Amen Corner, a pioneering TV show and the best-selling instruction book of all time are merely the beginning of Herbert Warren Wind’s contributions to the game
Words by Bradley Klein
Light / Dark
I first met Herbert Warren Wind in 1979 at the U.S. Open at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio. It was back when I spent my summers during graduate school caddying on the PGA Tour. I was looping for Mike McCullough and had just finished reading Wind’s The Story of American Golf (the third edition). He was a living legend; I had closely followed his dispatches in The New Yorker over the years and never forgot the feeling that came over me as a 12-year-old when I read his two-part story in Golf Digest from the fall of 1966, “The Architect Makes the Golf Course Great.” I found the world he described there and the designers he seemed to know so well—Alister MacKenzie, A.W. Tillinghast, Donald Ross, Robert Trent Jones Sr., Stanley Thompson, Dick Wilson—absolutely compelling.
Coming up the 18th hole during Tuesday’s practice round, I noticed the press tent to the right of the fairway and knew Wind would be working there. After the round, I sat down to handwrite a detailed letter conveying my respect for his work and asking if he might be able to meet me that week. In those days, the entrance to the press tent was guarded by an enormous fellow who seemed to travel every week on Tour. Of course, the scribes within called him Tiny. I asked him to convey the letter to Wind. The next morning, I checked back with Tiny and, sure enough, he had a message waiting that Wind would meet me that afternoon at 2 p.m. by the media tent. Wind came out on time, greeted me kindly and we talked for a few minutes. Then he had to duck back in to polish a few sentences.
It began a mentorship that evolved into something of a friendship that lasted through the final decades of his life. He encouraged me as I made the slow transition from academic to journalist. He was reluctant at first; early on, he encouraged me to stay in academia and to indulge my interest in golf journalism and architecture writing merely as an avocation.
When I landed my first assignments in golf, writing for Score, the Canadian magazine edited by the esteemed Lorne Rubenstein, I proposed an interview with Wind. We had already developed a rapport; he was kind enough to sign books of his to me, and we met for a drink a few times in Manhattan. I even had a letter of introduction from him to accompany me for my upcoming trip to St. Andrews for a month of studying at the university and caddying on the Old Course. So I thought I had a pretty good sense of him when we sat down during the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in 1982 to tape our interview. But upon transcription, I realized something was awry. For all his eloquence on the printed page, the audio was a rambling garble of half-utterances, disconnected thoughts and teasers with no conclusion. It was a mess. I had to work hard to give it a semblance of proper lexical order while still capturing the tweediness of his speech. When I sent him what I thought was a fair version of the conversation before submitting the text to Score, he made it clear that the piece was not up to his standards. “In regard to the rough notes from our interview,” he wrote, “I had expected that you would take the editing a good step farther along.” He offered to rework the text but would not commit to a deadline. It was obvious I would miss mine, and I had to withdraw the submission, in the process losing a modest fee I could not, as a struggling graduate student, afford. Lesson learned.
As tough as Wind was on me in the editing process, he was even less kind to those he worked for. No serious writer is. His nephew, the comedy writer Bill Scheft, tells a precious story about the time Wind grew frustrated that The New Yorker had been sitting on his lengthy article about pelota games played in northern Spain and southwestern France. Angry that the essay remained unpublished for four years, Wind finally went to the magazine’s curmudgeonly editor, William Shawn, prepared to threaten his resignation if the article about jai alai and related racquet sports didn’t see the light of day. “Mr. Shawn,” he said, “I am putting all my Basques in one exit.”
He liked to say that it took him 1,000 words to clear his throat. Good thing he never had to deal with Twitter. Today, an average golf piece in a standard glossy magazine runs 850 words; he was prone to pen 15,000. For a man who wrote so expansively and so lovingly about golf, Wind never understood or appreciated the extent to which golfers took him seriously and admired him.
Never was this more evident than when the power of his pen backfired on him during a 1961 members’ meeting at his home course, Sands Point Golf Club. Wind rose to address his fellow golfers about a proposed renovation to their vintage 1926 A.W. Tillinghast–designed layout. The quaint, English-style club was something of an anomaly in the Great Gatsby section of Long Island’s North Shore. It was just a place for golf—no pool or tennis courts, no lavish balls or aspirations to host national championships. That stood in contrast to the more fashionable clubs in the area and was probably among the reasons that Wind joined there in the early 1950s. Unlike Garden City Golf Club, Engineers or Nassau Country Club, it had never been in the spotlight as host of a famous tournament, and in fact, as part of its culture, had shunned recognition for the sake of privacy. And yet here the membership was, on the verge of a decision to modernize their golf course at the hands of no less prodigious a talent than Robert Trent Jones Sr.
