There has not been a golfer who played so well after starting so late in life as Walter J. Travis. Here was a man who didn’t hit his first golf ball until he was 35, yet one month later he won his first tournament and two years later he reached the semifinals of the U.S. Amateur. Within four years of picking up a club for the first time, Travis won the first of three National Amateurs. He also was the first American citizen to win the British Amateur and ended his career, at age 53, by winning the prestigious Metropolitan Amateur in New York.
Weighing no more than 140 pounds with small hands and slender wrists, Travis relied on cunning and his short game to excel at match play. He made up for a lack in size by simply outputting and outworking everybody. In his autobiography, first printed in The American Golfer, which he founded in 1908, Travis explained how he became a “golf fiend.”
"Always be on the aggressive," Travis wrote in The American Golfer. "Act as if you are quite sure of yourself and never give an opponent the psychological advantage of imagining you are the least afraid of him. Many a man is beaten before he starts by admitting to himself the other's fancied superiority and unconsciously conveying it in his general bearing. It only gives the opponent that slight encouragement which enables him to pull out a winner in a tight match."
“I am not aware of every having possessed any physical advantages that enabled me to climb the ladder as I did in such a comparatively short space of time,” Travis wrote. “What success I managed to achieve was primarily due to an intense love of the game, a devotion which made practice not a drudgery but a pleasure. ‘Genius,’ I think it was Carlyle, who said, ‘is the capacity of taking infinite pains.’ I practiced at every opportunity.”
Born in Australia, Travis came to the United States and made a substantial income in the hardware business. He played cricket and lawn tennis as a young man, without much success, and became hooked on golf after a visit to England in 1896. His most cherished trophy was the pewter tankard won in the first handicap competition at the Oakland Golf Club of Bayside, L.I. His first U.S. Amateur victory came in 1900 at Garden City Golf Club on Long Island, and his name was engraved on the Havemeyer Trophy again in 1901 and 1903.
In 1902, he set a U.S. Open record by shooting 75-74–149 for the final two rounds. The second-place finish to Laurie Auchterlonie was the highest by an amateur in the Open, and rather than collect the $100 prize, Travis asked the USGA to reserve $75 for a trophy. The remaining $25 was given to his playing companion, Alex Smith, whom Travis thought displayed “thoroughly sportsmanlike spirit throughout.”
Two years later, Travis traveled to Royal St. George’s at Sandwich, England, for the British Amateur. On his way to the final, he defeated two of Britain’s best golfers in Harold Hilton and Horace Hutchinson. The final was a relative breeze, as he defeated Ted Blackwell to win the famous cup. It was not until 1926 that another American would come along and win the British Amateur, and those who tried included Jones, Chick Evans, Jerry Travers and Francis Ouimet.
Travis thrived in match play because he was mentally stronger than most of his opponents. “Always be on the aggressive,” Travis wrote in The American Golfer. “Act as if you are quite sure of yourself and never give an opponent the psychological advantage of imagining you are the least afraid of him. Many a man is beaten before he starts by admitting to himself the other’s fancied superiority and unconsciously conveying it in his general bearing. It only gives the opponent that slight encouragement which enables him to pull out a winner in a tight match.”
In his later years, Travis hung out on the practice green at Garden City G.C., challenging the members to a putting contest. The stakes were usually a cigar, and it was rare when Travis had to buy. He died in 1927 at age 65 without any regrets. “Full as my cup has been,” he said, “I shall never cease to regret the many prior years which were wasted.”