Aug 5, 2016

Fourth in a series of articles covering prominent people and pertinent subjects associated with the centennial of the Illinois Section.

Tommy Armour was one of a kind.

Courtesy of the horrors of war, he was blind in his left eye, with a steel plate in his left shoulder. That would have sidelined many a lesser man, but Armour only became one of the greatest ball-strikers in golf history. He was a legendary player even before he arrived at Medinah Country Club in 1933. On the resume of "The Silver Scot" – before that, "The Black Scot" – were the following major titles:

  • U.S. Open champion, 1927
  • Western Open champion, 1929
  • PGA champion, 1930
  • British Open champion, 1931

On top of that, Armour had also won a pair of Canadian Opens. He would win a third while during his 11-year residence at Medinah.

His setting up shop there – a summer stop that replaced his residence at Detroit's Tam O'Shanter Golf Club, and one that complemented his winter home at the Boca Raton Club – put the big west side club on the national map.

Chick Evans wrote that Armour was "not only a great player, but he possesses also a striking personality, and from the moment he steps upon a course he appears to dominate it. Everyone else dwarfs into insignificance. Add that to his record, and one has a masterful combination."

Only Walter Hagen, the only player whose personality might have been larger, could match his achievements. But Armour accomplished winning the Big Five, as the quintet of championships conducted by the world's major golf associations were known, more quickly than the Haig, and while holding down a club job, something Hagen had long before given up in favor of exhibitions and endorsements.

Armour was just as likely to be in the shop at Medinah or on the practice tee – and the latter location is where he really gained his reputation. Armour, who rebuilt his swing as he rebuilt his life after mustard gas and shrapnel dealt him a one-two punch in World War I, was a great teacher.

Two brilliant instructionals, "How To Play Your Best Golf All The Time" and "A Round of Golf with Tommy Armour," along with a syndicated newspaper column, brought his ideas to the masses. But individual lessons to his club members and to their guests made his reputation because he made them better.

His secret was in how he learned to play again after months in rehabilitation, after regaining sight in one eye, after the surgeries.

"When I came out I wasn't so good," he said after winning the 1927 U.S. Open at Oakmont. "I couldn't focus my sight on the ball. It would be one place when I hit at it and at another when I hit again. It was a long time until I could break 90. This made me realize I had dropped 20 strokes off my game in the way. This was the difference between one eye and two eyes.

"But gradually my game came back to me. It came back through practice. Playing day after day I got accustomed to looking at the ball with one eye, to hitting it with one eye and to judging distances with one eye.

"I imagine you can get used to anything."

To which Armour insisted, this was no big deal.

"There was nothing unusual about this," he told syndicated columnist Joe Williams. "I had nothing to do with it. What I lost in vision in one eye, I gained in strength in the other. Except for the faltering start I made after the war, I have suffered no handicaps."

One who learned how to do that would have no trouble fixing the swing of a 20-handicapper. So Armour would spend hours on the practice tee at Medinah or Boca Raton, comfortable chair at the ready, big umbrella providing shade, scotch-and-water near, and point out to the member or his guest what he or she was doing wrong, and how to make it right.

Most of the time. Once in a while, he'd bring along a rifle and pick off chipmunks just to keep his sharpshooting skills up. The story goes that a member, disturbed that Armour was paying him no mind, said, "When are you gonna stop that and take care of me?" Said Armour as he reloaded, "Don't tempt me, you S.O.B."

John Andersen, a fixture at Medinah for decades, recalled in 2001 that not only did Armour's lessons stick with the subject, but the old pro remembered as well.

"Tom had a way of teaching that, when he knew who you were, you were his student forever," Andersen explained. "I remember one day I was teeing off on No. 3 and he was just finishing a round on the 18th green. He saw he, walked over, and said, 'Didn't I tell you to take the clubhead back farther?'"

More than just members sang his teaching praises.

"As a teacher, he is the greatest," said Babe Didrikson, who would win three U.S. Women's Open titles under his wing. "He is able to explain clearly so the pupil understands easily – and if the pupil does what he says, he can start playing good golf right away."

For Lawson Little, a small adjustment in stance to open the clubface and a few tips on course management allowed Little to repeat as champion of both the U.S. Amateur and British Amateur. Along with his other outlets, Armour was also a frequent participant in the Chicago Tribune Golf School, a series of early-evening group lessons promoted by the paper and organized by the Illinois Section. Armour would either work with students, or give a ball-striking exhibition, or both.

Armour knew how good he was, but tried not to make a big deal of it. As Chicago golf writer Herb Graffis once wrote, "he never gave himself sunstroke from the light of his own radiance."

For example, in 1927, during the final round of the U.S. Open, Armour began to piece together a speech. Not a victory speech, but one of congratulations for Harry Cooper, who held the lead as the back nine began, and still held it while watching from the clubhouse balcony as Armour stood in the 18th fairway, a stroke behind and 180 yards from the cup.

"I kept talking it over and over," he said a few weeks later. "I started it at the 11th green. I wanted to show him I was a good sport. I kept fighting to win, though. Somehow at the finish I felt honestly sorry that Harry lost."

The finish? A long iron to 10 feet below the hole as on-target as the machine gun he manned during the war, and a birdie putt so pure he turned to his caddie after striking it to say, "You'll have to work tomorrow, kid."

Armour won the 18-hole playoff 76-79, and ironically, six years later, Armour and Cooper were tied again, this time with what was called the Illinois Professional Championship – though not the Illinois PGA's Section title – on the line, and at Medinah, no less. Armour had already scored a 69 on No. 3, but on this occasion, it was Cooper winning the playoff with a 69 to Tommy's 75.

Decades later, he was approached by the producers of a new golf show to be the lead narrator. He said he'd not be the right man for that, and recommended one of his contemporaries. Gene Sarazen suddenly had a second career as the voice of "Shell's Wonderful World of Golf."

Along with a stellar playing and teaching career, Thomas Dickson Armour also contributed something to the lexicon of the game. Vexed by his putting one day, and not for the first time, he said, "I had the yips." He called it "a brain spasm that impairs the short game."

He didn't have them often, but the phrase caught on. It, like Armour's legend, will live as long as golf is played.