Golf

Returning to Hickory Golf Out of Love for the Game

Deal W. Hudson

April 27, 2017

A film about the lives of Old Tom Morris and his son, Young Tom, opened recently in selected theaters nationwide. “Tommy’s Honour” is directed by Jason Connery, son of Sean Connery, who is easily the most avid golfer among the world’s celebrities. The cast included Peter Mullen as Old Tom, Jack Lowden as Young Tom, and Sam Neill as Alexander Boothby, captain of St. Andrews Golf Club. The film won Best Feature Film at the 2016 Scottish BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) Awards.

According to reports, Sean Connery, now 86, stalked the entire shoot, having to use his powers of persuasion to force Jack Lowden to shoot a scene in the driving rain. Bowden, who is quite brilliant as Young Tom, was a complete non-golfer and had to learn not just the golf swing but the golf swing of the late 1800s, when the irons had no grooves, the shafts were hickory, and the balls made of gutta percha, called “the Gutty.”

Lowden’s swing, like that of Peter Mullen as Old Tom, was quite convincing even to a golf curmudgeon like myself. (Shelia LeBoeuf’s swing in “The Greatest Game Ever Played” (2005) was a joke, as was Matt Damon’s in “The Legend of Bagger Vance” (2000).) Both Bowden and Mullen worked with Jim Farmer, honorary professional at St. Andrews, who commented, “it actually made it easier that neither were golfers because there were no habits to break,”

But there is a much larger backstory to “Tommy’s Honour” that none of the media coverage has mentioned. Thousands of golfers around the world have put away their steel clubs in favor of playing with hickory shafted clubs, both those from the period of Old Tom Morris and the epoch of Bobby Jones Jr. who was 6-years-old when he won his first championship in 1908. Thus, hickory golf lasted from 1860 when hickory shafts were introduced, until 1935 when steel replaced them.

In the U.S., hickory golf began to develop in 1970 with the founding of the Golf Collector’s Society, where members would meet and play casual matches using their hickory equipment. Those matches grew into tournaments over the next thirty years, culminating in the founding of the Society of Hickory Golfers in 2000.

Within a few years, a split in the executive committee of the Society of Hickory Golf occurred because of an argument among hickory golfers about the use of replica, which had been pioneered by Tad Moore and later by Louisville Golf. The Society decided to allow the use of replica clubs and the modern golf balls, though the “mesh” ball introduced in the early 1900s in mandated for some events. Replicas of both the gutty and a variety of mesh balls are available from McIntyre Golf Company.

However, the tournaments sponsored by the British Golf Collector’s Society, founded in 1987, requires original equipment. Going even farther, the English Hickory Open requires all players wear jackets or suffer a 2-shot penalty! U.S. and UK golfers have started playing regularly in Scotland at the English Hickory Championship founded in 2005 by the late Lionel Freedman, a great ambassador of the game. An International Match was added in 2014, where various countries square off against each other. The 2017 World Hickory Open will be played at Scotland’s Kilspindie Golf Club in early October.

Speaking of other countries, in addition to the UK, there are now hickory golf societies in all the Scandinavian countries, with Sweden being the most active, and most European countries, lead by the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria. Several years ago I played in the French Hickory Open at the great Morfontaine Golf Club outside of Paris and plan on playing this year in the German Hickory Open held south of Munich in late September.

There is one confusion about hickory golf which may have been unintentionally exacerbated by the film “Tommy’s Honour.” When I saw the movie with my son, he said, “Dad, they are not wearing plus fours!”

Up until the 20th century, a golfer wore long pants, with a jacket, vest, shirt, and tie. It wasn’t until after World War I that knickers or plus-fours (dropping 4-inches below the knee) came into style.

Thus, hickory event can be either pre-1900 or post-1900 hundred, each requiring different dress in addition to different clubs and balls. The 1920s style of play attracts the most adherents, but gutty tournaments have a very loyal following, such as the National Hickory Championship begun in 1998 by Peter Georgiady. I was initiated into gutty play by Georgiady last year, not expecting to like it much, but converted the moment I felt that gutty crunch off the smooth face of my mashie-niblick.

