Feature Interview with Bob Labbance
Bob Labbance is the editor-in-chief and staff photographer for the annual state golf magazines of Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York. He also has authored four centennial club history books in the region and his freelance work has appeared in numerous publications. His new book entitled The Old Man is a biography on the great Walter Travis.
1. What inspired you to write The Old Man?
About 15 years ago I walked off the Equinox Golf Links in Manchester Center, Vermont, and wondered, ‘Who designed this terrific course?’ When I was told it was Walter Travis, and that he was buried in the Dellwood Cemetery between Equinox and the adjoining Ekwanok I took an immediate interest. I’ve been keeping a file on Travis ever since, but the real inspiration to write the book came from the excitement generated by the Walter Travis Society. A group of Travis-designed western New York and southern Ontario clubs banded together to pay tribute to Travis, and when we met to discuss the project, I was charged and ready to go.
2. What was the biggest surprise that you uncovered in your research about Travis?
For a man who was called dour, serious, crabby and taciturn-and that was by his friends-Travis had a loving and poetic side that was clearly in evidence in the more than 100 love letters he wrote his wife-to-be in 1889. The letters were donated to the USGA when his grand daughter passed away a few years ago, and they are filled with romantic prose of the highest order.
Quite a contrast to public reputation.
3. Travis was highly involved in the development of Pinehurst No. 2 around the 1910 time frame. Yet, it wasn’t until Ross went with grass greens in the 1930s that No. 2 became the challenge that it is from 40 yards and in to the green. Based on that, how much credit for the appeal of Pinehurst No.2 as it exists today should rest with Travis?
Very little. Travis and Ross were friends and often played golf together. If we believe the story as Walter tells it-and he told it in The American Golfer magazine when both Tufts and Ross were still alive, and I could find no rebuttal-we might think he had quite a bit to do with the Pinehurst design. He wrote, ‘For several years I have been at Mr. Tufts, the proprietor, to make this an exacting test,’ writing of Pinehurst #2. ‘Finally in 1906 I won him around to my way of thinking and he gave me carte blanche to go ahead.’ Travis claims he collaborated with Donald Ross on the changes, so as not to cause an uproar, but he also wrote, ‘For some time I had been pouring into Donald’s ears my ideas,’ going on to claim that Ross was ‘merely an echo of my own views regarding the fundamental principles of golf course architecture.’ I think we can take all of this with a grain of salt, but it was an interesting story, and while I knew Travis enjoyed Pinehurst (he won the North and South three times) I didn’t realize he had design input until I uncovered it in researching the book.
4. Which course of his that has been lost through time do you most wish still existed today?
Travis designed a course for the Milwaukee Country Club that sounded fairly outrageous. It included deep pot bunkers in front of greens, steep slopes and one hole that required a near 200-yard diagonal carry of the Milwaukee River. The course opened in May, 1926, but when the members rebelled it was torn up four years later and the Charles Alison course was built. I’m sure they have a terrific golf course, but I would have liked to see the Travis version. He also did an 18-hole course for Canoe Brook that I mourn.
5. What was Travis’s greatest attribute as a golf course architect?
There is no doubt that Travis wanted to test the ground game just as much as the aerial play, so special attention was paid to the subtle, yet perpetual movement of the green. Many times the slopes of the greenside mounds were reflected into the putting surface, and on every course there was one green with a substantial swale cut through it on a diagonal. So his greens were a challenging joy, but I still think his greatest asset may have been his talent with routing. Nearly every course I played has a fine, natural flow. Nearly every hole heads off in a different direction from the previous one and they seldom parallel each other, with never a long stretch of par fours in a row. It feels like a delightful journey.
6. How did Travis move from novice to U.S. Amateur champion in just four years?
Travis was competitive by nature, be it cricket, bicycle racing or billiards. He was infected by the golf bug as much as any of us ever have been, and wanted to prove that he could conquer it, without falling back on his age as an excuse for not excelling. He devoured the two greatest instructional books of his time-Horace Hutchinson’s Golf and Willie Park, Jr.’s Game of Golf. He practiced for hours every day, first on developing a swing that a slight, older person could rely on day in and day out, then when he still fell short in competition, he was consumed by training himself to be a superb putter. He would practice to cups in the Garden City practice green that were only slightly bigger than the golf ball, so when he took his ground game to the course, the hole looked like a bushel basket. He would often drop four balls on the points of the compass, two feet away from the hole. When he sank them all he would move back a foot and try again, repeating the procedure until he didn’t miss from every distance up to ten feet. With that kind of dedication, and the fire that he felt in match play, he was soon a champion.
