Thu

16

May

2013

The One-Iron and the Aesthetic of Golf

Why You Should Be Cheering For Jason Day This Week

Golf may be the most precise sport in the world. The difference between success and failure can be measured in millimeters: whether it is on the clubface, the blade of grass or the edge of the cup. The scoring is objective: we count strokes. More than any other sport, the difference between winning and second place is miniscule. One stroke accounts for less than 0.35% of the number of strokes required for even-par over four rounds of golf. Tiger's dominating performance last week at the Players Championship? After four days, his 2-stroke victory was a mere 0.72% better than the three players that tied for second with 277 strokes. But a victory by a mere one or two strokes is unambiguous. Success requires accuracy and precision and repetitive practice.

 

But it is the aesthetic of golf that nurtures our love of the game.

 

I am certain this contradiction of aesthetic and mechanical precision is no accident. It is the requirement for precision that makes the aesthetic of a beautiful swing so appealing. The essence of golf is the swing. When performed by artists like Jones, Hogan, Nicklaus and Couples, the swing is described in the poetic language of beauty, harmony, flow and balance. 

 

This brings us to Jason Day this week.

 

The best tidbit this week (from Kyle Porter's excellent Eye on Golf and the PGA Tour website) is that Jason Day put a one-iron into his bag this week at the HP Byron Nelson Championship. A one-iron! Players used to use the one-iron because it allowed more flexibility on flight and trajectory than a fairway wood. Of course the cost of this flexibility was that it was the most difficult instrument to play.

 

The one-iron is well known as the most difficult club to hit. We all know Lee Trevino's joke about the one-iron. Because it is so difficult, a perfectly struck one-iron is a shot and swing to behold, by both the player and spectator. Prove you can hit the one-iron, and you can hit anything.

 

The one-iron also has an amazing history in golf, perhaps more than any other single club.  

 

Consider one of the most famous photographs in golf.

1950 US Open: Hogan with a one-iron at the 18th at Merion [click to enlarge]
1950 US Open: Hogan with a one-iron at the 18th at Merion [click to enlarge]

Not by accident, this picture hangs in my office. It represents almost everything we love about golf - so much so it seems pointless to try to describe it in words here. It is best to just soak it in again (you can click on it to enlarge). For an excellent video history of this photo by Hy Peskin of Life magazine, I recommend this short video by Frank Fitzpatrick of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

 

Interestingly, Hogan's one-iron in that picture was stolen that night so that he did not even have it in his bag when he won the subsequent 18 hole playoff. The one-iron was ultimately recovered and verified by Hogan himself 33 years later. There is a nice history of the club at the website of the USGA Museum, where the club currently resides.

 

The Hogan one-iron also had a bit of an adventure itself since being recovered and put in the USGA Museum. In this amusing piece written by former USGA Executive Director David Fay, Fay admits that he and a friend took it out for a bit of a spin one night at a local park in 2005. Although not explicitly admitted to in the article, it seems clear they were encouraged by some adult beverages.

 

Is it a mere coincidence that the U.S. Open is being held at Merion this year, the site of the famous Hogan photo? Although the reports suggest Day is experimenting with the one-iron in preparation for the Open Championship at Muirfield, if it works out this week for Day in Texas, the golf gods will surely reward him for bringing a one-iron to Merion for the U.S Open.

 

The one-iron is mostly gone now. This good piece by Jason Sobel (then of ESPN) in 2005 summed up the dying state of the one-iron - and that was 8 years ago. In fact, the story about Day this week indicated that TaylorMade had to bend a Rocketbladez Tour two-iron because they didn't make any one-irons. To further emphasize the demise of the long irons, that two-iron must have been a custom club because TaylorMade's own website and specs for these irons does not even show a two-iron, much less a one-iron.

 

JACK AND THE ONE

 

The other great one-irons struck in major championship history are the hat-trick by Jack Nicklaus. The first was in the 1967 U.S Open at Baltusrol in New Jersey. Leading Arnold Palmer by 4 strokes on the last hole, Jack hit a wayward tee shot, punched back to the fairway and was still 230 years uphill from the 18th green.

 

Jack pured his 1-iron 230 yards uphill and went on to break Hogan's U.S. Open scoring record of 276 by making the birdie putt. It led to the Sports Illustrated cover below (the cover does kind of show that Jack was not in the greatest of shape when he won in 1967 and it begs the question whether Lumpy Herron was trying to channel Jack at Arnold's Tournament a few years back).