Who could blame them for entrusting their course to the reigning Open Doctor—the man upon whom the United States Golf Association had been relying to get its classic, interwar-era golf courses updated to handle modern post-war aerial-power golf? The enshrinement of Jones as the king of contemporary championship golf was well established by then, a process that began with his reworking of Donald Ross’ design of Oakland Hills for the 1951 U.S. Open and continued throughout the 1950s: Baltusrol’s Lower Course (1954), Olympic Club’s Lake Course (1955), Oak Hill’s East Course (1956), Southern Hills (1958), Winged Foot’s West Course (1959). Two of them—Baltusrol and Winged Foot—were Tillinghast courses. Surely Jones could be trusted with Sands Point.
It was, after all, Wind’s prose that had blessed Jones in saintly tones for undertaking such architectural revisionism. A fawning 10,000-word essay, “Linksland and Meadowland,” in the Aug. 4, 1951, issue of The New Yorker, had a transformative effect on the careers of both Jones and Wind. The profile elevated Jones from the ranks of an ambitious, talented architect to someone whose reputation exceeded all of his competitors’ in the trade. At the same time, the lengthy article established Wind as an authoritative voice in golf journalism, someone whose judgements needed to be taken seriously.
And yet here he was, speaking to the membership at Sands Point, asking them to vote down Jones’ plan because it would undercut the classical allure of the place by removing old cross bunkers, needlessly toughen it and ruin the character of the golf course. Wind lost his appeal. The members voted in favor, and Jones went to work shifting bunkers, planting trees and raising and lengthening teeing grounds. It would be half a century before the club realized its error and reclaimed the Tillinghast layout.
Wind could be excused for doing what most golfers do by nature: get defensive about their home course. But there was another dynamic at work. Here was a complex man vigorously arguing against the plans of someone whose reputation he essentially created. Still, for those who knew him, his plea made sense: Wind was unusually clear in his public profile as a defender of the game’s traditional virtues. And those were gained through his love of sports, adoration of literature and immersion in sports writing with an erudition and attention to detail unlike any of his contemporaries. More than a decade after his death in 2005, at the age of 88, it’s increasingly difficult to appreciate the way he excelled at his craft by pushing its boundaries. An era of Twitter feeds, Instagram posts, podcasts and snappy talk-show exchanges is ill at ease with the sustained intelligence and demands upon the attention that Wind’s written work involved.
By that 1961 meeting, Wind was clearly at the top of his profession. He had been among the founding staff writers for Sports Illustrated when the magazine debuted in 1954. Television audiences were about to know of him as the gentlemanly producer, writer and occasional commentator on Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf, a series that would go on to wild success. Wind was also a regular in the pages of The New Yorker, contributing to a section called “The Sporting Scene” with lengthy essays, most of them on golf, but also on tennis and football. He wrote occasionally for Golf Digest as well. Beyond that, he was already the author of several golf books, “as told to” accounts of Gene Sarazen and Jack Nicklaus; a definitive history, The Story of American Golf; a compendium of golf fiction and journalism, The World Atlas of Golf; and what remains the single best-selling golf-instruction book ever published, Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf, with Ben Hogan. It was quite the writer’s life, and he would be honored accordingly. He won the Donald Ross Award for lifetime achievement in 1977 from the American Society of Golf Course Architects. The USGA’s annual best-book award was named for Wind. And, in 1995, Wind won the USGA’s highest honor, the Bob Jones Award.
That sort of public success does not come easily. Those who knew Wind understood how hard he worked, how much he read, how closely he watched the game he covered and how detailed the notes he took were to make the action come alive. They also saw how he interspersed his love of literature, film and Broadway plays into his work. References to Jonathan Swift and Charles Dickens peppered his writing. The title of his piece on Ken Venturi winning the 1964 U.S. Open, “The Third Man,” flashes back to the famous 1948 noir film by Graham Greene of the same name. More than anyone else working then and likely since, Wind made his sports writing a branch of classical prose bordering on an art form.
Wind was born in 1916 into a wealthy, assimilated Jewish family in the working-class shoe town of Brockton, Massachusetts. His father, Max E. Wind, was president and treasurer of the Wind Insole & Counter Co., which supplied larger shoe manufacturers. He and his wife, Dora, formed a considerable presence, always looming over Wind, his brother and his four sisters, relentlessly reminding them of their obligation to succeed. The hectoring left a mark of perceived self-unfulfillment that haunted Wind his entire life. Years of psychotherapy did not heal the wounds. He was prone to periodic hospitalization for depression—something that he kept a secret from his colleagues and divulged only to a niece.
