Walter J. Travis “Dropped” at National Golf Links of America
Truth or Travesty? (Part Three) p. II

In November of 1908 Walter Travis launched “The American Golfer” magazine. Travis had written extensively about golf for various publications during that decade but his new endeavor provided him with a public forum where he could pontificate on a broad range of golf-related issues.

In April of 1909, Travis happily reported, “The new course of the National Golf Links of America at Shinnecock Hills will be opened for informal play in June next. The formal opening will not take place until the season of 1910.  Work has been progressing very satisfactorily and the course, even now, is in very good shape.”

The following month he wrote an extensive five-page article titled, “The Constituents of a Good Golf Course”, in which he laid out all of the elements of sound architectural and maintenance practices he’d learned to date. A number of passages are relevant to this discussion.  Travis wrote, “Anyone who has seen Prestwick, or Sandwich, St. Andrews, or dozens of other natural golf courses in Great Britain, will readily recognize the ideal.   Sad to say, we have nothing like it on this side – that I know of!  The nearest approach to the real thing is the National Golf Links at Shinnecock Hills, just nearing completion.”

Later Travis writes, “It will, of course, be recognized that it is impossible within the limits of this article to do more than merely suggest in a broad, general way, the leading principles involved.  But anyone who has played over the new course at Pinehurst will have had an opportunity of seeing how a course should be laid out on proper lines.  Another fine example is the Salisbury Links at Garden City and soon, another, the finest of all, will be open for play, the National Golf Links at Shinnecock Hills.

Given the way Walter Travis’ greens are still admired and even marveled at to this day, he wrote the following regarding greens; “SITUATION AND CONTOUR OF GREENS –Advantage should be taken of natural conditions most favorable to the location of greens, even at the expense, at times, of length of the hole. Certain places will at once suggest themselves as being most favorably adapted for greens, owing to their peculiar nature or environment. These should be made the most of. So far as possible, the natural contour of the ground should be preserved.(Author’s note – Shades of John Duncan Dunn!) Diversity is the great desideratum. Out of eighteen greens I would suggest three fairly flat, two or three gently sloping, one or two on the punch bowl order, two or three of the plateau type, and the rest more or less undulating. This, of course, applies more particularly to new courses, although old greens can be changed without any great amount of trouble, or expense.   Out of the eighteen at Garden City, for instance, no less than seven have been altered more or less radically by the addition of undulations of a more or less pronounced character, and four have been changed by putting in mounds or ridges.”

In November of 1909 to perhaps bring the architecture of Charles Macdonald, and golf architectural thinking in America to that date full circle, Travis wrote; “David Foulis, the professional of the Chicago Golf Cub at Wheaton, Ill., has just paid a visit to several of the best courses in the East, such as the National Golf Links at Shinnecock Hills, L.I., Garden City, Myopia, and the Country Club, Brookline, Mass., having been commissioned by his Club to gather ideas in connection with the changes which are being made at Wheaton with a view to bringing it more into line with up-to-date courses.

 

In 1910, Travis continued the praise and promotion of National Golf Links.  In March he wrote,

Immediately alongside is the new course of the National Golf Links of America, now nearing completion, with rare natural advantages in soil and contour of surface.  Here no money or pains have been spared to make each and every hole the most perfect of its kind, and so far the results justify the belief that the course as a whole will easily be the best in this country, if not in the world … which we (bold emphasis by author) are quite aware is saying a great deal.

That same month, Travis used his soapbox to settle some old scores. Travis penned a fully 19-page article titled, “How I Won The British Championship”, replete with a full accounting of every slight, real or perceived, that occurred to him and his traveling companions that week, an accounting of each and every match played, some marvelous photographs, and the British newspaper accounts of the matches in question.  The list of the defeated read like a who’s-who of British amateur golf royalty at the time, including Harold Hilton, Horace Hutchinson, and in the finals long-driving Edward Blackwell.

Particularly stinging was a section on the equipment Travis used, perhaps implying that he could have beaten his opponents with virtually any implement of choice.   Travis wrote, “I got going all right the following week in the practice rounds…but the putting was still the weak feature. Finally, the day before the Championship, Mr. Phillips, of the Apawamis Club, Rye, a member of our party, suggested I should try his putter, a Schenectady. It seemed to suit me in every way and I decided to stand or fall by it…

It may or may not interest those players who are wedded to a particular set of clubs to learn that after every match I would go into the professional’s shop and purchase one or more clubs.   The result was that when I played Mr. Blackwell, of the original set with which I started, I had only two clubs, a mashie and a putter. All the rest were entirely new. As to the putter, it did excellent work during the meeting. I supposed that taking it all through my average would be slightly under two putts per green. In nearly every match I would run down two or three very long ones…But the putting on the whole was distinctly good. I have, however, on several occasions since…putted vastly better.  The singular thing about that Schenectady which I used throughout the championship is that I have never been able to do anything with it since. I have tried it repeatedly but it seems to have lost all its virtue.”

The article was not well received in Great Britain, and the controversy led Harold Hilton to write a rebuttal piece the following month in “Golf” magazine titled, “The Facts Of the Case”, that began; “The cabled reports of Mr. Walter Travis’ revelations of his treatment over here as a competitor in the championship at Sandwich in 1904 have naturally been the cause of a great deal of comment amongst golfers in this country, and have not unnaturally been received with feelings of somewhat bitter resentment against the American ex-champion. As even if it were admitted that there is a certain substratum of justice in the opinions of Mr. Travis, one cannot but think that he has taken the trouble to rake up the existence of every petty grievance that he could think of, and by the art of inference, fashion them into horrible examples of lack of courtesy and hospitality on the part of British golfers.

