A Student and Teacher of the Game

From the beginning, Travis took a systematic and, in his words, “scientific approach” to golf.  He studied the most highly respected golfing literature and, through careful experimentation, established techniques that worked for him.  In his article on putting, published in the July 1900 issue of Outing, Travis stated, “It is a matter of common knowledge that I have perhaps experimented with more kinds of putters than any other player in this country, and should therefore be expected to have at least learned what not to do.”  Travis had a special talent for writing, with a unique style and the ability to provide precise descriptions of golfing techniques with great clarity, authority, and wit.

Starting with the June 1900 issue of Golf, Travis produced a series of articles that, for the most part, were instructional in nature.  The first article, with a subtitle of Stance and Grip, begins with a brief reference to how he learned the game.  As Travis tells it, “It was my misfortune–or was it my good luck?–to take up golf without the assistance of professional coaching or the aid of any good player, and that too at a somewhat advanced age.  Appreciating after a few attempts my comparative helplessness, I provided myself with all the available literature on the subject, and after digesting, as well as the circumstances would permit, the manifold instructions laid down by several eminent writers, I then endeavored to discover by as constant practice as permitted which particular method best suited me and promised the best results.”  He noted that “this involved a world of experimenting before any fairly well-defined style was finally evolved.”  A major benefit of “all this experimental practice” was that it provided him “a fairly clear insight into the true relation of cause and effect–valuable information in times of stress.  If things began to go badly, “it did not take me long to locate the actual trouble and to apply a remedy”.

The series in Golf provided the core of Travis’s first book, “Practical Golf”, first published in 1901 by Harper Brothers.  His Introduction to the first edition included a reference to its purpose, namely, “to diffuse some practical knowledge of the ‘why and wherefore’ of Golf, in order to the better assist in working a general improvement in play.  With this hope this volume is dedicated to all lovers of the game.”

The June 14, 1901, New York Times gave Travis’s new book a glowing review.  About Travis, the review stated, “…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”.   However, as the review continues, whereas “Hutchinson is diffused and vague and often obscure…….Travis is compact, direct, and clear as a bell, and it is quite possible that his analyses of form are more reliable than those of Hutchinson, in spite of his far more limited opportunities to observe.”  

With the ink barely dry from the first printing, a second edition of Practical Golf was published in 1902.  It contained new chapters dealing with hazards, the Haskell ball, and the new aluminum clubs.  Travis expanded on the topic of golf balls and added the new USGA Rules of Golf in the 1909 third edition of his book.

Throughout his career, Travis continued to write golf instructional articles that were published in “Country Life in America”, “Golf Illustrated”, and his own magazine, “The American Golfer”.  He addressed all aspects of the golf swing, including the effects of various factors such as stance, lie, and wind, in his efforts to improve the play of golf.

Given his reputation as a putter, it was natural for him to write extensively, and often, about putting.  Following his 1904 British Amateur championship, where his magical putting was credited with the victory, he joined British Open Champion, Jack White, in producing the book The Art of Putting.   His seminal essay on putting was the article, “The Refinements of Putting”, published in the February 1916 issue of The American Golfer.  This article covered the full range of issues and factors related to putting, including types of strokes, “adaptability”, “wind influences”, “concentration” and “disturbing influences”.

Travis’s influence as a teacher of the game was not limited to his writings.  Doubtlessly, he was consulted, informally, for playing tips; much as he was frequently consulted about golf courses wherever he played.  There are two striking examples where the influence of his teaching was reported by players performing at the highest level of golf.

In his 1914 article, published in St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine For Young Folks, Francis Ouimet, the reigning U.S. Open Champion, reported “A Lesson from Mr. Travis” that left an indelible impression on him and his approach to golf.  Referring to Travis, Ouimet told of being “astonished to hear him tell so clearly and minutely exactly how he played each shot, so that any person who had watched him play as closely as I had could have a clear mental vision of each movement of his club and body.”  Ouimet was “struck” by “how little I actually knew about how I played shots myself.”  From that point on, he resolved “not only to try to play the shots correctly, but to know how and why I play them a certain way.”

In 1924, Walter Travis gave Bobby Jones a brief putting lesson in the locker room of the Augusta Country Club.  As reported in “The Life and Times of Bobby Jones”, by Syd Matthews, it was the putting lesson that “changed the course of Jones’s golfing history”.  Travis instructed Jones to “get his feet so close together that the heels almost touch” and changed his grip to a reverse overlap.  Jones acknowledged the resulting improvement in his putting in his autobiography, “Golf is My Game”.

Much earlier, as reported by the noted British Correspondent, Henry Leach, “Jack White once very solemnly and sincerely assured me, he won his championship (referring to the 1904 British Open) because Mr. Travis did, copying some of the Travis methods very deliberately and successfully.  Both championships, by the working of the rota, had come to be played at Sandwich that year.  The first one to be decided was the Amateur, and White was at Sandwich and watched Mr. Travis win.  He told me that after the first round, he was so impressed with his play that he asked Ben Sayers (who according to his custom in those times was doing something in the way of a little booking) what he would lay about him, and he duly received odds of ten to one.  “Mr. Travis”, said White, “fascinated me so much that I followed him round in every match, including the final, and long before it came to the latter stage, I felt certain that he would win.  I think the majority of professionals who watched his play realised its paying qualities and made him their favourite.  What impressed me most was not the remarkable putting that he displayed all through the tournament, though it was really very fine, but the simple accuracy and certainty of his long game.  He never tried to get any length.  He simply tried to place his tee shots at every hole, to make certain of avoiding trouble, and then he depended on his deadly putting to win the hole for him……..I said to myself as I watched him, ‘If this is the class of golf that wins the amateur championship, I must try it in the Open’ and so I did.       —-Henry Leach, The American Golfer, Oct. 10, 1915

–Ed Homsey, Historian

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