The family lived at 426 West Elm Street, in a comfortable but hardly ostentatious two-story house less than a mile from the clubhouse of the town’s private golf course, Thorny Lea Golf Club. Jews, even secular, non-practicing ones like the Winds, were still on the outs in a town like Brockton and not normally welcome at the club. But the elder Wind achieved a measure of community respectability with a $25,000 donation to the U.S. effort in World War I and soon secured membership. Herb first walked the course at the age of 9, played it at 12 and became smitten. He honed his game to the point where he became a member of the high school varsity team and could occasionally break 80. As he wrote of Thorny Lea in his notebooks, “I love the spring of every inch of its fairways, and worship each patch of rough and each sandtrap—for it is home.”
He listened to jazz, went to live theater, rarely missed a film and sat by the radio for Red Sox and Bruins games. Among the memorabilia in the seven boxes of his papers at the Yale University Library is an autographed card from Jimmie Lunceford and His Orchestra, dated Feb. 8, 1935.
Wind wanted to go to Harvard, but ended up at Yale because it was farther away from his overbearing parents. There, he found himself immersed in English literature and the arts. He was a good-enough athlete to play varsity basketball his freshman year, but gave it up to pursue his studies. Upon graduation he went back home to Brockton and told his parents he wanted to attend graduate school at Cambridge University in England. At first, his father scoffed at the idea, but then he asked how much it would cost. When Wind told his father $400, he relented.
Wind set off on steamship in August 1937. Before arriving at Cambridge, he spent a month visiting Paris, Zurich and Vienna. Along the way he continued his voracious reading: four books by John Galsworthy, a trio of Agatha Christie mysteries and works by P.G. Wodehouse and Aldous Huxley. Two years later, he graduated from Cambridge with a master’s in literature. Along the way he played club rugby, kept up on his golf and in a meeting with legendary golf writer Bernard Darwin formed a bond and a vision of his potential that would steer him for the rest of his life.
The occasion was the 1939 rendition of the President’s Putter, one of those wacky British rituals involving a golf match between alumni of Cambridge and Oxford, held at the worst possible time, early January, at Rye Golf Club on the Kent Coast. Miserable weather is the rule, as is a lot of liquor and good fellowship. Wind, in his second year of graduate study, helped Darwin, who was then laid up in the clubhouse with an infirmity, as a scout of the action.
Back home in Brockton with his Cambridge degree, Wind considered teaching in boarding schools but was rebuffed with the harsh reminder of his Jewish heritage. He started up a weekly column for the Brockton daily Evening Enterprise, contributing a steady stream of observations about sports, theater, music, film, travel and books. Some of those he wrote from Argentina, Brazil and Peru, where he spent a few months in 1939 with hopes of writing a travel narrative. He managed a few chapters of a fictional work called The Man Who Knew South America, about a literary agent named Walter Gage, but the project went nowhere.
He was frustrated in his aspirations. As he wrote in his diaries in 1940, “The first of the year finds me in a very sorry state. Know not one girl who gives me any emotional lift whatsoever. The daylight here hangs heavily on my shoulders. No one comes through so I turn to Oscar Wilde’s ‘Dorian Gray’ and read another 40 pages.”
Soon he moved to New York City, living in a small apartment overlooking Fifth Avenue while working as an usher at NBC Studios in the art deco RCA Building. That kicked off a spectacular string of failed drafts and pitches, including radio quiz shows and a screenplay intended for Bob Hope and Bing Crosby called “The Road to St. Andrews.”
It’s not unusual for ambitious writers to overreach in the process of finding a voice. Many never find it. Eventually, Wind did. Perhaps getting away from the competitive New York literary scene during World War II helped. From 1942 to 1946, Wind served as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Corps, stationed in China and, after the occupation of Japan, in Tokyo. He had a desk job managing spare parts for aircraft.
Once back in post-war New York, Wind found his comfort zone and broke through with 1948’s The Story of American Golf. The book was universally lauded for its comprehensiveness and ambition. He had spent two years of research in libraries in Manhattan and the archives of the USGA. His attention to detail was unparalleled: When he wanted a definitive account of the 1913 U.S. Open, he contacted the winner, Francis Ouimet, asking him for help. Ouimet invited Wind up to The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, for a tour of the grounds and a shot-by-shot replay of the playoff there involving Ouimet and British legends Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. It enabled Wind to describe the playoff as if he had been a witness.
