FOR the modern beginner at golf to attain a fair degree of proficiency is, if he pursue his object in the proper way, an immeasurably easier matter than it was for any of us who started to play in the days of the gutta-percha ball. And it is possible to exhibit a deal of Christian philosophy in congratulating the newer inhabitants of the golfing world in respect to this facility, because I am certain that those people who went through the mill in the earlier days of the pastime obtained, of sheer necessity, a knowledge of shots such as the rubber-cored ball, under present conditions, never encourages. That knowledge has been the great and faithful stand-by of the older players in times of strenuous competition with younger rivals.
On a recent summer's afternoon, when the ball had been soaring and bounding from well-hit tee shots over some 300 yards of country, when the course, even as we finished at five o'clock, seemed to be alive at every point with folk in full enjoyment of this wonderful game, I fell to thinking in a more or less haphazard way of the developments which had taken place in golf during the time that I had known it. And I could not help marvelling; I could not help rejoicing at having been lucky enough to live through what had been surely the most crowded age that ever pastime knew.
It is just about twenty years since I began to make a deep and earnest study of golf. Of course, I have played it a good deal longer than that, but my earlier efforts were of a rather light-hearted description, and I had no idea that the game would ever be more to me than a means of occasional diversion. Twenty years represent, perhaps, a considerable portion of a person's life, but they pass quickly when events move so rapidly as they have moved in golf. Matters of the moment and possibilities of the immediate future are apt to completely fill the mind; and when one sits down to reflect on the transformation that two decades have produced, memories and the comparisons which they engender appear to one almost in the nature of revelations.
There has been no period in the history of the game so pregnant with evolution as the past seven or eight years, since golfers began to understand the possibilities of the rubber-cored ball and to adapt themselves to the new manner of playing provoked by that revolutionary invention. For, so far as one can discuss such a matter in a general way, a method of hitting the shots different from that which prevailed in the days of the gutta-percha ball has most certainly come into vogue. Such, at least, is the opinion which I have formed after travelling many thousands of miles in pursuit of golf, visiting many hundreds of courses, and seeing the pastime during these twenty years in all its phases; and I will endeavour to justify the belief before I reach the end of this chapter.
That the rubber-cored ball has done, and is still doing, a great deal to spoil golf as an athletic and scientific recreation I feel convinced. It is still a great game, and nothing can kill the peculiar fascination which it exercises over its devotees, and yet it seems to me to be a different sort of game from that which we played with the gutta-percha ball. But here I may perhaps be permitted to say that, regretful as I am at the reign of the rubber-core, which has removed much of the old necessity for thought and grace of style, I fear that nothing but indescribable chaos would result if the suggestion to standardize the gutty for competitions, put forward in several influential quarters, were adopted. We must not forget that, for countless thousands of people, the rubber-core has greatly increased the enjoyment of golf by making the game much more easy. It may be that they can only spare the time to play two days a week, and they want to extract the maximum amount of pleasure that those two days and the opposition will allow. Nothing would induce them to return to the gutty (or, as it would be in many cases, play with it for the first time), and personally I do not blame them. Then what would be the position? It would be a state of confusion far worse than anything which now exists, although the present situation truly offers food for thought. The leading players (indeed all golfers who like to take part in competitions) would have to keep in practice with the gutty. They could not be expected to use that ball one day and a rubber-core the next. At least, if they tried to do so, the perplexity arising from the frequent change would bring despair to their souls.
The competition golfer who practised with a gutty would scarcely dare to so much as look at a man playing with a rubber-core. I have a vivid recollection of an episode bearing on that point. In the open championship at Hoylake, in 1902, when a few rubber-cores were employed, I was coupled with Peter M'Ewen, who was one of the converts to the innovation. Like the majority, I remained faithful to the gutty. I happened to be driving rather well, and was generally a little way in front of M'Ewen from the tee, so that he usually had to play "the odd" in the approaches.
After seeing him pitch his Haskell short of the green for the ball to perform the remainder of the journey along the ground, I was absolutely nonplussed. I simply could not get up with a mashie. Repeatedly I told myself that I must not take any notice of what his ball had done; that I must think only of what my ball would do. But, as every golfer knows, the inclination to judge the run by that which the other player obtains is irresistible. I tried to pitch farther and farther to allow for the difference between the rubber-core and the gutty, but something (I suppose the knowledge of how much too far he would be if he hit as I intended to hit) seemed to hold me back, and I was always short. I lost that championship by a stroke. I have no regrets, because my old friend, "Sandy" Herd, deserved a championship if ever man merited that honour. I have mentioned the matter solely to show what distraction might be visited upon the user of the gutty if he merely went out and saw other people playing with rubber-cores. And there would be so many of the latter that he would find them hard to dodge.