Lawson Stays in The Bag

Lawson Stays in The Bag

BATTLE-AX: A 70-year-old club bears the name of a great player from the past and the legacy of a man who forgot how to use it.
Winslow Townson

It is not altogether bad to have a golf club with a Christian name, the way Tom Hanks named that volleyball in Cast Away. People used to name sporting equipment all the time. Shoeless Joe Jackson supposedly had a bat named Black Betsy — similar to the name, if the legend’s true, of Davy Crockett’s rifle, Old Betsy, which is sporting equipment of a kind. And this doesn’t even include generic product names like Louisville Slugger, or items that have as their collective monickers the name of the company that produces them, the way all hockey sticks were once called Bauers. That individual names have gone out of fashion is undeniable. Today most professional athletes play with pieces of equipment they like to call “$13 Million on a Three-Year Deal.”

All of which is a long way of explaining that I happen to own a two-iron named Lawson.

It is heavy and unbalanced, especially compared with the rest of my irons, a full set of Pings that I won at a charity auction a few years back. They are all uniform and shiny. Lawson is dinged and scuffed and battered, the result of my having used it to hit one too many hopeless shots off one too many gravel cart paths. It has one stubborn spot of rust on its head. It has a metal shaft painted such a bilious green that it looks like fiberglass, which was a revolutionary material back in the days after World War II, when my father bought Lawson as part of a set of irons that he used for almost 20 years. Lawson got its name from the signature of the man who endorsed this line of clubs for Wright & Ditson. His name was Lawson Little Jr.

My father was an assistant principal at a high school in Worcester, Mass. He was also the school’s hockey and golf coach, having picked up the latter game, he said, while frittering away downtime in Hawaii during World War II. Every Saturday he had a regular game with some of the other fathers in the neighborhood. He would go off at about 10 in the morning to a local course in Worcester, and he’d be back in the middle of the afternoon. He would then sit down and have one cold Miller High Life beer, condensation running in rivulets down the outside of the clear Miller bottle and onto his fingertips. On occasion he would sit in front of the television set and watch whatever tournament the PGA Tour was playing that weekend. This was part of the unchanging rhythm of my life, on every Saturday of every summer until, one day, it wasn’t anymore.

My friends and I started playing golf because we were children of the age in which Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus and the rest of them made the professional game interesting enough to put on television every week. This, of course, was the presiding dynamic of our generation — if it’s on TV, it must be worth doing, whether that was orbiting the earth, playing the guitar or hitting a golf ball. My father bought me a set of cheap clubs to start, but eventually his clubs passed down to me through strange and somewhat tragic circumstances.

I used his clubs for more than a decade despite the fact that they were too heavy for me ever to hit them squarely and my iron play suffered for it, as did my hands. My friends and playing partners got a great deal of pleasure out of watching me try to swing these relics; strangers thought I was poor and under­privileged. Then the guy at the charity luncheon pulled my ticket out of the bowl and my game out of the early 1950s. I left the old Lawson Littles behind, all except the two-iron. I couldn’t let that one go.

For a while, when my driver went to the zoo, I used the two-iron off the tee, and since I am congenitally incapable of hitting two consecutive fairway woods with any kind of skill, Lawson filled in there too. There were some holes on which Lawson accounted for everything but my final three putts. Gradually, however, it evolved into my bailout club, used only when unclassic shots are required, chopping the ball free from tree limbs and underbrush and, once, in Ireland, out of the ball-eating gorse that very nearly devoured the clubhead as well. Lawson sits in the bag like an old man, liver-spotted and bruised, playing dominos in the town square as all the children run around his feet.

Once, while writing in another magazine, I made fun of Lawson. This was not so bad, but I also made fun of the fellow who had lent it his name. Lawson Little Jr., I wrote, appears “to mean less to the history of golf than did Francis Gary Powers, Estes Kefauver, Alan Freed or Native Dancer, to name only a few of his contemporaries.” This was funny and clever, but it was a joke told by someone who defined golf history by what he had watched on television all those years before. Pretty soon I was deluged by Lawson Little Jr.’s fans, friends and relatives. Didn’t I know about the Little Slam? About how he beat Sarazen in a playoff in the Open in 1940? (All I knew about Gene Sarazen was that he was the avuncular voice of Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf, on which you could see your favorite pros playing in some exotic spot or another and, occa­sionally, also riding an elephant.) If anything was going to keep Lawson in my bag, it was these letters, if only to atone for my manifest public ignorance of Lawson’s namesake.