One thing hickory golfers learn is that golf is golf, regardless of the equipment, the ball, or the course: you have to swing well, think well, and hold up under pressure, if you want to win. But hickory golfers have rediscovered something more important than winning, that golf is a game, a game with a stick and a ball, and it is meant to be enjoyed. You won’t see much gnashing of teeth at a hickory golf tournament, especially with a wee nip of single-malt whiskey after suffering a double bogey.

Finally, it’s difficult for most guys to admit they like dressing up for anything. But I’ll confess, as will most of my fellow players, to enjoying the sartorial challenge of playing hickories. A group of golfers in plus-fours, argyle socks, two-tone shoes, white collared shirt, a tie, and a sleeveless v-neck sweater look a heck of a lot better than their steel counterparts in Bermuda shorts, ill-fitting golf shirts stretched over the bellies, and silly sockettes peeking out from above their golf shoes.

In fact, I was first drawn to hickories when I saw a picture of about a hundred guys, all in plus fours and ties, many smoking cigars, smiling into the camera on the putting green at Mid Pines Golf Club. I said to myself, “Why aren’t I in this pictures?”

I had been smoking cigars and wearing plus fours for decades on the golf course and, all the sudden, I realized I was not alone! In two weeks I acquired a set of hickory clubs, an all-leather bag, and played in my first hickory tournament at, yes, Mid Pines.

Some of my best friends I now count among those I have met through playing hickories. Hickory golfers, I have found, are a special bunch of mwen and women, representing every possible social strata and point of view, but brought together by their sheer love of the game.

Over the past five years, I’ve never looked back, my steel clubs rarely leave my trunk. I’ve rediscovered the game I learned to love as a teenager, embraced again the joy of playing the game rather than making my enjoyment depend on reaching a certain number.

And you know what? Playing hickories is a “game improvement” experience, not only will you learn to swing better, you will learn to let go and allow the game to become fun again.

If you are interested in exploring hickory golf, please visit the Society of Hickory Golfers website at hickorygolfers.com.

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On the Contrary: Bobby Jones Meets the President

Deal W. Hudson
January 1, 1997

Last summer I had a supremely enjoyable day introducing my daughter to golf.

As I watched her skip down the fairway with a cut-off five iron in her hand, I wondered if she would learn to love the game the way I did from my father. He helped teach me the hard lesson that loving the game, like loving life itself, requires accepting its limitations, its measure—as it were—on us.

That’s how the game reveals the character of a man or woman.

The greatest golfer of them all, Bobby Jones of Atlanta, is still admired for calling penalty strokes on himself in major tournaments, for infractions no one else even noticed. He was tragically struck down in his prime by a debilitating and painful disease. But the character he demonstrated on the links served him well for the rest of his life. When asked if he regretted the disease that crippled him, Jones grinned as he answered, “Life is like golf: You have to play it where it lies.”

At summer’s end, I read an article in the American Spectator by Byron York on our president’s habit of ignoring the rules of golf.

When I learned about President Clinton’s veritable shower of second, third, and fourth shots —so many that the green gets littered with balls—it was apparent that the ancient game, once again, was providing an insight into human character.

Here is a man who considers himself, and his own enjoyment, more important than the rules, more important than the traditions laid down by those before him— traditions that make golf a constant challenge of self-mastery, and not another opportunity for self-inflation.

Of course, one has got to wonder how much genuine enjoyment there is in pretending to have saved par when you really shot a triple bogey. All the while this entire charade is carried out in front of men of real accomplishment—often with great golfers or world leaders of government and business.

What kind of man can find enjoyment in such pretense? What kind of man can be so oblivious to what others must be thinking?

If I were a novelist, I would conjure up a meeting, say, on the first tee at Augusta National between Bobby Jones, the club’s co-founder, and the president. There would be the usual mannerly greetings and fraternal kidding. As a matter of courtesy, the president would be asked to hit first.

Then the president would take his first swing and send it out far left or right of the fairway, only to reach back toward his caddy for another ball. One imagines a deep voice with a thick Georgia accent saying, firmly but politely, “Mr. President, I imagine we’ll be able to find that one.” Unable to get the message, the president would continue to hold out his hand toward his caddy.

