This, this first issue of Golf Illustrated, launched with the best of intentions. Editor Max Behr noted in his Foreword that “there is a demand for a magazine which will give, not only the best of reading and illustration, but reflect in its appearance a dignity in keeping with the high esteem and love which golfers have for their game.” (Funny, that echoes the principles of the Wee Nip, too!) Behr hoped that his magazine would provide golfers of the day a “keener and greater zest” for the game. Authors for this first edition included Jerry Travers, Harold Hilton, Francis Ouimet, Bernard Darwin, and Horace Hutchinson. Apparently Mr. Behr wished to start out with the best and brightest. Good thinking.
For this edition of the SoHG newsletter, I could not resist the title of Mr. Hilton’s article “Has Golf Improved?” This was 1914 and on the mind of this golfer/writer was a subject that yet interests golfers of 2014. Mr. Hilton began with an examination of Allan Robertson vs. Tom Morris, concluding that Allan was likely “a genius in the art of match-making,” in other words, “sly as a fox and cunning as a weasel” in setting up the stakes, etc. in preparing for a game. Mr. Hilton concluded that young Tom Morris may have been the best of his day with Jamie Anderson and Bob Ferguson following close on his heels. The Great Triumverate then came under Mr. Hilton’s eye, with J.H. Taylor lauded for his straightforward golf, setting a standard that caused the game to improve steadily since 1900. Harry Vardon’s golf he considered “finer than had ever been played by mortal man before,” and with such a sudden appearance on the golfing scene as produced a “disastrous effect” upon his opponents. James Braid he thought, at first, an “unfinished player” who, through determination brought his game to the level of Vardon.
Following are two passages from Mr. Hilton’s article to round out the study of golf’s improvements in the year 1914:
In all professional golf there is one great improvement evident, and that is in the long approaching to the hole side. The majority of the professionals have developed a certain “flick” shot with the wrists which is very deadly. As far as I can gather, Harry Vardon was the originator and perfector of the shot, but James Braid and many others play it with deadly effect.
Of course there must lie practical reasons to be considered as contributing to the evident improvement in the playing of the game. One is, the improvement in the upkeep of courses, probably quite neutralized by the added length of all courses of note, – and whatever the critics say, length does make a difference. Again the club makers of the present day, with the advantage of experience, should be able to turn out a more serviceable weapon than their predecessors, and there can be but little doubt that the shape of the present day club head lends itself much more to hard hitting than the old-fashioned long headed instrument of twenty years ago. But as against this, the sawn hickory of the present day is decidedly inferior to the split hickory of the old times. Now we come to an invention which admittedly has tended to lower the scores, and that is the introduction of the rubber-cored ball. Mr. Hutchinson only a short time ago made an experiment which served to give him a certain knowledge of the respective value of a solid gutty and a rubber-cored ball, and his experience tended to the view that the advantages obtained by the use of the rubber core were not so great as is generally acclaimed. But there can be no doubt that on the average, the rubber-cored ball is worth from one to two strokes per round to the very best players and infinitely more to players of indifferent calibre, and it has certainly had the effect of moving up many players to within measurable distance of the very elite, who, had they still to use the old solid ball, would only rank as mediocre players.
One more bit from the archives, a note from Max Behr from The Country Club Magazine of 1927, on the question of, what else, the greed for distance.
The deterioration of skill brought about by the present ball has caused a mischievous repercussion throughout the length and breadth of golf. The inordinate distance the ball can now be driven has caused in golf architecture a very definite infirmity of principle as all deductions from quantity values are apt to induce. Quantity must be opposed by quantity. Consequently the size of our greens and the width of our fairways have become restricted, and the rough made damnable. Instead of being an art where the medium penalty is used to create ideas calling for intelligent application of skill, golf architecture has become a system of penology. Thus instinct is met by instinct, and under the stimulus of impulse the mind is subject to the delusion that two wrongs can make a right. Little is being done to curb instinct; our fairways are mere troughs through which it is allowed to vent itself. We are locking up this wild desire for distance just as we cage wild animals.And a further effect, especially noticeable in the United States, is the demand to keep the greens in a soft condition. The golfer cannot stop the ball so the greens must. This has caused overwatering which has seriously damaged the health of turf. Indeed the evil ramifications caused by the present ball would fill a book. The problem of the ball is the most serious that golf has ever been faced with. It is one that our authorities must solve successfully. And while they are about it, the question before the golfers of the world is plain as a pike staff. Are they going to be sportsmen and accept a ball that requires skill to propel, or, in their infantile worship of mere distance, are they going to continue to be downright game-hogs?