Tommy Armour The Greatest Dr Milton Wayne looks at the remarkable life of the legendary “Silver Scot” In August 1917, at the height of the First World War, a young Scottish soldier lay in an army hospital in agony. His left arm was shattered, a metal plate had been inserted in his head and he was completely blind from exposure to mustard gas. It would be an easy prediction to say that, if he lived, the young man would not have a normal life. He certainly did not. Within ten years, the same man would be lifting the US Open trophy on the way to becoming one of the greatest golfers the world has ever seen... Childhood
Thomas Dickson Armour was born on September 24, 1895 in Edinburgh, Scotland. His father George died when Tommy was only four years old and his biggest influence was elder brother Sandy. It was Sandy who would introduce Tommy to golf, being a very gifted player himself. Tommy would be carrying Sandy’s bag when the latter won the Scottish Amateur Championship in 1921. He attended Fettes College, (as would former British Prime Minister Tony Blair sixty years later) taking up violin and starting to learn to play bridge, before reportedly studying at Edinburgh University. He is always referred to as a graduate of the University, but a HK Golfer investigation of the archives show no record of Tommy graduating, probably due to the War, but nevertheless, he probably became the first university educated professional golfer and was known as a master bridge player and classical violinist. 58
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The Great War
He joined the army at the outbreak of war in 1914. Starting in the Black Watch, he became famous as the fastest machine gunner in the British Army. Armour then appropriately joined the newly created Tank Corps, where he rose to the rank of Staff Major, one of the youngest in the army. Diminutive future PGA star and lifelong friend Bobby Cruikshank served alongside Tommy in France and later told several tales about Armour, the most famous being how he captured a German tank singlehandedly, including strangling the German tank commander with his bare hands when he refused to surrender. He won several bravery awards and, in a foretaste of his later mixing HKGOLFER.COM
with the great and good, Tommy’s heroics earned him an audience with King George V. Soon afterwards however, he was incapacitated when his tank was shelled with mustard gas in a desperate action in France. In hospital, another metal plate was used to reconstruct his left arm, and he gradually regained sight in his right eye. However, he would remain blind in his left eye for the rest of his life.
As soon as he got out of hospital, he took up golf again to rebuild his shattered health. In 1919, Armour became a member at the James Braid-designed Lothianburn Golf Club, one mile from Edinburgh. The records show he HKGOLFER.COM
joined with a handicap of +2, but also that he never won the club championship. It soon became clear that although he regained his strength and his magnificent swing had clearly returned, his putting was notoriously fragile, the lost eye destroying his depth perception. Outplaying everyone tee to green, he would lose tournaments with poor performances on the greens. Once, on the way back from a tournament, he gathered together his putters and threw them from the train as it passed over the Forth Rail Bridge. He persevered however and the following year became a pivotal turning point. In 1920, less than two years after his nadir in the army hospital, Tommy won the French
Tommy Armour in his beloved Boca Raton, Florida, 1954.
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A mateur tit le, and headed over the Atlantic to compete in t he US Amateur. Against all the odds, Armour progressed to the fifth round, finally falling to former US Open winner Francis Ouimet. He a lso won h is f irst PGA title, teaming up with Lou Deigel to take the “Pinehurst Fall ProA m B e stba l l ” (wh ic h he won again in 1934). He returned to a hero’s welcome, an honorary life membership of his club, and was selected to represent Britain in the International match against the United States. It was during t he t ra nsat la nt ic crossi ng after the French Amateur that Tommy met Walter Hagan for the first time, a meeting that transformed Armour’s life. Hagan took the young player under his wing and in many ways became a father figure to the orphaned Armour. They remained close for the rest of Hagan’s life and he was a huge influence.
