Frank Discussion of Testicles During LPGA Tour Broadcast

Among the advertisers on the Golf Channel broadcast of the current LPGA Tour event is the Duluth Trading Company, which is promoting its Ballroom Jeans. Those aren’t jeans that are nice enough to waltz in; they’re jeans that have extra room for your balls. A women’s sports event may seem like an odd place to advertise a product intended for overweight middle-aged men—but keep in mind that the main viewing audience for LPGA Tour events is overweight middle-aged men.

The Clubhouse at Royal Birkdale

The clubhouse at Royal Birkdale Golf Club, where the Open is being held this week, was designed to look like an ocean liner cruising through a sea of fescue. Here’s the original conception, in a watercolor sketch that was submitted to the club in the early 1930s by the Liverpool architect George Tonge. (The painting is on display in the clubhouse):

The club has monkeyed with the building since it was built, by removing a number of the original Art Deco details and adding boxlike extensions, but the basic idea is intact. The building’s design influenced other architecture in the region, including this house, which is just up the road from the club:

And this one, which is across the road from the house in the photo above:

The Birkdale clubhouse also very directly influenced the design, by Alfred Ernest Shennan, of the clubhouse at Childwall Golf Club, in Liverpool, twenty-five miles to the south. The Childwall clubhouse, which was built in 1938, actually retains some features that were later removed from the Birkdale clubhouse, including its nautical-looking decks and railings:

One possible addition for both buildings: a few lifeboats suspended from the roof? A closer look at the Childwall clubhouse:

One nice thing about the Birkdale clubhouse is that you can see it from distant parts of the course, and can therefore use it to orient yourself as you wander through the dunes. A tiny bit of it is visible in this photo (of Ray), from a great trip that the Sunday Morning Group took to Lancashire in 2010:

Is This the Best Overseas Golf Itinerary?

I have an article in the summer issue of Links called “England’s Golf Coast.” It’s about a remarkable thirty-mile stretch of linksland that runs along the Lancashire coast between Liverpool and St. Annes, in northwestern England. The Golf Coast includes three of the ten courses on the active Open Championship Rota—Royal Liverpool, Royal Birkdale (where this year’s Open will be held), and Royal Lytham and St. Annes—but you could skip all three and still have an unforgettable trip. I’ve visited the area several times, most recently in 2013, and my friends have been talking about going back ever since our first trip there as a group, three years before that. The courses are so closely spaced that you can park yourself and your luggage in one place—no need for a coach and driver. In 2010, nine of us stayed mostly in three three-bedroom apartments in this building, in Southport:

The cost worked out to less than fifty dollars per man per night. The longest drive we had to golf was about an hour, and many of the courses we played were just a few minutes away. Here’s Barney in the living room of one of our apartments:

Below are photos of courses and people I mention in my Links article, taken during various trips over the years. First, St. Annes Old Links, which is next door to Royal Lytham and includes ground that was once part of its routing. Here are two members I played with. We wore rainsuits not because we expected rain but because the wind was blowing hard enough to shred ordinary golf clothing:

This is me in 2010 at West Lancashire Golf Club, known locally as West Lancs. It opened in 1873 and was the first Golf Coast course built north of the River Mersey. As is true of many courses in the area, you can travel to it by train from central Liverpool:A great guide to golf courses on the Lancashire coast is Links Along the Line, by Harry Foster, a retired teacher and a social historian. He rode along when I played Hesketh Golf Club, where he was a member for many years. (He died in 2014.)Hesketh isn’t my favorite course, but a couple of its oldest holes, on the second nine, are among my favorite holes. This view is back toward the clubhouse (the red-roofed white building near the center):

Hesketh has both a fascinating history (ask about the Hitler Tree) and a cool address:

In 2013, Foster and his wife joined me for dinner in the dining room at Formby Golf Club, one of my favorite courses anywhere. I actually spent several nights in the Formby clubhouse, in this room:

The Formby course encircles a separate golf club, Formby Ladies. Don’t skip it, as I did until 2013, to my permanent regret. Among the women I played with was Anne Bromley, on the right in the photo below. Her father was once the head professional at Royal County Down:

Formby Ladies isn’t long, but if you aren’t careful it will eat you up. The club has an excellent history, which you can study over lunch in the clubhouse (known to members as the Monkey House):At a nature preserve down the road from Formby, I met a retired Merseyside policeman and his wife, who own a coffee concession. He invited me to join him and his son, an aspiring professional, for a round at Southport & Ainsdale, which hosted the Ryder Cup in 1933 and 1937 and the British Amateur in 2005.The first hole at S&A is a par 3, and it’s a corker:Right next door to S&A, on the other side of the railroad tracks, is Hillside:

And right next door to Hillside is Royal Birkdale, whose clubhouse was designed to look a little like an ocean liner:

Birkdale is one of my favorite Open courses. I played it with a young member who had a lot less trouble with it than I did. In fact, he shot pretty close to even par:

In both 2010 and 2013, I spent one night in the Dormy House at Royal Lytham and St. Annes—part of a stay-and-play package that’s one of the greatest bargains in links golf. The view from my bedroom was across the practice green (and through mist) toward the clubhouse and the eighteenth hole:Here’s what the wind at Lytham—which wasn’t blowing when I took the photo below—has done to the trees. Many years ago, I wrote an article for Golf Digest whose opening line was “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.” The copy editor, who had apparently never heard of Bob Dylan, changed “weatherman” to “weather report.” I was mortified, but it turned out that none of the magazine’s readers had heard of Bob Dylan either. Anyway, leave your umbrella at home:You should play Royal Liverpool, of course, but don’t overlook Wallasey, just a few miles away:Wallasey was the home club of Dr. Frank Stableford, who in 1932 invented the round-rescuing scoring system that’s named for him. Here are the eighteenth green and the clubhouse:And, of course, if you somehow get tired of playing golf you can take any of a number of interesting side trips:

Roberto De Vicenzo, R. I. P.

The great Argentinian golfer Roberto De Vicenzo, who died this week, at the age of ninety-four, is probably best known for his second-place finish in the 1968 Masters, an outcome that has long been viewed as one of the most heartbreaking in tournament golf. It has also been one of the most grotesquely misunderstood. De Vicenzo that year signed a scorecard for his final round which added up to one stroke more than he had actually shot. (The original error had been made by Tommy Aaron, who kept de Vicenzo’s card and marked him for a four on the seventeenth hole rather than the three he had in fact made. De Vicenzo didn’t notice the mistake at the time or when checking his card before signing it immediately following his round.) The rules of golf dictated unequivocally that the higher score had to stand. That kept De Vicenzo out of a tie for first place with Bob Goalby, who became the winner. “What a stupid I am,” De Vicenzo said. The Masters film that year showed Goalby finding and correcting an error on his own scorecard—a scene that made De Vicenzo’s moment of inattention seem all the more poignant.

To be kept out of a Masters playoff by a clerical error concerning a score that no one disputed has always seemed so regrettable that, half a century later, sportswriters and others still brood about the ruling. A columnist in Golf World suggested in 1997 that Augusta National should have ignored the rules and thereby created a tie, or that Goalby should have refused his green jacket and insisted on a playoff, whether official or not. Others have disparaged the club for not writing a rule of its own. Charles Sifford even suggested that De Vicenzo’s second-place finish might have been the result of prejudice, against a non-American player, by Clifford Roberts, the club’s co-founder and chairman.

The notion that the club should have imposed a rule of its own has a certain emotional appeal but is hard to understand. Roberts and Bobby Jones cherished the club’s independence from golf’s major governing bodies, but both believed in the rule book—as they had demonstrated twenty years before, when they had helped to settle rule differences between the P.G.A. and the U.S.G.A. The Masters rules committee has always been headed by leading officials of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews and the U.S.G.A., the two organizations responsible for governing the game. The ruling on De Vicenzo’s score was made not by Roberts or Jones but by the tournament’s chief rules official, Isaac Grainger, who had been the president of the U.S.G.A in 1954 and 1955. Grainger—who was born in 1895 and until his death, in 1999, at the age of a hundred and four, was the oldest living member of Augusta National—told me in 1998 that the De Vicenzo ruling was “the most difficult but also the easiest decision I ever had to make.” He added, “I took the precaution—although I knew the answer—of talking to Bob Jones and Cliff Roberts about it, down in the Jones Cottage. I knew what the answer was, but I wanted to be able to tell Roberto that it wasn’t my answer alone. It was really a very sad thing, because it eliminated the possibility of his winning the Masters in a playoff. But he was quite a gentleman. I remember I had dinner with him, and when we left the dining room and separated, he said to me, ‘I sorry I cause you so much trouble.’ That shows you what a sportsman he was. It was a very sad thing for him. And I remember that, when he finished on the eighteenth hole, his wife was so nervous she took hold of my hand, and she held my hand until he had putted out.”