The caddy, not knowing what to do, would look again at Jones. Bobby Jones, who had a smile that could outsparkle Cary Grant’s, would put his arm around the president’s shoulder, smile, and say, “Mr. President, this is a great golf course, and this is a great game, but you’ll never find out how great either is if you drop a new ball every time you hit a bad shot.”

It’s hard for a grown man to learn for the first time to play by the rules. He may, by the time he is fifty, find it impossible to enjoy himself under the conditions that honesty requires. He will feel stifled, his appetites frustrated.

Clinton often plays at the Robert Trent Jones Club in Manassas, Virginia. As reported in the American Spectator, club members are tired of his bad manners: “Caddyshack should have had a Bill Clinton character in it,” said one member.

There are times when we all dream of shortcuts to excellence. Millions of dollars are spent on gimmicks to lose weight, build muscle, achieve happiness, make money, and build lasting friendships. The easiest gimmick of all is just to pretend: If you didn’t make the putt for par, just putt it until you make it, or, if you can’t make it, just pretend you did.

Golf, like all great sports, is supposed to help us live well.

“Play it where it lies” is a lesson that has benefited me all my life. It means that life often provides opportunities that only come once—be ready. It means that I have to live with my mistakes—be responsible. It means that when I act every part of me must be involved—be committed. It means that no situation is perfect, no opportunity is without its difficulties—be courageous. It means that all we do, all we are, is shot through with limitations—be humble.

Let’s hope this presidential pretense is not the “bridge to the future” he promised. The future needs more the spirit of Bobby Jones and less the spirit of self-indulgent leadership.

If Bobby Jones put his arm over my shoulder, I’d listen closely to anything he happened to say.

Vinyl Lust and Hickory Golf — A Shared Passion

Deal W. Hudson

July 26, 2015

As I walked into the local Barnes & Noble today, I noticed a sign on the front door, “Vinyl Records are inside.” I had been aware of the resurgent interest in vinyl recordings, but the sign on the front door of a mega-chain of bookstores made me smile.*  I immediately thought to myself that all the golfers, like myself, who have embraced “hickory golf” are caught up in the same passion as those who have developed a lust for vinyl in the place of CDs.

What’s the passion? It’s not hard to understand — a simple desire to return to the immediacy of a great pleasure, whether music or golf, without the “enhancements” of modern technology.  Here are two instances, and I’m sure there are others, where a group of enthusiasts has come to realize the new technology had lessened the pleasure it has promised to increase.

Record Spinning on Turn Table

Record Spinning on Turn Table

In the case of vinyl recordings, there is no doubt in my mind, having never sold or given away my large vinyl collection, that an LP played with a decent turnable and cartridge through any kind of sound system will sound better than a CD. The sound is warmer, richer, and causes no aural fatigue. You bathe in the sound rather than being assaulted by hard-edged recordings with unnecessary spotlighting of instruments and voice, usually mixed to challenge the capacities of a sub-woofer.

The vinyl recording has enabled an entire generation to experience recorded music at its best, without the prophylactic of digitalized sound. (Hey, they can even play the Beatles’ “White Album” backward the way my college roommates did in 1968 at the University of Texas.)

Likewise, the thousands of men and women around the world who have put away their steel clubs for hickory-shafted original or reproductions (such as those of Tad Moore) of clubs from before the 1930s — the kind of clubs used by the great Bobby Jones when he won the Grand Slam in 1930.  Shortly after, golfers would adopt the steel shaft, in part because of Jones’ own set of steel-shafted Spalding irons.

Bobby Jones hitting his hickory shafted driver.

Bobby Jones hitting his hickory shafted driver.

But by the turn of the century, advancements in club and ball technology had morphed into a preoccupation with distance — everyone began to chase after adding another twenty yards to their drives. Professional golfers began to hit the ball so far off the tee that classic golf courses like Merion, Winged Foot, and Shinnecock had to be lengthened by the addition of new tee boxes never envisioned by the course designers. Courses that once played at 650o yards were lengthened to over 7000 yards.

