Learn about Life in the 1920s

Champions Don't Merely Happen - 1927

T0 the making of a champion, the title in both golf and tennis being on the fire as this is written, there goes a great deal more than mere shot-making, good as that may be.

There is a persistence, a certain underlying quality difficult to express in print, but none the less ever present. Just one of Napoleon's imponderables, perhaps. However, both tournaments, the golf affair at Brae Burn and the tennis affair at Forest Hills, leave the observer better grounded in his faith in the possibilities of the two games than ever before. There is a background to Cochet in tennis, there is a background to Bobby Jones in golf that even in the one case too much play and in the other 18-hole match rounds cannot erase. In both cases there are up and coming young men who will dethrone the champions, and in golf older men who have plodded along and are able to turn in one or more rounds that are close to perfection. These men, like George C. Voight, medalist at Brae Burn, and in the old days Alexander in tennis, keep their respective games very much alive. Behind Cochet, Borotra, and the other French players is the sound experience of Gobert and Decugis ; behind Bobby Jones there is not only the coaching that he received in Atlanta, the family tradition that there should be a first class golfer on the list, but the accumulated experience of the long list of champions of the purely amateur variety.

It is just this background that will produce the champions of the future. In golf the outlook is not quite so bright as in tennis. In the court game the background has produced a young chap named Shields, properly built for just this court game. Here is a young man who is a master of the field of play, and because of size and natural sweep has all the early advantages of Tilden. Some years ago I had thought that young Coggeshall was headed for the tennis crown, and before that the younger Garland. Both these men had the mastery of court generalship that must inevitably go with a champion, but they had not the physique that accompanies a long series of possibly five-set matches. It is true that men of lesser calibre physically play the game superbly. It is true that in the old days the theory was to keep one's opponent constantly making returns.

Photo of George Voight
George Voight

By this method it was that "the little Do" came through to his championship. It was by this method that the Wrenns figured so largely in the history of tennis. But the new method is newly applied to a game of bounds, and this game of bounds presupposes that a champion should be able to keep his opponent out of court by speed and placing. It is for that reason that Shields, the Junior Champion, looks so promising to the average observer ; that reason and the reason that there is a certain fire in his make-up that does not seem to appear so conspicuously among the other youngsters of the same flight. Physically the Junior Champion seems to be better fitted to the game of bounds than those who have been contesting the place with him; seems to be nearer to the Tilden type (yes, it must be said) than any other—and no matter what Tilden elects eventually to do with his own epoch-making brand of tennis, further progress in the game seems destined to go along the lines that he has laid down.

Fortunately for golf, a game in which the mental concentration is of a quite different variety, the final round in the American Amateur championship settled down to a battle between the champions of two great golfing countries—Jones, the man who plays not a great deal of golf outside of the important matches, and Perkins, the British champion, who takes his play in much the same way. It is possible, of course, that Jones takes his golf just a bit more seriously than does the Briton, but both have reached the peak because,. all other things being anywhere nearly equal, both have in them the "divine spark," as the football coaches would put it. I had occasion in the course of the Walker cup matches to call attention to the play of Perkins, the then rather stolid, sound golf that he was able to produce, the fact, indeed, that he was able to stick to it and last, unperturbed in the face of a terrific beating. Subsequent performances have proved that this postwar product of the British Isles, glasses, cigarette and all, none the less had the makings of not merely a national but an international champion. He is of the stuff of which champions are made.

Now as between Jones, admittedly the greatest golfer in the world, and Perkins, outside of his caparisoning—a match for the sartorial elegance of Bobby Jones—there is little to choose in the matter of shot-making. Both need the full 36 holes in which to display their game at their best, for the reason that there is the chance in the extra eighteen to rectify the mistakes that even a champion can make on the first round. In this as in every other sport a man seeks to build his game so that there is room for genius if it should crop up. It was just this little spare room that made Walter Hagen. It is just this little spare room that makes all the champions.

To return for a moment to the theory of games, of bounds, especially golf and tennis. The champion tennis player sees his opponent's court simply as a hole over the net. The champion golfer sees the course only as a series of proper places for the ball. In the case of tennis the champion plays a moving ball through the hole that is opened by court-covering of the defensive player —granted that he is on the defensive—while in the case of the golfer the champion plays a still ball according to the lie of it, and the lie of the land. In both cases there are not merely two or three choices as in the miscalled American national game of baseball, but a multiplicity of choices, a selection in one case at high speed, and in the other a choice due to profound judgment.

