Feature Interview with Sandy Tatum Part I
You learned the game growing up in Los Angeles. What memories do you have from those days?
I attended LA High in the 1930’s and interestingly enough we had a golf team. We had a vice principal who organized a team and we played a quirky little golf course in Orange County. He had a funky automobile that we used to travel there. I don’t remember if we ever played anybody but it was a lot of fun.
My father was a very serious golfer and loved the game with a passion and that was the legacy he left me. He was a real estate broker, a member at Wilshire and a very early member of Bel Air. Bel-Air in its early years had very few members and he would take me there on Sundays when I was 6 years old and give me a couple of sawed off hickory shafted clubs and tell me not to get in anybody’s way and to wait in the car when I was tired. I ended up going to the car 6 or 8 times during the day. I thought it was swell way to spend a Sunday.
My father was a very serious golfer and understood what the game meant to me so he made golf a reward for performance especially with respect to chores and so on. The ultimate reward he could give me was to organize a game with him and I could invite my friend and his father. Almost all these were at Wilshire CC.
I played at Wilshire in my early teen years. Wilshire was designed brilliantly on a very small piece of property and the barranca factor on both nines was a really seriously important part of the experience. It’s unbelievable that they filled in that barranca.
Wilshire is divided with the first nine on the west side and the clubhouse and back nine on the east side. I would bicycle out there after school and play games late in the day and have a match with two balls, one being Hagen’s and one being Bobby Jones. Wilshire was where I actually witnessed Jones in a match which was the only time I saw him play.
You played Los Angeles Country Club quite a bit in your late teens and before the par-4 second, par-4 sixth and par-5 eighth holes were altered. Please speak about these holes and if they were better in their original form as designed by George Thomas?
There are not many of us left that remember those holes. The old second was wonderful and was a great par 4. It also could be a very good risk reward two shot par 5, although short, they had some flexibility to lengthen the tee shot. It was an absolutely marvelous hole with a huge wonderful barranca directly in front of the green. The way the hole set up it was an appropriately demanding par 4 hole.
Eight also was a very good par 5 before they moved the green to add length which forced the change to the second hole. The added length did not do enough to justify these changes.
They changed the par 4 sixth probably a dozen times over its life. It was a tough hole. The original design as I remember was a completely blind tee shot over the hill and there was a directional flag there. When you got over the hill, you where faced with a very small green pushed up against the hillside which was heavily bunkered. It was a strange hole. They have fussed with that green numerous times. Somebody came along and moved that green up to the right and then you hit your drive down into the valley and then a second shot up to a mildly uphill green to the right. That’s how I remember it and it was probably the best arrangement they could come up with.
Would you like to see Los Angeles Country Club host the United States Open?
Around 15 years ago, I helped organize the effort internally and got the USGA on line. From day one I thought it would be wonderful to hold the US Open there. I go back to the days of the Western Amateur when Charlie Yates lost in the final and in the early years the LA Open use to be played there. It had a flavor that made it compelling to hold an Open. We worked with a fellow who was very influential in the club and he took it on and worked the process as hard as he could. Ultimately it came down to a vote of the board of directors and it’s my understanding the vote was 8 to 7 against. That was the closest that we will ever get. It’s still a perfectly viable venue.
Of course, holding the Open has taken on huge proportions regarding the infrastructure factors. Those factors really do limit where you can go unless you want to modify the infrastructure. I don’t know how they could modify it there, I guess they would have to build a bridge over Wilshire. It’s still my hope that somehow, someday, they will hold the Open there.
You were on the Stanford golf team that won the 1941 NCAA golf championship at Mackenzie’s Scarlet course at Ohio State. Please speak as to that experience.
My older brother attended Stanford and I had visited the campus numerous times, especially for the Big Game. There were no golf scholarships at that time but I knew Stanford was where I wanted to go. I played golf all 4 years, the first year on the freshman team which is what they used to have.
In 1941 we traveled by train to Columbus. I was stunned by how wonderful that golf course was. I was also stunned that I was playing for Stanford and the national championship and then we won so I was completely stunned. It was magical, almost mystical. You could have put me on a dirt track and I would have been happy but that course was really something else.
In 1942, Stanford defended the team championship (tied with LSU) and you won the individual championship which was held at Notre Dame. Tell us about that victory and what you remember about the golf course and its setup.
We went out to defend our championship and I thought it was a sensational golf course which I believe has now been redone by Coore and Crenshaw. I thought that whole environment of Notre Dame was sensational and I was in a state of euphoria.
