Horton Smith, Titanic Thompson, Bobby Jones, Alfred Bourne, and Me

My golf club’s clubhouse as Horton Smith and Titanic Thompson knew it. It looks about the same today, although the trees and the porch have grown.

Horton Smith won the first Masters, in 1934, and he won again in 1936. Two and a half years after that, he got married in the little Connecticut town where I live, ninety miles north of New York City. The bride was Barbara Bourne, whose parents owned a 40-room weekend house here. The legendary golf hustler Titanic Thompson attended the wedding and, during a golf outing at our nine-hole club, gave a ten-dollar tip to his caddie, a local kid who, once he’d become an old man, sometimes played golf with me. (The regular rate in 1938 was 35 cents a loop, 60 cents for two bags.)

Barbara Bourne and Horton Smith (far left), along with lots of Bournes.

Barbara’s late grandfather, Frederick Gilbert Bourne, known as “Commodore,” had been a president of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. He owned a 110-room summer place on Long Island, a 28-room castle on the St. Lawrence Seaway, in the Thousand Islands, and the entire first floor of the Dakota apartment building, in New York.

Horton Smith’s late grandfather-in-law, “Commodore” Frederick Gilbert Bourne, 1851-1919.

Barbara’s father was Alfred Severin Bourne, who, in addition to being the 1934 men’s champion of my club, was a founding member of Augusta National. He served on the five-man Organization Committee, and was a vice-president until his death. Without him, the first Masters might never have been held.

Barbara Bourne and her father, Alfred Severin Bourne, in the late 1920s or early 1930s.

The Bournes spent winters in Augusta, which was popular as a resort destination partly because it was just about as far south as a New Yorker could travel overnight by train and still play golf on arrival. Alfred belonged to Augusta Country Club, and his playing partners there occasionally included Bobby Jones.

Kenneth Bourne (son of Alfred) and Bobby Jones, probably at Augusta Country Club.

In 1931, as Jones and Clifford Roberts were trying to get Augusta National going, next door, Bourne wrote them a check for $25,000—a quarter of the sum that Roberts figured they’d need to build their course. Bourne apologized that he couldn’t be more generous, and told them that if they’d come to him before the Crash he’d have underwritten the entire project. (Bourne missed the first three days of the first Masters because he was competing in—and winning—an amateur event in Aiken, South Carolina, twenty miles from Augusta.)

Alfred Bourne (center) and various playthings, Thousand Islands, 1930s.

Alfred Bourne died in 1956. His weekend house in my town is now the main building of a boarding school; not surprisingly, it’s called Bourne Hall. Each year for the past six or seven, the school and my club have held a tournament, called the Bourne Cup, in which eight or ten of the school’s alumni (some of whom are also members of my club) are almost always soundly defeated by eight or ten members of my club (some of whom are also alumni of the school).

Bourne cap, from Bourne Cup.

This year, the school’s team included a member of the class of 1951, named Dave. He told me that when he was a boy he spent several summers caddying at the club, and often caddied for Alfred Bourne. He said he once asked Bourne if it would be all right for him to use a fielder’s mitt to shag Bourne’s practice balls. (Dave loved baseball but lacked opportunities to hone his technique.) Bourne said that would be fine, and they made a game of it. Bourne was a generous tipper, Dave told me (although he squandered most of his  earnings, a nickel at a time, in the club’s Coke machine).

My club’s caddie corps in 1925, sitting on the front steps of the clubhouse. Note the neckties on the ten year olds. The gloomy-looking (and tie-less) grownup at right is the head pro. The wee lad in knee socks, two seats to his left, is his eventual successor.

A senior member of my club, whose name is Dick, also caddied for Bourne. He told me that he would warm up by hitting exactly thirty practice balls, which Dick would scoop up in a leather bag while keeping an eye out for players teeing off on the sixth hole. (The club’s driving range in those days was just the right side of the sixth fairway.) After counting the thirtieth shot, Dick would run back to Bourne, who would play the first hole, chip to the eight green, play the ninth hole, make the same circuit again, and go home.

Dick, who used to caddie for Alfred Bourne,at our town invitational tournament, October, 2008.

