Walter Travis (1862 ‒ 1927) “The Old Man”
“There never will be another Walter J.” — John G. Anderson
The names of champion golfers have been recorded in the history of the game for nearly 150 years. Names such as Tom Morris, Willie Park, Willie Dunn, John Low, C.B. Macdonald, Jerry Travers, W.C. Fownes, Francis Ouimet, Bob Jones, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods are, and will be, remembered by many of today’s golfers and golf historians.
They are remembered as “champions” but some were also involved in golf-related activities — as course architects, rules officials, designers of golf equipment, editors and publishers of books and magazines, advocates of certain methods of practice, golf course construction and maintenance, promoters of strategies for practice and for winning a match, and as teachers of the game. While some became expert in one or more of these golf related activities, Travis was recognized as an authority in all of them, and more, in his endless search for perfection in playing the game and promoting an understanding of golf’s rules, customs and traditions for all to enjoy.
Born in Australia in 1862, Travis attended schools in Melbourne before coming to America in 1886. In America he worked for a Melbourne hardware and construction company based in Australia and New York, and he later worked for a Wall Street investment firm. In 1890 he became a naturalized citizen of the United States.
His golf career was short by all standards. It started in 1896 when he bought his first set of golf clubs in England during a business trip to London. He was thirty-five years of age, and in a matter of weeks he joined a newly formed golf club in Bayside, New York. He bought all of the books on golf he could find and immersed himself in the fundamentals of the game. Right after joining his first golf club he entered a club tournament and won the handicap event, and low gross score, and brought home his first, and “most treasured trophy,” a pewter tankard.
Two years after he hit his first golf ball he qualified to play in the 1898 U.S. Amateur. He practiced incessantly and two weeks before the event he spent a week in bed with malaria which left him in a weakened condition. After surviving the early rounds Travis lost in the semi-finals to Findlay S. Douglas, a younger player born in Scotland who was recognized as the leading contender for the title. The following year he met Douglas again in the semi-finals and was beaten once more, but that would be the last time that Douglas would beat Travis.
On Monday, January 2, 1900 Ekwanok’s Board of Governors awarded Travis a lifetime Honorary Membership in recognition of his work in designing and supervising the construction of the golf course. He was the 31st member to be admitted to the club membership.
That same year Travis was rated as one of the three “scratch” players by the Metropolitan Golf Association. He won the Medalist trophy and the U.S. Amateur Championship and he won both titles again in 1901.
He won the Amateur once more in 1903, winning 4 and 3 over Eban Byers from Pittsburgh. Travis was medalist again in 1906 when Byers won the title, and also in 1907 and 1908 when Jerome Travers started his remarkable career as the leading Amateur Champion. Travis won many state and regional championships and medalist titles; far more than any other player.
By 1904 Travis decided to journey to Great Britain to try for “The Amateur” being held in Sandwich, England at Royal St. George’s Golf Club. He was welcomed by several professionals who knew about his amazing record in America, but his reception at the Amateur made him feel that he was an unwanted contestant. He was assigned an inexperienced, cross-eyed caddie who irritated him; but he was there to win the Amateur and he did. He defeated former champions Harold Hilton, and Horace Hutchinson and in the final round he met Great Britain’s longest hitter, Ted Blackwell. While Blackwell out-drove him on every hole, Travis with a stellar iron play and a center-shafted Schenectady Putter managed to beat his opponent four up and three to play. He was the first player from America to win the British Amateur.
Several years later the R. & A. banned the Schenectady describing it as a mallet, but the U.S.G.A. did not go along with the ban. This new club became a huge success in America, and later in Great Britain after they removed the ban.
During the period that Travis was winning major tournaments he pioneered in the study of grasses for greens and fairways years before the U.S.G.A. organized the Green Section. For seven years Travis had repeatedly put pressure on the U.S.G.A. until they finally organized a program to study turf and grasses suitable for different conditions of climate, rainfall, and temperature.
Travis founded and was editor and publisher of “The American Golfer” in 1908 — dedicating it to comments, instruction, gossip and to golf’s highest ideals. He had published his first book “Practical Golf” in 1901 and soon after his next book, “The Art of Putting.” But now his monthly magazine gave Travis an immediate audience for the many concepts he developed about golf. He promoted the correct use of terms relating to golf such as: “The committee in charge of the golf course is a “Green Committee,” the “links” is a “green” and many other terms used in Scotland from the beginnings of the game. He recommended oiling wood shafts of clubs, but — “only when they are thoroughly dry.” He experimented with sand and gave advice on the use of “fine, sharp, white sand” for building and maintaining greens.
