In 70 years of Golf Digest, no two shots have ever been the same
This anniversary is the right time for reflection.
Welcome to the first-ever purely digital issue of Golf Digest. That our magazine’s 70th Anniversary is falling during such a strange time compelled us to do something special, and so we’re making Issue #6 available for free to all. It’s a collection of our best archival content plus new stories to get you ready for this different golf season that’s upon us. We figured now is a good time to reflect, as the way we live, work and play is teed up for change of historic proportions.
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Other entities might not make so much noise about this anniversary, but in golf there’s no number more important. It’s the defining line. Doesn’t matter where or against whom you’re playing—there’s no faking it if you’re breaking 70. In this case, we’re going the other direction, but I say it’s all the same.
I know a guy who has had a heckuva career breaking 70 in the world of high finance, but he has never done it on the golf course. Every time we greet, he wrinkles his nose and says, “Max, have you written any good articles about how to get out of a bunker lately?” His intent is to belittle, but I never give back more than a smile. On a range of consequence from selling balloons to curing cancer, we can all agree writing about a game is a very makable distance to the former. But the other insinuation from my friend is that our material is repetitive, the stuff of small minds. He and I haven’t crossed paths since COVID-19 disrupted the world, but I can hear him snorting, “Seventy years of Golf Digest!?” He thinks there’s only one way to get out of a bunker.
It’s astonishing to say it and mean it, but I’ve never proofread nor written the same story twice in my 14 years at Golf Digest. Which makes me, of course, a short-timer standing on the shoulders of many giants dating back to Bill Davis, who published the first issue out of his Chicago one-bedroom apartment in 1950. From the landmark features on important social issues like segregated clubs, immigrant course labor and the yips, down to the most humble sidebar’s mention of a tour pro’s favorite cologne—all or almost all possess that individual spark of magic that’s inherent to golf, how no two shots are ever really quite the same.
Our longevity is a testament to the observation made about sportswriting by George Plimpton: “The smaller the ball, the more formidable the literature.” I once quoted this to Serena Williams as a way of introducing myself, adding that her sport “was pretty good,” and I’m proud to say it was the one time out of a few attempts when I got the iconic Anna Wintour to laugh. Which leaves me plumb out of names to drop. Point is, there’s a richness and mystery to golf that keeps us excited to cover it and for you to read about it.
The first time I picked up Golf Digest was the summer of 1996. Heading into freshman year of high school, I’d landed a job caddieing at Ekwanok Country Club in Manchester, Vt. The picnic tables and vending machines outside the cart barn were the caddie shack, and there were always a few damp and dogeared copies lying around. First-year “rats” didn’t get called out for loops until the afternoon, if at all, so there was always time for curling up in a spot of shade or sun with the magazine after all the card games, bickering and pranks had worn thin.
Newly hooked on the game, I wanted desperately to be good. To figure out how to make pars and not too many bogeys. The full swing seemed an absolute puzzle, and toward the end of the summer I could recite the caption copy on Steve Elkington’s swing sequence. Growth spurt was still an abstract concept to me, and most of the par 4s on the course I couldn’t reach in two. But I had a 64-degree wedge because I was a Phil guy.
Little did I realize it then, but I was hitting on the same line as Davis, who established Golf Digest’s mission: “From the beginning, we believed golf was a fun game that becomes more enjoyable the better you play it. Our aim was to provide readers with a balance of easy-to understand instruction and service articles along with entertainment and informative human-interest features.”
Fast-forward to now, and this really hasn’t changed.
The best history lesson I can offer about a magazine nearly twice my age is a crash one I recently took called Covers 101. Together, they reflect a superficial but true sense of how the game has evolved across seven decades. Though there’s a charm to the enduring nature of certain problems (see the slow-play coverline in October 1965 or the one about slicing in August 1979), and the cycles of plaid, polyester and pleats are laughable, what’s most fascinating is the change in mood.
You can imagine the teeming excitement in the expanding post-war suburbs over this game that men and women could play, even together, with their newfound free time. Then color TV and stars like Arnie and Jack ushering in an era of the game as entertainment staged for the masses and managed according to business principles, leading the way for talents like Payne Stewart to make real money, but not so much he wouldn’t pose with a monkey dressed in argyle socks (July 1987). Two golfers whose cover debuts were as amateurs, a paunchy Phil Mickelson in April 1991 and a lithe Tiger Woods in November 1994, foretell the explosion of fitness training that would truly make golf a sport. The attitudes toward gender on display in October 1959 and May 2014 suggest we’ve either come a long way or no distance at all. Then again, maybe the covers of September 1952 and March 2011 prove nothing is more timeless than a dude hitting a ball teed from another dude’s mouth.
What’s to come in the next 70 years of golf, or even civilization? The editor who made Golf Digest what it is, Jerry Tarde, once wrote about golfers and big anniversaries: “The question we ask ourselves inevitably is, will the grass be greener on the other side?”
As the world paused in this pandemic, never before has the phrase “the other side” rung so sharply. The way we live and work and play is teed up for change of historic proportions. I’m optimistic. Our game, which can be played alone yet parallel, happens to be oddly well-suited to a future where contagion is top of mind. Maybe concern around contact sports will lead more people to the golf course, or maybe a shift toward walking and away from 19th-hole decadence will return the game to a sort of new purism.
We can only wait and see. In the meantime, this feels like the right moment for reflection. The contents of this issue are a mix of classics from our archive plus new treatments, and together are a celebration of golf as we knew it.