It is true that television cameras had shown De Vicenzo birdying the seventeenth hole. But De Vicenzo, like every other player in the tournament, was accountable for the accuracy of his own card because only he was in a position to be certain of his true score. He felt stupid about his oversight, but he agreed with the ruling—as did the Argentina Golf Association, which wrote to Roberts to say that it not only supported Grainger’s decision but had made the same ruling itself with other players in tournaments of its own.

The accusation that Roberts was out to get De Vicenzo is even more absurd. The two men were close friends, and, in fact, during Masters week, De Vicenzo and his wife often stayed in the home of Wilda Gwin, who was one of Roberts’s secretaries at the club. De Vicenzo’s birthday fell on Masters Sunday in 1968, and the tournament staff, with Roberts’s assistance, had planned a surprise party for him. Kathryn Murphy, Roberts’s tournament secretary, told me that she had sadly thrown away the birthday cake when it became clear that holding the party was now out of the question.

Roberts always held a dinner for the tournament winner at the end of each Masters, and that night he broke convention by inviting De Vicenzo to attend as well. He worried that the outcome had harmed both men—by depriving De Vicenzo of a shot at the financial bonanza that followed a Masters win and by overshadowing the spectacular charge that Goalby had made in his own final round. Like all Masters winners, Goalby received a silver cigarette case on which had been engraved the signatures of all the players in the field. Roberts quietly had an identical box made for De Vicenzo as a private acknowledgment of his ordeal. Roberts also asked J. Richard Ryan, the attorney who handled the club’s television and movie contracts, to offer his services to both men as an agent—an occupation that had just begun to have an impact among the better players on tour. He especially hoped that Ryan could help De Vicenzo make up for opportunities he had foregone.

All these gestures—none of which were public—were entirely characteristic of Roberts. The somber face he wore on television as he explained the scorecard ruling belied the personal devastation he felt for both men. The tragedy, in his view, was that two exceptional performances had been overshadowed by a single careless mistake. He never doubted the correctness of the ruling, and he never regretted that it had been made. But he quietly worked behind the scenes to make things right for both men.

The End of Sand

I have an article in this week’s New Yorker about sand—and there’s some actual golf in it. Here’s an excerpt, about a round I played in Dubai:

One day, I played golf with an Australian who worked for a major real-estate developer. The course, like Dubai itself, had been built on empty desert, and I commented that creating fairways and greens in such a forbidding environment must be difficult. “No,” the Australian said. “Deserts are easy, because you can shape the sand into anything you like.” The difficult parts, paradoxically, are the areas that are supposed to be sand: deserts make lousy sand traps. The wind-blown grains are so rounded that golf balls sink into them, so the sand in the bunkers on Dubai’s many golf courses is imported. Jumeirah Golf Estates—on the outskirts of the city, next to the desert—has two courses, Fire and Earth, both designed by Greg Norman. The sand in the bunkers on the Earth course is white (the most prized color for golf sand) and was bought from a producer in North Carolina. The sand on the Fire course is reddish brown—more like the desert across the road. Norman’s company bought it from Hutcheson, which mined it at its quarry in Ontario, sifted it to make it firmer than volleyball sand, kiln-dried it, dyed it, and loaded it onto a ship.

Bonus golf-related sand trivia (not in the article):The white sand in the bunkers at last year’s U.S. Open, at Oakmont, and Ryder Cup, at Hazeltine, came from a single quarry, in Ohio. It’s a trademarked brand called Tour Grade Signature Blend, from Fairmount Santrol, a Michigan company that also produces sand for molds used in metal-casting.

The photographs above and below are of an Army Corps of Engineers beach-nourishment project on the Jersey Shore—which I also wrote about. The metal boxes in the photo below are for unexploded munitions, which the Army dumped off the coast after the Second World War and the dredges sometimes slurp up.

Before You Watch That, Watch This

From 2:00-3:00 EST on Saturday, immediately before the regular tournament broadcast, be sure to watch The Masters: Legends of Magnolia Lane, starring Bill Macatee, on CBS. (I helped write it and put it together.) There’s so much cool historical material about the tournament (of course) that we didn’t have room for everything. I was sorry to lose a couple of Jack Nicklaus’s reminiscences about his first Masters win, in 1963. (Maybe everybody else already knows these stories, but I hadn’t heard them.)

Nicklaus on his third round that year: “We got on the eighteenth green and Willie Peterson is my caddie and I’m color-blind, so I couldn’t tell whether it was red or green on the scoreboard. I kept looking up at the board. I saw all these ones and I said, ‘Willie,’ I said, ‘how many of those ones are red?’ He said, ‘Just you, Boss.'”

