Links With History

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It is axiomatic that records are made to be broken. There is, however, one golfing record that is likely to stand at least as long as Cheops’s pyramid. This one was begun by Byron Nelson in 1945 on the pleasant confines of Myers Park Country Club, in Charlotte, North Carolina. Nelson had already established himself as a fine player. In 1945 he proved he was one of the greatest. His battle with Sam Snead in the Charlotte Open was an epic struggle. After four rounds they were tied at 16 under par. An eighteen-hole play-off found them still tied at 69. Another eighteen-hole play-off was required, and this time Nelson’s 69 won by four. Nelson then reeled off an incredible winning skein by capturing the next ten consecutive tournaments. It is easy to say Nelson did not face the quality of competition we have today, when a golfer who wins four tournaments in a season is almost automatically acclaimed the dominant player of the year. Nelson, however, did beat everyone who was around at the time, and his record still stands as a breathtaking achievement. No one had ever won more than three consecutive tournaments on the professional tour. Nelson won eleven. In all, he won nineteen tournaments, and in 120 rounds of professional tournament play, he averaged 68.3 strokes.

Golf, however, is not all triumph, and there can be as much perverse pleasure in visiting the sites of disaster as there is in following the paths of glory. For this sort of thing, the Pebble Beach Links is a natural destination. Pebble Beach, designed by a pair of amateur golfers, Jack Neville and Douglas Grant, is perched over the Pacific Ocean on the Monterey Peninsula in California and comes as close to capturing the spirit of the rugged oceanside courses of Ireland as any layout in America. The course has two meaningful distinctions. It is one of the few stops on the PGA tour that is played on a public course, and it is the only public layout to host a U.S. Open. Anytime you play a game involving hitting a small ball in the open air, odd things are apt to happen. This is especially true if you are trying to work the ball through the winds alongside an ocean. No golfer is more familiar with the vagaries of seaside play at Pebble Beach than Arnold Palmer. In 1967 he played in what was then called the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am. Trailing Jack Nicklaus by one shot, Palmer tried to muscle a 3-wood to the green on the par-five fourteenth hole. His ball hit a tree and caromed out of bounds. Palmer dropped a new ball only to hit the same tree and again departed course property. Eventually Palmer recorded a nine and finished third. It was an old story for Palmer. In 1964 he had been in contention until he reached the 218-yard par-three seventeenth hole, where he slashed a shot onto the rocks by the ocean near the eighteenth hole. Palmer dutifully flailed away and took a quintuple bogey. It was my pleasure to first play Pebble Beach on a still day, and I managed to get a workman-like par on the seventeenth. I was struck by the happy thought that if Palmer had let me play the hole for him, he might have added one more title to his long list of victories. No other sport offers players this Walter Mitty dimension. It is one of the things that keeps us playing when intelligence tells us we are hopeless.

Golf is traditionally linked with stories of business being conducted on the course between shots. This aspect of the game has been overstated. When they are playing, golfers generally discuss earthier matters than a balance sheet. Nevertheless, what was then the biggest deal in the history of American business was swung at a golf course. Andrew Carnegie, a transplanted Scot and an avid golfer, was playing a round with Charles Schwab at St. Andrew’s in New York when Schwab finally talked Carnegie into selling out his steel interests to a new combine. Later Carnegie calculated the price he wanted and wrote out the figure on a piece of paper; one legend maintains it was the back of his scorecard. The figure was $480 million. U.S. Steel was born, and Andrew Carnegie became the richest man in the world.

It is generally accepted that the best hole on any golf course is the nineteenth. This is where we can repair to the bar and drink gin until the disappointments of our round have been assuaged or its elories discussed until our friends can bear it no longer. This is also where the great golf stories are told. One of the most cherished concerns the National Golf Links of America, in Southampton, New York. National was the creation of Charles Blair Macdonald, America’s finest player at the turn of the century as well as a skilled golf architect and one of the founders of the USGA. Macdonald was particularly fond of National and lived in a house by the course until his death in 1928. A wealthy man in his own right, Macdonald was notoriously short-tempered. He was less than enthralled when his favorite nephew and principal heir, Peter Grace, came down from college rather full of himself and declared National to be something of a cheesy course. He didn’t think much of a first hole that could be driven from the tee. Macdonald said it was impossible and challenged his nephew to try. Grace teed up and, as they say in golf, hit the ball “on the screws.” The ball fled down the breaking fairway and finally came to rest on the green some 320 yards away. Macdonald said not a word but turned away and went home. That night he sent his attorney instructions to strike Peter Grace from his will.