If you are an American golfer and you travel to Britain and in due course sit down behind a mild-and-bitter or a gin-and-French (or even a little White-and-Carr on the rocks) and talk things over in the company of British golfers, the first subject that is likely to come up will be what-is-wrong-with-British-golf. No matter how long you stay in Britain, you are lucky if you ever get off it. It is the topic, and it is easy to understand why. Since the early '20s when American golfers made their first successful sorties on the British championships, our players, both amateur and professional, have over the years increased their superiority to the point where they largely dominate the British Amateur and Open (when they enter them) and where, for many observers, it is no longer a question of which side will take the Ryder Cup and Walker Cup matches but by how large a margin the Americans will win.
It is useless diplomacy to point out to defeat-seared British golf fans that the United States almost lost the last two Ryder Cup matches played in England, that our ladies did lose the Curtis Cup in 1952, and that the lopsided scores do not accurately reflect the essential balance of every Walker Cup match held in Britain (if not in America). "Come off it, old boy," your British companion will inveterately retort. "Your boys have won 14 out of the last 15 Walker Cup matches and you've won every Ryder Cup match since 1933, and you know it. But that's hardly scuffing the cover of the ball, if you know what I mean. You produce wonderful shotmakers by the dozens, new stars every year. Who besides Cotton and maybe Dai Rees and Eric Brown and Peter Alliss do we have in the same class with your top 30 or 40 pros? Or take your amateurs, lovely players like your Mr. Harvie Ward and Charles Coe. They make most of our amateurs look like...er...amateurs. No slur intended, not at all—envy, if anything. What we can't figure out is the why—why your players are so much better. The way things are going now, our chaps are no match for yours and, candidly, I wonder if they will ever be again."
While most British golf fans confess they "can't figure out the why," this should not be taken to mean that they are without their opinions as to the reasons underlying the superiority of American golfers. Anything but. You hear hundreds of different explanations advanced, and there is a substantial vein of truth in even the most entertaining ones. I am thinking at the moment of the answer given by Sir Guy Campbell, the old soldier who is the game's greatest antiquarian, when he was asked that question only a few hours after the recent Walker Cup match. "Putting—that's the crux of it," Sir Guy declared, hurling aloft an index finger. "Every contest is eventually decided by a pointed stick. In war, it's the bayonet. In golf, it's the putter. On the greens—that is where the battle was lost and won."
Any attempt to understand Great Britain's continued lack of success in recapturing its former primacy in international golf must begin with the consideration of a number of trite, unexciting and very significant facts. First (as Bill Blaney pointed out in a letter recently printed in the 19TH HOLE section of this magazine), we start with the advantage of having about three times the population of the British Isles and about three times the number of golfers. This gives us, in the natural course of mathematics, a far larger number of golfers with an innate talent for the game, and certainly the opportunities for developing that talent into a real proficiency are greater in this country. Before we get into that extremely provocative phase of the subject, a few other fundamental advantages enjoyed by American golfers should be mentioned. While our weather is far inferior to Great Britain's in producing rosy cheeks and a demand for hot-water bottles, our kinder climate permits many of our ambitious golfers to play or practice daily, and a career golfer can find warm weather somewhere in our country every week of the year. "Following the sun"—that would be quite a stunt in Britain. Furthermore, the opportunity our golfers regularly have to play without wearing four sweaters, rain pants and (occasionally) mittens and without having to "spread" their balance to stand firm against the stiff winds from off the sea has been an implicit agent in the development of the far more precise, articulated, and professional "modern American swing."
One can go on almost indefinitely discussing the niceties of British technique and course conditions as compared with the American, and one does in every British clubhouse: how, as Jimmie Wilson, the former Walker Cup player, expressed it, "American golfers seem to hit past a firm left side while our fellows try to hit against a firm left arm and a firm left hand"; how the larger American ball putts better and elicits the development of a better putting stroke; how the smaller British ball gives the player a smaller area to contact as he hits down on his pitches and, perhaps, retards the player from developing the confident, decisive hitting action which the American ball encourages; how there is a shortage of British pros who are models of good style; and so on and on into the night. But sooner or later, any genuinely serious pursuit of the subject has to embrace "the bigger picture"—the disparate social and economic conditions in the two countries and the very different positions the star golfer (or any star athlete, for that matter) is accorded in each.
LAND OF THE PATRON
We are all pretty well acquainted, I think, with the "forces" in our American setup which afford many of our promising young golfers the chance to realize every ounce of their potential. There is the college scholarship offered by institutions eager to increase their reputations via their outstanding sports teams; this four-year incubation sometimes improves the golfer's mind and, at all times, his golf. There is the "patron" or "sponsor," a successful businessman usually, who is only too happy to find a job in his organization for a personable and capable young golfer. Since the sponsor likes nothing better than access to the inside life at the tournaments plus the vision of being close to a possible champion, his boy, you can be assured that his golfer-employee has the opportunity to play in the important events. There is nothing at all wrong with such a liaison—everyone benefits—as long as the proportions remain right. As for the young American who decides to turn professional, there is a tremendous incentive to take that step since a top tournament pro here commands the status, fame and earning power of a big-time entertainer. The prospect of success through golf is darned inviting—that's the central point. There is room enough at the top for many of the young men the game attracts but not for all, and the competition to earn a spot as one of the elect is terrific. It is the intense competition, more than any other single factor, probably, that has continually elevated the standard of play in this country. You had better hole that 11-footer, young man. The next guy can. You had better learn how to respond to the pressure. The next guy does.
The magnificent repeat victory Peter Thomson scored last week in the British Open is an eloquent commentary on the post-graduate course in competitive golf exclusively available on our tournament circuit. After his victory in the 1954 British Open, the mature young Australian could have spent the past year lazing in glory outside the United States. He chose instead to return here for another arduous and uncelebrated session on the winter and spring tour. "I've a lot to learn," Peter explained this past March, "and this is the only place to learn it."
In Britain, on the other hand, there is no comparable machinery for giving the young man with natural talent the support he needs if he is to develop his skill and compete on equal terms with his American counterpart. There are no golf scholarships. The lure of professional golf is decidedly less golden. There are few active sponsors. Everyone talks about arranging a car ride to, and a guest room at, the next big tournament for this or that young amateur, but nobody ever does much about it. Nobody ever did, and to do so now is still regarded as an act that might be regarded as "bad form." To be very sophisticated about it, and we might as well be, English amateurs frequently take the wrong type of job. Young Ian Caldwell, for example, is a dental surgeon. Well, what dental surgeon is going to be able to enter four or five big tournaments a year, as a salesman or a goodwill ambassador can? And really he must if he is going to accustom himself to the strain important competition invariably produces and be tournament-tough when he participates in a Walker Cup match. Additionally he must face up to the repeated demands made on him that he not just play well but win, mind you, win—demands which are made on him by the press and by a golfing public which is sick and tired of losing but who never quite get around to performing middleman duties which they know are performed in the United States.
There is a great, great deal to be said for the British way of life, the British golfing atmosphere, and also for the good old days when golf was more of a game. However, today we are simply talking about the business of modern golf and why Americans have been so consistently victorious in international play. These are just some of the reasons.
"You forget, Clara—out here my word is law!"