Trans-Atlantic Tommy (clockwise from top left): Armour (left) with Francis Ouimet and Bobby Jones, US Amateur, 1921; Tommy with Cooper prior to their playoff at the 1927 US Open; sinking the putt to tie Cooper in regulation play; Armour in front of the car awarded to him by his home club, Congressional, after his first US Open win; the "Black Scot" attracting admiring glances at the 1921 US Amateur; playing in the company of his mentor, Walter Hagen. 60
In 1923, Armour emigrated to the US, as so many ambitious Scottish golfers had before (and since). Hagan arranged for him to get the high-profile role as secretary of the Westchester-Biltmore Club, the appointment warranting a headline, picture and story in the New York Times. Shortly after, in 1924, he became a US citizen and turned professional. He soon earned the nickname “The Black Scot”, which over time became “The Silver Scot” in reference to the colour of his hair. He also married his first wife Consuelo Carrera, a wealthy lady who funded his early years as a pro. By 1926 Tommy once again appeared in the International match between the US and Great Britain, but now playing for the Americans. As a result, he became the first golfer to represent both nations. He was proud to represent his adopted country and later, in the midst of celebrations when he won the Open
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Championship in Scotland, he stated: “I am a Scotsman, but I should like it to be known that I learned my golf in the United States.” From the start, he was seen as a player who could grind hole after hole with exceptional ball striking, especially with the driver and fairway woods. His belief was simple: “It is not solely the capacity to make great shots that makes champions, but the essential quality of making very few bad shots” – a theme later absorbed by Ben Hogan.
1927 US Open
Oakmont in 1927 was brutal, the first example of what we would today call a classic US Open course. Former champion Ted Ray couldn’t cope with the slick greens, Hagan was destroyed by the 300 bunkers, everyone was beaten up by the fiendish rough. In the event the course gave up only a single round under par over the 5 days of play, making it the joint toughest US Open course ever, bar one – Brae Burn in 1919. That single round? Armour, with a stunning 71 on the second day. Tommy had scored a 78 on the first day – which remains the highest first round score by a winner since the nineteenth century. However, over the four days, only one man had seemingly held himself together consistently – Harry “Lighthorse” Cooper who had finished with a total of 301. Coming off a double bogey at the longest hole in US Open history at the time – the interminable 621 yard twelfth (still the sixth longest ever) – Tommy stood on the thirteenth tee knowing he needed to play the last six holes in one under par to match Cooper. He also knew that the previous day, reigning US Open Champion Bobby Jones had stood on the same
tee with a share of the lead and then played the next four holes in seven over to watch his title slip away. Armour started grinding, scoring par after par for the next five holes, until he stood on the eighteenth, knowing he needed a birdie to tie. Unbelievably, he hit his drive 250 yards down the middle, and then knocked in a three-iron to eleven feet. With the boisterous crowd willing him on, he stroked in the birdie to force an eighteen-hole playoff. Cooper had been sitting in the clubhouse for over an hour seemingly untouchable. The following day, a huge crowd again willed Tommy to glory, having for some reason taken a dislike to Cooper. It was felt that the locals appreciated Armour’s humility, whereas Cooper was seen as brash and was nicknamed “Cocksure Cooper” and “Chesty Harry”. Speed of play would be a factor as Cooper was the fastest player on Tour, hence the “Lighthorse” nickname. In Armour he was competing against the most deliberate player in the game and his languid pace became glacial on Oakmont’s unforgiving track. In the event the Tortoise and Hare tale played out perfectly, with Cooper racing to a two-shot lead after eleven holes, only to take 27 shots over the final six holes as Armour again played brilliantly, requiring only 22 strokes to win by three. Holing enormous putts along the way, Armour’s prowess with the putter was surely payback for all those missed chances after the war. As the Scotsman newspaper reported: “It was emphatically an Armour gallery. Everybody in that huge crowd was neutral - they didn't care how many strokes Armour won by.” It was a stunning victory and Armour celebrated in a suitably alcoholic manner. No doubt as result of this, less than a week after winning his f irst Major, Tommy shot what still stands as the highest score ever scored on one hole in a PGA event, the first ever "Archaeopteryx" (15 or more over par) when he managed to take 23 strokes on a par five. Also in 1927, Tommy poignantly teamed up again with his wartime brother-inarms Bobby Cruikshank to win the Miami International Four-Ball. Tommy adapted easily to his newfound fame. Seen as naturally f lamboyant, he soon rivaled his HKGOLFER.COM
mentor Walter Hagan in the sartorial stakes. Tailored jackets, plus fours, sil k handkerchiefs, ascots, and his rugged good looks not only marked him as different from the other pros, it also proved devastating to the ladies and he soon gained a reputation to rival that of his friend Errol Flynn. Tommy later eloquently stated: “Love and putting are mysteries for the philosopher to solve. Both subjects are beyond golfers”. He was also a notorious gambler, especially while playing. Armour took a young Henry Cotton under his wing when he visited the US in the late 1920’s and Henry got a first
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The later years (clockwise from bottom): Armour flanked by 1930 US PGA opponents Gene Sarazen and Johnny Farrell; a 60-year-old Armour demonstrating his unbelievable hand strength; Tommy the teacher studies the form of one of his well-heeled pupils.
