shining piece of persimmon.
The American Triumvirate is a gem, based on Jim Dodson’s book of the same name. It is full of crackly footage of one or all of the three heroes swinging their clubs or putting on a green that did not look as smooth as some of today’s fairways. Hogan dug the dirt, hitting ball after ball in his relentless pursuit for perfection; Snead told the stories; Nelson demonstrated the grace and humility of a gentle man and a gentleman.
They are dead now, God bless them. But their memory lives on, in part, because of Dodson’s book and the Golf Channel film. My father lives on, too, creating elderly mayhem in a village in Gloucestershire. Born on 28th January 1911, he will be 102 next January. God bless him.


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