Californians, looking forward to the U.S. Amateur golf tournament next week in San Francisco, must occasionally look back nostalgically to those wondrous, smogless days when, in almost every sport, the West was producing not just winners but legendary figures. Indeed, one must really look back. For the past 20 years hardly compare to the period from 1928 to 1938 when Californians dominated almost every sport. It was a golden decade—a wonderful time to live through, and it is a wonderful time to look back upon.
The University of Southern California's football teams under Howard Jones and track teams under Dean Cromwell were winning everything. San Francisco's Joe DiMaggio was hitting .398 in the Pacific Coast League, and he and brother Dom were heading for the majors. Another Italian lad, Angelo (Hank) Luisetti, who went from San Francisco's North Beach Italian district to Stanford, was being called the greatest basketball player of all time. Also at Stanford, a skinny, shuffling, bespectacled sophomore named Ben Eastman in 1932 broke Ted Meredith's 16-year-old 440; he broke it so decisively, in fact, that the puzzled clockers thought they had made a mistake. Pasadena's Charlie Paddock, finishing off his fabulous career, was now running second man on the Los Angeles Athletic Club sprint team, anchored by the new Paddock, a curly-haired youngster named Frank Wyckoff, who made the Olympic team while still at Glendale High School. And over at Pasadena High there was a bony lad namedEllsworth Vines who was to later win two national tennis titles.
It was inevitable that California's golden decade should produce a legendary golfer. His name was W. Lawson Little Jr., the son of an Army doctor. The bull-shouldered lad learned golf the hard way on the hilly, fog blown slopes of San Francisco's Presidio golf course, where a level lie is a novelty and biting winds a certainty. In 1929, at the age of 19, Lawson entered the U.S. Amateur at the famed Pebble Beach course, the first U.S. Amateur to be held in California. An awesome hitter but a wretched iron player, he barely qualified with a 155. While Little was winning his first morning's match, Johnny Goodman, a few holes back, was fashioning one of golf's historic upsets, his victory over Bobby Jones. Accounts of the Jones-Goodman match filled the newspapers. Very little was written about young Lawson's victory over Johnny Goodman that same afternoon. But for the stocky Californian this was the beginning of an illustrious, almost unique career. It was also the beginning ofa lifelong friendship with Goodman, who in 1936 was best man at Little's wedding.
Those who saw Little's defeat of Goodman and his 36-hole match with Francis Ouimet the next day (which he lost) saw a promising golfer. However, for the next few years it seemed he would be no more than that. He was beaten early in the 1930 and 1932 Amateurs. He failed to qualify at all in 1931. After going to the semifinals at Kenwood in Cincinnati in 1933, he decided, at his father's urging, to stop off in Chicago on his way home and see Tommy Armour. Little realized that his iron game was inadequate for championship play. His drives were incredibly long, and he played a bold game, but he under-clubbed unnecessarily and hit far off his right foot. He had, as they say, a drive and a wedge mentality.
Last week Little recalled Armour's advice, as he stood in the trophy-lined study of his Spanish home off the first fairway at Pebble Beach. He spread his feet awkwardly wide. "This is the way I stood to the ball. It worked all right with woods. On my irons Armour told me to get my feet together and explained what my hands were for." Little brought his feet close together, opened his stance slightly and brought his hands up in a simulated swing, his small mouth set in that strange, offside smile. Or was it a smile? His opponents were never sure. He continued: "Armour taught me the finesse shots—three-quarter irons, wedges. He also taught me how to think a round of golf."
Lawson Little went back to Stanford University and set about remaking his game. Within six months he was no longer just a power hitter. He had become a golfer. He won the British Amateur at Prestwick in 1934, and British sportswriters called him "the greatest match player who ever lived." He earned this praise after the final round of a match with an unfortunate Scot named James Wallace. On the morning round, Little had an unbelievable 66, leaving him 12 up at lunch. In the five holes that afternoon, he had three birdies and two pars. Unable to win a single hole, Wallace lost by a record (it still stands) 14 and 13.