Watching Dustin Johnson’s monster 350 years drives at St. Andrew’s during the last British Open made me sad — he wasn’t playing the “Old Course” anymore and, as a result, the charm, allure, and mystery of the game were being diminished.  Those of us who have joined groups like the Society of Hickory Golfers, the Carolina Hickory Golf Association, and the Virginia Hickory Golf Association, have said, in effect, “Enough is enough!”**

We play our tournaments wearing plus-fours, shirts with ties, long socks, two-toned (preferably) shoes, and a cap.  Vests, jackets, and other 1920s accouterment are always welcome. Walking into a hickory golf reception and “swap meet” is just like visiting a retro vinyl shop — you meet people who are just as crazy as you are, just as enthusiastic, and ready to become friends on the spot.

The author with Tom Mehigan on the first tee at St Andrews

The author with Tom Mehigan on the first tee at St. Andrews

Out on the course, because our tournaments are played anywhere from 5500 to 6100 yards, distance becomes relative and no one is left behind because he or she is not a big hitter.  It’s “drive for show and putt for dough” with a vengeance.

Add the use of the “mesh ball,” a replica of the 1920’s version, without the spin and high compression of the modern ball, and ball striking has to become more precise, meaning swings must remain smooth and marked by steady tempo to meet the ball in the center of the club face.  You might say hickory-shafted golf clubs are the real game improvement clubs! (Take a look at the reproductions of Mike Just at Louisville Golf.)

You also might say that the craving for vinyl records and for hickory golf is a craving for beauty, for the fullness of the pleasure that comes with an immersion in music and abandonment to the sport of golf. Real music lovers are no longer pretending that digitalized sound is better because it’s a new technology. Avid golfers are realizing they have an alternative to mastering the gut-busting drives that have not improved their golf scores at all and have taken their attention away from delight in the precision of ball striking, the knock-down shot, the bump-and-run, and, of course, the vicissitudes of the short stick.

Music is an art; golf is a sport; both art and sport provide us with time away from rigors of responsibility to work and family, renewing us for a return to the world that puts productivity ahead of both play and pleasure.  For too long we’ve allowed the productive world to take over our time away, our space apart, and in both vinyl lust and hickory golf, we are witnessing the beginnings of a revolt.

*More than 9.2 million vinyl albums were sold last year in the US, a 52% increase over the previous year.

**The World Hickory Golf Championship is played each fall in Scotland. The 2015 championship will be played Oct. 19-23 at the famed Carnoustie Golf Club.

My Son, The Gorilla!

By Deal W. Hudson

Golf prepared me for manhood. My Dad made sure of it. “This is my son, the gorilla,” he would say to his buddies on the first tee of Ridglea Country Club in Ft. Worth. “He can hit it a hundred miles.” For a kid of 12 or 13, that’s plenty of pressure.

So in the early-morning dew, I would set my feet on the grass and address the ball. The familiar “dollar, dollar, dollar” bantering would grow silent and all the eyes would turn to me.

“Jesus,” I thought, “just let me hit it solid, somewhere. Anywhere!”

I’m older now, and I realize everyone was rooting for me then, hoping I could fulfill my Dad’s expectations. Every now and then I would look up after my swing to see the ball arching its way toward the middle of the fairway, safe from the traps on the right and the out-of-bounds down the left side.

But more often, the result of my nervous backswing would be a dribble into the first cut of the rough or a pop-up that would barely make it onto the first few yards of the fairway. My Dad and his friends would pretend not to notice my shame. In time, I learned to assume the same poker face, to ignore the mistakes that threaten to infect future swings.

After the dribble or pop-up, I recall getting really good at hitting 260-yard 3-woods to within short-iron distance of the first green. I always noticed how these prodigious second shots would quickly revive the spirit of our foursome, as if the grown-ups wanted to be assured that they really had a “gorilla” in their midst.

But Dad wouldn’t stop there. He liked putting pressure on me as much as he liked me to succeed. As a former World War II bomber captain and airline pilot, Dad wasn’t affected by pressure. In fact, he seemed to thrive on it. The more important the putt, the more likely he would make it. He seemed to suddenly wake up, all his senses and energy would focus on the one task, and the ball would rattle in the bottom of the cup.

I always thought he put pressure on me simply to help me grow up. There were times it made me angry, and there were times it kept me from playing good golf. Dad and I would come home from the course and my mother would take one look at my face and say, “He got to you today, didn’t he?”

