The pretty little country town of Maldon in central Victoria is famous as the home of writer Henry Handel Richardson and Bill Woodfull, captain of the Australian cricket team in the infamous “Bodyline” series of 1932-33.
On July 23 it will celebrate another noted inhabitant, Walter Travis, with a golf tournament where a small group of his admirers will dress up in period costume and play with hickory shafted clubs.
The fourth of 11 children, Travis was born in Maldon in 1862 and died in America 90 years ago on July 31, 1927. In his adopted home he was for a time regarded as one of the best golfers in the world, and he followed his playing career by establishing and editing the American Golfer magazine and designing more than a dozen golf courses.
Although a handy cricketer and tennis player in his youth, Travis never played golf in Australia and first picked up a club at the age of 34 in 1896. He also picked up a couple of instruction books and taught himself to play. He became so good that he won the US Amateur Championship in 1900, ‘01 and ‘03, and in 1904 at Royal St George’s in Kent became the first foreigner to win the British Amateur title.
The win did not go down well with the Poms and perhaps they were still smarting from it when they toured Australia and bowled at the heads of Woodfull and Don Bradman all those years later. Travis recalled that they had gone out of their way to make him feel unwelcome in 1904 by giving him a caddie who was “a natural born idiot, and cross-eyed at that”. Officials refused to let him change the caddie so he won in spite of him.
RIGHT: The Maldon-born Walter Travis. PHOTO: Getty Images.
At the presentation Lord Northbourne reluctantly handed over the cup and said he hoped that “such a disaster as Mr Travis’ victory would never hit British sport again, and that not since the days of the Roman occupation had the British been subject to such an indignity.”
Despite this, he had his admirers. Harold Hilton, the 1892 British Open champion and first editor of Golf Monthly magazine wrote: “In style, the American (he was naturalised around 1888 after arriving in 1886 to manage a hardware business) champion is essentially what may be termed a made golfer, for his is a style which by the wildest stretch of imagination could not be called ornate.
“Still, it boasts useful attributes; it is business-like and determined, and is one in which no energy is wasted. Like all golfers who really scored a success at the game, he keeps the right elbow well into the right side, holding the hands very low, like Messrs. Hutchings, Fry and G. F. Smith – three of the best examples of golfers who have risen to eminence while lacking the advantage of playing the game in their youth. The swing of the club is not
long – in fact, it might be termed a three-quarter swing – but it is sufficient to get a free action with the wrist, and although Mr. Travis does not obtain an abnormal carry, he nevertheless gets a long roll on the ball, and against the wind in particular he is beyond the average as a driver, especially as he appears to have mastered the art of the scientific hooking.”
Travis also rubbed shoulders with Bobby Jones, founder of the US Masters in 1934, who had a similar record as an amateur, and acknowledged him for a putting lesson that changed his game. He also played the Old Course at St Andrews with Old Tom Morris while another fan was Ben Crenshaw who said simply: “He designed the best greens in the world.”
Efforts have been made to tally the number of titles Travis won with most agreeing that it was somewhere between 500 and 1,000. He is also said to have played 4,000 courses in his lifetime, smoking Ricoro Corona cigars and afterwards enjoying Old Crow whiskey and a game of poker.
At Maldon next month they will play for the Walter Travis Trophy, a Schenectady putter like the one he used to win the British title in 1904, which was donated by noted hickory clubmaker Ross Baker.
Maldon Golf Club dates from 1908 and although Travis, who was admitted to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1979, never set foot on the place, he’d no doubt approve of what has been achieved there entirely by volunteers.
The 18-hole sandscrape course is overlooked by Mount Tarrengower and winds its way through stands of beautiful native trees. While it cannot claim to have produced Travis, members point to Matt Jager, the grandson of life member Harvey Loftus whose home is 50 metres from the course. Although he hailed from Melbourne, Jager played a lot with Loftus when he was young and went on to win the 2010 Australian Amateur Championship.