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It was a very good year

Dermot Gilleece looks back on the golfing scene a hundred years ago

Posted Jan 03, 2012 by Dermot Gilleece

Sam Snead

When Frank Sinatra warbled in one of his timeless ballad that “It was a very good year”, his focus was largely on matters of the heart. As we look towards certain centenary celebrations, however, it has to be acknowledged that 1912 was one of the most significant years in the development of the royal and ancient game.

On February 4th of that year, Byron Nelson was born in Waxahachie, Texas.  This was the man who would become known affectionately as Lord Byron, because of the proficiency with club and ball which won him 54 tour events in the US including a record 11-in-a-row in 1945.

Three months later, on May 27th, Sam Snead first saw the light in Hot Springs, Virginia.  He would go on to win 81 tournaments in the US, including three Masters and three PGAs, along with the first post-World War II Open Championship in 1946 at St Andrews.

Then on August 13th came the greatest of them all.  In the modest little town of Dublin, Texas, Ben Hogan was born.  He would go on to win four US Opens including the Oakmont staging in 1953, when he also captured the Masters and the Open Championship at Carnoustie.

For good measure, 1912 was also the year when the East Course at Merion, set to become the venue for the 2013 US Open, was officially opened.  And it was the year that John Ball won his eighth British Amateur Championship, beating Abe Mitchell on the second hole of sudden-death on the Royal North Devon stretch at Westward Ho!  Mitchell, of course, would later gain immortality as the figure on the lid of the Ryder Cup trophy, a distinction he gained from being the personal golfing coach of Samuel Ryder.

It has been described as poetic justice or simply a happy coincidence that the greatest British amateur ever to play the game happened to be called Ball.  In the event, a measure of Ball’s dominance is that the closest anyone has come to matching his eight Amateur titles was Sir Michael Bonallack, with five.  

The game seemed to come easily to Ball who finished fourth in the Open Championship as a 17-year-old in 1878.  Yet it was a further 10 years before he captured the Amateur for the first time in 1888, having lost to Horace Hutchinson on the final green the previous year.  From then on, however, he gained an aura of invincibility.

In 1890, he became the first Englishman and the first amateur to win the Open Championship.  He also won the Amateur that year and again in 1892, 1894 and 1899 and finished second in 1895.  Then, after spending three years in South Africa fighting for his country in the Boer War, Ball regained supremacy of the Amateur in 1907, 1910 and finally in 1912.  In the meantime, he almost won a second Open in 1892 when finishing runner-up to Harold Hilton.  Though it may have been somewhat premature at the time, one could still understand Horace Hutchinson’s praise of Ball as “the best amateur that has ever been seen”, given that Bobby Jones was but a lad and yet to be heard of in this part of the world.

On the 36th green of the 1912 Amateur, Mitchell missed a four-foot putt for the title.  He then discovered one of the great golfing truths which is that title-winning chances are rarely repeated.  So it was that he decided to turn professional the following year.

If the Open Championship had its great triumvirate in Harry Vardon, J H Taylor and James Braid, who captured the title on 16 out of the 21 stagings between 1894 and 1914, there is no doubting the American equivalent.  Between them, Hogan (9), Snead (7) and Nelson (5) won a total of 21 major championships.  Despite the difficulties of travelling in their day, they were also genuine international players.  All three played in the Open, though Hogan appeared only the once, when he won; Nelson also played only the once, finishing fifth in 1937, but Snead played on three occasions, in 1937 when he was tied 11th, 1946 when he triumphed over the Old Course and in 1962 when he was tied sixth behind Arnold Palmer at Troon.

So yes, 1912 was unquestionably a very good golfing year.        

- Dermot Gilleece

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