“Yes, he had,” I thought, but I never admitted it.

I was nearly 50 when I now realized something perhaps Dad didn’t even know at the time. Pressure is not necessarily the enemy of golf (or life) but can be its friend. That’s the lesson I learned from watching Dad hole all those 20-footers to win a $3 nassau. He made pressure into a kind of inspiration, a spirit — pressure became his good daimon.

My Dad was no philosopher; he couldn’t explain to me what happened, or how he did it. Like the cowboy stars of old, he could only show, not tell. But I’m glad I eventually figured it out for myself, although it took me a long time. I should have know those father-son antics on the golf course had deeper soundings.

A few times he asked me if I wanted to become a professional golfer, but I had other, more intellectual, aspirations. Dad watched in despair as I traced my route through graduate school to university teaching, and then, much to his relief, into the publishing business.

During my 15 years of teaching philosophy, golf was just about the only thing my Dad and I had in common. Golf kept us friends. As every golfer knows, if you take your personal differences, your financial or marital troubles out on the course, you might as well not be there. So, for 20 years we could talk and laugh on the golf course, even if we were barely speaking after we got off it.

Over the years the tables slowly turned between Dad and me. I learned to handle the pressure, and would often discover his knack for inspiration. We often played his course in Houston, the venerable Champions, owned and run by the champion Jack Burke, Jr., a philosopher of golf if there ever was one. And every summer we teamed up to play in the member-guest at the country club in Rockland, Maine.Father:Son

Two summers before he passed away, my Dad, who was in his 70s and still played to a 12, had an attack of nerves. It was the first time I had ever seen him routinely miss 2- and 3-foot putts. The only time he had ever missed short putts before was when he was fooling around, never in competition. For the first time in our golfing history, it was my short game keeping us in contention. We had come full circle; we both knew it, but we didn’t talk about it. Men just don’t.

After that match, I realized we had become better friends, because of his missed putts. Golfers often curse and complain that the game exposes everything about you, that golf leaves you nowhere to hide. We had received a blessing in the naked moment of those missed putts. It was almost the final chapter of how golf had make us known to each other: a son’s youth to his father, a father’s age to his son. And, because of this, we not only stayed friends, we became better ones.

I went back to Ridglea Country Club in Ft. Worth after my father’s passing just to take a quick look at the place where I learned to play golf. I noticed the first tee had been moved to the right so it faced directly at both the traps down the right side of the fairway and the out-of-bounds on the left. I thought of all those nervous teenagers teeing off with their dads who must be finding it even harder to hit the fairway than I did.

Published at The Christian Review, May 30, 2016

Fill the Basket Before Dinner!

Deal W. Hudson

It was too pretty, and evocative, a late fall day, to watch football or pursue any other indoor pastime. Without thinking much about it, I grabbed an old pillow case full of golf balls, my hickory niblick, a laundry bag and headed for the front yard.

The grass was still green there, sprinkled with only a few dry leaves, which slithered to the side as I dropped the balls on the grass. Placing the laundry bag on its side twenty feet away, I started to chip, hoping to fill the bag with neatly pinched shots, evidence of the reliable stroke taught to me by my father, Jack, who first put a club in my hands at age 11.

I missed and I missed, then I took off my tweed jacket and my scarf, and got down to business: “Move the body ahead of the hands,” “Lead with a flat left wrist,” “Don’t quit on it, and don’t be quick either.” As the shots started to land in and around the bag, I suddenly felt my father watching me from behind. I missed a few shots, stopped for a moment to smile, before getting back into my rhythm. “I’ll show him!” I thought to myself.

No, he showed me — as I stood over the next ball, I saw myself in the backyard of a small brick house in Ft. Worth, TX. My father was chipping into a laundry basket, dropping one after another neatly over the rim, his hands and hips moving like a dancer. His limbs were loose, but It was his eyes that betrayed the fierceness of his intention, to do this one thing well.

He handed me the Hogan wedge and watched me hit a few — those eyes made me very nervous. Balls were going all over the place, somehow I missed the house and the car. Not registering any disappointment, my father simply said, “Once you’ve hit all these balls into the basket without missing one you can come into dinner.” It was already growing dark when he walked inside the house.

