Innovator

From the very beginning of his career in amateur golf, Walter Travis was on a constant search for ways and approaches to improve the game of golf, whether in his play of the game, the equipment he used, or the grounds upon which the game was played.  Systematic experimentation was a key part of Travis’s approach to discovery.

LEARNING THE GAME

The earliest expression of his innovative spirit may have been the installation of smaller diameter cups on the putting green at his home course, Garden City Golf Club.  Travis had recognized that his success as a competitive golfer was being impeded by poor putting; thus, his decision to dedicate more of his attention and practice on putting.  With persistent and concentrated practice using the smaller cups, while experimenting with various putting grips and stances, Travis became renown for his magical putting.  It was the key to his unprecedented success as an amateur golfer, and became an integral part of the Travis folklore.

GOLF EQUIPMENT

Perhaps the most revolutionary example of Travis’s willingness to try new golf equipment occurred in 1901, when he decided to use the recently invented Haskell wound-rubber golf ball at the U.S. Amateur Championship held at the Atlantic City Country Club.  The ball was manufactured by the B.F. Goodrich Company in Akron, Ohio, and had been introduced to eastern seaboard players by Charles B. Macdonald during the summer of 1901.  According to Travis, only three eastern players had adopted the ball that the manufacturer claimed would add 20-25 yards to a drive.  After one trial with the Haskell ball in a preliminary practice round, Travis decided to use it (Travis, 1905).  Travis’s subsequent victory in the championship resulted in wide acceptance and use of wound-rubber golf balls, and signalled the end of the gutta-percha.  An April 2005 Country Life in America article, attributed to the B. F. Goodrich Company, claimed that the “American invention has supplied new impetus to golf on both sides of the ocean, for the almost universal use of the Haskell ball has set an entirely new standard in all countries where the game is played, and has even made necessary a change in links that have been fought over for many decades by famous golfers”.  Regarding the invention, the article further declared that “it is a curious fact, however, that the greatest improvement in the game since its establishment centuries ago in Scotland occurred not long after it became a national sport in America”.  The Travis decision to use the Haskell Ball to win his second U. S. Amateur Championship provided major impetus for its worldwide acceptance.

The Haskell Ball story had barely begun when, in 1902, Travis was introduced to a new center-shafted, aluminum putter developed by A.F. Knight, of Schenectady, NY.  He declared the putter to be “the best putter I have ever used”, and decided to use it in the U.S. Open, where he finished second.  This putter became known as The Schenectady Putter, and its full story bears repeating (from Wikipedia article written by this author):

“The Schenectady Putter and Walter Travis will be linked together forever in the history of golf. The Schenectady Putter was invented by Arthur F. Knight, a General Electric engineer, who created a model reflecting his ideas in the summer of 1902 at his home course, Mohawk Golf Club in Schenectady, NY. It is noteworthy that Devereux Emmet, the designer of Mohawk Golf Club, was the first golfer of note to be shown Mr. Knight’s new aluminum putter while he was visiting Mohawk. Emmet asked to take the putter with him back to his home course, Garden City Golf Club, where he proposed to “play with it, show it at Garden City and at Myopia and will then send it back to you”. It is reported that “A day or two later Mr. Knight received a telegram from Mr. W. J. Travis ordering a putter like Mr. Emmet’s, and one was hurriedly made and forwarded”.  Later, a second putter was sent to Travis which was declared “the best putter I have ever used.” Travis used this putter to finish second in the U.S. Open Championship held at Garden City Golf Club. “Within a week thereafter, Mr. Knight received over one hundred letters from prominent golfers asking for a putter like Mr. Travis’s”. Knight was not prepared for such a response and was particularly concerned about what to call it. It is reported that he was “anxious to call it the ‘Travis’ putter’.” He arranged a meeting with Mr. Emmet and Mr. Travis. Emmet had consistently referred to it as the “Schenectady Putter” and Travis agreed that Schenectady would be “a more suitable and lasting name for the putter than his own, in which view Mr. Knight rather reluctantly concurred.” After his initial success with the Schenectady Putter in 1902, Travis used the putter to win the 1903 U.S. Amateur and then, of course, the 1904 British Amateur. The putter became an instant commercial success.

Travis putting with his Schenectady Putter shortly after his 1904 British Amateur victory.