Little went on to win the U.S. Amateur the same year, repeated both triumphs in 1935, the last golfer to accomplish this improbable feat. During this stretch he won 32 consecutive matches. No wonder British and American writers, at this point, were proclaiming Little a better match player than Bobby Jones. Some, in their enthusiasm, wondered if he might not be the equal of Jones in any kind of play. Little promptly answered this riddle: he turned professional. Though he went on to win the U.S. Open in 1940—certainly a creditable feat—and played extremely well, his record does not approach that of the incomparable Bobby Jones.
Little's dramatic victories in the British Amateur—the high points of California's glorious athletic decade—were tonic to the West. It was fine to win at track and football—even tennis. But it was even more satisfying to win at a game which had been dominated by Great Britain and the eastern seaboard.
Enough reminiscing...it's 30 years later, and the U.S. Amateur is to be played next week. The site of the tournament is the demanding Lake Course of San Francisco's Olympic Club, built on the sloping east side of the high headlands between the Pacific Ocean and Lake Merced. Directly to the east across the lake is Harding Park, where young Ken Venturi learned his golf and where his father, Fred, runs the pro shop. Beyond this fine municipal course are rows and rows of gleaming white houses—peculiarly San Franciscan—stretching almost to the top of Mt. Davidson.
Although the Lake Course is near enough to the ocean to be fogbound and dampish most of the year, it has none of the characteristics of a seaside links. As a matter of fact, on only one hole, the first, does one see the ocean at all, though her fresh and erratic breezes are ever-present and, distressingly, seem always to be blowing toward the tee.
From the par-5 first, the fairways terrace steeply down between Monterey cypresses to the murky lake and, except for a brief climb back to the clubhouse on No. 8, the course winds back and forth across the lowlands.
The Lake Course measures 6,679 yards. The players will learn rather quickly—probably after the drive on No. 2—that this is true yardage. The ubiquitous fog sees to that. It fills the air with distance-destroying dampness and soaks into Olympic's lush fairways, virtually eliminating roll—12 yards would be the maximum roll on an average drive. To illustrate, let's take No. 11. In a sense this level, nearly straight par 4 typifies the frightening honesty of the Lake Course. It measures 429 yards. Relating it to one's home club, this might mean a drive and a short iron. In point of fact the 11th requires an accurately positioned, well-hit drive, followed by a two-iron or three-wood to a two-level green guarded by deep traps. That this is a strong par 4 can be attested by the scores in the Open: in four rounds the best players in the U.S. took 185 bogies and only 189 pars on this deceptively normal-looking golf hole.
There are other par 4s as exacting as the 11th, or more so. The 457-yard 5th is a sharp dogleg to the right from an elevated tee. One must shade the right just a trifle to avoid an over-long second, but not enough to catch a huge eucalyptus which guards the corner. Additionally, as Sam Snead found out on three occasions in the Open, a tee shot hit too lustily, and with not sufficient fade, will run to the deep rough, making a second shot to the green extremely difficult. To quote the melancholy statistics of the Open again, there were 194 bogies and only 168 pars on the fifth.
The 17th, normally a par 5, has, as in the Open, been made a 4. But in deference to the amateurs the length is 425 rather than the unfair 461. Still, it is uphill all the way into a persistent wind, making a birdie nearly impossible and a par difficult.
But don't get discouraged. There is an easy par-4 hole on the Lake Course; the 282-yard 7th. However, the fairway is tight, and a scrubby impertinent pine, about 180 yards out on the right fairway, stands ready to catch errant, drifting drives. And the small, two-level, well-trapped green calls for exacting pitches.
There are few par 5s left in the U.S. that long hitters can't reach in two strokes. One of them is the double dogleg 16th on the Lake Course. It is a third of a mile long—603 yards. The average amateur, after hitting two stiff woods, must then play a full four-iron to a tightly trapped green.