In those days, with men of his generation, sons did what they were told, or faced the consequences. In this case, though, I wanted to rise to his challenge, to charge into the dining room, proudly carrying a basket full of golf balls. So I stayed outside well into the evening — at some point the outside lights came on, probably my mother’s intervention.

All I remember about finally pitching all the balls into the basket was that the darkness made it easier. I knew how far away the basket was without looking it at, and I knew where the next ball would lay after I dragged it towards my feet. Without the distraction of the target or the ball, my swing became smooth like my fathers, my feet moved in his rhythm, until there were no more balls to hit, or any to pick from the ground.

I won my father’s smile that night. He was a war-hardened man, who had lost his father early, but his heart was soft with the kind of vulnerability that comes with seeing death up close and believing fervently it is coming for you.

His smile, as I know now, was not for demonstrating my skill, but for persevering, for standing in the dark until all my fears of failure had passed.

Bobby Jones Meets the President

Deal W. Hudson

Last summer I had a supremely enjoyable day introducing my daughter to golf.

As I watched her skip down the fairway with a cut-off five iron in her hand, I wondered if she would learn to love the game the way I did from my father. He helped teach me the hard lesson that loving the game, like loving life itself, requires accepting its limitations, its measure—as it were—on us.

That’s how the game reveals the character of a man, or woman.

The greatest golfer of them all, Bobby Jones of Atlanta, is still admired for calling penalty strokes on himself in major tournaments, for infractions no one else even noticed. He was tragically struck down in his prime by a debilitating and painful disease. But the character he demonstrated on the links served him well for the rest of his life. When asked if he regretted the disease that crippled him, Jones grinned as he answered, “Life is like golf: You have to play it where it lies.”

At summer’s end, I read an article in the American Spectator by Byron York on our president’s habit of ignoring the rules of golf.

When I learned about President Clinton’s veritable shower of second, third, and fourth shots —so many that the green gets littered with balls—it was apparent that the ancient game, once again, was providing an insight into human character.

Here is a man who considers himself, and his own enjoyment, more important than the rules, more important than the traditions laid down by those before him— traditions that make golf a constant challenge of self-mastery, and not another opportunity for self-inflation.

Of course, one has got to wonder how much genuine enjoyment there is in pretending to have saved par when you really shot a triple bogey. All the while this entire charade is carried out in front of men of real accomplishment—often with great golfers or world leaders of government and business.

What kind of man can find enjoyment in such pretense? What kind of man can be so oblivious to what others must be thinking?

If I were a novelist, I would conjure up a meeting, say, on the first tee at Augusta National between Bobby Jones, the club’s cofounder, and the president. There would be the usual mannerly greetings and fraternal kidding. As a matter of courtesy, the president would be asked to hit first.

Then the president would take his first swing and send it out far left or right of the fairway, only to reach back toward his caddy for another ball. One imagines a deep voice with a thick Georgia accent saying, firmly but politely, “Mr. President, I imagine we’ll be able to find that one.” Unable to get the message, the president would continue to hold out his hand toward his caddy.

The caddy, not knowing what to do, would look again at Jones. Bobby Jones, who had a smile that could outsparkle Cary Grant’s, would put his arm around the president’s shoulder, smile, and say, “Mr. President, this is a great golf course, and this is a great game, but you’ll never find out how great either is if you drop a new ball every time you hit a bad shot.”

It’s hard for a grown man to learn for the first time to play by the rules. He may, by the time he is fifty, find it impossible to enjoy himself under the conditions that honesty requires. He will feel himself stifled, his appetites frustrated.

Clinton often plays at the Robert Trent Jones Club in Manassas, Virginia. As reported in the American Spectator, club members are tiring of his bad manners: “Caddyshack should have had a Bill Clinton character in it,” said one member.

There are times when we all dream of shortcuts to excellence. Millions of dollars are spent on gimmicks to lose weight, build muscle, achieve happiness, make money, and build lasting friendships. The easiest gimmick of all is just to pretend: If you didn’t make the putt for par, just putt it until you make it, or, if you can’t make it, just pretend you did.

Golf, like all great sports, is supposed to help us live well.

