2005: A true American classic
Monday, September 12, 2011
The death of Herbert Warren Wind on May 30 at age 88 signals the end of the classic age of American golf writing. He was very much a holdover from an earlier age, when golf writers spent days or even weeks observing the people about whom they wrote, then sweated out every hand-written phrase and had vast space in print to develop their ideas.
Herb, as he invited everyone to call him, hailed from the working-class town of Brockton, Mass., where he was born in 1916.
He had the benefit of an exceptional education, with an undergraduate degree from Yale and an M.A. in Literature from Cambridge. The literary training gave his sports writing an unusual bent – witness his frequent references to “Brobdingnagian” from Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” when most golf writers would have just written “enormous.”
He joined the staff of The New Yorker in 1947 and was a fixture on its pages over the next four decades. His one major stint away from The New Yorker came in 1954-61, when Herb left to become one of the founding writers at an upstart publication called Sports Illustrated.
While there he coined the term “Amen Corner” to describe Nos. 11-13 at Augusta National. Under the aegis of Sports Illustrated he also wrote with Ben Hogan what remains one of the best-selling instructional books ever, “The Modern Fundamentals of Golf.”
Herb once said it took him about 1,000 words to clear his throat. That’s in part why he left Sports Illustrated. He chafed at the magazine’s tight deadlines and space constraints and preferred the more relaxed editorial atmosphere at The New Yorker.
He usually wrote just a few long articles a year for the magazine, essays filed with the history of architecture, with the great players of yesteryear, with the evolution of the game and with the sportsmanship it cultivates. His essays invariably followed the Masters and U.S. Open by some six weeks. It seemed as if the tournament was not really over until Wind’s article appeared.
In the early 1960s, Herb also wrote for “Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf.” That television show opened the eyes of a generation of golfers to legendary courses. For an hour every Saturday afternoon in the winter, golf fans were transported to St. Andrews or Pine Valley for a world-class education. While ostensibly a means to bring together two international golf stars for a match, “Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf” was unique in devoting attention to fine layouts.
Back then, in the mid-1960s, I did not know about Herbert Warren Wind. I only stumbled upon him by chance in 1966, when as 12-year-old I read and reread his two-part series in Golf Digest about the history of golf course architecture.
Stephen Kay, a metropolitan New York-based course designer, later told me that reading those two articles changed his life and made him determined to go into course design.
The effect on me was similar. I was struck by the quirky characters that Wind profiled: Charles Blair Macdonald, Alister MacKenzie, A.W. Tillinghast, Donald Ross.
Years later I finally met Herb. It was the 1979 U.S. Open at Inverness Club in Toledo, and I was spending the summer caddying on the PGA Tour. I had just read the third edition of his “The Story of American Golf,” and when I got to Inverness I decided to say hello to Mr. Wind. So I wrote him a long, fawning letter and brought it over sheepishly to the media tent security guard with instructions to pass it on.
The next day I returned and asked for a Mr. Herbert Warren Wind. The guard disappeared into the tent. I fidgeted for a few minutes, and then out came this British-looking gentleman, a character out of a P.G. Wodehouse story.
He was gracious and thoughtful, and after we had talked a few minutes he encouraged me to stay in contact with him – which I did for the next quarter century.
I had the pleasure of accompanying Herb during the final round of the 1982 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. The day was moderately warm, but Herb came to the course bundled up for a Nor’easter. He wore a tweed suit and a smart-looking little cap and carried a raincoat (with wool liner) on one arm. His feet were protected by insulated walking shoes. I remember thinking, “What could he possibly wear in wintertime?”
Around his neck was a pair of opera glasses, and he carried a little notepad in which he scribbled throughout the round. His free hand clasped an umbrella, which doubled as a walking stick.
Jack Nicklaus was at one point in the midst of a fabulous birdie run, and so we walked ahead to catch him. Then we held back and waited for Tom Watson and followed him in from the 12th hole.
We stood at the tee on the par-3 17th and watched Watson bury his iron shot into the rough, left of the green.
Then we walked up and stood before the entrance to the green as Watson deftly chipped his way into the record books.
As the ball kerplunked into the hole, it seemed the whole world exploded around us with cheers. Herb threw his hands up in the air and looked as joyous as a child.