They ran the golf tournament in those years in the right way, we played 36 holes for qualifying and those 36 holes also determined the team championship. We then had a match play tournament for the individual championship with the low 64 players. I made it to the final and played Manuel Delatorre for the championship who played for Northwestern. His father was the head pro at Northshore. Manuel ended up playing a little bit on the tour and has also become a very prominent golf teaching pro somewhere around Chicago.
Chick Evans presented the trophy to me. I called my father and told him I had won and we both broke down, so there was maybe 10 minutes of silence on the phone before either of us was able to speak.
There were no United States Opens between 1942 and 1945 due to the World War Two but the professional tour was loaded with high quality players then. Did you ever consider turning professional?
No, not at all. I might have had a chance, but I had a realistic assessment of my talents. But there were two fundamental factors that didn’t allow any serious consideration. One, I loved the game and playing for money would have caused a serious distraction for that love affair. The other was I was looking for a broader based life.
I received my degree at Stanford in engineering but I was always focused on becoming a patent lawyer. After I graduated I went into the Navy.
After you graduated from Stanford and your stint in the Navy, you became a Rhodes Scholar in 1947. Was that your first experience to Great Britain and did you play much golf during your time at Oxford?
No it wasn’t my first trip. Oddly enough, I went to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin which of course had Jesse Owens and Hitler. My older brother was at Oxford and in the depths of the depression my father scraped together enough money to send me over at age 16 and off I went to meet my brother and sister. I took a train across the country, a ship across the Atlantic and then a train to Berlin. There was no golf on that trip.
My first experience in playing golf over there was in 1947 when I was at Oxford. I arrived at Oxford in October and noticed a few days later a note on Balliol College bulletin board advising that anyone interested in trying out for the Oxford golf team should report to Southfields on a Saturday which was a wonderful funky little golf course, and “take out a card” from the pro. I played with a friend and shot 75. A few days later, I received a knock on my door and there was an Oxford student there who extended me an invitation from the captain to play on the Oxford golf team. We didn’t play any university team other than Cambridge. Every Saturday we would get on a bus at 5 in the morning and go to a course in the London area. We would play matches against the club teams with proper foursomes in the morning and singles in the afternoon.
Lunch typically was embellished with a gin and tonic, a nice glass of claret and then a vintage port followed by a glass of kummel. This was life at Oxford. We did that every weekend in the fall and winter. The reason we played then was so those who wanted to play cricket in the spring could do so. I played in weather you wouldn’t believe, driving rain, frozen ground and temperatures in the 30’s and 40’s. It conditioned me to understand that weather, however bad was simply a factor to be dealt with in playing golf. This was life at Oxford. We did that every weekend in the fall and winter.
Amateur golf was featured in the media and Oxford and Cambridge golf was covered quite a bit by Bernard Darwin writing for the London Times. The Cambridge match was played at Royal St. George my first year and Hoylake my second year and we were at each venue for a week. It was a celebration for the entire week which culminated with 36 holes foursomes on Friday and 36 hole singles on Saturday in the match against Cambridge. If you played against Cambridge you were accorded a blue which they called it and you become a member of the “Oxford & Cambridge golfing society.”
The golfing society then invited me to play in Scotland on their summer tour in 1948 which was my first trip to Scotland. We were treated like visiting royalty and played absolutely everywhere. As an example, on my first day and match was at Troon my morning foursome partner was Cyril Tolley who had won the Amateur in 1920 and 1929 and it was Roger Weathered in the afternoon who had won the Amateur in 1923. Talk about pressure, these guys had to hit my shots. That trip, which lasted about 10 days was also my first experience at the Old Course, which to this day I feel is the single most exhilarating experience in golf.
It is important to emphasize that I was the first American to play golf for Oxford. Within the culture to be so identified of playing amateur golf in Great Britain, it mattered, a lot. Because of that factor, the synergy of the relationship between the U.S. and Great Britain, and the aftermath of that war, where we banded together as countries to win, you can’t imagine what it did for me and the treatment I received.
You were a member at the Olympic Club in 1955 when they hosted the US Open.The conditions were very difficult, in fact there is a famous photo of Hogan pitching out on the eighteenth from knee high rough.The course was set up so demanding that the USGA took over course conditioning and set up beginning in 1956.Why was Olympic set up so difficult?
I joined Olympic around 1950 when I first worked in the city and it was manageable for a guy with no money. There were a lot of guys in my circumstance and the environment was just sensational. Fairly early on, I became a member of the country club committee which was the operative committee and was named chairman of the green committee which was a sub committee. I think around 1951 or 52 the USGA announced they would hold the Open at Olympic. I really didn’t have much say regarding the setup of that Open; it was controlled by member named Bob Roos who owned a clothing company which was a very important retail establishment. He was the one who decided to grow the rough waist high. He was a very interesting guy and it was Bob’s mentality that the players needed to hit the fairway or face serious problems.
