If one is going to be a professional golfer in or anywhere near the 21st century, one is not going to get from tournament to tournament by throwing the clubs in the back seat of the 1954 Studebaker and taking off. There might be a little of that in the beginning, but once one engages the vast full schedule of the tour, life is forever altered. In yesteryear, life was a little quieter on tour and in the amateur ranks. The golf course was perceived as a safe and happy place, free from the dangers and sadness of the outer world. However, even a game so free of cares that don’t pertain to what’s happening on the course can’t hold bitter reality out. When I view the “in Memoriam” columns of the various tours through the years, I feel the poignant loss of men and women who died from disease, various conditions of unhappiness, and accidents. Beyond a white knuckle flier myself, I began to run through my mind some of the players who lost their lives in air accidents, cutting their careers short.Â That includes Tony Lema, who chartered a plane to Chicago at a tournament’s end only to crash near the course, inexplicably running out of fuel. Lema had won the ’64 U.S. Open, and rivaled Arnold Palmer in fan popularity. The passengers aboard Payne Stewart’s plane fell victim to hypoxia, and were rendered unconscious as the plane continued on automatic pilot, with no one at the controls, eventually falling from the sky. Then, I ran across previously unknown names such as Pam Barton, who tried to retain their normalcy and a budding golf career through a war wreaking terrible havoc on England from the air.
Pam Barton, it seems, had everything going for her. All around bright with multiple talents, she developed into quite a golfer at a young age. When the war came, she didn’t hide out, but signed on as a WAAF radio operator and ambulance driver in the effort.Â At that point, she was at the height of her game, although it cannot be known how good she might really have become. Before enlisting, she attained the top spot among British female amateurs, winning the British Ladies’ Amateur in 1936. In the same year, she won the American Women’s Amateur Championship. She added these triumphs to the French Amateur Championship of two years prior, before the Nazi take-over of Europe was experienced, and barely anticipated. She played on two Curtis Cup teams as well, and was on her way, even publishing a golf self-help book entitled A Stroke A Hole. For many of us, that is a dream title, and I immediately wondered if it might still be in print or available somewhere.Â It would be foolish to put some of the great gurus of yesteryear away before we’ve mined them one more time.
At the age of 26, Pam Barton’s life and career ended in a Havilland Tiger Moth fighter after striking a fuel receptacle. The pilot survived, but was lost over France only a few short weeks later. The Pam Barton Memoriam Salver is still presented each year to the winner of the British Ladies Amateur Champion. That would create a thread from pre-World War II’s top English Amateur to newcomers such as Charley Hull. When we are able to connect history in this way, the aura and depth of the game only increases in fascination.
The stories of loss among the great and aspiring young stars, as well as the elderly legends, remind us that although we can celebrate life by picking up a golf club, we can’t use it to hide. Technology such as the airplane and unthinkably-fast sports cars became a natural necessity as the fast-paced tours took shape, introducing our stars to a different set of dangers than that of the old ’54 Studebaker. Airplanes and wars have doubtlessly stolen many names from us that would have achieved some degree of fame, perhaps real greatness. In England, prestige did not bar contribution. Queen Elizabeth risked it as a driver for the British army, while Pam Barton put personal missions aside for the RAF at a base in Kent. We can only wonder what she would have become.