15 Apr 2010
April 15, 2010

A Pugilistic Approach



“There are at least six people who want to be taught golf for every one who wants to learn.”

When you took a lesson from Tommy Armour, you did things his way. One morning his pupil was a rampantly incompetent matron from Chicago’s Medinah Country Club, where Armour summered during the 1930s.

It was just the two of them on the practice tee. Armour, as was his custom, sat in a lawn chair beside his student.

She had a 5-iron in her hands and he had a shotgun in his. As she flailed fruitlessly at ball after ball, Armour remained impassive, amus­ing himself by taking occasional pot shots at the squirrels scurrying amid a stand of oaks at the end of the range. At length the lady became as frustrated by the pedagogical neg­lect as by her own ineptitude.

“I think you should be concentrating more on me,” she said.

Armour gave her a long appraising look, then slowly turned so that the gun barrel pointed straight at her sternum. “Don’t tempt me,” he said.

A Scotsman by birth, Tommy Armour embodied the greatest combination of playing and teaching talent the game has ever seen. He was a fine all-around athlete while at Edinburgh University but did not make his mark as a golfer until after World War I, when he served first as a machine gunner and later as an officer with the Tank Corps. During one battle, a mustard gas explo­sion left him blinded and with metal plates in his head and left arm. After a six-month convalescence he regained the sight in his right eye, and took up golf as a form of extended therapy.

The recreation became an addiction. With the ben­efit of lessons from Harry Vardon, James Braid, and J. H. Taylor, among others, Armour rose to become one of the finest amateurs on either side of the Atlantic. In 1924 he turned professional, and three years later won the U.S. Open, defeating Harry Cooper in an eighteen- hole playoff at Oakmont.

He went on to win every important title of the day, including the 1930 PGA Championship and the 1931 British Open.

Armour was a slender man, not power­fully built, but he had enormous hands, described by sportswriter Grantland Rice as “two stalks of bananas.” He once bested prize­fighter Jack Dempsey in a test of hand strength that involved holding billiard cues out from the body by grasping them at the tip. Dempsey was in his prime and considered to have the strongest hands on the planet, but Armour’s proved almost twice as powerful.

His whipcord wrist action, combined with superb natural timing, gave Armour a long, raking draw with phenomenal accuracy.

He remains one of the most accurate iron players the game has ever seen. Ironically, however, it was also his hands that ended his career. Armour is credited with coining the term “yips.” “Once you’ve had ’em, you’ve got ’em,” he said of that insidious crisis of confidence that converts a smooth putting stroke into a convulsive flinch. At one point he threw his entire stash of putters into Scotland’s Firth of Forth.

So as Armour’s playing career ended— barely ten years after it had begun—he became a full-time teacher of the game. He’d always been a keen student of the swing and had arrived at a set of principles that he could communicate with equal clarity to the hapless duffer and the superstar. As early as 1926, Bobby Jones had sought Armour’s advice and had gone on to win the U.S. and British Opens that year.

Armour taught at some of America’s most prestigious clubs. In addition to Medinah, he spent time at Congressional (MD), Tam O’Shanter (MI), and Winged Foot (NY). But he is best known for his winter gig at the posh Boca Raton Club near Palm Beach. It was there that he estab­lished himself as golf’s first teaching guru. A half-hour lesson with Tommy Armour—that’s as long as he would teach anyone—went for $50 (a sizable sum during the Depression) and he was typically booked solid for six months in advance, his list of pupils ranging from Lawson Little to Babe Zaharias to Richard Nixon.

He worked only mornings, sitting under a large flowered umbrella. Beside him was a table and on that table was always an adult beverage, or several. He did his drinking as a sort of three-part ritual, beginning with a concoction called a gin buck—a stiff shot of gin topped with ginger ale and a slice of lime or lemon. After a couple of those, he went to a tall scotch and soda, and finally, to clear things out a bit, a Bromo-Seltzer. At the end of a lesson, the table was so crowded with tall glasses that, in the words of golf writer Herb Graffis, “it looked as if at any moment Armour might launch into a pipe-organ recital.”

He said little to his students, and allowed them to hit no more than 20 balls. “I won’t tell you what you’re doing wrong,” he said, “because that would take all day. Instead, I’ll show you the right things to do.”

Armour wrote three books. The first of them—How to Play Your Best Golf All the Time—was an instant success when it appeared in 1953, rocketing all the way to the number-one spot on the nonfiction bestseller list, the first sports book to do so. It sold more than 400,000 copies that year alone and remains in print more than half a century later. Like Armour, the book is terse, with an in-your-face directness-160 pages of large type, with numerous illustrations and the key passages helpfully highlighted in red ink.

Perhaps because of his own physical assets, Armour emphasized the role of the hands, hammering at the importance of a sound grip. However, in a move that at the time was deemed heterodoxy, he advocated whacking the ball as hard as possible with the right hand. Until then, golf in America had been taught and played as a two-handed game, with the Hogan/Nelson/Snead triumvi­rate leading the way. Armour showed the world how to slug a ball like Dempsey—but more powerfully.

Reprinted from The Secret of Golf  by George Peper (Workman Publishing/New York).