When the USGA saw Hogan hitting it 3 times to get it back to the fairway on the 18th hole they understood they needed to take control. That was a truly important defining moment in the history of the development of the US Open.
Did you speak with Ben Hogan or Jack Fleck about the setup?
No, I never did. I had a lot of exposure to Hogan over the years and I played with him maybe 6 times after that but we never spoke about it. It was a subject matter that I wouldn’t be inclined to bring up anyhow and probably was a good thing because I don’t think Ben would have a good reaction to that experience. It was the same with my friend Tom Watson who led the US Open at Winged Foot in 1974 after the 3rd round but shot 79 in the final round. We have never talked about it.
Robert Trent Jones modernized the Olympic Club in the 1950’s prior to the 1955 United States Open and the 1958 United States Amateur. What was your relationship with him and did you sense he would usher in modern golf architecture?
I don’t have a recollection of having a relationship with him. Oddly I had a modest amount of communication with him but nothing of any value.
But yes, I had a sense that modern architecture was arriving but my basic sense was that we had enough experience over a few centuries of playing golf and we had arrived at a point where we didn’t need to push it any farther.
You’ve seen numerous outstanding designs from the Golden Age of golf course architecture. Time has not been too kind to many of these courses. Is there one course in particular that you lament either its passing, or wish its original playing character could be restored?
In California, absolutely Sharp Park which was designed by Alistair Mackenzie. Could the golf course be really recreated and the answer in no because of the ocean intrusion that occurred. But I have taken a close look at it, recently, and I am satisfied that there are enough basic elements in the design that it would be well worth the effort to restore it. But it would be challenging, fiscally, and you would have to be creative.
On a national scale, Augusta National. There is none of that Jones/Mackenzie designed course there, it’s gone. It was Jones’s concept. Here was maybe the single most important person in the history of golf in many respects, at least up to the time that Tiger Woods realizes his potential, and the course he and Mackenzie designed is no longer there.
Please discuss the issue of the golf ball. Architects such as Doanld Ross and William Flynn were concerned about it in the 1930’s, and you first voiced concern going back to the 1958 United States Amateur at Olympic Club.
Yes, it’s still under research and discussion at the USGA.
When Frank Thomas was director of implements and balls at the USGA in the 1970’s he said that technology had taken the ball as far as it could go but he wasn’t able to factor in athleticism. His counterpart at the R&A, Alastair Cochran who ended up taking a job with Callaway agreed with him.
When I was chairman of the Championship committee, Titelist developed a ball which stayed in the air longer. That was the development that caused us to set up the overall distance standard.
From that experience, we knew that technology was going to do something to the game and we had to do something to control the golf ball. That golf ball, and specifically the aerodynamics, caused the ball to stay in the air longer. Happily it also went more off line and died as an economic venture. But as a consequence, and Frank Thomas deserves full credit, we developed the distance standard and we thought, therefore, that we could control it. What we didn’t know was that technology could get around it. It took them sometime to get around the standards but they finally figured out how to do so.
The tee shot turning point in architecture then was 250 yards. That was the critical point in designing a golf hole, particularly a 4 par. So the basic premise for the distance standard was 280 yards and the ball test was set up on that standard. But then tolerances were added and it moved the standard to 296 which would be the outer end. It bothered me to go that far but we took comfort in the fact that we could put a blanket over it.
The manufactures have been reluctant to do it but some have cooperated and created what I call, rollback balls. The first round of balls weren’t very good and didn’t accomplish anything. We are getting a whole bunch more and now we can see what happens. We now have Jim Vernon, the current USGA president and it’s my hope he will take it on and find a way to restore a balance between distance and accuracy.
A few years ago, Hootie Johnson had an impulse to create a “Masters ball” to deal with the distance factor that had intruded into the game and keeping the game in bounds. If he had carried it out it would have saved the game.
The ground game seems a distant memory in the American golf game. Is this one of the more regrettable aspects of the new technology?
Yes, it ties into the basic premise that we took in the game from across the Atlantic. We had golf courses like Shinnecock and obviously the National Golf Links that are premised on the fact that this was the game.
Somehow, and I don’t know when, the game went down another road. The game which had all of the characteristics that were absolutely priceless, went to a game that you play from point A to point B in the air then to point C in the air.
Regarding agronomy in the last sixty years, is irrigation of the fairways the biggest factor that has changed golf?
