Ringing in a swinging new year


Green Christmases is how Bernard Darwin described this time of year, when the availability of golf makes us the envy of our snowbound brethren in more hostile climes. And those hardy souls who managed to knock the little white ball about, even on soft and yielding turf, during the holiday season, could readily acknowledge their good fortune.

But there are other places, in southern parts of the US for instance, where golfing conditions could hardly be more attractive. Which explains the varied and fascinating events which have greeted the new year, back beyond 1927 when, on this weekend, Gene Sarazen won the Miami Beach Open with a seven-under-par total of 277.

A closer look at times past reveals that on January 1st, 1928, the Penn Athletic Club opened an 18-hole miniature golf course on the roof of its building in Philadelphia. And that in January 1932, the US Golf Association standardised the golf ball, directing that it could weigh no more than 1.62 ounces and measure not less than 1.68 inches in diameter. But it would be 58 years before the R and A formally adopted it, on January 1st, 1990.

The year 1933 was greeted with the news that the total prize money for the winter/spring tour in the US would be $23,000. And as if in response to the lure of the dollar, a sweet-swinging youngster by the name of Samuel Jackson Snead became an assistant professional at The Homestead in West Virginia in January 1934.

Four years later, caddies at four exclusive courses on the Monterey Peninsula were put on notice that they had better improve their English and manners, "or else". And at the start of 1948, Patty Berg, president of the Women's Professional Golf Association, met Babe and George Zaharias to plan the new women's professional tour.

As the new year dawned in 1952, it was announced that the USPGA Tour professionals would be competing in 32 events with a total purse of $498,016; that members of the burgeoning LPGA would compete in 21 events with a purse of $150,000 and that changes in golf's rules eliminated the stymie, increased the out-of-bounds penalty to stroke and distance and legalised centre-shafted putters.

Ten years further on, the number of courses for America's five million players passed the 7,000 mark, while Jack Nicklaus embarked on his first year as a professional on a tour valued at $1.79 million. And in January 1976, when Nicklaus was looking towards the defence of a fifth US Masters title, Augusta National officials announced that instead of an 18-hole play-off, future ties would be settled by sudden-death.

Indeed, much had changed since Darwin wrote about Green Christmases - "To be quite accurate, this golfing party of mine will begin just after Christmas" - for The American Golfer in December 1922. They gathered at an un-named destination in Wales, which prompted the writer to enthuse: "How green it all looks, like a kind of dewy, winter freshness."

He went on: "All signs of parching summer are gone, there are no hard dusty yellow patches. The turf is soft and yielding, the ball sits up asking to be hit and hit it we must, for there is now little run in the ground and a two-shot hole is a two-shot hole.

"Time was when we dashed down to the course after an early breakfast, bearing with us bottles of a soothing and agreeable shape to supplement our lunch, played our two singles for certain and then, when some felt a passing weakness towards home and tea, we were marshalled by our inexorable host, paired off and sent out again to play a nine-hole foursome.

"There in the village street walks a portly and dignified figure in black. To the summer folk he appears merely a minister, but we remember him as a little, sandy-haired caddy boy called `Ginger' who used to study the classics between his master's shots."

Darwin concluded wistfully: "How we do hate those summer intruders. What do they know of our paradise . . ."

"It's been a roller-coaster ride and I've had to learn a lot of things. But, hey, do you know many guys my age who wouldn't want to swap with me?" - World number one Tiger Woods, aged 23 years and three days.

With the game's journeymen capable of earning up to £1 million a year on the European Tour, it is reassuring to know that some of the golfing achievements which really matter will survive into the next millennium. Like, for instance, the record tournament victories of Sam Snead.

No matter what any player does at regular or senior tour levels in the US over the next year, Snead's target will not be beaten. Indeed, his total of 95 US Tour and Senior Tour victories may never be surpassed.

Below is the current table of the US achievers as we enter the new year.

After the recent success of Greg Chalmers in the Australian Open and a further two tournament victories by Phil Mickelson during 1998, could this be the year of the left-hander? Furman Bisher, the veteran columnist of the Atlanta Journal and a proud left-handed writer and golfer, believes their time may be at hand. And he cites scripture to strengthen his case.

With reference to the children of Benjamin lining up against the children of Israel, Bisher quotes the 16th verse from chapter 20 of the Book of Judges: "Among all this people there were 700 chosen men left-handed; every one could sling stones at a hairbreadth and not miss."

Sadly, it is not written how accurate they would have been if forced to smite a pellet with a battered old hickory-shafted three-wood ill-suited to the purpose. Either way, an estimated 10 to 15 per cent of the world's population is left-handed, and given that many right-handed people play golf left-handed, it seems to be long past the time when a successor to the 1963 British Open champion, Bob Charles, as a "major" winner would have emerged.

This was the time of year when Dr Paddy Leahy would head off to Thailand for some golf in the sun. In fact, I had the pleasure of joining him on holiday there a few years ago when he gave me a gift of a polo shirt. He liked to give people gifts.

At his funeral before Christmas, friends and relatives spoke eloquently about his great love of golf and his irresistible urge for giving advice, welcomed or not. He had a deep knowledge of the game, and though best known here as a long-time member of Elm Park, he also left his mark further afield.

Before returning to this country to work in Ballyfermot, he was captain of Blackpool North Shore GC in 1953- 54. Indeed, when I contacted the club at the time of his death, one elderly member recalled him affectionately as "a small man but a very powerful hitter, who played off three". Hurling skills acquired during his youth in Tipperary had left a rich legacy.

This day in golf history

. . . On January 2nd, 1937, Charles "Chick" Evans, former winner of the US Amateur and US Open titles, proposed that a 10-club limit should be introduced by the game's ruling bodies. At the time, players could use as many clubs as they wished: Bobby Jones carried 16 on the way to his Grand Slam triumph of 1930, while some opponents had as many as 30.

In response to the widespread discussion prompted by Evans's suggestion, the USGA came up with a compromise number of 14, which was introduced as a maximum under the rules in 1938. The Royal and Ancient initially resisted the change, but eventually went along with it from the start of the following year.

Teaser: In a match, A holed out in three at the fifth hole. His opponent, B, holed out in four. After driving from the next tee, it was discovered that A had played a wrong ball at the fifth hole. B claimed the fifth hole. What is the ruling?

Answer: Since A failed to inform B promptly that he had incurred a penalty for playing a wrong ball, he is deemed to have given wrong information, even though he was not aware that he had incurred a penalty (Rule 9-2). Thus, B's belated claim was valid (Rule 2-5) and the committee should have ruled that B won the fifth hole.