Lawson has had only one moment of real glory since he became the functional equivalent of a shovel for my game. A few years back a friend and I were playing at Carton House, the lovely little course that Mark O’Meara designed along the river Wye outside Dublin. I left a drive on the right edge of the 15th fairway. There was a bend in the Wye in front of the green, and its banks were reinforced by stone walls. There was a little brick building behind the green. I talked myself into the notion that I hadn’t flown all the way across the Atlantic to lay up, so I took Lawson out of the bag and stung one on a low line toward the green. It was one of the only times since I owned the club that I didn’t feel as if I had driven a railroad spike with the palms of my hands. The ball stayed low and cleared the bend in the river with ease, whereupon it hit the top of the stone wall and rebounded backward into the current — gone. “I thought you had it,” my playing partner told me, as the ripples in the Wye died away.

That was the last time I used Lawson for anything except my regularly scheduled dire emergencies. On most other occasions the club is simply a curiosity. The greenish shaft and the steely blade are something out of another time. The rest of the Lawson irons are bound up with a bungee cord and stashed in an obscure corner of my garage. I might be able to turn a buck or two on them; I just saw on eBay that a Lawson Little eight-iron of roughly the same vintage went for $79. But the set stays in the garage, and Lawson stays in the bag. He is there to help me out from under trees, and from behind rocks, and out of all the trouble that triple-digit hacking is heir to. He is also there because he means something. It is always good to have a little history in your bag, heavy and unbalanced, battered and scuffed and dinged, with a spot of rust on it that never goes away.

I say this without any reservations whatsoever: It is impossible to outplay an opponent you can’t outthink. — Lawson Little Jr.

He was born at Fort Adams in Newport, R.I., and young Lawson hit his first golf ball when he was seven years old at Fort Monroe in Virginia. At 12 he took his first lesson from a pro in Tianjin, China, on an army course that was plowed through an ancient graveyard.

Lawson Little Sr. was a colonel in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, and after his son was born in 1910, the elder Little brought the family along to every post to which he was ­assigned. The seeds he planted in Virginia and China bloomed when the family moved to the Presidio, in San Francisco, where Lawson Jr.’s golf improved explosively. He grew up to be 5′ 9″ and burly, his 200 pounds so solidly packed that folks started calling him Cannonball. His game struck people first with its power. He struck people first with his dark, brooding demeanor. With his longish, wavy hair, he looked at all times like an angry senator. The constant traveling that he did as a boy made the younger Little taciturn on his best days and positively prickly on his worst, of which there were considerably more.

In 1929 the U.S. Amateur came to Pebble Beach. In one of the most startling upsets in the history of that tournament, Johnny Goodman defeated Bobby Jones 1 up. Goodman and Little were scheduled to play that afternoon, and Little was overheard saying to Goodman around the putting green that he wished Goodman “had left Jones for me.” This offense against etiquette — worse because it was directed at Jones, who at this point, most golf fans assumed, could walk the back nine at Pebble along the surface of the Pacific — horrified the people who heard it, and the people they told, and the people that those people told. It followed Little almost his entire life; in 1943 he told a writer for the Ottawa Citizen that he “knew and deeply deplored his unpopularity,” which Little traced back to his cocky comment to Goodman 14 years earlier.

By 1930 Little had enrolled at Stanford, and he was making big noise in the world of match play. He became a devoted acolyte of Ernest Jones, the ­British-born swing coach who eventually conducted his clinics at an office on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street in Manhattan and became known as the Pro from Fifth Avenue. Jones himself was a study. Self-taught and a peren­nial champion of the local caddie tournaments outside London, Jones eventually became the assistant pro at Chiselhurst Golf Club. Part of his duties required him to give lessons, and Jones devoured every book on the subject he could find. He soon discovered that one book invariably contradicted the next, and the one after that was likely to contradict the previous two. Jones decided to develop his own teaching method, preferably one as simple as possible.

He was still working on it when he enlisted in the Sportsman’s Battalion in World War I. He lost a leg in France. During his convalescence Jones read the works of Da Vinci and Galileo, and he developed a system of teaching the golf swing that depended on their work with the movements of pendulums. He had found the simple system he’d been looking for, one that depended on feel, and not on building a swing step by step. Upon his return to England he refined his system, financing his teaching by hustling golfers willing to give a few strokes to a wounded veteran missing a leg. (Playing one-legged, Jones once shot a 64, which convinced him that basing his system on feel and balance was the right way to go.) Jones’s emphasis on a golfer’s own instincts for what felt right in his swing was perfect for a loner like Lawson Little, and by 1934 Little was the best match player in the world.