 

Nicklaus Wins 1967 US Open after hitting a one-iron on 18 [and Lumpy at Bay Hill in 2009]
Nicklaus Wins 1967 US Open after hitting a one-iron on 18 [and Lumpy at Bay Hill in 2009]

 

Of course Jack's most famous one-iron shot was on the penultimate hole of the 1972 U.S. Open. Having staved off a charge from Arnold Palmer a few holes back, Nicklaus came to the par-3 17th at Pebble Beach. Nicklaus hit his one-iron perfectly and gently bounced it off the flagstick, where it settled inches from the cup. Tournament over.

 

 

Nicklaus has a third amazing one-iron to complete his hat trick. He hit this one-iron in the last round of the Masters in 1975 on his way to his fifth green jacket in what some considred to be the greatest tournament ever played at the time. The leaderboard included Watson, Irwin, Casper, Trevino and Kite. More significantly, Weiskopf finished only one stroke back tied with Johnny Miller who shot an astonishing 65-66 on the weekend. The tournament and the one-iron can't be better explained than as by Dan Jenkins in the April 21, 1975 Sports Illustrated:

 

If Nicklaus won the day with his own heroics, he did it with one long iron shot at the 15th hole and with a birdie putt at the 16th that traveled 40 wondrous feet into the hole and made Nicklaus and his caddie, Willie Peterson, resemble Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

 

When Nicklaus reached his drive in the 15th fairway he trailed Weiskopf by one stroke and he knew he had to have a birdie at the very least. The shot was a 240-yard one-iron over the water on this par-5 that has decided so many Masters. You knew Jack liked it the instant he took the cut at it and indeed he later called it the best pressure shot of his life. For the entire distance the ball was on the flag, a double eagle without knickers and the thumb off the shaft. Not really a deuce, of course, but one heck of a golf shot when he had to have it. It gave him an easy two-putt birdie from roughly 15 feet, and sent him glint-eyed toward the 16th. He liked the iron on the 16th but it fell short, and now he faced one of those long putts he hadn't made in a couple of days. It was right on line and the speed looked perfect. One last curl to the left, and down it went and Jack leaped and started running to his right. The ensuing roar alone might have destroyed any other competitors but Miller and Weiskopf.

 

So, Jack's one-iron also won the 1975 Masters. As a long aside, one can't help but notice the storytelling and writing that went into the stories back then. It is the one thing we miss in golf writing and sports writing in general with the internet and need for immediate consumption. There is value in having some time to digest events before trying to put the tournament or game into words. It seems even more significant in sports like golf and baseball. The SI Vault is an amazing place to revisit this writing and reporting.

 

For another example, this is how Jenkins summarize the tournament and story [btw, "Manny" is a reference from the beginning of the piece and presumably a fictional movie producer Jenkins is describing the "greatest tournament ever player"]:

 

Well, Miller's Saturday 65 was not the final settling of any such debate, but it did make Player's 73 seem like 173 in contrast. Besides that, Miller's round might have been much, much lower. He was all over the hole on the back nine and only one putt dropped. At the 17th, in fact, he had the ball three feet from the flag and it dived into the hole but spun out.

 

All in all, it was clearly one of the landmark 18s ever fired on the Augusta National, and it put Johnny Miller in shape to add all sorts of thrills to Sunday's fury.

 

In the final analysis, this was a Masters of unique scoring, basically because the greens were so much slower than ever. Too much rain throughout the winter was the official reason given and too much rain earlier in the week. A real old-fashioned Augusta wind never came up, either. Hale Irwin's last-round 64, that matched the course record, and which leaped him over dozens of people and into a fourth-place tie with the first-round leader, Bobby Nichols, furnished proof of this, together with the other scoring, and it also gave an indication of how inviting the Augusta National would be for Nicklaus, Miller and Weiskopf when they would get out there on it to thrash around and drive the world of golf utterly mad with suspense.

 

Other than the fact that he is probably inhuman when it comes to dealing with pressure and is beyond argument the greatest golfer mankind has produced, there is not much else to say about Jack Nicklaus. He loves his wife and kids, is loyal to his friends, he is kind to animals and he can recite the Preamble.

 

In a sense, if it hadn't been for the brave manner in which those glamorous losers performed, and the promise they have, Jack Nicklaus would be on the verge of destroying tournament golf. Why do you think that makes a good film, Manny?

 

More proof that the aesthetic of golf is critical is how the story is so enhanced by Jenkins' beautiful writing.

 

The beautiful aesthetic of a well struck one-iron already has its place in golf history. However, it would be amazing to see a player accept the challenge and reap the rewards of a beautifully struck one-iron. 

 

That is why we should be cheering for Jason Day.

 

 

Douglas Han

@theteesheet