Almanac Golf: Australia’s Greatest Golfer – Walter J Travis?

 

Debates about Australia’s greatest golfer usually centre around Peter Thomson (5 British Opens 1954-65) and Greg Norman (2 British Opens 1986/93 and 7-times runner up in the other 3 Majors) with Karrie Webb (7 LPGA Majors 1999 – 2006) included for good measure. I usually side with Peter Thomson because of his long-term contribution to the growth of the game as a commentator, course designer and father of the Asian Tour.

 

 

 

 

A chance finding in a library in the Clare Valley on a recent holiday changed my mind. It was the book Practical Golf published in 1901 written by Walter J Travis.  His name struck a vague note but unfolding his story in subsequent weeks reveals the accomplishments of arguably our greatest golf identity.

 

Why he isn’t better known is partly a function of time and that he played in the era before cine-film. But mostly it’s that his achievements were as an American where he is revered as the greatest contributor to the growth of the game in the first two decades of the 20th century.

 

 

 

Travis was born in Maldon near Bendigo in Central Victoria in 1862. Obviously a bright young man and a keen sportsman who excelled at tennis, his employers sent him to New York in 1886 to be the first US agent for their hardware and construction company. He married an American in 1890 and became an American citizen, returning only once to his country of birth.

 

Scornful of golf but keen to keep up with friends who were establishing a new golf course and country club in New York, he bought his first set of clubs on an 1896 trip to England. Travis never had a golf lesson, but he practiced relentlessly and absorbed the early instruction books of the likes of 1887/89 British Open champion Willie Park Jnr.

 

Within months he was winning club championships and two years later in 1896 he lost in the semi-final of the US Amateur Championship at the age of 34!  Travis became respectfully known as “The Old Man” or the “Grand Old Man” of golf.

 

Better was to follow, with victories in the 1900/01/03 US Amateur Championships. He was runner-up in the 1902 US Open playing against professionals in an era where the amateur game was generally its equal. But his greatest victory was the 1904 British Amateur at Royal St Georges in Sandwich (Kent)  – where Collin Morikawa won this year’s British Open. A feat no-one from outside the UK would emulate until 1926.

 

These were gruelling events held over 7 days with two days of stroke play qualifying to reduce the field to 64 players and then 18 hole knockout match play each day culminating in a 36 hole final. Travis beating men half his age!

 

 

As a player Travis was not a long hitter, but he was universally regarded as the finest putter and short game player of the era. He competed in 17 consecutive US Amateurs from 1898-1914 retiring from high level competition in 1916 (age 54) with an 80% win record in match play.

 

But his golf legacy goes well beyond his playing record. As an innovator he was one of the first to use the rubber-cored “Haskell” ball and the mallet head “Schenectady” putter.

 

As a writer and journalist he founded and edited from 1908-20 the most influential golf magazine of the time The American Golfer.  His first book Practical Golf published in 1901 (the one I found in Clare) was a best seller praised by the New York Times for its depth, thoroughness and clarity as an instruction guide (five years after he took up the game!) A second book The Art of Putting was published in 1904.

 

As a golf course architect he designed or extensively remodelled nearly 50 courses, working right up to his death in 1927. Five of his courses are still ranked in Golf Magazine’s Top 100 “Classic Courses in America”.  American course design was largely mundane until after the turn of the century, when Travis introduced the green designs, bunkering and undulating natural terrain he had seen on his trips to the British Isles.

 

Finally it was as a teacher that Travis left a mark that is still talked about today. His last US Amateur in 1916 was the first for the 14 year old “Boy Wonder” Bobby Jones – who went on to become the greatest golfer of the pre-World War II era. Jones’ play was already remarkable but his putting was streaky and Travis saw some faults he told him he could remedy – arranging to meet the next day for a lesson.

 

Jones was late (by how much and why is much debated) but Travis had left when Jones arrived. In the next eight years Jones played in 18 Majors for one victory. As chance would have it, Travis was working on green redesign at Augusta Country Club (not Augusta National the US Masters site which was built by MacKenzie in 1932) when the Georgia local Jones was playing in an exhibition match. Travis told him what he had observed eight years before – changing Jones’ putting stance, grip and stroke.

 

Between 1924 and 1930 Jones won 12 of 16 Majors he competed in (being the only man to ever win the Grand Slam in one year then retiring to concentrate on his legal practice after 1930). He is widely acknowledged as being one of the greatest putters of all time – thanks to Travis’s lesson.

 

Walter Travis was a remarkable man who shaped golf across the globe in the first two decades of the 20th century. His legacy lives on his golf courses and the forces he set in train in media, instruction and equipment innovation.

 

Travis is as American as cherry pie, and as Australian as meat pie. He lived in Australia as long as Jason Day, and visited as often. We should claim Travis – along with Phar Lap, Olivia Newton John, Russell Crowe and other great Australians.

 

 Brandel Chamblee telling the story of the Travis putting lesson to Bobby Jones

 

Listen to a Talking Golf History podcast interview with a Travis Society historian about Walter J Travis, his life and times.

 

More stories from Peter Baulderstone can be read Here.

 

We’ll do our best to publish two books in the lead-up to Christmas 2021. The Tigers (Covid) Almanac 2020  and the 2021 edition to celebrate the Dees’ magnificent premiership season(title is up for discussion at the moment!). These books will have all the usual features – a game by game account of the Tigers and Demons season – and will also include some of the best Almanac writing from these two Covid winters. Enquiries HERE

 

To return to the www.footyalmanac.com.au  home page click HERE

 

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Comments

  1. Colin Ritchie says

    Intriguing story PB. Just love stories like this. Books are treasures, and what is discovered inside them whether marginalia or a note or two between the pages, or the actual text, can add to the intrigue. Did a house swap to a small village out of Oxford many years ago, loved exploring the bookshops there and in London.One interest I have is the work of Isherwood, Spender, and Auden. I’m always on the the lookout for books about them etc. In a beaut second hand bookshop in London I came across a book about Stephen Spender that was screaming out to be bought. I thought it a little expensive but as I flicked through the pages I found a letter from Spender addressed to the owner of the book whom I later discovered had been the head of the BBC. I bought the book. Your story took me back to that time. Thanks PB.

  2. PB,

    This is a f*ckin cracking yarn, an amazing tale, and one of which I had absolutely no knowledge prior to reading this excellent piece.

    I wholeheartedly agree with your last paragraph. This bloke Travis should definitely be more widely appreciated in the land of his birth.

  3. Bernard Whimpress says

    Excellent article, Peter, and great having a yarn today.

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