Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Chapter 2: Who's That On the Lid

The Golden Gentleman

       Abe Mitchell was an English golfer, who might as well have been an ornamental pineapple for all the curiosity he engenders standing atop the Ryder Cup. Yet there he is in solid gold, representing mankind.  Abe grew up on Ashdown Forest, described by 19th-century traveler William Cobbet as "the most villainously ugly spot in England I ever saw," and by William Pentecoste, in 1862:

          A waste of huts and dens
                 Where human nature seldom mends;
                            No polish’d schools, but turfy fires
                                       Far away from village spires. 

Abe Mitchell  1887-1947
   The miracle of Ashdown Forest golfers began in 1888, when some rich and titled Englishmen laid out a golf course on land south of London owned by Earl de la Warr but occupied by indigenous people who lived there legally by royal edict. The foresters (as I will call them) objected to the golf course. To ease the situation, the wise members of what would become Royal Ashdown Forest Golf Club gave golf clubs and balls to the foresters, who seemed to have a natural understanding for their use. Their feel for golf ignited an industriousness never before observed, and a proprietary bond formed between the club members (the toffs) and the foresters.  Working together, they formed an artisans’ club to be named after the Earl’s son, Viscount Cantelupe. In 1892, the Cantelupe became the second oldest Artisan Golf Club in Britain.

(Peter Alliss defines Artisan golf as follows: "An Artisan player either cannot afford to be, or is not acceptable to be, a full member of a golf club, probably because of working-class origins. Some English clubs may allow a limited form of membership with restricted playing times.”)

Horace Hutchinson by John Singer Sargent
Horace Hutchinson
If it hadn’t been for Horace Hutchinson, young Abe Mitchell could easily have slipped irrevocably into professionalism. Hutchinson, the first British Amateur Champion, in 1886 and 1887, had moved to the Royal Ashdown Club in 1897, where members had accepted Abe and his game as something special, showing his talents to unsuspecting guests, undoubtedly winning wagers along the way.  As Abe matured he played frequently with Abe Bailey, owner of diamond mines. Hutchinson, born in 1869, was a writer, Oxford historian, and mentor of golf -- and the first English Captain of the R&A and consultant to the USGA. He wrote in good humor such  handy advice as would be useful at Celtic Manor. "Adopt a mood of 'silent hatred' for your opponent, until the conclusion of the-match." I can imagine he had warned Abe that he was much too good a golfer to turn professional. No Englishman would turn professional if he could afford not to.

In 1910, when Hutchinson captained the British Amateur Internationals, he recruited 23-year-old Abe, making Abe the first Artisan golfer accepted into the high ranks of British amateur golf, which spoke volumes for each man.

Abe played the event three times from 1910-12, making a fine reputation for himself. Trouble started, however, when he won, in 1910 and 1912, the coveted Gold Vase at Sunningdale, a stroke play competition for amateurs sponsored by Golf Illustrated.  Several amateurs wrote to London newspapers questioning "Mr. Mitchell's right to call himself an amateur since any hired workman who plays as well as Mitchell surely has in mind to turn professional  -- tomorrow, next year -- it doesn't matter."

This was the Hutchinson-like response in Golf Illustrated:

           "It is lamentable that some responsible writers on sports are guilty of flagrant breaches of good taste. Mr. Mitchell is a man of unimpeachable character and to say that he is practically a professional, or suggest that he is about to become one, is simply the grossest impertinence.  His future intentions have nothing whatsoever to do with his present amateur status.  They are nobody's business but his own.  I know that Mr. Mitchell has no intention of becoming a professional and no desire to be one.  Such statements must inevitably prejudice him in the eyes of other amateurs and deprive him of full enjoyment at his favorite recreation.  Instead of pushing fine players of the artisan class into professionlism, the amateur's duty should be to preserve and cherish them for amateurism.  One of the glories of golf has been that owing to the facilities afforded him, the poor man can equal the rich in proficiency."

       The more Abe took top places in amateur events, the more his amateur status was debated.  An Artisan of such ability," they said, "must have it in mind to become a professional."  As the year passed, they said it more often. 
       Abe did not show up for his tee time at the 1913 U.S. Amateur Championship in Garden City, to which he had been invited as runner-up in the British Amateur. "His name was called out at the starting place," Sam Soloman wrote, "and he did not answer.  It was known and appreciated by a few that he had saved the American authorities from a difficult situation." 

        At age 26, Abe quietly turned professional, and soon went off to war for four years in the Royal Artillery. When he returned, he played in the "Victory" Open at St. Andrews in 1919, and won it. He got a medal and not the Claret Jug because it was too soon for the players to be in form.  The Open was declared unofficial by the R&A, and Abe would become known as the greatest golfer never to win the Open.  That year, however, he did win the British equivalent of the PGA Championship.

Bernard Darwin had this to say:
           "Of our players who are now in their prime, Abe Mitchell always seems to me to look more or less equally unhappy throughout.  I don't think he is positively unhappy, but I think that he would rather be playing a peaceful game with a friend away from the shouting and the tumult.  Big golf to him is hard and occasionally distasteful work, as is going to his office to a man who would rather stay at home in his garden.  That is at least the impression he gives me and it may be the reason why so truly magnificent a hitter of the ball has not won the Open Championship.

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