Though there should be plenty of good golf weather available up through Thanksgiving (barring the arrival of Hurricane Gail—if I've got my alphabet right), for all events and purposes the 1954 tournament season came to its conclusion at the Allegheny Country Club a week or so ago when, in the battle of the California blondes, Barbara Romack defeated Mickey Wright 4 and 2 and became the new Women's Amateur champion. It was a prodigious season in many ways, when you look back on it. More people attended the Open championship than ever before, over 36,000. George S. May out Mayed himself by putting up the largest prize money in sports history since the race for the golden apple itself—$50,000 right on the line to the winner of his Tam O'Shanter World Championship, Bob Toski, and another $100,000 to be easily digested by Toski at the rate of $1,000 per each May-guaranteed exhibition. With Toski's victory and Peter Thomson's in the British Open—they are 27 and 25 respectively—youth, which should have served itself long ago, finally broke the domination which the Old Guard had maintained in the major events since well before the war.
AUSTRALIA COMES OF AGE
It was the season, too, in which Australia, long synonymous with tennis, came of age as a golf power, what with Thomson winning the British Open, Doug Bachli the British Amateur, and the team of Thomson and Kelvin Nagle taking the Canada Cup, that potentially classic new international competition to which 25 countries sent teams this summer. For a person of his years, Thomson is enormously wise about the proportions with which the business of golf should be mixed with the pleasures of golfing and living. Not that this illustrates those qualities exactly, but at noon on the final day of the British Open, between his third and fourth rounds, Peter, tied for the lead, dashed from the course at Birkdale back to his hotel to pick up some fresh clothes to wear at the presentation ceremonies. "Well, I really thought I could win," he explained afterwards, "and wanted my best coat just in case." Peter also made sure his wife and their two-month-old daughter were present when he sank the winning putt. He thought it would be a nice thing for the little girl to be able to look back and say that she had seen the old man in his moment of triumph.
Ben Hogan did not defend in the British Open. The chances are that Ben would have made the trip across only if he had been playing at the top of his game, and at no time did he strike the form which was his consistently in 1953 when he captured the Masters, our Open, and the British—bang, bang, bang. Ben made his best showing in the Masters when he finished in a tie with his ancient rival, Sam Snead, and then lost by a stroke in the play-off to the man in the coconut-straw hat. Only Ben's exemplary coursemanship carried him this far. As he was the first to admit, he was struggling this year. Off the tees he frequently lost valuable distance when his controlled fade began to drift; he was bothered by a hook occasionally (which he hasn't been for years); and now and then he missed some of those brutal four-footers which he holes better than any other golfer under pressure. "I played an 80 today but I scored a 73," he lamented heavily after his second round in the Masters.
October 4, 1954
The Open, similarly, was hard work for Ben. He finished a creditable sixth, five shots behind Ed Furgol who had felt so good right from the beginning of the tournament that, after his opening round, he had circulated around the locker-room bar at Baltusrol passing the salted peanuts to friends and strangers alike. Baltusrol, incidentally, probably yielded fewer birdies than any course over which the Open has been held in recent years. Furgol's formula was simply to make sure of a steady stream of pars, and he did by hitting the greens more regularly than any other man in the field.
The PGA went to Chick Harbert, twice before an unsuccessful finalist, and the other match-play grind, the Amateur, to Arnold Palmer, a strong young shotmaker with the stamina to win the one-run ball games. Curiously, the drawing card and favorite at the Amateur—he was eliminated in the third round—was a young middle-aged man who, four and a half months earlier, had been regarded as just another moderately gifted amateur whom someone had to play very hard to beat on that someone's way to victory in the North and South at Pinehurst. All that Billy Joe Patton did this year was to become the golfer of the year. He led the Masters at the half-way mark (which no amateur ever had before), put on an incredible last-round rally (including a hole-in-one) and all but catapulted himself past Hogan and Snead, won the North and South Amateur (his only sizable title ever), led the Open on opening day (which no amateur had done since Bob Jones's day), and finished that tournament only five strokes off the pace.
BILLY JOE BURSTS IN
Billy Joe Patton has a great flair for golf and we will be hearing from him for years to come, but long after the score cards for 1954 are forgotten, we will all be talking about how he burst on the scene, brimful with conviviality and tactical audacity, and roused a game on which dead-pan precision had been clamping itself a bit too hard. I can see him now, playing the first shot I ever saw him hit. He should never have played it that way. On his second round in the Masters, playing the 8th, a par 5, he had hooked his second fairly deeply into the thick woods 150 yards from the pin. He really had no opening to the green through the several rows of trees—unless you call a rift of eighteen inches between two tree trunks, ten yards ahead, an opening—and besides his ball was lying so that he had to stand with his hands pressed sideways against the trunk of a tree. He should have played a safety laterally back to the fairway. That was the shot, not the three-iron which he gripped down the shaft and with which he somehow slashed into the ball and sent it buzzing low beneath the overhanging limbs and right through that eighteen-inch aperture; and more than that, onto the green, up there for a reasonable birdie putt. That was not the shot!
The Babe came back, let us not forget that either. In July, at the Salem C.C., she made the National Women's Open a one-woman show, winning by the huge margin of twelve strokes and shooting what were perhaps the best four rounds she has ever put together over her long career. This, mind you, a year after undergoing the kind of operation from which most people spend their lives convalescing or at least thinking that they must. Barbara Romack's triumph in the Women's Amateur was almost as decisive as the Babe's. Only once, in her 3-and-2 victory over Virginia Dennehy, was she behind at any stage of a match. A trim five-foot-four, two-toned blonde, Barbara has worked hard and well to develop a simplified, compact swing and a tournament temperament. When she goes out for a tune-up at her home course in Sacramento, when the traffic is light, she empties her practice bag at certain spots on certain holes which present her a shot she wants in her repertoire, say, a four-iron from a sidehill lie. Taking plenty of time, she works herself up to that pitch of concentration where she consciously approaches each shot as if an entire tournament were riding on it. The purpose behind this is to accustom herself to every factor that would affect playing the shot under competitive pressure—including the inevitable edge of strain—so that when she has to make the shot "for keeps," it is the shot she has practiced.
Over the past tournament season, also, our ladies regained the Curtis Cup, the blade putter came back very strong, Frank Stranahan turned pro (making him, according to Fred Corcoran, the second wealthiest pro—second to Snead, that is). Our team of junior champions made their first tour of England and the continent a successful one; Gene Sarazen won the inaugural international Seniors; Gene Littler finished second a shade too regularly to suit his brigade of admirers and prophets; Bill Campbell, golf's eternal "most eligible bachelor," finally got married, and the U.S.G.A. removed its ban on shorts for women.