hand look at the Silver Scot’s betting practices. In 1948 Cotton reminisced that “Armour is one of the biggest bluffers in the game. I am not sure what he likes best, the golf or the betting. He is not satisfied unless he is wagering on every hole, every nine, each round and, if he can, on each shot. When people ask Armour what the ‘D’ stands for in his name, he always replies, 'Dough', and he's not far wrong!” Armour continued to improve and in 1929 won the Western Open, then considered a Major, by eight shots with a stunning score of 273, the lowest four round total ever recorded at any PGA tournament at that time. Amazingly, the current Tour record is held by Tommy’s grandson Tommy Armour III, who shot 254 at the Texas Valero Open in 2003.
Armour continued to win titles and had taken eight more championships when the 1930 PGA rolled around. Played at Fresh Meadows Country Club, in Flushing, N.Y., Tommy cruised through to the quarterfinals where he ran into Johnny Farrell. In a whirlwind start, Farrell took five of the first six holes and Armour looked to be making a quick exit. However, as so often before, Tommy started grinding down his opponent, and eventually prevailed 2&1. In the final he was playing local favorite Gene Sarazen. In a war of attrition – neither player got more than one hole in front – they came to the thirty-sixth hole all square. To the disappointment of the vocal locals rooting for Sarazen, little Gene finally blinked and Armour took his second Major with a par and a 1-up victory.
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Open Championship 1931
T he fol low i ng yea r, Tom my made a triu mpha nt ret urn to his cit y of bir t h, Edinburgh, when the Open was held in nearby Carnoustie. After three rounds, the unlikely leader was Argentinean Jose Jurado. His closest challenger was pre-tournament favourite Mac Smith with Tommy a distant third, five shots back. In the event, Armour shot 71 then sat sipping whisky in the clubhouse as first Jurado, then Smith were destroyed by the closing three holes. Then, as now, the toughest finishing stretch in the majors decided the champion. Jurado was particularly devastated at the manner in which he lost, shooting double bogey, bogey, bogey to lose by a single shot. A popular character, Jurado’s gallery included HRH the Prince of Wales who was taking lessons from the dapper Argentinean. The Scotsman newspaper described Jose’s reaction: “Jurado, a dazed man, went through the crowd and into the room reserved for the players behind the first tee, broke down completely and cried like a child.” Armour still didn’t believe he would win as Mac Smith was now leading by two shots. However, the tragic Smith was similarly undone and dropped six shots over the final three holes to let the title slip to Armour, who told reporters: "I've never lived through such an hour before.” In the era before the Masters, Armour had become only the third man in history to win all three Majors.
