Golf Urban Legends Revealed #3

This is the third in a series of examinations of legends related to golf and whether they are true or false.

Let’s begin!

GOLF LEGEND: A golfer once climbed a tree to make a shot during a tournament.

STATUS: True

Bernhard Langer has the distinction of being the very first golfer ever to be ranked #1 in the Official Gold Rankings that began in 1986. He remains the only German golfer ever to have that distinction (and seeing as how there have only been twelve players to be ranked #1 since the rankings began in 1986, it’s a great honor PERIOD).

Early in his career, he played pretty much only in Europe, so he was not widely known in the United States. That changed one day in 1981 while he was competing in the Benson and Hedges (B & H) Open in England.

On the seventeenth hole, Langer hit a nine iron for his second shot, but he pulled it way left and it hit a big ash tree.

You can see it here…

However, while you would normally figure a ball would hit a tree and land next to it, this ball actually remained LODGED in the tree!!

Langer had to decide – take the penalty drop (an extra shot would be added to his score, but he would be able to play the ball down on the grass) or actually shoot it from the tree?

Langer, naturally, chose the latter option…

And, sure enough, he actually managed to hit the green from the tree!!

The shot was broadcast all over the world, and when he went to the United States a few days later for his first American golf tournament, he was now a household name amongst golf fans (it helped that he was also the co-leader in that US tournament in the third round).

Langer went on to become one of the top golfers in the world. Had the rankings started a bit earlier, he undoubtedly would have added a few more weeks to his reign at the top of the rankings. He has won the Masters twice (1985 and 1993) and in 2001, he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.

That shot of his should have him inducted into the “bold golf shot hall of fame”!

GOLF LEGEND: A golfer once knocked himself unconscious after being hit in the head by a golf club he had just thrown into the sky in celebration of a shot.

STATUS: True

Bobby Cruickshank was a Scottish golfer who had such an engaging personality that when he came over to the United States in the early 1920s, he was practically adopted as an American right from the get-go.

Over the next 19 years or so, Cruickshank was one of the most popular golfers on the tournament circuit, although he never actually ended up winning a “Major” tournament. He came in second at the U.S. Open twice, and was in the Top Five of many a Major tournament.

One of his top five performances appears to have been the result of a rather…silly injury.

In 1934, Cruickshank was in the lead at the U.S. Open with only eight holes left to play. On the eleventh hole, Cruickshank misfired on a shot and the ball went careening into a creek. However, miraculously, the ball skipped over the water, hit a rock in the creek and then ricocheted BACK ON TO THE FIELD OF PLAY, coming to rest on the putting green!

Naturally, Cruickshank was elated! SO elated that he threw his golf club up in the air in celebration! However, as the saying goes, “what goes up must come down,” and the club did come down – right on Cruickshank’s head! The blow knocked the Scot unconscious.

He was eventually revived and he played the rest of the tournament, but he began bogeying shots and at the end he lost the tournament, coming in tied for third.

Now, we can’t, of course, PROVE that the blow to the head and subsequent loss of consciousness DIRECTLY led to the bogies, but it sure doesn’t seem hard to make that leap, does it?

So remember, folks, celebrating is fine – just keep your eyes open!

GOLF LEGEND: Clifford Roberts once said that “As long as I’m alive, golfers will be white, and caddies will be black.”

STATUS: I’m Going With False

This is a tricky one, to be sure.

Clifford Roberts is a legend in the world of golf, and not always (heck, rarely) for things you would think he would have liked to have been remembered for, like co-founding the August National Golf Club in 1931 with Bobby Jones (then the most famous golfer in the world) and then forming the Masters Tournament with Jones in 1934.

No, Roberts (who served as the Chairman of the Masters from 1934 until 1976) is best known for being, as the World Golf Hall of Fame describes him, “autocratic, mysterious, intimidating and often enigmatic.”

