British courtesy unnerves US pros

In 1960/61 I spent several months in the US playing their winter tour. I travelled there with Eric Brown and our first tournament was the Los Angeles Open at the Rancho Club, which is opposite the 20th Century Fox building, alongside Pico Boulevarde.

In the first round I was drawn with Freddie Wampler and Don Fairfield, who were respected US pros although not leading money winners.

We started early and it was a misty morning. I had been given a putter by the US manufacturer Carsten which I particularly liked: it had a flat square head with a blade comprised of a plate of brass. The best thing about it was that the blade was a quarter of an inch AHEAD of the shaft.

It completely baffles me why almost all pros now use putters with the blade sited a quarter of an inch or more behind the line of the shaft. I cannot see what advantage it gives and you have to go through the ball so much further to ensure you don’t hook the putt – but I digress.

On this morning I hit a good drive but put my second shot about 25 yards past the flag under the shade of some trees, leaving me a very long putt with a big borrow. I was down a slope and could not see the hole.

My putter felt pretty good however and I gave it a confident strike. When you play the game all your life you immediately have a pretty good idea of whether or not a putt is going to be close, and I knew this one had a very good chance.

My caddy, however, was not the brightest of individuals and had not bothered to loosen the flag before I putted. I saw him start to pull the flag out and it seemed to get stuck.

“Get that flag out,” I yelled.

He heaved and heaved and eventually got it out just as the ball was dropping in the hole, although I was not able to see this from where I was standing.

“That’s a good birdie start,” I thought, walking to the next tee.

As I was bending down to tee up first, Don Fairchild said: “It’s not your honour, Max. Your ball touched the bottom of the flag so its a two-shot penalty.”

“Good God,” I said. “This is the first round of my first tournament here and you want to knock two strokes off me!”

He was resolute, and I was upset. “I’m not satisfied,” I said, and walked the 50 yards back to the spectators round the green.

I walked up to a tall, thickset man and asked him if he had seen whether my ball had touched the flag before dropping in the hole.

“Yes it did,” he confirmed.

That was good enough for me. I walked back to the tee and said to them: “You’re quite right. I apologise. Its your honour.

Wampler teed up and addressed the ball. He stood there waggling the clubhead, and seemed to take an age. Eventually he stepped back.

“Oh Jesus, that’s finished me,” he muttered to himself again and again, walking round in circles.

I told him that I was still only one over and would soon make that back, and we got on well from then on. But in fact it did make a difference; I only just failed to make the cut while Eric Brown finished second and picked up a big cheque.

I followed Eric on the last round and for a few holes the actor James Garner, who is a low-handicap golfer, joined me. James starred in many films and for decades on TV was Jim Rockford of ‘The Rockford Files’. Eric was playing really well and would have forced a play-off if his last putt had not lipped the hole.

Eighteen months later I won a big tournament at the Ramstein US Air Force base near Frankfurt in Germany, after a sudden-death play-off with Bob Charles.

While I was there a big US airman came up to me. “You don’t remember me, do you?” he asked. I had to say no.

“I was the one who told you that your ball had touched the flag at the Rancho Club,” he said.

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