I can see it now as vividly as I saw it then, silhouetted against the ocean’s burning sunset: the thrilling tree looking down on Cypress Point Golf Club’s 16th hole in its heyday: the 210-yard par three you had to carry across a deep elbow of the Pacific to a tiny green. You could play it safe by bailing out to a safe area to the left, but only cowards did that!
The 1950s were the heyday too of amateur golf, and it was a grave breach of the rules of golf if, under any circumstances, you took one penny for playing the game. To be a professional golfer at that time was to be on the wrong side of the line that divided those who played for honor and glory from those who sold their prowess for money. An amateur golfer who accepted money for playing was considered to have “soiled” his amateur status and was expelled from amateur ranks. For many world-class amateurs, the prospect was more than a technicality. Great amateur golfers, well aware of the stigma of turning professional, pondered long and hard the costs and benefits of giving up their amateur status. Most didn’t do it. In 1959, less than two dozen touring professionals made money on the professional circuit. Some who did turn pro quickly regretted it and often had to jump through hoops before being “granted” their amateur status again by the United States Golf Association (an austere and stern arbiter of amateurism).
Then, in 1960, the handshake of Mark McCormack with the phenomenal amateur golfer Arnold Palmer sounded the death knell of amateur golf and ushered in the modern era of sports management and marketing, commercial endorsements and the vanquishing ascendancy of money.
In only 60 years, professional golfers have gone from being disdained as discredited amateurs to lionized – and sham – heroes (heroes don’t play for money). A complete reversal of image. Amazing. Professional golf was able to push aside the apparently mighty oak of amateurism with an ease, a swiftness, and a finality that is rarely talked about.
Today’s colossal merchandising and advertising network has created a framework in which the original purpose of athletic prowess, to win for the glory of it, for the sheer exultant triumph of it, has been eclipsed by the sheer money-drivenness of it. I think something very important has been lost. Golf’s purity now filters through money’s adulteration like the sun through black glass.
The thrilling cypress tree of Cypress Point’s 16th hole is no longer alive, no longer formidable, but is an old propped-up skeleton, a black-limbed vestige of the past.
And now and then I wonder if golf too, deep in its great intricate heart, grieves, knowing that something bad has happened to it.