Schenectady putters, marked “Patent Applied For”, were produced prior to its patent on March 24, 1903. The Schenectady Putter was among the “centered-shafted, mallet-headed implements” that were banned by the Royal & Ancient Golf Club Committee on the Rules of golf in 1910, in response to a request from a golf club in New Zealand. The R&A’s ban included the Schenectady Putter. There is no evidence that Travis’s use of the Schenectady to win the 1904 British Amateur contributed to this controversial ruling, though the myth persists. The ruling became controversial because, for the first time, an R&A ruling was not wholly adopted by the United States Golf Association. The USGA agreed with the banning of mallet-headed clubs but ruled that the Schenectady Putter, and other center-shafted putters did not fall within this category. The R&A ban on center-shafted putters was finally removed in 1951.

Long after he had retired from active competition, Travis agreed to a match with an old opponent, Findlay S. Douglas, to support the war effort of the Red Cross. The match was held at Garden City Golf Club. Following the match, Travis donated his Schenectady Putter to the Red Cross fund-raising auction. A member of Garden City Golf Club, Lewis Lapham, had the winning bid of $1,700 and immediately donated the Schenectady to Garden City Golf Club where it would remain for the next 34 years. In 1952, it was taken from the club, and never returned.”

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 found that “the longer the shaft the lighter must be the head”.  He concluded that “a somewhat longer ball can be secured with the longer club, but it is at the expense of a certain measure of accuracy”.  Still, he acknowledged that there “are occasions when it is a mighty good club to have in one’s bag, as in the case of a hole demanding one or two unusually good shots to get to the green, or a long carry from the tee over a hazard”.

COURSE RATINGS AND HANDICAPS

A 1993 USGA Golf Journal article, discussing the development of course ratings, credits Walter Travis as having written the authoritative treatise on handicapping” in 1901.  Travis lent his strong voice of support for the Metropolitan Golf Association’s decision to use par as the basis of handicapping rather than bogey.  Later, in his first edition of The American Golfer, November 1908, Travis wrote a brief article titled “Simplified Score Card” in which he proposed the addition of a column to the scorecard that “will clearly show the proper sequence for taking or giving strokes”.  He explained that a player would “take a stroke at every hole that has a figure equal to or less than his handicap opposite it”. 

The simplified scorecard proposed by Walter Travis in 1908. He invited clubs to adopt the new system.

TURFGRASS ISSUES

Travis’s inclination to experiment, or try new ways of doing things, extended to turfgrass issues.  In his neighborhood, a short walk from his home club, Garden City Golf Club, Travis was known for the small, experimental turfgrass farm in his front yard where he tried various varieties of grass and soil.  His careful observations and study of turfgrass, including the effects of soil conditions, contributed to his accumulation of an impressive body of knowledge that he frequently drew upon in his writings and golf course consultations.

In 1916, in a collaboration with Dr. Walter Harban, of Chevy Chase, MD, Travis designed an 18-hole municipal course on East Potomac Park in Washington, D. C.  According to Travis, they installed “creeping bent grass” greens using the vegetative method of planting stolons rather than seeding.  In a 1922, two-part series in Golf Illustrated titled “Putting Greens”, with subtitles of “The Art of Growing Grass” and “A Treatise on the Work of Top Dressing and Crab Grass Eradication”, Travis claims that the East Potomac Park experiment with the vegetative process was unprecedented and an “unqualified success”.  Subsequently, Travis often referred to the “vegetative method” in the “Plans and Specifications” he prepared for his golf course projects.  For example, in his 1924 “Plans and Specifications” for the Louisville Country Club project, Travis included this paragraph on “Putting-Greens”:  “All your new greens will be planted by the vegetative method with stolons or runners from your own nursery–concerning which I have already written you fully.  This makes the finest possible putting surface, giving you a single strain of Creeping Bent of uniform texture and color, and, with your own nursery, at materially less expense than by seeding.”

SAND GREENS

The October 1923 issue of Golf Illustrated carried an article by Walter Travis titled “Undulating The Sand Green”.  In this article, Travis presented both the virtues and the limitations of the ubiquitous sand greens used throughout much of the south.  He reported on the “number of experiments” he had conducted in order to develop a surface that provided better “bite” to the ball and greater diversity of green contours.  Travis believed that he was “eminently successful” in meeting his objectives, leading to his application for a patent as the “first and sole inventor of the improvement in the construction of sand putting greens” (Labbance, 2000).  The patent application was not approved, but evidence exists that undulating sand greens were constructed on a few courses with very favorable reviews.

–Ed Homsey, Historian

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