No, I would say it’s the agronomy of the greens; green grass, green maintaince and the speed of the greens. With those speeds you take away a lot of the design features that are put into the course. We are fighting that at Cypress Point where I am trying to get them not to run the green speeds over 10. You play the 1st, 4th or 18th and are above the hole then you may putt off the green which is a shame. This is a syndrome which there is no question in my mind, that comes from Augusta National and the Masters.
You are a long time member at Cypress Point. Please describe a favorite hole.
Really it’s every hole but one can’t think of Cypress Point without thinking of the 16th hole. It’s the signature hole. There is something mystical about the hole and how Marion Hollins saved it when Mackenzie was concerned that it was too difficult with the hickory shafted club and the 1926 golf ball that she used, teed up in the dirt, she hit it onto the green area. I think if she had not hit that shot, he (Mackenzie) might have created some funky 4 par.
In picking another, I would also say the 9th, which has the same frame of reference that the 10th at Riveria has. I think any great golf course should have a drivable 4 par that makes risk rewards factors play so interesting. If you choose to lay it up, the 2nd shot is so difficult especially if the pin is up on the upper level.
I was playing there with Tom Watson a number of years ago and after we had played the hole he turned to me and said it was the best short par 4 he had ever played. It is absolutely perfect.
What are your thoughts on the eighteenth hole at Cypress Point?
I think it’s the most ridiculously maligned golf hole that I have ever played. I think it’s a wonderful golf hole. Jimmy Demaret is the one that said that Cypress was the best 17 hole golf course that he had played. If you really study that hole you realize that you have to be very careful in hitting that tee shot. The brilliance of that hole is the construction of the area where the tee shots lands. Depending on whether you take the risk of hitting the drive on the right hand side or you have to contend with that tree that guards the left approach and decide whether to go over it, around it or under it.
The fact that it’s an elevated green detracts a little, but I have no doubt he made the right choice in placing that green there.
I have always wondered if he (Mackenzie) didn’t think about placing that green in that big cypress grove below the clubhouse. It may have resulted in some safety issues regarding the 16th tee but he must have thought about, seriously.
Anyway I think the hole has been very unfairly maligned.
Discuss how the ball and technology has effected Cypress Point over the past thirty years.
It’s just not viable as a championship course anymore. As you know, there is plenty of room to add distance at Cypress Point. Holes 4,6,8 could be lengthened and 9 if the tee is moved down. Furthermore you could go back as far as you wanted on 12 and 13.
There was a serious movement to do that and I wrote a letter to the board saying to do that would eliminate a Mackenzie design. I added that if Cypress wanted to have an influence on the game then keep it is as it is and have it used as a clinical example of why the ball should be rolled back. As a practical manner, lengthening it was only going to accommodate a very small percentage of people. I have a friend who is a member and he disagrees with me. His argument is he saw Tiger Woods play the 2nd hole with a driver and 4 iron. Others have seen him try and drive the 17th hole. My argument is that when a player can do that, he takes every single design element that the architect puts in the hole, out of play.
You became a member at Pine Valley a few years ago at age 80. Tell us about it.
It’s magical, it’s golf’s magic kingdom.
The background about my membership is that Ernie Ransome invited me to play in the senior member/guest about 10 years ago and on Saturday night they have this dinner in the clubhouse. During the dinner, which has a format, Ernie gets up and starts addressing the membership. Pretty soon, I notice that Ernie is picking up features out of my bio and I am getting annoyed, really annoyed, since he didn’t ask me to speak and I thought, damn it Ernie, you could have at least warned me that I was going to be asked to speak. Furthermore I didn’t think there is one person in that audience that could care about what I have to say. Then all of a sudden I hear Ernie say that I was being named an honorary member. It was one of the more stunning moments in my life and came right out of the blue. There was a guy at the table who knew about it and said “you know Tatum, I was watching you and you’re lucky your jaw didn’t hit the table.” It was really something, unbelievable.
As for lengthening the golf course, I’m a serious admirer of Gordon Brewer who has the entire package as a first rate individual. He made a decision to become President of Pine Valley as opposed to becoming President of the USGA which was an interesting call on Gordon’s part. It reflects the intensity and his appreciation for that place. He is the prime mover as I see it for adding length, and he is absolutely determined that Pine Valley should be a competitive golf course for the upper echelon of the game.
What were the major issues you dealt with in 1974 as President of the USGA?
If I recall, it was a relatively, stable comfortable period. I can’t be objective because I was so involved. It was a very different atmosphere in terms of activity as the executive committee was almost exclusively focused on golf. The executive director administered the place and dealt with the issues of finance and so on.