7. In what respects was Travis critical of golf in Britain?
Travis loved Britain and British golf. He was sent to London by the hardware merchants that he worked for before he took up golf, and took interest in the players. When he was informed that his friends back in New York intended to take up the game, he returned with clubs. He went back on a golfing tour with his buddies in 1902 and played 36 holes a day, (despite the fact that his doctor ordered him to relax while on the continent) and was impressed with just about every course he visited, his favorites being Prestwick, Formby and Sandwich. But everything changed after his 1904 British Amateur win at Sandwich. He considered his treatment at the tournament extremely rude as he was not given a locker, assigned the worst caddie in the land, stood up for a dinner engagement with officials and denied a room at the hotel that was hosting the players. The British press put a slightly different spin on the events, but there’s no question it motivated Travis, who marched through an accomplished field to beat Ted Blackwell in the final and become the first non-Brit to win the championship (Travis was born in Australia, but became a naturalized American citizen in the 1880s).
He never returned to Britain.
8. If someone wanted to get a sense of the Travis design style today, which five courses should they visit?
Ekwanok in Vermont, Cape Arundel in Maine, Yahnundasis in New York, CC of Scranton in Pennsylvania and Hollywood in New Jersey – if you don’t get it after playing these, you won’t.
9. What kind of relationship did Travis have with Charles Blair Macdonald?
I guess Travis and Charlie Macdonald were friends as much as any two individualistic, opinionated and dominating people can be friends. They knew each other right from the start and shared some common ideals, including a strict adherence to the rules of the game when that was not the majority opinion, a love of the courses of the U.K. and a desire to see American golfers respect the traditions of the game. They went to Bermuda together in 1905, and put on a show at the local courses, teaming up to beat the best ball of six players at one point. But Travis was supposed to be one of the design advisors and charter members at the National Golf Links – a role that was shuffled aside in the early stages of plotting the course.
10. How influential was The American Golfer while Travis was editor?
The magazine was different than anything that had been available previously, using more pictures, revealing the secrets of his game and other great players and showing Americans courses in Great Britain that they had heard of but didn’t know much about. Travis also had a bully pulpit to pontificate from, and he used it every month, filling his readers with his opinions on every facet of the game from greenkeeping to course construction to playing techniques, handicapping, the rules, equipment, guidelines for establishing a club and much more. Since distribution was primarily East Coast, I think he had a great effect on those clubs-whether or not his opinions influenced golf elsewhere in America is difficult to ascertain.
There’s no question that his writings were ground-breaking in many fields, especially in course maintenance and rules, two subjects no one had tackled prior to his essays.
11. How did Travis and Bobby Jones meet?
Travis had watched a young Bobby Jones play in his first national championship at Merion, and was impressed with the lad’s ball striking, though he felt he could use some experience in course management and a better putting stroke. Bobby’s dad had been an admirer of Travis and arranged a meeting between the two during one of Walter’s visits to the Augusta Country Club, a course that preceded Augusta National by several decades, and one that Travis enjoyed playing while visiting the South. Jones was late for the first meeting and Travis huffed away feeling insulted. When they eventually got together in 1924, Travis lectured Jones on putting, a lesson that Jones biographer Syd Matthews called ‘a putting lesson that changed the course of Jones’s golfing history.’ Travis changed his grip and told him to bring his feet so close together that his heels would almost touch. Jones took the advice to heart, and, as they say, the rest is history.
12. Why was Travis’s last win so memorable?
Travis started golf at age 36 and played competitively for 17 years. For a time, while the USGA debated the rules regarding amateur status he was forced to either give up his architectural career or turn professional, neither of which he wanted to do. Although he played in his last U.S. Amateur at Ekwanok in 1914, he still enjoyed the Metropolitan Championship, a tournament he considered one of the majors of the day. In 1915, at the age of 53, Travis won the Met for a fourth time, beating Jerry Travers, his nemesis for much of his career, and several other champion players half his age in the process.