His game had matured even further, despite the fact that Little hardly ever practiced. He had developed a touch around the greens to match his power off the tees. Little occasionally carried 26 clubs in his bag, including seven wedges. (When the USGA adopted the 14-club limit in 1938, it did so largely in response to Little’s ever-expanding ­arsenal.) Between 1934 and ’35 Little achieved a feat long forgotten by history, but one that was a considerable sensation at the time. He won what was called the Little Slam — winning the U.S. and British Amateurs in consecutive years. This meant he had to win 31 consecutive matches. In 1934, at the British Amateur, the first of these four championships, Little crushed a Scot named James Wallace 14 and 13. In the last one, the ’35 U.S. Amateur in Cleveland, Little’s fractious personality got in the way. He refused to pose with Walter Emery, his opponent in the final, which frosted Emery considerably. After they finished the morning round even, Emery told a waiter to “bring Mr. Little an aspirin.” Little eventually won the championship by eagling the 16th hole with, as Time put it, “two prodigious wood shots.”

Little turned pro and immediately signed a number of lucrative endorsement contracts. He never completed the required apprenticeship, so he never became a member of the PGA of America. Nevertheless, he barnstormed the country and won eight professional tournaments, including that 1940 U.S. Open. Little’s pro career never matched his amateur record, though, a fact that some people attributed to the easy endorsement money that Little raked in when he turned pro. One of his first sponsors was Wright & Ditson, a sporting-goods company that traced its roots to George Wright, the shortstop of the original Cincinnati Red Stockings. Wright & Ditson eventually sold out to A.G. Spalding’s sporting-goods empire, but the company name stayed on its golf equipment, especially the Lawson Little autographed clubs, with the painted metal shafts that looked like fiber­glass. One day, shortly after World War II, my father bought a set of the clubs.

Golf went out of our family life all at once. One day, I don’t remember when, my father simply stopped playing. He was home on Saturdays, walking the dog and puttering in the yard. There was no clanging of the clubs in the breezeway, no sweaty, clear bottles of Miller High Life. It was as if some minor pattern in the rhythm of our suburban lives had gone missing, but the general beat went on and on.

The clubs stayed in the battered canvas bag in the corner of our garage. I grew up and got interested, and my father took me out into the backyard and showed me how to hit a nine-iron, up and down, back and forth. Eventually I took my father’s clubs and started to play. He never said anything to me about it. I destroyed the woods in short order. (One of them, I blush to admit, against a tree.) I kept using the irons, regripping the shafts and regrooving the clubfaces a couple of times. The old men at the courses liked to look at them.

I didn’t find out why my father stopped playing golf until after he died in 1989, although he had slipped away into the shadows of Alzheimer’s disease long before that. Not long after his death I was talking to a neighbor with whom my father had played his weekly game until the day he simply stopped playing.

“One day your dad got upset,” my neighbor told me. “It was strange. It was like he couldn’t keep score anymore.”

Occasionally I go to the range, taking only Lawson. I use him so much as a bailout club, chopping the ball out from under trees and from behind rocks and, with depressing frequency, backward onto the fairway, that I almost feel as if I owe the club the dignity of taking a few actual golf swings with it. This occurs only in high summer. I don’t want to swing this club when it’s cool, during what I’ve come to call the Vibrating Hands portion of the golfing season.

It’s an unforgiving bludgeon. When I mis­hit it, which is most of the time, I can feel it in my shoulders. Even when I do hit Lawson cleanly, it doesn’t produce that satisfying click you get from most well-struck irons. It produces more of a punctuated clatter, flat and weary and oddly heavy, as if the accumulated years have worn the brightness of its spirit down the same way that the accumulated decades have dulled its shine. By the time the first bucket is empty, I feel as if I’ve spent 40 minutes banging a pipe wrench off a boiler.

Occasionally someone will come up, usually one of the old fellows who hang around on the picnic tables in the evening as the sun is sinking behind the pro shop, and he’ll heft Lawson for a second, jogging it around with his wrists. On very rare occasions the old fellow will talk about Lawson Little, although that doesn’t happen as often as it used to, and it didn’t happen all that often back then.

I carry Lawson now because, with it, I carry the history of the man who signed its blade and of the man who bought it, all those years ago, when he could still remember how to keep score, and my own history, which is all of those stories. There is a lot of sundown in this club now — it’s a freighted thing. It’s always good to keep a little history in your bag so you can have a place to store your memories.

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