Wayward Shots — The Man Who Knew Too Much
The pre-shot routine of the world’s best golfer involved so much wiggling that he looked like he was trying to take his pants off without using his hands. With his stationary rhumba concluded, the world’s best finally seemed ready for launch. He wasn’t. He paused. He paused again. Spectators checked their watches. They looked at train schedules. They pondered the meaning of existence…
“The original bad slow player,” said Byron Nelson, a contemporary of the methodical gentleman from Dallas, Ralph K. Guldahl. But: “a very wonderful player.”
How very wonderful? In a high school match in about 1929, Ralphie from Woodrow Wilson HS administered a thorough 6 and 5 whipping to Byron from Fort Worth Poly. A year or two later, the quiet young man won the Santa Monica Open, becoming the second youngest player ever to win a PGA tour event. At 19 years and 8 months, Guldahl was 3 months younger than the fourth and most current teenage champ, 2013 John Deere Classic winner Jordan Spieth.
In the heart of the Nelson-Snead-Hogan era, Ralph won the tournaments Byron, Sam and Ben wanted to win. “That was a hell of a streak he had from ’36 through ’39,” observed Dan Jenkins. “Two U.S. Opens, three Western Opens [which was virtually a major back then] and a Masters.”
The point here is not that Guldahl was so good, or that you haven’t heard of him, even though he was and you haven’t. Or that he was the last man to win the U.S. Open while wearing a tie. Or that he was a lovely man, kind and gentle, and retired as the beloved pro at Braemar Country Club in Tarzana, Calif., near Los Angeles.
No, the point is how he lost his mojo. Which was abruptly.
At some point during his glorious 1939 season, in which he won four tournaments, including the Masters, Ralph had an idea, or listened to someone else’s idea. He would write a book. He would explain how it was done. He would do so by dissecting his own method, and by attempting to relate the golf swing to other sports. The new author spent hours in front of the mirror, trying to see for himself the perfect way he set his hands for a putt or a pitch or a chip or a drive.
“Over 300 illustrations,” brags the cover of Groove Your Golf. “Technique. Training. Tips. Diet. Decathlon Table.”
Sales figures are not available, although we can be sure that Groove Your Golf did not move the needle in the manner of Hogan’s perennial best-selling instruction book, Five Lessons, which was published in 1957, eighteen years after GYG by Guldahl. And we can be sure that nothing much happened in Ralph’s career after he wrote it. He won the Milwaukee Open in 1940, and a team thing with Snead, and that was it.
“When he sat down to write that book, that’s when he lost his game,” recalled his wife, Laverne. Ralph Jr. agreed. Writing about golf had apparently cost Guldahl his ability to play it. He was the man who knew too much.
To be fair, Ralph himself did not think the intense introspection did him any harm. He blamed his sudden inability to break an egg, golf-wise, on the advent of World War II, and on travel and tournament fatigue. He developed a very bad case of homesickness; Laverne told me that one year, as he was setting out for another season in the sun, her husband cried all the way to train station. Still, the idea persists that champion golfers are almost never champion instructors, and Hogan’s book doesn’t disprove that. Writer Herbert Warren Wind and illustrator Anthony Ravielli did the heavy lifting for Five Lessons, not Ben.
“For well-learned activities like taking a free throw or hitting a simple putt,” writes Sian Beilock, a sports performance expert and the author of a book called Choke, “thinking too much about the step-by-step processes of what you are doing can be detrimental.”
So let’s think less and dissect less.
And for heaven’s sake, don’t write a how-to book. I did, with the estimable Steve Elkington. It’s called Five Fundamentals, and it turned out great. Although Elk continued to perform at a high level post-publication, my game crumbled like a cracker. I couldn’t beat Ralph Guldahl, and he’s been dead since 1987.
Curt Sampson is the author of 15 books, including the bestsellers “Hogan” and “The Masters.” His current book is “Furious George,” written with NBA coach George Karl.