Nicklaus on throwing his hat in the air the next day, after winning: “I looked at that on film, and I said, ‘What an artificial move.’ You know, everybody always threw their hat, so I figured maybe I’ll throw my hat. You know, there wasn’t anything spontaneous about it. . . . I just said, ‘Well, I gotta do something.'”

And that’s just the stuff we left out!

Masters (Weekend) Countdown: Who Was Clifford Roberts? (Part Four)

Charles, Clifford, Alpheus, Dorothy, Key, John, and Rebecca Roberts in 1907.

[Clifford Roberts was the co-founder, with Bobby Jones, of Augusta National Golf Club, and he was the chairman of both the club and the Masters from their beginning, in the early 1930s, until his death, in 1977. It’s often said that Jones conceived of the club and Roberts financed it, but that’s not the case. Roberts, unlike Jones, grew up poor, and during the club’s early years he was close to broke. But Roberts idolized Jones, and he was determined to help him fulfill his dream of building a golf course in the South that could host a U. S. Open. That the club and the Masters survived the Great Depression and the Second World War is a tribute mainly to Roberts’s determination to keep them going. Time, as Roberts measured it, began the day he met Bobby Jones. But the years leading up to that encounter are in many ways as interesting as the years that followed it. They are the years that shaped the man who shaped Augusta National and the Masters.]

In May, 1915, a little less than two years after their mother’s suicide, Clifford Roberts’s sister, Dorothy, began to keep a diary of her own. She was fourteen years old. Her father had married a considerably younger woman, from Missouri, and had moved the family to Kansas City, where he continued to pursue a bewildering variety of ill-considered business ventures. Clifford’s older brother, now called Jack, had married about a year earlier; he and his wife were living in Kansas City, too, but would soon move to California. Clifford made occasional appearances at home but spent most of his time selling men’s clothing on the road in a territory that covered much of the Midwest. His salary in 1916 was $1.30 a month plus commissions, and he did so well that he frequently was able to make substantial gifts to members of the family—especially to Dorothy, who had long looked up to him as more of a father figure than her father.

At different times over the next decade, Dorothy, Key, and Alpheus followed Jack to California, and all eventually settled permanently on the West Coast. Only Clifford looked east. As he traveled around the Midwest and South selling suits, he was planning a new life for himself. He studied the biographies of wealthy men, hoping to learn the secrets of their success. He decided—as he later told a relative—that he would rather be a little fish in a big pond than a big fish in a little pond. He assessed the advantages and disadvantages of living in various cities, eventually deciding that he would need to move to New York because New York was where the money was. He invested much of his earnings in nice clothes for himself, because he had decided that in order to make his way in the big city he would have to look the part. He memorized information about leading colleges and universities, so that he would not embarrass himself when introduced to men who had been far better educated than he. With the same unblinking focus that would later characterize his planning for the Masters Tournament, he studied the life he wanted to lead and then set out to lead it.

Clifford’s assault on New York was not an immediate success. In 1917, when he was twenty-three, he sold his share of some Iowa property that he and the other children had inherited from their mother’s side of the family, and with that money as a stake he set out to make his fortune in the East. Before the end of the month, he was back in Kansas City again and probably close to broke. “Think Cliff is going to make some money real soon,” Dorothy wrote. “Surely hope he does, for he has had so much hard luck.”

Shortly afterward, he tried again, and this time he stayed. He rented a room in a small residential hotel, and by early April, 1918, he was working for what Dorothy in her diary called “the Oklahoma-Wyoming Oil Company” and expecting “to make a small fortune.” One month later, the draft intervened. He was trained as a private in the Signal Corps. at Camp Hancock, in Augusta, Georgia—his first exposure to the small southern city that would come to dominate his life. He was shipped to France in October, 1918, roughly a month before the Armistice, and was shipped home six and a half months later, following an entirely uneventful tour of duty. (He passed some of the time by learning French from a Canadian soldier.) He was discharged on May 7, 1919.

After his return, he at first divided his time between New York and Chicago, where he was involved in a variety of investment deals. None amounted to much. A little over a year later, in a Christmas letter to Dorothy, he wrote, “1920 has been a rather rough and terrible year for me—the stock market has been shot to pieces and general business badly upset.” He was spending much of his modest income to help support various family members, including his father, who had suffered a stroke and would soon die. (Charles was buried in Kansas City. Of the five siblings, only Clifford and Alpheus—who was still living in Kansas City with their step-mother—attended his funeral. Dorothy scarcely noted the death in her diary.)