Mr. Hilton’s article was tame compared to some of the outrage expressed in the British press, most somewhat justifiably asking why Travis was airing these grievances nearly six years after the fact. Open wounds evidently took some time to heal, or perhaps Travis was somehow made aware of the fact that at that very time the R&A was looking into possibly banning the Schenectady Putter.

In any case, in May Travis’ American Golfer continued the war of words with the home of golf, this time directed to the R&A. Written under the pseudonym, “Bunker Hill” was the following; “This man from the west intended to pay St. Andrews another visit.  He would like to put his head through the door at one of the sessions of the rules committee, if they ever held one, like Horace Hutchinson’s shock-headed Irishman and ask a few questions.   Ireland never had been given a course in the rota for the amateur championships though it was destined to have the best links in the world if it had not one of such ranking at the present. It might not be a bad idea to throw Ireland a rope and tow the island nearer to the United States. The St. Andrews committee, to his mind, had not quite waked up to the fact that it was acting for the whole world. It had paid a half compliment to the United States by selecting a Scotsman resident here as a member of the rules committee but some day it might learn that Americans were quite able to understand the rules of golf and to help in their revision from time to time.” (author’s note – he was referring to Charles B. Macdonald, who had been appointed by the R&A on the recommendation of Horace Hutchinson to represent the United States in a non-voting role on the Rules Committee.)

Also, the time was rapidly passing, and in the instances of at least two links in the country, had not been dependent upon advice from Great Britain as to how to lay out a golf course which would compare favorably with the best in the old world.  (author’s note – likely to be referring to Myopia and Garden City, or possibly the new Salisbury Links)

To tell the St. Andrews committee a few truths might result in a less conservative attitude to golf by that body and work its way into the brains of the editors of English golfing papers who whenever they thought of an extravagant or an absurd happening on a golf course promptly credited it as taking place on some American course. They had no American correspondents and were 15 years at least behind the times as far as golf in the United States was concerned.

In May of 1910, the Rules Committee of the R&A did in fact ban the Schenectady Putter as part of a broad decree against center-shafted, “mallet-headed” equipment. As the late Bob Labbance pointed out, it is unknown whether this was purely coincidental timing or based as many believed as a slight to Walter Travis and subsequent diminishment of his 1904 accomplishment as a vengeful response to his March article.   It certainly didn’t help that Edward Blackwell, who lost to Travis in the 1904 finals, was the one who seconded Captain Burn’s motion on the ruling. In any case, the ham-handed decision and the way it was summarily communicated led to great dissatisfaction throughout American golfers in general as the putter had become very popular in the States since 1904, with almost 50% of American golfers using some form of the club. Ironically, it had also become greatly popular in Great Britain.

In June, Walter Travis wrote the following in American Golfer in response to the ruling; “The embargo against mallet-headed clubs bears all the earmarks of having been railroaded through with indecent haste. The whole affair was sprung as a surprise, on both sides of the Atlantic, so much so, indeed, on this particular side of the water that, at this writing, we happen to know that the United States Golf Association has no official knowledge of the action taken, or any intimation that anything of the kind was even contemplated.

What is the sense of this country having representation on the Rules of Golf Committee if, as in the case under notice, we are not to be consulted at all in respect to matters of such far-reaching consequences?”

To be so ignored in this fashion is, to put it mildly, not very complimentary. And it would not be surprising if, in the circumstances, the decision arrived at, which bars all putters of the Schenectady type so commonly used here, were not ratified by the U.S.G.A.  We have always been loyal to St. Andrews, even in the face of active internal opposition – which is now happily set to rest – and we hope always to retain the same loyal spirit, but – “It’s all very well to dissemble your love,  But why did you kick us down stairs?”

This ruling obviously placed Charles Macdonald in a very uncomfortable position in America. As an advocate for complete worldwide allegiance to the rules of the R&A, the capriciousness and timing seemed at least partially to be politically motivated, and it was difficult to understand (or explain) how banning a popular putter in any way was meant to advance the game in a positive fashion.

Macdonald had tried to walk a very fine line in the matter. During the period when the R&A was considering their position before a final vote that September, he wrote a letter imploring them to exclude the Schenectady as he saw the potential rift it would create, and was aware of the fact that this would be viewed by many as a backlash against Walter Travis. This snippet of the letter he later reproduced in “Scotland’s Gift” gives some indication of his thinking on the issue.


While these contentious events swirled, by July of 1910 Charles Blair Macdonald was finally ready to formally unveil his creation to his Founding and Associate Members. There had been some speculation that this was to be an invitational tournament open to all leading amateurs, but that was not the case as seen in the following two June 1910 New York Sun and New York Times articles.

The following July 3rd, 1910 New York Sun article lists the Founders, including Walter Travis, which should not be surprising as he was still a member in good stead at that time.  In fact, pictorial evidence published in American Golfer later that month indicates that Walter Travis played the first day alongside C.B. Macdonald, H.J. Whigham, Fred Herreshoff, and Herbert Harriman.

During the tournament the men played a medal round and then match-play with Walter Travis losing in the finals to Herreshoff, 2-up.   That month, Travis reported on the tournament and gave his readers the first glimpses of National Golf Links being played, with numerous photos displayed of the Macdonald, Travis, Whigham group playing together, including a group photo with Travis and Macdonald seated next to each other.   Evidently, despite the Schenectady matter things still looked to be personally copasetic between the two men at that time.

Below is the first page of Walter Travis’ article about the tournament for American Golfer, where with a seeming sense of pride, he claims that the unfinished course still in a rough state would soon be “far and away” the best in this country.

On the last page of the eight-page article, Travis gives primary credit to Macdonald for the creation of the National Golf Links (as well as the reason for that name), and states his opinion that the course is not a slog, despite its eighteen very challenging holes.  It’s also seen that Travis is one of the Founders.

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