Horton Smith is one of the enigmatic golfers of the twentieth century. Winner of the first and third Masters tournaments, his name is vaguely recognizable, but aside from his winning Bobby Jones’ prized event, not many facts are easily recallable about Smith.
Born in the Ozark Mountains seven miles from Springfield, Missouri, Smith was called “the greatest putter who ever lived.” His autobiography, titled The Velvet Touch is really closer to a biography, or more accurately a hagiography. The book was co-written with Marian Benton, a self-described housewife and member of the Detroit Golf Club, where Smith served as the professional for eighteen years. The book was self-published in 1965 (D & J S23740) and the title is derived from Benton’s description of Smith’s approach to both putting and to life generally. In writing the book Benton spoke with dozens of Smith’s friends and fellow golfers including Bobby Jones, Tommy Armour, Cliff Roberts and Gene Sarazen.
Published two years after Horton’s death, Benton wrote The Velvet Touch in the third-person, and Bernard Darwin she is not. Her prose is straightforward, but lacking punch, “When Horton started to play, there were no matched sets of clubs and the clubs were not numbered.” And while describing her subject she sometimes lays it on a bit thick; describing Smith’s second Masters victory, “Perhaps Horton’s victory was a tribute to clean living and sterling endeavor.”
Smith started caddying at eleven years old and learned to play the game with only one club, a mid-iron (today’s 2-iron). At six feet-one-inches tall and weighing 163 pounds Smith was a natural talent. He met Chick Evans when he was sixteen years old at the Western Junior championship in Chicago, and was inspired to work on becoming a professional golfer. He qualified for the 1927 US Open at Oakmont when he was nineteen years old. His first win was the 1928 Oklahoma City Open. The next year he won nine tournaments and made the Ryder Cup, where he had to shift from steel shafts to hickory to play the tournament—at Moortown in England—because the R & A had not yet authorized the use of steel shafts.
Smith was a widely respected player when he arrived on the scene. O.B. Keeler wrote about him in 1930, “The boy is good. He has the best grooved swing I ever saw, and I really don’t see why he ever misses a shot, except that he is human. But if ever there were a perfect mechanical golfer, Horton Smith is it.” Smith received his nickname, “The Joplin Ghost” because he was relatively unknown and at the time played out of the Oak Hill Golf Club in Joplin, Missouri. He is described as having an “infectious smile.” Smith attributed his superior putting ability to having learned the game on sand greens, which were primarily flat; thus, he felt it allowed him to develop a uniform stroke. Grantland Rice wrote about Smith, “It remained for this young star from Joplin to appear suddenly with a golf swing that was sheer genius, as sound and as smooth a swing as Vardon, Braid, and Taylor, Jones or anyone else ever had.”
Describing his early experiences at Augusta, Smith recounts, “I like the daily changing of pairings which creates an air of sociability. It is one of the few ‘Opens’ in which we play twosomes and in which due to the system of qualification the field is limited to a number which permits unhurried play and allows every contestant a ‘preferred’ starting time.”
In addition to his two Masters victories Horton Smith has thirty-two professional wins, he played on three Ryder Cup teams—which were all victorious—and is a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. During his second Ryder Cup appearance, during the Depression in 1933, there was not enough money to send the captain across the Atlantic so Smith and Walter Hagen jointly managed the team.
Smith had a reputation as being straight-laced: he didn’t smoke, drink, gamble or curse and liked to drink milk. Benton describes Smith as the anti-Hagen, “The two of them made the most amazing contrast ever seen in the sports world and they got along perfectly. They differed in their opinions about everything from marriage, to ties, to women.” In spite of their differences Benton mentions they maintained a deep and lasting friendship.
Smith married Barbara Bourne, the daughter of Augusta National charter member Alfred Bourne, in 1938. Marrying Barbara changed Smith’s life since the Bournes inherited significant wealth from her grandfather’s position as head of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, although their marriage appears to have been an unhappy one. Smith enlisted in the Army in 1942 and served as a Lieutenant until 1945, in primarily administrative positions, and as a golf companion for generals. Horton and Barbara had one child, Alfred, born in 1943, although they separated two years later when she filed a, “Divorce decree…in Reno on grounds of mental cruelty.” After their divorce Barbara denied him visits with his son.
The book provides a detailed look at the 1934 and 1936 Masters, including some little known details about the tournaments, such as the fact that the P.G.A. protested the playing of the final round of the 1936 tournament because of torrential rains since the course was so wet. The book is an interesting look back at golf during the Great Depression and describes how golfers of the day had to hold down day jobs as professionals at a golf club and also travel the “circuit” to earn modest sums of money. There was no official coordination of tournaments during this time period; Smith tells of a time when he went to a tournament in Sacramento, practiced for two days and then read in the newspaper that the tournament was canceled. Smith went on to serve as the President of the PGA from 1952 to 1954, and among the highlights of his tenure was his decision to allow Joe Louis to play in the San Diego Open, a controversial move at the time because of Louis’s race.
The book is organized into four parts, the fourth part at the end of the book runs about fifty pages, and contains Smith’s playing record and instructional tips. The inaugural Masters winner died young, at age 55, of Hodgkin’s disease. Bobby Jones said at his death, “He had the most belligerent dedication to golf of anyone I’ve ever known.”
The book is an interesting look into Horton Smith’s life and contains many pictures of him, although it falls short of providing real insights into the man. One comes away longing for more details into what Benton describes as the one unsuccessful facet of his life, “in the role of husband and father.” And, into what really motivated and drove the man. While the book is collectible because it is the work of the first Masters winner, a real, insightful biography of Horton Smith remains to be written.