By 1922, Roberts was a principal in a struggling partnership called Roberts & Co., which that year had income of less than a thousand dollars. His net income the following year was a little more than $2,400. He made a little more than $7,500 in 1924. By 1925, he was associated with a New York firm called Banta & Morrin and was calling himself a “financial negotiator” and “stock-and-bond broker.” A nephew has said that Roberts in the early twenties put together an oil-and-gas deal that made him $50,000. That didn’t happen, but the nephew may be thinking of 1929, when Roberts’s tax return shows that he was paid a $55,000 commission by an investment-banking firm called F. A. Willard & Co. That year, his total net income amounted to just under $70,000—by far his most successful year up to that point.

Unfortunately, 1929 was a disastrous year in which to make a fortune. Roberts invested much of his windfall in securities that turned sour during the October Crash or in the dreary years that followed it; his 1929 tax return lists a number of stocks that he bought shortly before Black Thursday and sold at substantial losses shortly after. In 1930 and 1931, trading losses more than wiped out all his other income, leaving him with a cumulative net loss for those two years of more than $21,000. By way of comparison, in 1931, the year the club was formed, Bobby Jones had net income of more than $140,000—far more than Roberts’s total earnings during the fourteen years he had been in New York. The popular conception is that Roberts was rich and Jones was scarcely employed when the club began; in fact, the reverse was true.

During that difficult period, golf was a part of the New York social milieu to which Roberts was striving to belong. He had first encountered the game as a youngster in California, where he and his brother had caddied for fifteen cents a bag. He taught himself to play as caddies always have, by hitting found balls with abandoned clubs during the idle hours between loops. When he started to make some money in New York, he joined Knollwood Country Club, in Westchester County, and worked on his game and social connections there. At some point in the mid-twenties, he attended an exhibition at Knollwood in which Jones played—an exhibition that may have been the occasion of their first meeting. “Each time I saw Bob or read his public comments, I respected and liked him more,” he wrote in his book about the club. “I watched part of the final of the 1926 USGA Amateur Championship at Baltusrol, in New Jersey, in which George Von Elm defeated Jones two and one. Shortly afterwards, I was one of some half-dozen who were having a drink with the loser and trying to think of something comforting to say to him.” Jones’s effect on Roberts was similar to that, two decades later, of, Eisenhower, who also became a close friend. In an interview with a researcher at Columbia University in the late sixties, Roberts said of Eisenhower that “people just instinctively want to help him and to gain favor in his eyes by doing things that might please him.” Roberts could as easily have been describing his initial attraction to Jones.

Jones in those years often spoke of his desire to build a championship course in the South. One day in 1930, Roberts suggested building the course in Augusta, where both men coincidentally had played winter golf while staying at Bon Air-Vanderbilt Hotel, which was run by a mutual friend. Roberts, after his stint in the Army, had returned to Augusta for occasional golf vacations; he liked the city in part because it was warm in the winter yet far enough north to be easily reachable by overnight train from New York. Jones liked Augusta’s mild winter climate and believed that a club there might afford him some privacy—a scarcity at home in Atlanta. (“It had got so that he couldn’t even plan a weekday game without feeling like he was playing an exhibition,” Roberts told the Saturday Evening Post in 1951.) They agreed to proceed.

The notion of engaging in any sort of continuing project with Jones must have held extraordinary appeal for Roberts. Not many years before, he had been selling clothes and living out of a suitcase in a territory that extended from Chicago to New Orleans. Now he was living in the biggest, richest, most exciting city in the country and helping to implement a dream of one of the most celebrated athletes in the world. Years later, Roberts reprinted for club members a chapter from the book Farewell to Sport, by Paul Gallico. The chapter, called “One Hero,” was about Jones, and it was probably Roberts’s single favorite text. He quoted from it again in his book about the club: “I am, by nature, a hero-worshipper, as, I guess, most of us are, but in all the years of contact with the famous ones of sport I have found only one that would stand up in every way as a gentleman as well as a celebrity, a fine, decent, human being as well as a newsprint personage, and who never once, since I have known him, has let me down in my estimate of him. That one is Robert Tyre Jones, Jr., the golf-player from Atlanta, Georgia. And Jones in his day was considered the champion of champions.”

Roberts was, by nature, a hero-worshipper, too. He took enormous personal satisfaction from making himself indispensable to Jones (as he would again later with Dwight Eisenhower). Roberts’s deep, genuine, and enduring commitment to the game of golf did not predate their friendship. He said himself in later years that if he had never met Jones he would never have been more than a weekend golfer. He adopted the ideals of his hero and made them his own.