THE DRAMATIC 18TH
The Lake Course finishes, dramatically, with a short 337-yard par 4 which is shaped somewhat like a gravy ladle. One drives blind to the bottom of the narrow fairway, then pitches sharply back up to a steep, plateaued green. Surrounding the green are abrupt cliffs which form a convenient amphitheater for spectators. Ten thousand of them during the 1955 Open sat in on the most compelling drama in California's golfing history. They saw Ben Hogan come in to this green a certain winner and cheered the tired champion for five minutes. They heard about a man named Jack Fleck, who was still out on the course. And, an hour later, they watched in amazement as Fleck calmly tapped in a seven-foot putt for a birdie 3 and a 67 round which tied him with Hogan. Still unbelieving, they returned the next day and sitting on the same bank, saw Fleck defeat Hogan in the playoff.
The Lake Course has its lore. Hogan and Fleck and the 1955 Open saw to that. It also has its detractors who contend that the doctoring-up of the course for the Open was too drastic; if so, the amateurs face a rough week. For with the exception of a more favorable cutting of the rough (the main rough will lie outside a 60-inch width of two-inch-high grass) the course is much the same.
The tournament itself will decide whether Olympic is too much golf course for a U.S. Amateur, but the brief detailing of a recent round on the Lake Course by the man who should be this year's favorite might be revealing. Last Monday, Harvie Ward, the 1955-56 National Amateur champion (he sat out 1957 under USGA suspension) played the Lake Course from the back tees under near-tournament conditions. After parring No. 1, the handsome, likable North Carolinian stood on the second tee and looked out to the 423-yard 2nd. "This is a long course, all right," said Harvie, "but you know, I think position is more important than distance from the tee. I'm going to play this entire round with a spoon to prove it. Maybe I'll have to use a longer club on my second shots but, if it's only the difference between a three- or four-iron, or a two-iron or a wood, I'll be better off." Ward dropped a ball on the ground, took his spoon and drove it 240 yards to the middle ofthe dangerously sloping fairway. He was home with a four-iron and down in two. On No. 5, the most difficult par 4, his spoon shot, slightly faded, stopped in the middle of the fairway perfectly positioned for a long iron to the green. So it went hole after hole. On the 603-yard 16th, Ward first drove with his spoon, then hit a practice second with his driver. It went 40 yards past the spoon shot but hooked into the left rough leaving no alternative but a recovery shot back onto the fairway. However, his second spoon left him a four-iron to the green. For the day, Ward, playing in a stretch corset to protect a pulled muscle, had five birdies, two bogies and a double bogey for a fine 69. The Lake Course can be played. But it takes a disciplined game and a good deal of thought.
San Francisco's famous fog, which makes it the coldest city in America during the summer months, lifts—or so the natives like to say—as soon as the kids go back to school. By September 8, the opening day of the Amateur, the skies should be clear, the temperature in the low 70s—perfect golf weather. The superbly conditioned Lake Course, though demanding, will be a joy to play or to walk around. The man to beat, it appears, is the two-time champion, Harvie Ward. But two other Californians have a chance: Pomona's Dr. Frank Taylor, who went to the finals last year, and La Jolla's Phil Rodgers, the intercollegiate champion from the University of Houston.
Lawson Little, looking much the same as he did in 1933, will come up from Pebble Beach to watch the play and to remind one and all that California produced "the greatest match player who ever lived."
THE NO. 1 LADY AMATEUR
The pretty girl with the hesitant smile is golf's newest heroine, Anne Quast, the Stanford coed who last week won the 58th U.S. Women's Amateur title at the Wee Burn Country Club in Darien, Conn. (see page 18). Next week, in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S continuing coverage of the exciting golf season, Herbert Warren Wind will review the major events of the ladies' summer season and present a detailed account of Miss Quast's rally to win. He will also take a look back at the Curtis Cup matches, played at Newton, Mass. in August, and at the heroine of the British team, Frances Smith.
LAWSON LITTLE, the great match player, won the Amateur title in 1934 and 1935.
JACK FLECK (left) upset Ben Hogan at Olympic, site of this year's tournament.
HILLMAN ROBBINS, defending champion, poses with runner-up, Dr. Frank Taylor.
HARVIE WARD, champion in 1955-1956, is generally considered the man to beat.
PHIL RODGERS, chunky, talented intercollegiate champ, is a strong contender.
OLYMPIC COUNTRY CLUB
LAKE MERCED BOULEVARD