A Cruise with the Boys of '21

A Cruise with the Boys of ’21

Buoyantly returning home from the transatlantic voyage that took them to Scotland, the jaunty American side included (clockwise from top left) William Mehlhorn, Thomas Kerrigan, Jock Hutchison, Captain Emmet French, Clarence Hackney, Fred McLeod, George McLean and Charles Hoffner.
Photo Illustration by SI Imaging: Bettmann/CORBIS (players); Fred Vuich (cup); Robert Beck (background)

It was our third night out of Southampton on the Queen Mary 2, and I was enjoying a moonlit stroll on the promenade. I cut an impressive figure, if I may say so, in my tuxedo and polished slippers. Passing couples gave me a backward glance on their way to the Royal Court Theater to watch a Broadway-bound revival of Titanic.

“Excuse me,” I asked a white-uniformed steward. “Could I have a light?” I lowered my head to the proffered flame, took a puff or two on my cigarette — just enough to get it going — and then leaned casually against the rail. “Thanks,” I said, trying not to cough.

I don’t smoke, you see. But I’ve learned, in the years since my first visit by a golf ghost, that certain specters need coaxing to appear, and sometimes a period marker like smoking or a steamer trunk will draw them out. On this occasion I was fishing for the ghost of the long-forgotten English golf star, Abe Mitchell, a man who in his time was hailed as “the most accomplished British golfer never to win the Open.” Mitchell was Samuel Ryder’s personal golf coach, and it is Mitchell’s figure that stands atop the Ryder Cup.

My cigarette had burned halfway down when the moon ducked behind a cloud and the ship’s horn issued a deep, prolonged blast. Looking over my shoulder, I caught a glimpse of a man in a woolen jacket and plus fours disappearing down a metal stairway. I crossed the promenade, stopping only to bury my smoke in a sand saucer, and followed him down the stairs. After 13 visitations I know the drill.

The handrail was cold and wet, and I turned onto a deck shrouded in fog. The mystery man was waiting for me, his hands clasped in front of him like a funeral usher.

“Mr. Mitchell, I presume?” I flashed my meeting-the-ghost smile.

“Why would you presume that?” The fellow looked annoyed, and his Ohio accent made me wonder if I had stupidly mistaken a 21st century cruise passenger for a 20th century linksman. But before I could stammer an apology, another tweed-clad wraith stepped out of the fog and gave my hand a vigorous shake.

“George Duncan,” he said in a Scottish accent, “1920 Open title holder and captain in 1921 for Great Britain. And this” — he nodded toward the glowering Yank — “is Emmet French, captain of the American side.” The first ghost immediately flashed a grin and poked me in the ribs to let me know he had been yanking my chain.

Duncan grabbed my arm. “Come along,” he said, “the others will be waiting.”

The others? I was bewildered, but I let myself be dragged through a door, along a steel corridor and through another door into a wood-paneled lounge. The bartender looked up as we came in — he was shaking a cocktail — but Duncan and French steered me into the first of several clusters of archaically dressed men engaged in noisy banter. Two dozen or so were standing within reach of a table laden with crackers, sardines and raw oysters, and half as many more sat in leather club chairs, blowing cigar smoke at the pressed-tin ceiling.

“Josh Taylor,” Duncan said, leading me up a makeshift receiving line. “Tom Kerrigan — you remember, he helped found the American PGA? — and this is Charlie Hoffner…. The great Ted Ray, he won your National Open in 1920 … and I imagine you’ve met the immortal Harry Vardon.” Duncan’s wry emphasis of immortal caused the six-time British Open champ to blush.

“James Braid,” chimed in French, clapping the shoulder of a seated gentleman. “And this is….”

“We’ve met,” I said, cutting him off. I nodded to the brilliantined ghost of Walter Hagen, who was my dinner guest a couple of years ago when the PGA visited Chicago.

I turned to Duncan. “I get it. You must be the ghosts of the first Ryder Cup, the one that was played in Massachusetts in 1927.”

Every ghost within earshot uttered a derisive cheer.

“You’ve almost got it right,” Duncan said with a sympathetic smile. “We’re the ghosts of the two professional team matches that preceded the Ryder Cup.”

I must have looked baffled. French guided me to an armchair, which five-time Open champ J.H. Taylor graciously vacated. The ghosts made a circle around me, some standing, some sitting on the floor.

“The first Ryder Cup was played in June of 1926, not 1927,” Duncan said in a loud voice, standing behind my chair like the detective in an Agatha Christie novel. “It was played near London on the new West course at Wentworth.”

“Who won?” came a shout from the far corner of the room. The Brits responded with cheers and laughter, while the Americans hung their heads in mock shame.

French held up a hand for silence. “First of all, we can’t count 1926 as an official Ryder Cup… .” He paused while the Brits hooted and whistled. “No, let’s be fair about this. No trophy was awarded,> and planning for the competition was disrupted by the labor unrest in Britain. Several of our best players, including Gene Sarazen, had to cancel, and we wound up borrowing four Brits and an Aussie to make up the numbers.”

There was more hooting, which Duncan quieted by holding up his arms. “Our American friend has a point,” he said. “We stuck his team with a few weak links, like Tommy over there” — I recognized the Scottish emigre, Tommy Armour, a winner of Opens on both sides of the Atlantic — “and Jim Barnes” — he pointed to one of the gents on the floor — “who was merely the reigning Open champion!”