The Augusta project must have had a further powerful appeal for Roberts: It gave him an opportunity to become acquainted with and make himself useful to a large group of lesser heroes, the successors of the pioneering capitalists whose lives he had studied as a young man. Some of those same men would later become investment clients of his, but any personal financial gain would have meant less to Roberts than the growing ease with which he was able to move within their once inaccessible world. The club was so time-consuming from the start that its net effect on his investment business was probably negative. But he did not regret the loss. It was the life, not the money, that he wanted.

Masters Countdown: Who Was Clifford Roberts? (Part Three)

Charles, Clifford, Alpheus, Dorothy, Key, John, and Rebecca Roberts in 1907.

[Clifford Roberts was the co-founder, with Bobby Jones, of Augusta National Golf Club, and he was the chairman of both the club and the Masters from their beginning, in the early 1930s, until his death, in 1977. It’s often said that Jones conceived of the club and Roberts financed it, but that’s not the case. Roberts, unlike Jones, grew up poor, and during the club’s early years he was close to broke. But Roberts idolized Jones, and he was determined to help him fulfill his dream of building a golf course in the South that could host a U. S. Open. That the club and the Masters survived the Great Depression and the Second World War is a tribute mainly to Roberts’s determination to keep them going. Time, as Roberts measured it, began the day he met Bobby Jones. But the years leading up to that encounter are in many ways as interesting as the years that followed it. They are the years that shaped the man who shaped Augusta National and the Masters.]

Late in 1909, Charles Roberts received fifteen thousand dollars for the family’s old farm in Kansas and was able to pay off a number of debts. But his financial situation remained precarious, and a year later it took a sharp turn for the worse. On October 30, 1910, Clifford, who was sixteen, went to Sunday school at the Presbyterian church and then escorted his mother to the regular service. On the way, he realized he had left his gloves at home and ran back to get them. He lit a kerosene lamp in his and John’s dark room—which the two boys had just begun to set up for themselves in the attic of the family’s small house—and dropped a match on the floor, starting a fire that consumed the house. The twins sounded the alarm. “We got back to see its finish,” Rebecca wrote in her diary, which someone had the foresight to rescue. Charles dragged the family’s cherished player piano out of the house by himself. Almost everything else was destroyed, and there was no insurance. The local dentist, who had been doing dental work for Rebecca and Dorothy, “made us a Christmas present” of his fee.

The fire marks the beginning of Clifford’s life as an adult. He promised his mother he would try to make up for his negligence by doing as much as he could to help out. He was sixteen years old and had left school for good the previous spring. He continued to work on the family’s farm—which was failing—and to help his father with various business ventures. He began to work as a clerk in a dry-goods store in Blessing, a town several miles to the north. (“He actually sold more goods during their 10 days sale than any other clerk or the two owners themselves,” his mother noted with pride.) In July, he went to Galveston for a three-week course in business skills. He talked about teaming up with an acquaintance to run a meat company in Blessing. His name began to appear less often in his mother’s diary—which she continued to keep for another year and then abandoned—because he was now spending more time away from the rented house that had become the family’s home.

In that house, not quite three years after the fire, Rebecca Roberts rose quietly from her bed at four o’clock one morning, crept downstairs without waking her husband or her children, walked behind the house to a spot near the garage, and shot herself in the chest with a shotgun. It was three days after her forty-fourth birthday. No one in the family heard. Charles found her body when he awoke, at five. “The coroner’s verdict was that the deceased came to her death by her own hand,” an article on the front page of the Palacios Beacon said. “Letters afterward found written by Mrs. Roberts addressed to each member of the family showed that the act was premeditated. Each of the letters was an expression of affectionate farewell.” The letters, which were brief, were written in pencil in steady script on small sheets of lined notepaper.

Dear Dorothy —
Mama’s love goes on just
the same & you must be a
good girl & do as Papa
says. Stay with friends
I chose for you in life.
            Love Mama

The tone seems chilling, especially when compared with the tender informality of Rebecca’s diary: “Dorothy often draws me to rocking chair & when she’s in my arms—then she takes up my fingers in left hand & taps end of one with her small one—meaning that she wants me to sing.”

Rebecca’s note to Clifford was equally restrained:

Dear Clifford
I write to beg you to
not grieve but be a
man in time of trial.
Papa will need you.
 Be a sober upright
son & all will be well.
I know Ma wants you
to come to her.
         Love Mama

“Ma,” in the last sentence, is Maria Lyman Key, Rebecca’s mother, with whom Clifford had lived during much of the family’s seven-month stay in California nine years before. Clifford must have been considering a move or a visit, but there is no indication in the family’s records that he ever went. Charles, with Rebecca gone, would have needed him close at hand. Maria Key died in early 1915, a little less than a year and a half after her daughter’s suicide.