Travis thought going out with a win was an appropriate exit and announced his retirement from competitive golf shortly after the tournament. Since he had won the first tournament he ever entered (a handicap affair staged in 1896 at the Oakland Golf Club), the two wins provided bookends to an amazing playing career.
13. What courses (that he didn’t design) did Travis admire?
At the turn of the century, Travis had nothing good to say about any American course, with the singular exception of the Myopia Hunt Club. He felt that H.C. Leeds, the architect and patriarch at Myopia had done an excellent job of capturing the essence of the game in South Hamilton, Mass. Although outspoken in his early writings, when Travis turned his attention to golf course architecture he seldom publicly criticized other courses, perhaps for fear that the tables would be turned and his courses would come under the gun.
14. What is your favorite par three, par four and par five designed by Travis?
The par-4 thirteenth at Equinox is known as the Volcano hole for the substantial upslope that the green is perched atop. It’s the type of hole you need to hit four good shots on to make par. On the par-5 seventh at Ekwanok you can hit four good shots and still come away with bogey, but you won’t care because the hole is so attractive and beguiling that it’s a pleasure to walk it no matter how many blows you require. The par-3 eleventh at Yahnundasis is also a treasure, dropping substantially from tee to green with a ring of bunkers and water to engulf anything that strays from the required path.
15. Of the thirty courses he designed, which one would please him the most in regards to how it plays today?
I think the Westchester Country Club would give Walter great pleasure, mainly because each year when the PGA Tour players visit they all rave about it. Watch the coverage on the tube next year and listen to how many times some young buck who doesn’t even know who the designer is calls it a great test with a series of strong holes. The layout has been fiddled with slightly in the past 80 years, but its basically the same course Travis installed in 1921, and par remains a good score for the best players in the world. I think that would bring a smile to his face.
16. How influential was his work at Garden City to the other leading architects of the time?
Many people consider Garden City a Travis design, when in fact it’s a Dev Emmet course. Emmet was a founding member and planned the original layout, Travis joined before the first year of play was concluded and then served on the Green Committee for many years. The alterations he made to the course drove a wedge between himself and Emmet, and alienated Travis from many of the members at Garden City. Travis did three things at Garden City that were controversial. First, he modulated the surface of the greens to make putting a challenge and then he installed pot bunkers and exaggerated mounding near some of the greens to toughen the challenge. I don’t think these concepts were copied by many other courses at the time, but the third one was. Just as he suggested at Pinehurst, Travis moved cross hazards out of the fairway and the line of fire of the weaker player. Up until the turn of the century most hazards crossed the line of play; Travis wanted them parallel to it, snaring the better player who was slightly off-line, rather than the dub who was trying to make their way down the open pathway to the green. This concept has dominated golf course architecture for the past century, and I would venture a guess that it affected more golf course architects in the modern era than his contemporaries.
17. What is his connection with the Schenectady putter?
Travis used the center-shafted putter to win the British Amateur, a move that prompted the R&A to include it in a ban of mallet-headed clubs a few years later. The club had been made by an engineer in Schenectady, New York and was just one of many putters Travis used during his career. However, Travis endorsed the instrument, and later lent his name to a model produced by Spalding. Travis was often ahead of his time in equipment choices, winning the 1901 Amateur with the Haskell ball before it was widely accepted, playing metal-headed woods in the early 1900s and experimenting with a 52-inch driver in the 1920s.
18. Explain his relationship with John Duncan Dunn.
In 1899, even before Travis had won his first U.S. Amateur, he was asked by his friend James Taylor to design Ekwanok Country Club. Travis felt he needed to legitimatize his involvement in a field where he had no experience. He asked Dunn-whose father had designed dozens of courses in Scotland-to accompany him to Vermont and help with the project. Dunn provided his input, then returned to New York, but Travis remained for a month directing the construction of the course and planning in the field without drawings or plans. Travis respected the Dunn family for their roots that went back generations in Scottish golf and maintained a friendship with John Duncan.
After the Travis win in 1900, and successful defense of the Amateur title the following year, Travis didn’t need anyone to partner with to sanction his qualifications-his services were in demand regardless of his affiliations. Travis included Dunn in another project 20 years later when he invited him to consult on the design of Cape Arundel in Kennebunkport, Maine, and the two remained cordial throughout their careers, though I don’t believe they chummed around together.