“Hear, hear!” someone shouted. Another fellow, leaning against the bar, raised a glass and bellowed, “Rule, Britannia!”

French shrugged helplessly. “I’m not saying we’d have won if Sarazen and Bobby Cruickshank and Mac Smith had been able to play. But I don’t think we would have lost by … by….” He couldn’t bring himself to say it.

Several Brits yelled as one, “Thirteen and a half to one and a half!”

Duncan let the frivolity die down before addressing me directly. “The outcome of the match is of no consequence, but we’d like you to set the historical record straight. It has been written that Samuel Ryder attended the matches at Wentworth and came up with the idea for the Ryder Cup over tea, but Ryder and his brother, James, had, in fact, been talking up the series for a good year or more and had already commissioned the trophy. It was the General Strike that caused the Cup to be withheld until the following year at Worcester….”

“Who won?” yelled several Americans at once. There was widespread laughter as the British players responded by scratching their foreheads and staring at the ceiling. (I looked it up a few days later, after we docked in New York. The U.S. won the first recognized Ryder Cup by a score of 9 1/2 to 2 1/2.)

I turned in my chair and looked up at Duncan. “But you said there were two transatlantic professional matches before the Ryder Cup. What was the other one?”

“Gleneagles,” he replied, naming the Scottish estate famous for its resort hotel and moorland golf courses. “Two 10-man teams met there on June 6, 1921 — one captained by myself and the other by your Mr. French. It was called “the international challenge match,” and it was more or less an appendage to the Glasgow Herald 1,000 Guineas, a big-money tournament that served as a run-up to our Open Championship.”

I expected someone to yell, “Who won?” but no one did. Duncan turned to a young man with tousled dark hair and said, “Wild Bill here played for America. He can tell you more.”

ild bill had to be the ghost of Bill Mehlhorn, the Illinois hotshot who won the 1924 Western Open and had five top four finishes in the U.S. Open. “Well,” Mehlhorn said, “it’s a bit of a sore point for me because everybody said, ‘What’s Mehlhorn doing on the team?'” There was a ripple of laughter, and a few of the ghosts clapped. “But honestly, I think I made the team because I gave exhibitions and sold subscriptions for Golf Illustrated magazine. See, the circulation manager was a fellow named Jim Harnett, and he pulled that team together, paid all the expenses and gave each of us a thousand bucks. Jock Hutchison and Freddie McLeod went, Clarence Hackney, Charles Hoffner, Wilfred Reid” — Mehlhorn’s eyes searched the room for his old teammates, who nodded or raised a hand when named — “myself, George McLean, names you never hear of now. Oh, and the Haig.” From his chair, Hagen waved a cigar.

“The idea,” Mehlhorn continued, “was that we’d sail over, play at Gleneagles, play the British Open and then come home.”

“And a fine idea it was!” That opinion came from a Brit on the floor who didn’t help me out with a name. (In my own afterlife I will propose compulsory name tags for any large gathering of ghosts.) “It was quite one-sided. We prevailed 9 to 3 with three matches halved.”

Another Brit, possibly J.H. Taylor, said, “We were quite unimpressed with your Jock Hutchison. He was 4 up on Duncan late in the game but somehow managed to lose. We were so unimpressed that two weeks later we laid down for him and let him win the Open at St. Andrews!”

“Aye, but I was one ‘a th’ barrud Yanks,” shouted a bow-tied man at the bar. “How could I nae win in th’ auld gray toon whaur I was born?” There was more laughter.

“Oh, we got slaughtered all right,” said one of the nameless Americans, referring to the team match. “Emmet here upset Ray 2 and 1, and McLeod won a point from Taylor. And Reid! Wilfred got by Havers. But we were 0 for 3 with two halves in the foursomes. Which, now that I think of it, is pretty much how we Americans play alternate shot in the age of Tiger Woods!”

Suddenly remembering why I had booked my passage on the QM2, I looked from face to unfamiliar face. “How did Abe Mitchell do?”

A couple of ghosts stood aside, exposing an elegantly dressed gentleman with a gray moustache and a kindly smile. “I didn’t like to do things by halves,” he said, “but Duncan and I played Hagen and Hutchison all square in the morning, and then I halved with Walter in the afternoon. The truth is” — he looked around the room for confirmation — “the challenge match was something of a flop. There weren’t many spectators, and our play was far from memorable. And it was not yet the luxurious Gleneagles we know and love. The hotel was under construction, and the new Kings course was just growing in. The correspondent for The Times, a chap by the name of Bernard Darwin, wrote that the sand in the bunkers was ‘far too gritty and full of shells.’ And he was right.”

“True enough,” said Duncan, “but it was a start. So, may I propose a toast?”

“Hair ya go,” said the ghost of Hutchison, handing me a snifter of brandy.

Duncan raised his glass to the circle. “To us, the forgotten warriors of Gleneagles and Wentworth.”

“To us!” The golf ghosts raised their glasses and drank.

“So,” said Emmet French, freshening my brandy from a bottle. “Who do you like at Valhalla?”

They all laughed, while I sat there in utter confusion. It would take me hours to get the joke.