What a desolate experience it must have been to read those flat, emotionless notes on the morning of Rebecca’s death. Since the fire, Clifford had felt a disproportionate share of responsibility for the family’s misfortunes; Rebecca’s brief note would not have lightened his burden. Late in his life, he commissioned a portrait of his mother based on an old photograph and hung it in his apartment in the Bahamas. In 1904, when he was ten, he had made her a small paper heart and inscribed it to his “dear Mama.” Dorothy found the heart among their mother’s things one day and sent it to him. “What a sweet person Mother was!” Roberts wrote back in wistful acknowledgment. “I’m glad to be reminded that at least on one occasion I let her know how I felt about her.” The years in Palacios had become a void in his memory. Once he left, he never went back.

[to be continued]

Masters Countdown: Who Was Clifford Roberts? (Part Two)

Charles, Clifford, Alpheus, Dorothy, Key, John, and Rebecca Roberts in 1907.

[continued]

In the fall of 1904, when Clifford Roberts was ten, his mother, Rebecca, took the children to live with relatives of hers in California. She was acting on the advice of a doctor in Kansas, who had said that a trip and “a complete change” might improve her still mysterious condition. Not long before, she had written in her diary, “I am going down hill as rapidly as possible and there seems to be nothing to stop it.” They made the journey by train and stayed for seven months, while Charles Roberts tended business interests elsewhere. (He wrote occasionally, sent fifteen dollars for Christmas, and sold most of the family’s furniture—including the dining-room linoleum—while they were gone.) For part of that period, Clifford lived not with his mother, brothers, sister, aunt, and cousins, but with his mother’s parents, whose house was in Lakeside, a train ride away. He made brief visits to his mother by himself every week or two, attended a different school from the other children, and seemed to enjoy, or at any rate not object to, his independence. Before returning to Kansas the following spring, the boys traded their schoolbooks for a checkers set, with which they occupied themselves on the long ride home.

John and Clifford both worked outside their house from early ages. They did odd jobs, raised and sold chickens and dogs, made deliveries for their father, served as clerks in the family’s various stores, milked cows, raised pigs, caddied at local golf courses, and sold onions. They helped with the harvest when their father was farming. They worked to pay for their own schoolbooks and clothes. They sold calling cards and the Saturday Evening Post, played baseball for a share of the gate receipts, and, as they got older, accompanied their father on business expeditions. They inherited his entrepreneurial drive. One day, the brothers caught another boy selling trout from a line they had set in a stream. Instead of starting a fight—something they usually did when opportunities arose—they sold him the line and invested the proceeds in a new one. Shortly after the family moved from Kansas to Oklahoma, in 1906, Rebecca noted that Clifford, now twelve, was “using his Spanish selling goods to Mexicans working on R. R.” By then, Clifford was spending long periods working at real jobs for adult wages. He and his older brother both quit school before the end of ninth grade.

1906 Letter from Charles told us he had traded for store and was busy invoicing. . . .Clifford has 10 names for calling cards & magazine—will get 3 premiums. . . .Clifford not able to go to school in afternoon—so sorry for they had a geography test. . . .I made the best bread ever. . . . I was in bed all day—very dizzy & sick—but not so bad as when Charles was at home. . . . Could not get a man to clean carpets—so Clifford undertook the task—a hard one—but he stuck to it until they were clean & nice. . . . Clifford shot his first duck. Proud. . . . . Boys met traveling circus wagons & worked for tickets. Took twins—thought it fine. Right next to our block. . . ..Gave children worm medicine. . . . John & Clifford went to see a boy fire off a “Japanese mine” firecracker. It shot into John’s face—burning off eyebrows & lashes. . . . . Disappointed by new minister’s use of slang in pulpit. . . . We have hopes of John being cured—he is so young—but it is very uncertain.

Clifford grew up fast. He got into fistfights, stole rides on freight trains, chewed gum at school, smoked, entertained poorly-behaved friends at home while his mother was away, prompted one of his teachers to strike him, and shot pool—“such troubles as all boys make,” according to Rebecca, who smiled at the shenanigans of all her children and was a gentle disciplinarian. In 1909, she wrote, without apparent alarm, “All schools having a war with rubber shooters & paper wads. Clifford sent home. Charles went back with him—may have special tutor.” When the boys got into trouble, she seldom sided with their accusers—noting, for example, that Clifford’s teacher had returned only thirty of sixty marbles she had confiscated.