Talking for a living was a natural move for Tommy. Byron Nelson once said that Armour was "absolutely the most gifted story-teller I've ever known in golf. He could take the worst story you ever heard and make it great.” Later, Tommy put this to use during the Second World War, touring army hospitals and raising the spirits of the troops with his dazzling tales. However, given his own wartime memories he found the experience extremely depressing. In 1936 Tommy was hired by the Macgregor golf company. To many, it looked like a “front man” role, but in fact he became deeply involved in designing their clubs. His innovations transformed Macgregor’s fortunes and his drivers became their bestsellers. Later he created his own manufacturing company and his name is still on clubs sold today.
In 1933, at the US Open at North Shore Country Club, Tommy set another record during the first round by opening up a five-shot lead, the biggest ever. Unfortunately, he recorded another record on top of that – the highest non-winning 18-hole lead in US Open history – when he let title slip through his hands. The eventual winner was Johnny Goodman, who remains to this day as the last amateur to win a Major. Armour’s putting issues were compounded by yips when chipping and, despite getting to the final of the PGA in 1935 (losing 5&4 to Johnny Revolta) he didn’t play much after that year. He won another PGA tournament in 1938, and had a couple of runs in Majors, but he was to all intents and purposes semi-retired. It is perhaps fanciful to think that he looked at the example of his former fierce rival Bobby Jones quitting while on top and decided it wasn’t worth the stress and pain. But regardless, still in his thirties, he had decided enough was enough. Instead he started on another lucrative tour, giving lectures all over the country. It was during this time that he met Estelle, his second wife. Unfortunately he was still married to his first wife at the time and a messy divorce followed. HKGOLFER.COM
Since 1929, Tommy had been teaching during the winters in Boca Raton, Florida and had gained a reputation as an outstanding advisor on the game, especially to gifted pros. Major-winning players like Henry Cotton, Babe Didrikson Zaharias and Lawson Little gave him the credit for their success and Julius Boros called him “a genius at teaching you how to play your best golf.” He also enjoyed mingling with celebrities like Errol Flynn, Babe Ruth, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby and was a notorious drinker and womanizer. Grantland Rice once said he had giant hands like “two stalks of bananas”, and he was known to be able to rip packs of cards and telephone books in half. He once famously won a substantial drunken bet with world champion boxer Jack Dempsey when he picked up a billiard cue with two fingers and held it straight out by the tip at arm's length. He had less time for the well-heeled captains of industry who would pay outrageous sums to be given short-thrift by the Silver Scot, as he pulled no punches. He loved teaching naturally HKGOLFER.COM
gifted players, but felt much “tuition” given to poor players was a waste of time and money and called it “the most abysmal advice ever given by the ignorant to the stupid.” It was these people who saw the other side of the gregarious, smiling raconteur and he was described by CB Keeland as having “a mouth like a steel trap, a nose like a ski jump and eyes which indicate he would enjoy seeing you get a compound fracture of the leg.” Charles Price agreed, saying: “His eyes were as deep as Rasputin's. Tommy was temperamental and acid-tongued, he was not a man you approached comfortably.” Despite this, his reputation grew a nd it wou ld be no exaggeration to say that he was the most sought after teacher in the world through the 1940s and 50s. Like Bob Torrance today, his preferred style involved sitting in the shade in Boca Raton each winter or in Winged Foot each summer, with his trademark tray of gin bucks, bromo seltzers and shots of Scotch and passing judgment on his wealthy pupils, all of who feared him. Like Torrance and Harvey Penick, he would watch silently as the player struck shots and would then make a suggestion for a tweak or two in a very concise manner. His grandson, Tommy Armour III, told the classic Silver Scot teaching tale: “He was asked one afternoon to give a lesson to a wealthy golfer who had taken up the game primarily for the social benefits. He watched the man hit a dozen or so shots. The duffer was slapping away at it, feeling pretty good about his progress, when he finally turned to Armour for an evaluation. 'Well, what d'ya think?' he said. 'I think you should give it up,' Armour said, and walked away.” Despite (or because of ) this and ever increasing teaching fees, there was a huge waiting list of people desperate for some magic advice from the great man. Perhaps his old Army buddy and friend for 60 years, Bobby Cruickshank, knew him best: “Some called him HK Golfer・Dec 2009/Jan 2010
dour and temperamental, but he was the kindest, best-hearted fellow you ever saw. Certainly, Tommy was a complex man and misunderstood, but he seemed to like it that way.” Charles Price eloquently summed up the Armour personality cocktail as having “a dash of indifference, a touch of class, and a bit of majesty.”
