Some of the words used to describe Jerry Travers have not been kind-cold, somber, ruthless-yet these were the qualities that made him the most feared golfer of his time. In a nine-year stretch from 1906-1915, Travers won four U.S. Amateurs, five Metropolitan Amateurs and a U.S. Open. Only Bob Jones won more amateur titles and Travers was one of only five amateurs to win the Open. And his battles with Walter Travis, in the words of Herbert Warren Wind, “formed the crucible in which a talented young golfer was made into the greatest match player of his decade.”
Yet, in assessing his career, the words unfulfilled and disappointing have been used, too. The truth is, Jerry Travers never became a true hero of American golf, and his accomplishments are the least remembered among history’s greats. Why? For the same reasons that Travers was so successful, and also because his run of greatness concluded so abruptly. Although he lived to 63, Travers’ championship career came to an end at age 28. In the midst of his heyday, he twice didn’t bother to enter the Amateur. And he never entered the Open again after winning in 1915.
"I could always tell whether a golfer was winning or losing by looking at him, but I never knew how Travers stood.'' – Alex Smith
Bizarre? Peculiar? Indeed. Jerry Travers had a reputation for being undisciplined off the golf course and lacking a steadying influence in his life. He also seemed to thrive on being hard to read. “He was anything but an outgoing person,” Jess Sweetser recalls. “He was totally lacking in what today is called charisma.”
Among his peers, however, Travers earned ultimate, almost intimidating respect. Chick Evans called him “the coldest, hardest golfer I ever knew.” Francis Ouimet described him as “the best match player in the country.” Alex Smith, the National Open champion who taught Travers, called his student, “the greatest competitor I have ever known.”
At only 5-feet-7 and 140 pounds, Travers had to be tough to survive. One on one, he was so absorbed in his work and the shot at hand that it was impossible to read his emotions. “I could always tell whether a golfer was winning or losing by looking at him,” said Smith. “But I never knew how Travers stood.”
Neither, sometimes, did Travers. Francis Ouimet recalled the time he beat Travers in the 1914 Amateur, 6 and 5, in the third round: “I waited for Jerry to do the customary handshaking act, but to my surprise he walked to his caddy, selected a driver and hastened to the next tee. The referee then hustled over to Travers and asked him if he intended to play the bye holes. ‘Why?’ asked Travers. ‘Is the match over?’ I was somewhat embarrassed as Jerry apologized for his error and his congratulations were as warm as they could possibly be.”
Jerome Travers learned the game at Nassau Country Club from Alex Smith, who would go on to win 2 U.S.Opens.
What also made Travers so great was his ability to putt the ball. Harold Hilton, who defeated Travers on his way to the Amateur title at Apawamis in 1911, called him, “The greatest putter I ever saw.” Travers believed that putting was more a combination of the mental and physical than any stroke in the game, and he worked for hours perfecting his method.
What, then, went wrong? It is theorized that a combination of burnout and lifestyle led to the disappearance of Jerry Travers, and although he returned for exhibitions, and later as a teaching professional, he was clearly not the Jerry Travers who relentlessly once dominated the world of amateur golf.