By Howard Ziehm
From the Golf Journal Archives - It's a Funny Game...
Feb 12, 2010
(Note: This article originally appeared in the May 1999 issue of Golf Journal.)
CHARLIE BROWN: “It says Noah lived to be 950 years old.” Snoopy: “Yeah, he could have played on the Senior Tour.”
The majority of golfers have, at one time, enjoyed a “Peanuts” comic strip about golf. After all, over the past 50 years its originator, Charles M. Schulz, along with Mort Walker (“Beetle Bailey”) and Johnny Hart (“B.C.”), have drawn practically half of the comic strips featuring golf. In daily doses they provide a brief chuckle, but viewed in the longer term they provide one of the most engaging chronicles of the game in the United States. This history relates not only to humor but to sociology and history. Whether the chuckle comes from ugly pants or ugly shots, golfers and non-golfers alike should realize they’re not laughing at us, they're laughing with us.
Rest assured that this is not a new phenomenon. If golf’s popularity in the U.S. began in earnest in the 1890s, when the first associations were formed and tournament play commenced, the inept efforts of beginners to hit the ball did not fail to catch the attention of a new breed of U.S. artist.
The Jan. 5, 1896, editions of The New York World ran a full-color graphic by Richard Outcault titled “Golf – The Great Society Sport as Played in Hogan’s Alley.” It showed immigrant kids whacking the ball on a fictitious street in New York’s infamous Hells Kitchen. Featured in that panel was a bald-headed lad dressed in a yellow gown. He soon became known as the Yellow Kid and ultimately was as well-recognized as Charlie Brown is today.
In a heated legal battle, Outcault left The New York World to work on The New York Journal, a fledgling newspaper owned by William Randolph Hearst. For his new employer, Outcault began adding dialogue to his cartoons and used a series of panels to facilitate telling a story. It was a true example of what we call a comic strip when, on Oct. 24, 1897, “The Yellow Kid Takes a Hand at Golf” appeared in The New York Journal.
Thankfully, the sophomoric style of humor featured in those early strips gave way to styles that touched the game’s psyche more profoundly. Even Schulz admitted that his early stuff was “trite humor,” something that reflected poorly on his avid knowledge of golf. “I would never draw someone on his hands and knees putting like he was hitting a pool cue. You can tell by my strip that I know the game.”
Schulz’s boyhood idol was Sam Snead. In a strip from 1963, Lucy consoles Charlie Brown, who is agonizing over his favorite baseball player going hitless, by saying, “Every year for 25 years my dad has been rooting for Sam Snead to win the National Open.” Snead responded by sending Schulz a picture of himself with his scorecard, displaying a 59 at, the Greensboro Open, mounted on the bottom. A little note said, “I thought you might like to have this. You can hang it out in the outhouse to keep the rats away.”
OVER the past century, thousands of strips that use golf as a theme have been drawn. In 1936, Frank King ran a three-month adventure in “Gasoline Alley” about hitting a golf ball across the country. Fontaine Fox, a cartoonist out of Louisville, Ky., did a strip called “Toonerville Folks” about small-town country life. It often portrayed “the folks” romping over the hillsides, playing on makeshift courses. A particularly funny 1935 adventure of “Alley Oop,” by Vincent T. Hamlin, explained how the game was invented in prehistoric times.
The game began to pop up in adventure strips such as “Dick Tracy,” “Mary Worth” and “Batman” as well as teen strips like “Penny,” “Harold Teen” and “Archie.” It even invaded children’s strips like “Mickey Mouse,” “Popeye” and “Donald Duck.”
Cartoonists were frequently exposed to the game and found ample opportunity to satirize the sport through their work. Rube Goldberg was a golf nut and wrote humorous articles published in golf magazines. Billy DeBeck, who drew “Barney Google,” sometimes missed deadlines because he was out on the course. Bud Fisher, who drew “Mutt and Jeff” beginning in 1917, was a millionaire by 1919. The first comic book, published in 1932, featured the duo on the cover holding a golf club. Sidney Smith of “The Gumps” signed a million-dollar contract in the middle of the Depression. The dialogue of his protagonist, Andy Gump, was unparalleled: “... when I smack a Scotch snow-ball it travels faster than a motor-cycle cop from Mars chasing a comet along the Milky Way.”
Although often referred to as “the funnies,” comic strips are not necessarily meant to be humorous. Before television, comics substituted for soap operas and even documentaries. A strip by Clare Briggs called “Them Were The Days” gave a 10-strip account of Francis Ouimet’s victory in the 1913 U.S. Open. Briggs, who drew more than 500 strips about the game for a 20-year period beginning in 1907, often commented on social insensitivity on the course as well as its joy. He gave his strips titles such as “And Then She Took Up Golf,” “And Then He Made A Hole-In-One” or “Somebody Is Always Taking The Joy Out Of Life.”
Although there are few current strips dealing with sports, there was a time when several used the game as their sole subject. “Divot Diggers,” by Vic Forsythe, ran each Sunday during the 1930s. It featured big-nosed, brash characters trying to get the upper hand on one another. Another strip, “In the Rough” by Howard Freeman, had a short run in the late 20’s and contained a lot of humor on club members, women in particular.