From there, it was a natural progression to publish a book on his teaching philosophy. Book companies fought for the rights to get what would almost certainly be a successful publication. In the event Simon and Schuster’s offer was accepted and in 1952 Tommy contacted Herb Gra f f is, a n old d r i n k i ng buddy and struggling former newspaperman from Chicago, to be his ghost writer in return for a 50/50 split of the profits. The pair would meet each day near Winged Foot in a bar in Mamaroneck, New York as Graffis reworked Tommy’s manuscript. The book, How to Play Your Best Golf All the Time was an immediate success and became the best-selling golf book of all time. Graffis retired a happy man in Florida and would send a Christmas card each year “from the house that Tommy built.” Due to his permanently weakened left arm, Tommy unconventionally favoured a dominant right hand in the swing. He put it less subtly to one client telling him to “just knock hell out of it with your right hand.” Marginally less successful but more useful was the 1956 follow up, A Round with Tommy Armour. Another bestseller, it was a masterwork on the mental side of the game, the first serious look at golf psychology.
Despite the adulation and financial success Tommy never truly felt that he had achieved all he could with his life, given his education. He once said: “It's nice to be a good golfer and win championships, but, hell, being the finest golfer in the world never cured anyone of polio.” He encouraged this thinking in his son Tommy Junior who became a surgeon, but it clearly didn’t reach the next generation. His grandson Tommy Armour III is a record-holding twotime PGA Tour winning professional, and is as infamous as his grandfather was in terms of his drinking and womanizing. The common theme throughout Armour’s life was that he was at his strongest when things 64
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got tough. He was seen as a “closer” and a team man, whose tournament record includes five wins in team events. His overall contributions to the game in terms of playing, teaching, writing and club design have never been equalled. Overall Armour won twenty-seven events (twenty-five PGA), three Majors, and had twenty-one top-20 finishes in the Majors. It’s worth remembering that the Masters didn’t exist for almost his entire professional career, and he won the Western Open, long seen as a Major. He also won the Canadian Open three times, seen at the time as easily the biggest Open after the US and the British. He is still one of the top-25 PGA Tour winners of all time, and was elected to the PGA Hall of Fame in 1942. He avoided the “Hall of Shame” debacle and was grandfathered into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1976. Tommy died next to his beloved W i nged Fo ot i n Larchmont, New York on September 11, 1968, just two weeks shy of his seventy-fourth birthday. He was cremated at the Ferncliff Cemetary in Hartsdale, resting place of celebrities like John Lennon, Yul Brynner, Joan Crawford, Judy G a rla nd , Nelson Rockefeller, Ed Sullivan, Paul Robson, Christopher Reeve, Jerome Kern, Malcolm X and even Madame Chiang Kai-Shek. The records there list him as a “professional golfer” and it is nice to think that Tommy would be happy with that two word description. However, his continuing influence on the game tells us he was so much more.
It is easy to recall the dour drinker of his later years but surely the abiding memory should of the man, his achievements and the swing in his prime. Noted golf writer Bernard Darwin was in awe of his iron play and wrote that: “His style is the perfection of rhythm and beauty.” Ross Goodner remembered: “Nothing was ever small about Tommy Armour's reputation. At one time or another, he was known as the greatest iron player, the greatest raconteur, the greatest drinker and the greatest and most expensive teacher in golf.” To that we can add the greatest fairway wood player, the greatest club designer, the greatest clutch player and the greatest writer. Without doubt, he was also the greatest character the game has ever seen; his enduring fame is the best indicator of his true status: Tommy Armour, The Silver Scot, The Greatest. HKGOLFER.COM