Travis the Writer, Journalist and Publisher

Walter J. Travis is still widely recognized and appreciated for his unprecedented record as an amateur golfer and his legacy as a respected golf course architect.  But the powerful influence of his voice as a writer and journalist is often overlooked, or simply unknown.  In 1900, he wrote two landmark articles that affected the landscape of golf.  One presented the concept of strategic and aesthetic placement of hazards, a radical departure from the ubiquitous cross-bunkering that defined North American golf course design in its infancy.  The other was a seminal piece on putting, his first foray into an area of golf instruction.  Over the next 25 years, Travis became known and highly regarded for his direct, witty, forceful, and articulate presentation of ideas, opinions, and factual information.  He addressed topics such as golfing techniques, hole handicap systems, golf etiquette, golf course design in America versus in the British Isles, golf course architecture, competition formats, golf rules, turfgrass management issues, and golf equipment standardization.  On more than one occasion, Travis took the opportunity to express his great love and respect for the game of golf, as in this early 1914 tome:

“In this game, no man can tell from his game of one day how he will be the next.  No man can ever hope to master his score.  The reason is simple.  Golf is three games combined into one.  The drive is an entirely different stroke from iron play, and putting is absolutely separate from both and totally unlike either.  On this account, you cannot tell when the slip-up is coming.  You may be at top form in one department and way off in another.  No man can tell when all three will be working together, for no man can tell when his concentration will be good or when his mental and physical beings will be working in perfect coordination.  It is largely for this reason that golf is the most interesting game ever devised for the player–and always will be.  For it carries a mystery that holds and never lets go.”

Travis’s victories in the 1900 Metropolitan Golf Association Championship and 1900 U.S. Amateur provided legitimacy and a launching pad for his spirited and prolific journalism.  In 1901, Harper & Brothers published Practical Golf, Travis’s first book, which was written with the intent “to diffuse some practical knowledge of the ‘why and wherefore’ of Golf, in order to better assist in working a general improvement in play”.  He dedicated his book “to all lovers of the game.”  A glowing review of Practical Golf described Travis as a man who has “acquired fine form and copious and correct theory.  Thus it comes about that, by virtue of his powers of analysis and of his serious and patient study, he writes of the game better than any other man than Hutchinson, who is the acknowledged dean of the golfing faculty” (New York Times,1901).

It could be argued that The American Golfer was the country’s most influential golf magazine from November 1908 until Travis gave up the reins in April 1920

Travis’s most far-reaching contribution to the field of golf journalism was the founding of his magazine, The American Golfer, in November 1908.  Under his editorship, the magazine became one of the most respected and influential golf magazines of its time.  Arguments presented by Travis on matters such as golf rules, golf equipment, golf competition, etc., often affected decisions made in the halls of the USGA.

Travis stayed at the helm of The American Golfer until the spring of 1920 when he sold the magazine and legendary sports writer, Grantland Rice, took over as Editor.

At the request of Grantland Rice, Travis wrote a series of ten articles for publication in The American Golfer,  titled “Twenty Years of Golf:  An Autobiography”.  The articles traced his career in amateur golf and ended with the October 9, 1920, article that carried the subtitle, “The Advent of a New Era in Golf Course Construction”.  In this article, among other topics, Travis discussed his role in the redesign of Pinehurst #2, and told of encouraging Donald Ross to take up golf course architecture.

Overlapping his autobiographical series, and extending into 1921, was a set of articles titled “Building Up a Game”.  This series dealt with golf equipment and the basics of the golf swing.  In the opening paragraph of the final article, subtitled “The Swing”, Travis stated, “Some cheerful cuss has said there are no less than fifty-two elements that enter into a perfect drive.  I have no doubt that is true; in fact, I propose dealing with one or two more than this number, just for good measure….”  Perhaps as a disclaimer, Travis begins the next paragraph with this assurance, “Let not the beginner be discouraged.  Anyone might be taught how to play golf.”  But, “not all, by any means, will wear laurel wreaths.”

Though immersed in his career as a golf course designer, Travis continued to write and publish occasionally through the early 1920s.  It is believed that his last article was titled, “The Future of Golf”, and published in the March 1924 issue of Golf Illustrated.  Travis forecast “the ever-increasing popularity of the game”because “it appeals to human nature of all classes, indeed of all ages, which is not true of any other out-door game”.

As Bob Labbance, author of the definitive Travis biography, The Old Man, wrote, “Travis was as much a wordsmith as he was a deadly putter”  (Golf Course Design, by Cornish and Hurdzan, 2008).

– Ed Homsey, Historian