On one issue in which I became involved with was the television factor. I took a look at the potential. Television was the most important medium to use and I wanted golf better exposed. I also was motivated to bring the Amateur to television, because I had a concern the Amateur was disappearing from the sports scene.
So I met with Roone Arledge who was one of the creators of sports on TV. In those days, golf on TV consisted of towers on the last 4 holes. The ultimate goal was to have all 18 holes broadcast which was a huge endeavor considering the production problems. We negotiated all night in a hotel room in Atlanta. In the end golf TV production was transformed and the income went from a few hundred thousand dollars to tens of millions. If there is one thing I could say that gave me the most satisfaction, it was the influence I had in regard to USGA golf television.
What’s your favorite United States Open set-up in recent times?
I’m a big fan of municipal golf and I thought this year the Open at Torrey Pines was terrific. I loved it. I’m a big admirer of Jay Rains and what he did, and how he organized Torrey Pines which might have some influence on my thought process. What he did was he went to the city and said look, we can really do something here. Let us lease the property for the entire period of time it takes to do this project and we will put $3.5 million into it. As a result, it took the whole process out of the bureaucracy of the city and they were able to manage the costs sensibly.
Furthermore, Mike Davis showed that he may be the best set up guy in the history of the USGA. He took a very good golf course and made it a great US Open test. The tiered rough factor he developed is a very important development for the setup of Open courses.
What he demonstrated is that setting up an Open golf course is an art and a science. You have to take every hole, and analyze it in terms of what you are trying to do. And most importantly, it’s where you cut the holes and how the hole location effects the play of the hole. It is a very difficult process to get right. I really felt honored that Mike asked me to come out and look at Torrey Pines at what he was doing in his set up. God bless him and the hours upon hours and more hours that he spent researching and analyzing that set up. Its really hard to describe, you have to witness it and then see the results.
If you look what he did, he set up a golf course so that if you shot par, you could win, the United States Open, and the players came away absolutely lyrical.
Speaking of the 1974 US Open, when you were President, the USGA staged a very difficult US Open at Winged Foot. The winning score was +7. In hindsight, would you take a mulligan?
The answer is I still feel the setup was appropriate .
That first day when it all blew up and the average score was 77 and only one player shot par you would have thought an atom bomb had dropped on the place.
There was a very serious exacerbating factor that happened there, and that was that virtually every player came there to do battle with the USGA. They were upset about how the USGA was challenging them that the atmosphere was poisonous. One player took the press out into the rough and dropped some balls and said “look what they are doing, how are we supposed to play out of that.” So the media was all over it and I did say, spontaneously, in answering a question about humiliating the players, that “No we are not trying to humiliate the best golfers in the world, we are simply trying to identify who they are.”
A lot of things happened at that Open. First on Tuesday night, some kids got out on the golf course and drove a car over the first green. I got out there on Wednesday morning and couldn’t see any damage, the green was so firm it didn’t even make a scratch. So the combination of the firmness and speed of the greens and then the rough came into play. Then Nicklaus went out and putted off that first green.
Winged Foot has access to the greens on the ground and I thought that should be a factor in the setup. Johnny Miller has always thought that the setup was retribution for his shooting 63 at Oakmont the previous year but I have spoken with him personally and said, “John you earned that US Open and it was one of the greatest rounds in the history of golf but that round wasn’t any factor to the way we set up Winged Foot.”
Now all these years later, I felt I was completely justified by what happened in the 2006 Open won by Geoff Ogilvy. In 2006, 5 over won the tournament and it was deemed an unqualified success. It was a different environment. One last factor, every hole in the last round in 1974 had a birdie and not by holing wedge shots. If you played it exceptionally well, you could birdie it.
The USGA funded the restoration of Bethpage and helped push Torrey Pines into restoration. Should the USGA use its resources to restore and renovate golf courses?
The answer is enthusiastically and unequivocally yes. In my mind the USGA should be investing heavily in muni golf. We have 13 events not just confined to the Open. I have a very close and important relationship for me with Mike Davis who has the prime responsibility for selection and setup of USGA event golf courses, and I have told Mike that in his forays around the country to keep an open mind on what is out there and what the USGA could do to help revive muni golf.
After the War the game took a totally wrong turn in a sense. I’m not against the Donald Trumps of this world and the $500k entry fees if that’s what you want. But in the context of all of that, the game lost its focus on the ordinary golfer and the access to the game. In the golden age of the 20’s the municipalities recognized the value of building golf courses and their values for recreation.
Somehow that got lost in the shuffle.