The most successful was “Mac Divot,” a daily strip that began its run in 1955. It was the brainchild of Jordon Lansky, who had been a teammate of Billy Casper and Gene Littler at San Diego State, and Mel Keefer. The strip, which ran for 22 years in 150 newspapers around the world, followed the adventures of Sandy Mac Divot as he played tournaments around the country, ranging from the fictitious Hollywood Open to The Masters. The strip championed good etiquette and perfect form.
“We assiduously studied every golf magazine out to be up to date with technique,” remembers Keefer.
Lansky first approached Keefer, who was fresh out of art school, about doing a strip on golf. Without introduction, they managed to get a proposal placed on the desk of Chicago Tribune publisher Maurice Riley.
“We had no idea Riley, an avid golfer and president of Winged Foot, was actually on the look-out for a golf comic strip,” Keefer says. “When he came in to his office and saw our proposal, it was a done deal with only a few minor changes. The fact that (Arnold) Palmer was winning tournaments in high drama really put golf on the map.
“We started doing episodes about real golfers and used real people, including dignitaries and sponsors. In the first year of the Byron Nelson Classic, I was asked to do an episode honoring Byron Nelson. I used flashbacks of his career and slow motion breakdown of his swing. They loved it.”
WHEN Schulz began “Peanuts” in 1950, he reintroduced humor to the funnies. In his minimalist drawing style, he ended each daily strip with a laugh. He was joined in this crusade by Walker, the creator of “Beetle Bailey,” who had been the top-selling magazine gag cartoonist. That both Schulz and Walker loved golf enabled them to provide 50 years of chuckles on hundreds of comics pages.
Walker, raised in Kansas City, Mo., sold his first cartoon at the age of 11 for $1. As a youngster, Walker did many menial tasks to earn money, including caddieing. “I was a short kid,” he says. “I saw all the big jocks getting all the girls, so I went out for the football team. I lasted one day. They carried me off bleeding. I decided I would start a golf team.
“I bought a set of clubs for 50 cents from a doctor up the street. They had wood shafts and were half rusted from sitting out on the back porch. Our first match was against a rich kids’ team. They gave me quite a look when I came out in my blue jeans, lugging my rusted clubs. My first shot hit a tree and rolled back to my feet.”
General Halftrack, Beetle’s commanding officer, is the primary player in the strip. In determining what kind of person to make Halftrack, Walker says, “I decided to put some of my worst traits into General Halftrack. I liked girls, martinis and golf.”
Walker and his wife now divide their time between Connecticut and Boca Raton, Fla. Though his time is occupied mostly with running the International Museum of Cartoon Art in Boca Raton, Walker finds time to organize his annual cartoonist’s tournament in Connecticut
“The tournament is in its 42nd year,” he notes. “It was last played at the Silver Mine Course in Norwalk, Conn., and drew about 40 players. It’s getting tougher to find cartoonists to play, which can be attributed to the fact that everyone lives all over country now, not like in the old days when most cartoonists resided in Connecticut or New York.”
In 1958, Hart joined Schulz and Walker as one of America’s great cartoonists. Hart, just out of the Korean War and looking for a career, was inspired by the work of Schulz to do a comic strip. He decided on a cave man theme and came up with “B.C.” A few years later, he and Brant Parker created “The Wizard of Id.” Hart never dreamed his golf-in-the-comics ideas would be connected to a PGA Tour event.
“The city of Endicott, located in Broome County, N.Y., wanted to do a PGA satellite tournament,” Hart recalls of the start of the B.C. Open, “I was invited to a session of local townsfolk where we were throwing around ideas for a name. I raised my hand and suggested calling it the B.C. Open and I would do a logo for it. Silence ensued and I meekly retorted, ‘Or not.’ Suddenly everyone burst into applause. It wasn’t until that night that I realized the letters BC also stood for Broome County. Now the Broome County reference to the tournament, in deference to the comic strip, has been dropped completely.
“Initially it was just a regular pro tournament,” he continued, “but I began inviting cartoonists to play in the pro-am.” In one of Hart's strips, he defines a pro-am as what a “pro ain’t.” Each year, concurrent with the playing of the B.C. Open, Hart draws two weeks of strips that spoof the tournament and the game. In a 1991 strip, the Cute Broad faces Peter with a philosophical conundrum:
Cute Broad: “Now let me get this straight, the less you hit the ball the better it is.”
Peter: “That’s right.”
Cute Broad: "Then why do it at all?"
In the last panel, as the moon hangs overhead, Peter, still on the course, mumbles: “Then why do it at all?”
The USGA Museum and Arnold Palmer Center for Golf Research has recently opened a special exhibit featuring some of Charles Schulz’s golf-related comics. For more information, visit http://www.usgamuseum.com/about_museum/news_events/news_article.aspx?newsid=90.
From their earliest appearances in newspapers, comic strips used a light-hearted approach in viewing the game's place in society. (USGA Museum)
Sidney Smith's strip that began in the 1920s made an insightful, yet unique, commentary on the game. (USGA Museum)
Without question, Charles Schulz's beloved Snoopy has become the world's most successful golfing dog. (USGA Museum)