The First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Headcovers

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My favorite headcover was made of black plush and had the Grateful Dead’s red-white-and-blue “Steal Your Face” skull logo embroidered on it. I got to play golf with Jim Furyk once, and before we teed off his caddie, Fluff Cowan, looked into my bag and said, “So, you’re a fan of the boys, eh?”—one of my proudest moments in the game. My 5-wood eventually wore a hole through the fabric, and I had to take that headcover out of service. The huge online store on the Dead’s official website used to have lots of branded golf stuff, but not anymore.

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Headcovers must be a product of the apparently irresistible human urge to clothe inanimate objects—the same urge that gave us doilies, dust ruffles, chair skirts, and toilet seat covers. Most golfers probably assume that headcovers have an important protective function, but that seems unlikely. The purpose of a golf club is to be slung repeatedly at hard things lying on the ground, so why should you need to swaddle it just to carry it in a bag? Olden-days golfers—whose clubs were made by hand and were therefore arguably worth special handling—didn’t use them:

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So why do we? Chuck Furjanic, who is the author of Antique Golf Collectibles: A Price and Reference Guide, told me that headcovers date from at least the early 1910s. Nevertheless, I spent a pleasant afternoon flipping through the pages of most of the golf books in my office, and couldn’t find a headcover in a photograph or illustration from earlier than 1935. Walter Hagen didn’t use them (and Henry Cotton didn’t either):

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My research indicates that Bobby Jones won the Grand Slam without headcovers, that most golfers carried their woods naked until the late thirties or early forties, and that the headcovers of yesteryear started out looking like children’s socks, then evolved into sweaters for weasels. No headcovers here:

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My first metal woods—a TaylorMade set, which I bought in 1991—came without headcovers. Their successors—a trio of Big Berthas, purchased less than a year later—came with huge ones, although they’d probably seem almost dinky today:

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Those two transactions bracketed the beginning of the modern headcover era. Today, it’s impossible to buy a wood or even a hybrid without also receiving a complicated sheath that appears to have been manufactured in the same Chinese factory that makes shoes for NBA players and props for George Lucas movies. Someone I played golf with once told me that getting rid of headcovers would speed up the game by twenty minutes a round, and I believe it. Putting a modern headcover back onto a modern driver can be as exasperating and time-consuming as putting a snowsuit onto a toddler.

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Using headcovers on irons is still for beginners only, like using a clicker to count shots or carrying tees in a bandolier. And thank goodness for that. But who knows? A lot of people didn’t think that soft spikes would catch on, either.

GDIronMitts

Remarkable Golf Swing: The Bruen Loop

bruen loopWhen I was in Northern Ireland recently, I saw a photograph of a golfer I knew nothing about: Jimmy Bruen, shown above, who was born in Belfast in 1920 and held the course record at Royal County Down for twenty-nine years. He won the British Boys’ Championship, at Royal Birkdale, when he was sixteen.

This, remarkably, is what sixteen-year-olds looked like in the olden days.

This, remarkably, is what sixteen-year-olds looked like in the olden days.

He played in the Walker Cup two years later, and was credited by his teammates with inspiring Britain and Ireland’s first-ever victory over the United States (and their last until 1971). He had qualified for the team by shooting 71-71-68-72 on the Old Course at St. Andrews, a feat that caused Henry Cotton, who had won the Open in 1934 and 1937, to write: “Fancy a 17-year-old doing 282 in four rounds on the Old Lady of St. Andrews. I know what a stern course it is, long, difficult and tricky, but here was a mere boy playing it with a wise head and a technique which left everyone gasping.”

That technique—which came to be known as the Bruen Loop—was highly unconventional, as you can see in the photo at the top of this post and in the video below. The British golf writer Pat Ward-Thomas described it this way:

He drew the club back outside the line of flight and turned his wrists inward, to such an extent that at the top of the swing the clubhead would be pointing in the direction of the teebox. It was then whipped, no other word describes the action, inside and down into the hitting area with a terrible force. There was therefore in his swing a fantastic loop, defying all the canons of orthodoxy, which claims that the back and downswing should, as near as possible, follow the same arc. There must have been a foot or more between Bruen’s arcs of swing.

Henry Cotton, Open Championship, 1937.

Henry Cotton, Open Championship, 1937.

Bruen routinely drove the ball over three hundred yards, and he had a deadly short game. (He won the British Boys’ by chipping in for eagle on the twenty-seventh hole of the final, making him eleven up with nine holes to play.) He lit up Irish golf before the war, and he won the first post-war British Amateur, in 1946. (He was the first Irishman ever to win it.) Cotton called him “the best golfer—professional or amateur—in the world.” He was widely favored to win the 1946 Open, but withdrew because, he said, his business left him insufficient time to practice. (He was an insurance broker.) He severely injured his wrist while working in his garden in 1947, and, following surgery that was only semi-successful, virtually stopped playing competitive golf. His last Walker Cup was 1951. He died in 1972, at the age of fifty-one.

Ward-Thomas wrote: “Bruen was the most fascinating golfer I have ever seen or probably will ever see. There was no limit to what he might have achieved had not the War come and had he so desired.” George F. Crosbie published a biography in 1999. The Golfing Union of Ireland established the Jimmy Bruen Shield in his memory in 1978.

Bruen Shield