Kneeling at the Shrine of the Goddess of Golf
In 1896, Travis was on a business trip in England when he was taken aback by the news that his friends from the Niantic Social Club of Flushing, NY, were forming a golf club. He confessed to a “mild contempt” for the game, but, wishing to keep up with his friends, he bought a set of golf clubs for his return to the U.S. Thus, in October 1896, at the age of 34, “I first knelt at the shrine of the Goddess of Golf”. Travis quickly added, “I have never ceased to regret the many prior years which were wasted” (Travis, 1920). With his late start in golf, he earned the moniker,”The Old Man”, a term respectfully applied throughout his playing career.
Travis turned his full attention, energies, and analytic abilities to golf, immersing himself in “The Badminton Book on Golf” by Hutchinson, and “Golf” by Willie Park. He was relentless in his efforts to, as he said, “bring the game into some sort of subjection”. Within a month of “hitting my first ball”, Travis won his most cherished trophy, with a first-place finish in the Oakland Golf Club handicap competition. Soon after, he shot a 110, earning him second-place in a medal-play event at Van Cortland Park Links. His game improved rapidly in 1897, with his handicap dropping to a 7. In 1898, at the prestigious Shinnecock Hills Open Tournament, he had a 36 hole score of 190 to qualify for match-play, but lost in the championship match, to Findlay Douglas, perhaps the top American golfer of the time.
With his self-made technique, using a baseball grip, Travis was not a classic swinger of the club. Furthermore, with his relatively slight frame, barely topping 5′ 7″ and 140 pounds, he often was the shortest hitter among his opponents. However, he developed a keen understanding of the golf swing, and possessed the ability to make appropriate swing adjustments whenever needed during a round. He soon recognized his need to perfect his putting and short game skills in order to compensate for his lack of length with the driver. Focusing his time and energies to the study and concentrated practice of putting, he became regarded as the greatest putter of his time. On numerous occasions, his putting carried him to victory, often with a very lengthy putt sealing the win.
In 1898 and 1899, Travis firmly established his reputation as a player to be watched, with his narrow defeats in the U.S. Amateur Championship’s semi-finals. His break-through came in 1900 when he earned a hard-fought victory over long-time nemesis, Findlay S. Douglas, for the U.S. Amateur Championship. With this victory, Travis sealed his position as the rising star among American golfers, both as a medalist and match-play competitor. Over the next three years, with his 1901 and 1903 U.S. Amateur Championships, two Metropolitan Golf Association championships, and a second place finish in the 1902 U.S. Open, Travis earned acclaim as America’s top amateur golfer. His crowning achievement as a golfer came in 1904 when he became the first non-Brit to capture the British Amateur Championship.
As the reigning U.S. and British Amateur champ, The New York Times declared him the “World Champion of Golf”. A few weeks later, The New York Times has this to say about Travis: “By his comparatively recent victory abroad in the amateur championship of Great Britain, Travis scaled heights once considered inaccessible to Americans, and that he will have difficulty in carrying away another American championship trophy none of us is qualified to state. Travis owes his skill to his all around strength. As a putter, he is at the top of the list. His knowledge of golf was not obtained from professional instructors, as is generally the case with prominent amateurs. He studied the game alone He spent winter nights and summer days in working out the secrets of the ancient pastime. He consulted no books; he experimented. Is it any wonder that he succeeded to the greatest honor possible, for exerted in other directions, Travis would become a leader in the stock market or the discoverer of some secret sought for centuries by alchemists. He is the type of man that scorns opposition, that ridicules prophesied disaster, that has just enough confidence in himself to achieve his ambitions. Self confidence of this sort is not conceit. It is a gift. It might be termed genius in a different garb from that in which it is usually found.” (NY Times, June 24, 1904, pg. 10)
By the time he announced his retirement from tournament golf, Travis had established himself as a master of match-play with a record of victories virtually unmatched.
In addition to his prowess in match-play, it should be noted that Travis rarely failed to win the Gold Medal awarded to a tournament’s qualifying medalist. On frequent occasions, his medal score established a new course record. In 1907, a course-record score earned him the following accolade: “Let us pause in the consideration of industrial disputes and the problems of government to congratulate Mr. WALTER J. TRAVIS on his golfing record, and the whole country on the possession of a golfer so nearly the best in the world. Golf is a sport which requires a keen, true eye, sound nerves, bodily vigor, and an ample, healthy mind.”
“This week, Mr. TRAVIS has played the 18 holes of the long and difficulty Garden City course in 69 strokes, beating his own record of 70 on the same course. He has thus established a new and admirable golfing record for the country. The course measures 6,438 yards, its putting greens are rolling, and its fairway well-guarded by traps. The ‘bogey’ is 76, and the skill of a player who can habitually go over it in fewer strokes than 80 is highly esteemed by his fellow-golfers.”