Photo of Frank Shields
Frank Shields

It has been said that golf cannot be dramatized, but that tennis can. That is probably the reason why in tennis the personality of the player leaps into the eye the moment he takes the court, while the golf star grows slowly in the imagination, unless he has mannerisms. It accounts, perhaps, for the emphasis on the dress of Bobby Jones, on the dress of Perkins. Any man who throws a club into the trees can be sure of a line in the papers. Any man who wears the very latest golfing regalia will be watched. But the true champion in golf is found sometimes in humbler garb. Only those critics who watch carefully his sizing up of the problem before him will find the real "comer."

At Brae Burn it was a foregone conclusion that the early rounds would see the elimination of serious choices for the championship, notably Evans, Ouimet and Von Elm. It is taking nothing from the men who performed so well in these same early rounds to say that they were merely excellent workmen, sizing up the course simply as the day's task, and playing it accordingly. The chance at eighteen holes was the chance that comes to any player perhaps several times in a lifetime, but not the chance that champions wanted or needed. On the way to the final round at Brae Burn there were interesting matches, a few of which seemed destined to bring forth a new champion, a champion who had been visioned by nobody, player and critic alike ; but as it turned out, the play that brought together the American and the English champions was of the greatest interest for the simple reason that it was a survival of the championship spirit. Up to the semi-final Jones had been slipping and sliding, had indeed been nearly out of the reckoning save for a wonderful brace in an extra hole match. But when the two came to the point where the championship quality had to be displayed, they did indeed display it. Both men were not merely playing against an opponent, but against an invisible Thing, the Thing at the monent that both of them wanted.

"Bob" Zuppke, the football coach at the University of Illinois, once said to me : "There is nothing much in this sport business but desire; show me desire and I will show you a real champion. Whenever I can get a team together that really desires touchdowns, the touchdowns will be made. I can give them the method, but further than that I cannot go." So - it was that both Jones and Perkins went into their semi-final rounds with the real desire of champions. Jones was in his best form of the tournament. Perkins was in his best form of the tournament. Perkins put away George Voight, the 18-hole man of method, 6 and 4, playing meticulous golf, while Jones disposed of Phillips Finlay, a Harvard student, by thirteen up and twelve to play. It would be closer, perhaps, to orthodoic reporting to say that Jones "smothered" Finlay. As a matter of fact, Jones was simply himself again, a true champion, while Finlay, by no means a poor golfer, simply was not ready for the- class. Jones, who trains as carefully as any runner, who even relieves his.mind of golf in the course of a tournament, had in the background, of his mind another championship, and be-. cause of his reputation felt that he owed to the golfing public to play the golf of which he was really capable, at the critical times, which of course would be the semi-final and the final. That's your true champion, win or lose. Perkins had a harder battle, but proceeded in much the same way. Both felt obligations and fulfilled them—the last and perfect test of champions.

Fashions in football coaching have been steadily changing. The austere, and often slave-driving type seems to have gone out of existence. The coaching nowadays is along the big brother line. Word comes from many quarters that there is great need of men for certain positions. For instance the Army needs a complete new set of ends, which means four. In the old days the candidates would be driven hard, and the psychology would be merely work and more work. Today Captain Sasse, one of the best end coaches in the country, takes the young aspirants, for the vacant positions under his wing and starts them out with a quiet talk, and this is the gist of it: "You men have the greatest opportunity of any who have come to West Point in a long. time. There are vacancies in the positions you want to fill, and they are very serious. Don't let that frighten you. But it is not merely your physical effort in which I am interested. I am somewhat absorbed in what you are thinking about. And I would suggest that you reduce your thinking this fall to just two things. One, and the first one, is studies. You are of no use to us if you are ineligible. The second is football. If you think only about those two things you are going to be valuable to us and to yourselves. Other things can wait, notably the girl question. I have seen many promising players ruined by too much attention to amatory correspondence. So cut it out." With which brief but succinct preliminary the candidates are all ready for the "duck waddle." The psychology is carried even further. It is suggested that the candidate do a little quack-quacking while he waddles. Something of an art in itself, this football coaching.

Source: Outlook, September 26, 1928