Of the many legacies that Travis left to the golfing world the most visible are the fifty courses he designed, modified, or served as a consultant during a period of twenty-seven years. Starting in 1899 with his first, Ekwanok, he arranged to work with John Duncan Dunn who apprenticed in Scotland with his father, designer of over 130 courses in Great Britain. The talents of these two men complemented each other and they later worked together in remodeling the Essex Country Club in Manchester, Massachusetts in 1908. They designed and built Cape Arundel in Maine in 1921, and later that same year Travis was invited to talk to a group in Ontario, Canada about building a course near Niagara Falls. They had been considering a nine hole course, but Travis felt that the property was so spectacular he convinced them to build an eighteen hole course. The course today, Lookout Point, has a commanding view from its hillside location where the mist rising from Niagara Falls can be seen twenty miles away.
Travis remodeled his home course, Garden City, in 1906 and installed a practice putting green with half size holes where he would spend hours perfecting his putting skills. In that same year Travis and Donald Ross worked together and completely changed Pinehurst #2 from a ladies’ course to the championship layout it is today. He worked again with Ross in 1910 consulting on the Chevy Chase course in Washington, D.C.
In 1921, when George Crump had completed his course at Pine Valley he invited Travis to consult with him on each of the holes and in that same year Travis was selected to design a thirty-six hole course for the Westchester-Biltmore Hotel. Both of these layouts at the Westchester Country Club are championship courses where many amateur and professional tournaments are scheduled year after year. Other well-known courses designed by Travis include The Round Hill Club (Greenwich, CT), Country Club of Scranton (PA), Garden City Golf Club (Garden City, NY), Cape Arundel Golf Club (Kennebunkport, ME), The Golf Club at Equinox (Manchester, VT), and Camden Country Club in South Carolina (which was originally known as Kirkwood Links).
In 1903 Travis wrote a letter to a young student at St. Paul’s school in Garden City to whom he had given some advice and encouragement after watching him hit golf balls, His letter, in part read: “Golf develops the good qualities of a man’s nature and softens the poor ones. It cultivates patience and endurance under adversity and yet keeps the fires of hope alive. It is a leveler of rank and class where rich men and poor meet on common ground.”
The young student who Travis had befriended was John Ellis Knowles. Knowles became Intercollegiate champion while a student at Yale and soon qualified to play in the U.S. Amateur. He played in the Amateur two consecutive years but never survived the quarter-final round. He was a member of Apawamis, served as president, won the club championship sixteen times and also won club championships at Round Hill and Pine Valley. He was also a member and great friend of Eqwanok. Travis didn’t live long enough to know of Ellis’ exceptional lifetime record, but Ellis often recalled and lived by the advice given to him by Travis.
In 1915 as Travis was getting ready to retire from participating in major tournaments, he won the Metropolitan Amateur, for the third time by defeating John G. Anderson in a field that included several national champions. Travis was then fifty-three years old, competing against men half his age.
In a speech made at the conclusion of the championship, Anderson praised Travis for his many contributions to golf and added
“American golfers as a body must and do grant that in his withdrawal goes a man from active participation in the greatest game we have, who has and will forever play the game with the finest of spirit of sportsmanship, the strictest personal adherence to the rules, a splendid opponent, a generous victor, and a lion in defeat. No one ever heard Mr. Travis make an excuse. Did you ever think of that you golfers? Surely all of us, when we gather round the festive club banquets this year, should toast the past performances and the love, the passionate love, which he gives to the sport which we too love as best we can. Golfers may come and go but there will never be another ‘Walter J.’ the name by which his friends know him best.”
In his remaining years Travis suffered from a bronchial condition which later developed into tuberculosis. He was unable to devote five to six days of intensive practice and concentration to play tournament golf.
Walter J. Travis died in his sleep on July 31, 1927 in Denver, Colorado and according to his wishes he was cremated and buried at Dellwood Cemetery Manchester, VT, about 400 yards from Ekwanok, the course to which he was devoted and loved during his lifetime.
This information was obtained from Club records and from Bob Labbance’s “the Old Man,” the biography of Walter J. Travis published by Sleeping Bear Press in 2000.