Roberts (seen above with Bobby Jones sitting next to him – Jones is in the center and Roberts is on Jones’ left) was a strange guy who greatly helped to innovate the game of golf, and it was through his stewardship that the Masters became the premier golf tournament that it remains today. Roberts invented the current golf scoring system (that makes it easy for viewers to quickly figure out how a player is doing) and he designed most of the current gallery setups for fans to view the game. He ran a very tight ship but one that was geared towards making the Masters the greatest golf tournament around. In one example of how desperate he was for the Masters to be “perfect,” he even asked Jones to not come to the Masters late in Jones’ life, because Jones, enfeebled by Lou Gehrig’s Disease, would be a distraction from the festivities.

That last story shows how Roberts could be a real tough guy to work with at times. Another, more serious, claim against Roberts was over the racial makeup of the Masters Tournament.

It was not until 1975 that an African-American golfer competed in the Masters (the first non-white player was a few years earlier, Sukree Onsham of Thailand, played in 1970 and 1971).

That golfer was Lee Elder.

And many folks believed that Roberts wanted nothing to do with Elder. You see, Elder was an up and coming golfer in the late 1960s and early 1970s who had to deal with a LOT of racial crap. As the years went by and Elder continued to excel, a lot of pressure was put on to Roberts to invite Elder to play in the Masters (which he would be allowed to do, as they had done for many foreign players over the years, but never for Americans – otherwise, you had to win a PGA Tournament to qualify to play in the Masters, and even THAT was not a way to get in until the early 1970s). The United States House of Representatives even specifically asked Roberts to invite Elder. Roberts refused, stating “”to make an exception would be practicing discrimination in reverse.”

Finally, in 1974, Elder won a PGA Tournament, so he competed in the 1975 Masters and went on to compete in five more Masters over the years.

While Roberts was very nice and accommodating to Elder when he showed up for the 1975 Masters, many folks, especially fellow African-American golfer Charlie Sifford still believed (and Sifford still believes today) that Roberts had made a quote that has been widely attributed to him over the years, that “As long as I’m alive, golfers will be white, and caddies will be black.”

Now, again, let me note that I’m not saying that Roberts was not racist. Heck, the odds are that he likely was at least somewhat racist.

However, what I AM saying is that Roberts was very cognizant of what Augusta’s position on race looked like to the American public, and as such, he was VERY careful with how he spoke about race in public.

When you add in the fact that I’ve never seen anyone actually have a definitive source for WHEN Roberts said the quote (it is always either ” I heard he said it” or most commonly it is just attributed to Roberts without ANY reference, like it is obvious that he said it) or WHO he said it to, I just don’t think we can properly claim that he said the quote.

A year before Elder made the Masters, Roberts told reporters that he would be very happy if a black golfer made the tournament, and talked up a former caddie that he felt was likely to do just that. For a man as obsessed with appearances like Roberts was, he was far too calculated to make some blatantly racist comment. Sometimes, even in his carefulness he would end up sounding racist anyways (like when he talked about how fond he was about his African-American servents in his auto-biography – he is clearly trying to show that he likes black people, but the way he writes about them makes them almost sound like they’re his pets), but he would always make a point of not saying anything blatantly racist. So I just don’t buy that he would make a statement as obviously racist as that, and with no one ever giving any proof about when he said it or to who, I think it’s fair to say that, for now at least, we should go with a “false” for this one.

Roberts, by the way, ended up taking his own life on the greens at Augusta in 1977 (he was 83 years old and quite sick at the time).

Okay, that’s it for this week!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com


2 Responses to “Golf Urban Legends Revealed #3”

  1. Check out what happened when Charlie Sifford was in a position to win the Canadian Open. Up to then, the winner got an automatic invitation to the Masters but that policy was not going to happen when a black man might do so. See if THAT is an urban legend. If it is true, it is worse than your opinion that Roberts made that quote. (I agree by the way that the Masters is the ” least of the majors” as Johnny Miller put it. It is a plastic tournament.)

  2. Sure, Tony, I’ll address the Sifford story in the future! Do note that I’m not saying that Roberts did not do all he could to keep black golfers out of the Masters, just noting that I think it is unlikely that he made such a quote publicly.

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