More Speed and Speculation

One of the best golfers of all time discusses the faults of the modern game and suggests how they can be rectified
May 29, 1966

It sometimes seems as if they make New Englanders out of a different, longer-lasting material than they use on the rest of us. This tall, spare Bostonian, now 73 years old, has already scored a considerable victory over time. His mind is alert and uncrystallized, his legs are springy and his eyes are full of eagerness behind the steel-rimmed glasses he started to wear not long after his moment of glory in 1913. He is Francis Ouimet, this country's first golfing hero, and as he enjoyed a golfing holiday in Florida a few weeks ago he unburdened himself of some thoughts about the game as it is played today. This was no old fogy berating change and progress. This was one of the truly distinguished figures of a sport in which he has been a leader for more than half a century.

"I think," he began, "that people are beginning to lose something of the spirit of golf—of golf as a game for pleasure. It was always meant to be a game of speculation as well as skill, but it seems to me that some of the many complicated rules we now have tend to slow the game and remove the element of speculation, and I think the game is less fun as a result.

"I want to point out that I have no quarrel with the USGA and the PGA, for I think they are both doing a very fine job, but I do think they are making the rules too involved and the game too precise. I was brought up to play a game where you could not touch your ball from the time you had teed it up and put it in play until you had holed out. The only exception was when it went into a water hazard or was unplayable and had to be dropped for a penalty or if it was embedded in wet ground. It was all very simple, and I still think that is the way the game should be played. A little mud or sand on a ball should not make it unplayable. That is just one of the fortunes of the game. Golf was not meant to be played under ideal conditions.

"I don't like to speak of myself in this discussion," Ouimet continued, and anyone who knows this modest and diffident man could accept the sincerity of his protestation without question. Yet in talking golf it was only natural that his thoughts would go back to that unforgettable September day at Brookline in 1913. It was there that Francis Ouimet, an obscure player of 20 in a pair of woolen knickers, a rumpled white shirt and a striped necktie, became the first amateur to win the U.S. Open Championship.

If ever there was an upset, that was it. Looking back through the years, one must still rank it alongside Man 'o War's lone defeat by a long shot and Centre's football team beating Harvard in 1921.

First of all, young Francis had never seriously considered playing in the Open Championship. He was just a young salesman for the Wright & Ditson sporting goods store in Boston, and he did not feel justified in taking time off from his job. Two weeks earlier, he had stolen a few days away from work to compete in the amateur championship on Long Island, losing in the second round to Jerome Travers. He had only entered his name for the Open because it was being played a short distance from his home, and the USGA was making a determined effort to sign up a record number of entrants. In fact, he asked his boss for only enough time off to join the gallery for one day. But the boss insisted he compete.

At the end of the regulation four rounds of play, Ouimet stood tied for the lead with Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, two Englishmen who were the greatest professional players of their time. The next day he beat them both decisively in a playoff.

In 1914, the year after it happened, Ouimet authenticated his Open victory by winning the amateur championship, and he won it again in 1931, 17 years later. Yet well beyond that time he was to continue to occupy a major position in amateur golf both at home and abroad. He represented his country in the first eight Walker Cup matches from 1922 to 1934, and he captained the team six times, the last in 1949. The British paid their respects by making him the first foreigner ever to occupy the august post of captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club at St. Andrews.

So it was from the wisdom and experience gathered in these four active decades in golf that Ouimet spoke that afternoon. "The playoff match with Vardon and Ray would serve as a good example of the way golf had to be played in the days before they began fooling with the rules," he said. "The course was soaked from the heavy rain of the day before, so the casual water rule was in effect, but not once during the entire 18 holes was anyone permitted to lift his ball to clean it. On the 10th hole, when we were all even, each of us reached the green in two, but both Ray and Vardon had to putt their balls over ball marks. That was just part of the breaks of the game. Probably as a result, each of them three-putted while I was able to get down in two, and I got the lead that eventually made it possible to win. That is what I mean about golf being a game of speculation as well as skill."

Ouimet also believes that nowadays the average player carries many more clubs than he really needs for a round of golf. "People have so many clubs in their bags today," he said, "that they can hardly decide what club to use on a particular shot. With fewer clubs, a golfer would soon learn to play a variety of shots with each one and develop skills that would add a great deal to his enjoyment of the game. You often see a player standing beside his ball waiting for the others to hit their shots, and not until it is his turn does he start to decide which club he will use. What he is thinking about when he walks up to his ball and while he is standing there I can't say. I have a feeling that if these things aren't corrected and people don't learn to play more rapidly, we will get to the point where your club will tell you that you can only play on Mondays, Wednesdays and every other Saturday."

Taking note of the trends in modern golf course design—acres and acres of sand and enormous greens—Ouimet observed that "golf architects are taking quite a bit of the ingenuity out of the game. With the smaller greens we had in the past, one had to improvise a great many shots to make the ball hit the green and stay there. Now it is no great problem to hit the green, and much greater emphasis is placed on approach putting, which is the least interesting phase of the game. It is getting so that unless your ball is under a bush or behind a tree you don't have to improvise a shot at all. More than anything, I think it is these large greens that have made the professionals such wonderful putters.

"It seems to me," said Ouimet, "that much of the stress of modern golf architecture is aimed at presenting a pleasing picture to the golfer rather than a serious problem. Donald Ross, who designed so many of our best early courses, felt that a perfect course should be laid out for the perfect player but with problems that would also accommodate the average player. A great many of the picturesque bunkers that are built on our newer courses don't really bother the very good players, since they can hit their shots well past them. So it is only the average player who is troubled by these hazards. And all the sand around the green, while it is lovely to look at, does very little to make the course more interesting or difficult. After all, using the modern sand wedge, the sand shot is the easiest shot in the game. This concentration on making a pleasing picture also makes the game quite obvious, with everything right there before you. When people play the old course at St. Andrews for the first time, they are usually infuriated to find that a perfect shot down the fairway has come to rest in a huge pot bunker that they could not see, but eventually they come to love the course for the speculation that it brings to the game.

"I think people recognize the fact more and more," Ouimet concluded, "that certain rules we now have are distasteful, particularly the one that permits this constant wiping of the ball on the green, which is unnecessary, and some of the complicated rules and amendments that are so difficult to understand and interpret. I think we were better off when we had just the 13 basic rules on which golf was founded. Naturally, these would have to be expanded to allow for residences that are now encroaching on the playing area.

"By and large, however, I feel that the game is in proper hands and moving in the right direction, with the exception of those rules that complicate it, unnecessarily slow it up and take the speculation out of it."

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