The Same Game: When You're out There on a Bright Saturday Morning, You're Doing Exactly What William Howard Taft and Olivia De Havilland Did

By Mackin, Joseph L. | American Heritage, October 2002 | Go to article overview

The Same Game: When You're out There on a Bright Saturday Morning, You're Doing Exactly What William Howard Taft and Olivia De Havilland Did


Mackin, Joseph L., American Heritage


Dwight D. Eisenhower was, by all accounts, a persuasive man. But even as President he could not persuade the governing board of the Augusta National Golf Club, of which he was a member, to chop down the menacing loblolly pine that regularly collected his shots on the seventeenth hole. Now affectionately known as the Eisenhower Tree, the encroaching pine endures as a symbol of golf's defining attribute--its fundamental resistance to change.

The image of Ike perpetually flummoxed by a tree that today Tiger Woods blasts right by obscures an essential truth: Woods, however exponentially greater his gift, plays the same game Eisenhower played. Which is the same game you can play, too. When by winning the U.S. Open championship in 1913 the 20-year-old amateur Francis Ouimet first thrust golf into the broader American consciousness, he was playing the same game Arnold Palmer would play when he reprised the golf popularizer role 47 years later, winning the 1960 U.S. Open in dramatic, trouser-hitching fashion.

In many cases even the premises persist. When the United States won the 1999 Ryder Cup at the Country Club, in Brookline, Massachusetts, the 30,000 observers in the famously rowdy crowd committed their reproachable antics on the same grounds where the young Ouimet had charmed many fewer genteel spectators nearly 90 years before. A hunt for dramatic change would point, of course, to the improved equipment. Yes, the titanium clubs that the First Lady gave to Bill Clinton for his birthday are a technological marvel, especially compared with the nicked-up old clubs John F. Kennedy used, for which Arnold Schwarzenegger paid prodigally ($772,500) at auction in 1996. And JFK's secondhand "sticks" are, in turn, sturdier and more forgiving than the clubs purchased by Warren G. Harding or Big Bill Taft. Taft had shafts made of hickory. Yet the game, if not its technology, has ignored the great trend of the century, modification.

At its core golf is a simple sport with little room for alteration. Consider the color commentary supplied for a match in 1928 by Benjy Compson, the idiot in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury: "... I could see them hitting. They were coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence. They took the flag out, and they were hitting. Then they put the flag back and they went to the table, and he hit and the other hit." This artless account describes golf precisely as it will be played in a tournament next weekend on television, though contemporary analysts are sure to make more smoke of the action.

The objective, and therefore the scoring, of golf could not be simpler: From a given point a certain distance from a 4.25-inch hole, take as few strokes as possible. This objective is the same for Jack Nicklaus as for everybody else. It's been the same for Al Capone (who once shot himself in the foot on a course), Olivia de Havilland, Bob Hope, Dinah Shore, Michael Jordan, Jackie Gleason, and Rudy Giuliani, golfers all. …

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The Same Game: When You're out There on a Bright Saturday Morning, You're Doing Exactly What William Howard Taft and Olivia De Havilland Did
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