“Mr. TRAVIS is not now the National champion, officially speaking, but he is the best golfer in this country, and we are justly proud of him. (New York Times, July 26, 1907)
Out on the golf course, Travis was rarely seen without a black cigar in his mouth. Off the golf course, he was known to indulge in a jigger, or two, of Old Crow. However, not widely recognized or acknowledged were his eating habits. A newspaper article headlined, “GOLF CHAMPION TRAVIS IS INVETERATE SMOKER” with a byline, “Surprised Englishmen by His Capacity for Hearty Eating”, had this to say: “Walter J. Travis, golf champion of the world, is an inveterate smoker of long and very black cigars, but he is careful about what he eats and drinks. In his early days in the game he used to carry a small flask of brandy in his golf bag, and he then thought that to be the best stimulant for a tight place in a match, to revive both the body and the faint spirit. But, both notion and flask were discarded long ago.”
“A highball or two with a friend while chatting over the match he has finished–and two never means three–or a glass of wine at dinner is now the limit of the champion’s indulgence in beverages, while in regard to food he is always at the ‘training table’.”
“This means that he cuts out the idle fripperies of pastry and rich made dishes, but in a hearty way he is particular about his menu. An incident which proves this occurred in the amateur championship of 1901 at the Atlantic City Country Club. The critical match of the tournament was in the semi-final between Findlay S. Douglas and Travis. It was an all-day match, and the honors were easy in the morning play.”
“‘Who will win’, repeated the English steward of the club in response to the question, ‘Why, Travis of course. See him sitting over there all alone eating a specially ordered luncheon–big steak, fresh salad and pint o’claret–while Douglas just picked at the regular luncheon and hurried off to fuss over his clubs. I’m for the hearty eater in a long race every time, and so I stand for Travis'”.
“Victory for Travis on the 38th hole, after one of the most exhausting matches on the books, bore out the prediction of the steward. Care in diet is one of Travis’ three strong cards. The others are zeal in practice and the match-playing temperament”. (Titusville Pennsylvania Herald, July 6, 1904)
Travis dominated the amateur golf scene until his retirement from competitive golf in 1916 at the age of 54. His golf resume included: four MGA championships, three North and South Amateur Championships, and frequent medalist at the U.S. Amateur Championships.
Even as his career as the top amateur golfer wound down, Travis attracted accolades, as seen in this June 3, 1916 item published in the Syracuse Herald: “Twenty years ago, when Jerry Travers was a school boy, when Max Marston was playing marbles instead of golf, a man at that uncertain period of his life rather contemptuously termed middle age by irreverent youth, began to practice the royal and ancient game of golf. he had the usual experiences of all beginners. He played into every pit on the course, his divot flew farther than his ball on his iron shots, and he discovered twenty-seven ways of missing short putts. He had, however, several qualities which most golfers lack. He was possessed of a natural deftness of touch, an unerring eye, a fighting heart, and a dogged persistency that carried him through years of reversals to the highest national and international honors in golf. This man, Walter J. Travis, was the only American ever to win the amateur championship of Great Britain. Awkward off the tee, and short through the green, with the strength of his youth vanished before he first took a driver in his hand, Travis has time and again defeated the stalwart combination of youth and skill by the magic of his mashie and the perfection of his putting.”
“When the high wind and cold weather chilled the hearts and marred the strokes of the younger golfers in the qualifying round of the Garden City tournament recently, the veteran of the links kept to the straight and narrow pathway that leads from tee to green, and returned the lowest card in a field of nearly 130 golfers which contained many of the best players in the country.”
“Youth must be served, it is true, but for a man of Travis’ calibre, there is always a reserved seat at the guest table, and when he helps himself to some particular dainty at the expense of the youngsters, as he did in the event just narrated, there is more than a passing satisfaction among the golfing enthusiasts of the passing generation. To such men, Walter J. Travis is more than a past master—he is an institution, and it is a sad thing to see an institution crumble into dust. Off the tee and through the fairway, Travis is not graceful to the eye, but to the green and on the green, his action is a thing of beauty and, judging from the continuity of his success, it bids fair to be a joy as long as Travis desires.”
Travis was known as an innovator who continually sought ways to improve his game. He installed smaller diameter cups on the putting green at Garden City Golf Club, his home course, to improve his putting. He was the first to use the new Haskell wound-rubber golf ball to win a major championship and, at the British Amateur, he used the controversial center-shafted Schenectady putter. In 1905, Country Life in America published a Travis article detailing his experiments with driver shafts that varied from 42 to 52 inches in length.
Travis’s approach to golf is summed up by a NY Times editorial salute: “Travis owes no little share of his present unique golfing position in the world to the fact that, in common parlance, he uses his head in golf…Still another point in his favor is his imperturbable calmness. He is as cool, even with the odds heavily against him, as though victory were in his grasp.”
Much has been written about the demeanor of Travis as a playing partner or opponent, with some describing him as dour, taciturn, and a stickler for strict adherence to the rules. The famous author, Price Collier, perhaps best described Travis, the golfer: “He walks, talks, and plays quietly. On the tee, he takes pains to be well out of eye range of the other players when he drives. After playing himself, he steps aside, and stands quietly until both balls are well away. On the putting green, he walks to his own ball and stands immovable until the other man has played. If he has made a poor shot or finds himself in a bad lie, he treats us to no hysterics, but plays as best he may. In a word, Mr. Travis is exactly what your opponent in golf should be. The only objection to him is his habit of playing so consistently well”. (Golf, 1900)
– Ed Homsey, Historian