The day before this year’s Bourne Cup, I had the immense good fortune to play a round at Garden City Golf Club, also known as Garden City Men’s, where the U.S. Open was held in 1902. Before we teed off, I wandered around the clubhouse (where jackets are mandatory but shirts are not), and gazed at all the cool stuff. And among many other extremely interesting things I learned that the winner of the Garden City club championship in 1921 was Alfred Severin Bourne. I forgot to take a picture of the plaque with his name on it, but I remembered, later, to take a picture of a similar plaque, back home:

Early champions at my club: two Bournes and several missing years.

For Memorial Day: How to Remember Deceased Golfers

The Amerman Tree (right), Memorial Day weekend, 2012.

During a tournament one year, I used a very bad word to curse a former member of my club. It was nothing personal. I’d hit a weak banana from the tee, and my line to the green was now blocked by the Amerman Tree, which memorializes a deceased past president of the board of governors. I never knew Mr. Amerman, but I curse him every time I slice a drive into the steadily expanding circumference of his memory.

As I punched my ball sideways into the fairway that day, it occurred to me that planting a tree in the line of play is a terrible way to honor a dearly departed member. Golfers don’t really even like trees, except in the abstract. A memorial maple may seem like a fitting monument on the day it’s planted, but once its trunk has grown thick enough to stand straight without being staked it begins to grate on the nerves of the survivors.

Golfers don't really even like trees, except in the abstract. That's Howard behind the first green.

There’s a better way: Instead of honoring the dead by creating annoyances in their behalf, why not remember them with golf balls? Most golf shops sell thousands every season. What if each one were imprinted with the name of a member who had died the year before?

Your guest in the member-guest would need an explanation. “His name’s on all the balls,” you’d say. “Nice old guy. Died last year. Played the course in eight different decades. Used a three-wood when he played in the snow.”

You’d think of him every time you played. If his name was long enough, you’d use it to line up putts. On your trip to Scotland in July, you’d launch a few into the whins in his honor.

As each summer slipped away, your club’s supply of memorial balls would gradually disperse itself: into the weeds, into the trees, over the walls, around the world. The following spring, your golf shop would be stocked again, with balls bearing new names—but the previous year’s batch would keep turning up for decades, the way old golf balls always do. They’d materialize in shag bags. Caddies would find them in the woods. Old-timers would retrieve them from the pond. A new member would step on one in the fescue near the pump house and ask about the name.

“Nice old guy. Died a few years ago. Caddied for Titanic Thompson once. Runner-up in the club championship. Navy in the Pacific in World War Two. And he never walked past the Amerman Tree without breaking off a branch.”

Snow Golf

It snowed here last night–as it’s entitled to. Nevertheless, unless we get a big melt my friends will  have to change our Sunday golf plans. One possibility would be to play in the snow, at home. I own a pair of L. L. Bean snowshoes that I’ve never used for anything but golf, and I have a cache of orange balls.

It’s actually been a while since I played snow golf. I used to do it all winter long, with four old guys at my club who called themselves the Fuckheads, after their favorite term of endearment. They’re all dead now: John, who carried his golf bag by the handle, like a suitcase; Dick, who seldom took a waking breath that wasn’t filtered through a Tiparillo; Ed, who caddied for Titanic Thompson on our course the weekend of the wedding of Horton Smith, who won the first and third Masters tournaments and married a local girl; and Doug, who lived well into his nineties and whose house was up the street from mine. When they were younger, before I came along, they used to end their winter rounds by lighting a fire in the unheated cabin that serves as our clubhouse and drinking scotch while frost formed on the insides of the windows. One bitterly cold January morning long ago, they told me, the liquor froze in a glass that one of them had left on a table a few paces from the fire.

Playing golf in the snow is good for a golf swing. Snow dissipates energy even more than sand or dirt does, so you have to keep still and swing smoothly. Each of us carried only a single club, a limitation that inspired inventiveness in shot-making. It was while playing winter golf that I learned what must be the first principle of the golf swing: that the key to achieving power is not effort but ease. Facing a hundred-yard shot and having only a seven-iron with which to hit it, I swung easily and gracefully and launched my ball on a high, gorgeous, left-bending arc that ended deep within the woods behind the green.