“Play it where it lies” is a lesson that has benefited me all my life. It means that life often provides opportunities that only come once—be ready. It means that I have to live with my mistakes—be responsible. It means that when I act every part of me must be involved—be committed. It means that no situation is perfect, no opportunity is without its difficulties—be courageous. It means that all we do, all we are, is shot through with limitations—be humble.

Let’s hope this presidential pretense is not the “bridge to the future” he promised. The future needs more the spirit of Bobby Jones and less the spirit of self-indulgent leadership.

If Bobby Jones put his arm over my shoulder, I’d listen closely to anything he happened to say.

The Last Outpost of American Manners

DEAL W. HUDSON

Published July 1,1995

The scene at the final hole at the Masters Golf Tournament—Ben Crenshaw weeping for joy, bent over, head in hands, while his caddy Carl Jackson comforts him.

In that image many of us noticed something almost lost, nearly extinct, in American manners—the gratitude of a pious man who loves his game. Among professional sports, golf is the last outpost for such a sensibility. Tennis had it, but lost it after condoning a generation of rude and spoiled behavior. Hockey players, who nowadays are so busy getting stitched up, probably never had it. Baseball players surely felt nostalgic when they watched Crenshaw win. Their ten months of shamelessness insures it will be a long time before they can recapture the honor of their game, if ever. Football and basketball players lost it years ago, drowned by their PR, along with the rock music that blaringly interprets their sport to the fans.

In that moment on the 18th green at Augusta National, we saw a man overcome by the joy of winning, a man paying honor to his sport, not a man consumed by his paycheck or his celebrity stature. Crenshaw didn’t walk off the green to record a TV spot for Disneyworld or Nike shoes. Instead he talked about his golfing mentor Harvey Penick, of Little Red Book fame. Just a few days before the tournament, Crenshaw had served as a pallbearer at his funeral. As he received the green jacket, the new Master’s champion credited Penick with helping him somehow throughout the final round— how rare a thing such piety has become!

Those who know Crenshaw and his love for the game and its tradition knew he was overwhelmed by his awareness of winning his second Masters, and taking his place in the history of golf. Manners like his require piety, reverence for the past, for tradition, for the accomplishments of one’s elders, for those who have made the institutions that nourish us today.

As the writer Marion Montgomery has put it, “Manners allow the soul to catch its breath.” Manners take over where self-conscious reflection and deliberation leave off. Golfers tee off in an order paying homage to the lowest scorer on the previous hole—this is rarely discussed, it simply happens. Perhaps this is why golf is so refreshing, it has not taken on the confusion of contemporary life, particularly its deep skepticism regarding privilege and honor.

An older friend of mine recently said, “Golf is the last sport where a young man can learn to be a gentlemen.” Remaining quiet and motionless while another player hits, tending to the pin for a partner’s putt, praising good shots, offering consolation for bad ones, lending good cheer to a round’s conclusion, regardless of scores, all are civilizing habits. They are hardly in evidence on our nation’s streets.

Golf remains the only major sport to resist the thug element infiltrating our public life. One reason is that you simply cannot play decent golf with bad manners—it gets in the way of the game. John Daly is the perfect example: when he gets his life together, and shortens his backswing, his amazing talents will fully emerge. Temper may help you make the downfield block but it won’t help you sink a short putt. Initially playing golf is about learning the proper swing; ultimately it is about learning self-command.

People wonder why public civility is on the wane, why so little respect is shown toward tradition, the greatness of the past. Some of us have accepted this as the price of becoming cynical, of exposing much of past glory as counterfeit, as camouflage for greedy self-interest and class injustice. No longer believing in the accomplishments of the adult world we now venerate the scowl of adolescent rebellion. Why should our nation’s youth try to grow up and overcome an attitude that the adult world, in large part, has chosen to emulate?

Just like in golf, bad manners get in the way of living well. To grow, to mature, requires great effort and much help—we are helped both by God’s grace and the efforts of good men and women who have come before us. The essence of rudeness is not listening, in not knowing when to be quiet and to profit from those who know better. Ben Crenshaw’s bowed head, Carl Jackson’s fatherly consolation, the acknowledgement that help comes from beyond the grave—here are clear signs that manners are not dead, that they can flourish once again.