Despite occasional forays into juvenile delinquency, Clifford was the member of the Roberts family who on Sunday mornings was the most likely to be found in church. “Clifford went alone to Sunday School,” is a typical diary entry—this one from when he was seven. He won Sunday-school prizes, went to Christian Endearment picnics, often followed Sunday school with a regular service at a different church, and escorted younger siblings to Sunday school on days when no one else was going. Shortly after the family moved to Oklahoma, he took his little sister, Dorothy, to a Baptist church—a novelty for both of them—then later went with his father and older brother to watch a group of recent converts being baptized in a lake. “Clifford went to Catholic Mass with Carl Lully,” Rebecca wrote in 1908, when Clifford was fourteen and the family was living in Emporia, Kansas. “First time he had seen their service & quite impressed.” His steady church attendance won him special privileges, including an invitation to a fancy social at the home of his Sunday school teacher. “A four course luncheon served,” his mother wrote. “Everything of finest—finger bowl passed by maid. Brick ice cream, deviled eggs, angel food, candy, nuts, etc., etc.”

In their free time, Clifford and various siblings went with their father to see a baseball game “between fat & lean men,” saw a tent production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, saw pictures of Teddy Roosevelt’s inauguration at a movie theater in California, and took part in an Epworth League temperance program. Clifford didn’t mind performing before a crowd. At a patent-medicine show in 1903, he “helped with a spiritualistic exhibition.” In 1907, the family went two evenings in a row to see a show put on by a “hypnotist & mind reader” named Dr. Glick. Clifford, alone among his family members, volunteered to be a subject and, according to the diary, “did funny things—picking strawberries from floor—peddling them—motioning a man across a tight wire, etc.” On the third evening, Clifford went back alone and volunteered again.

Clifford appears to have had no trouble making friends. The diary mentions many playmates and overnight guests—including more than a few whom his mother considered “bad boys” or “roughs.” Clifford enjoyed and was good at marbles, football, basketball, and baseball, and he and his older brother were always arranging games of one kind or another. Clifford’s popularity may have been eased by the fact that he was strong and good-looking—although he was considered less handsome than John. His sharply arched eyebrows, which would contribute to a perennial look of alarm in his sixties and seventies, made him seem playful and mischievous when he was young. He parted his hair in the middle and had a strong taste for nice clothes. When he earned extra money, he often spent it on a tie, a shirt, or a suit. (“John & Clifford went shopping for Spats, sweater, cap & cruet tray,” Rebecca wrote in 1909.) In eighth grade, he attended a school May Day celebration wearing a “silk hat & Knickerbockers,” and in more than one family photograph he has the only pocket handkerchief. He began to meet girls. “Clifford went to dance—to look on—but he danced.”

Maintaining friendships was hard, however. The children changed schools and neighborhoods constantly, and they seldom finished a year with the same companions they had begun it with. Many of the family’s many moves were not only sudden—“Charles wrote for us to pack up & we commenced”—but also complete: Charles sometimes sold or auctioned much of their furniture rather than take it with them. All the moves were stressful, some more than others. (“Three moves is worse than a fire,” was a nineteenth-century American proverb.) Two days after Charles sold the family’s Emporia house—a showplace that he and Rebecca had scarcely finished fixing up—the new owners, along with their children and a maid, moved in with the Robertses. The two families shared a roof for more than two weeks, then Rebecca and the children went to stay with one of her sisters for another three weeks before setting out by train, at one o’clock in the morning, for yet another new life—this time, in a five-room house on a ten-acre “orange ranch” in Palacios, Texas, a small, dusty town on the Gulf of Mexico between Galveston and Corpus Christi. “Alpheus said, ‘Mama, you look as though you did not know anything,’ and that is just how I feel.”

1909 Had to take one small dose of sleeping medicine—the last. . . .  Am so sorry Dorothy & Key are to be disappointed again in not having a birthday party—but have neither money nor strength. . . . Received $50 interest on $1,000 note in Kansas.  Boys could not have begun high school else. . . .  John & Clifford sold $8.35 of fine figs—quite cheering. . . .  Charles is worn to a sick shadow, nervous dyspepsia wreck. Is uneasy all day & night. Has sued F. M. Elliott for $4,220.00 & we are living as skimped as possible in a land of strangers. . . .  Clifford saved life of a woman (in childbirth) by calling Dr. when her children did not know how. . . .  My hair is nearly all coming out—am so very sorry—for it was my one beauty.

[to be continued]