Finally established, his work began appearing in prominent magazines. Over the next decade he collected bylines in Town & Country, Collier’s, Holiday, The Saturday Evening Post and, of course, The New Yorker. By 1954 he was prominent enough among sportswriting circles to land the coveted Sports Illustrated job.
Suddenly, he had cachet and took full advantage of it. His struggles with meeting deadlines drove his editors crazy. He would often dictate to secretaries, who had to suffer not only his convoluted, endless paragraphs, but also the smoke from a stream of cigarettes he puffed on while writing—in a cramped little office that was usually overheated and under-ventilated.
Typical of his writings for Sports Illustrated was a two-part, 20,000-word dispatch from Japan in the Feb. 24 and March 3, 1958, issues that ostensibly covered the previous fall’s surprising win by Japan in the Canada Cup golf tournament. The five disparate sentences referencing the golf event got lost in a rambling but informed account of Japanese sports culture. Somehow, he managed to cover the country’s history of baseball, swimming, tennis, sumo wrestling, skiing, track, table tennis and soccer along with an account of Japanese history that covered the centuries of self-imposed isolation under feudalism to the country’s opening to the West following the Meiji Restoration of 1867.
Publishing magnate Henry R. Luce, whose Time, Inc. company owned Sports Illustrated, praised the piece but qualified his enthusiasm. In a letter to the magazine’s editor, Sid James, Luce wrote, “Let us recognize the great importance of the long-reading articles in the back of S.I. (Perhaps the Wind articles were a little too long—though not for me.)”
Wind developed an eager audience; he was read by influential people in sports who took him seriously. The best example of his impact came from an April 21, 1958, dispatch on that year’s Masters, “The Fateful Corner,” in which Wind coined the term “Amen Corner” to characterize holes 11 through 13. Legend has grown around the phrase in the decades since, but perhaps most amazing is that it stuck at all. Wind used it in the story once and without explanation, buried in the middle of a 61-word opening sentence—three times longer than most newspaper and magazine writers suggest as advisable.
Wind did use a lot of space in those pages: 7,300 words on Montreal Canadiens star Maurice Richard; 8,800 words on kicking around with New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra. In 1960, he published another two-part epic: 25,000 words on Australia. For all the space he was accorded, Wind still chafed under the deadlines he faced. The consumer sports magazine trade was changing as television coverage took over. While the post-war boom gave Americans more time for recreational sports, it also led to changing reading habits—or at least to concerns by some editors that they needed to indulge a more impatient readership.
Wind also quietly resented that the commercial success of his best-selling instructional book with Hogan did not translate into royalties for himself. Sports Illustrated, which published the book, didn’t work that way. It had paid Wind once for his work, and that was all he would receive.
Wind began looking to other outlets for his efforts, leading to his involvement with Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf. The project united him with longtime friend Gene Sarazen, whose memoir, Thirty Years of Championship Golf, Wind had written a decade earlier. Wind would serve as host to a series of high-profile matches around the world linking great golfers and famous golf courses (Byron Nelson vs. Gene Littler at Pine Valley; Henry Cotton vs. Sarazen at the Old Course). The arrangement was ideal for Wind, who came up with the format, selected some of the early venues and wrote the initial scripts of the show during its first full year in 1962.
Perhaps more importantly, Wind also returned to The New Yorker in 1962, on a full-time basis and with the kind of space he was comfortable with. The move afforded him a much-needed level of stability. He was now living on the east side of Manhattan, on the 15th floor of an apartment building at 301 East 66th Street, where he was to remain until 1989. He rented a modest apartment, with a bedroom, a small kitchen and a living room that doubled as an office, crammed floor to ceiling with books and papers. There he would work on his swing, with nicks in the ceiling, wall and bookcase evidence that the space was just barely big enough to contain his full arc.
The tiny kitchen was superfluous because Wind could not cook. The refrigerator remained empty except for some restaurant leftovers that he would have to eat cold because he couldn’t even heat things up on the stove. He kept around the occasional can of tomato juice for mixing Bloody Marys. And he could always come up with a decent martini, though in both cases he was prone to stirring the drink with his finger. He was a regular at an East Side steakhouse called P.J. Moriarty, where a table always awaited him. He took comfort in a circle of friendly colleagues that included Alistair Cooke, George Plimpton and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., but the scars of his childhood remained: He never thought of himself as their equal or as worthy of their companionship.
Over at Sands Point Golf Club, a man who as a teenager caddied for him in the late 1950s remembers Wind as “a fussy golfer. He’d head off to the range with a bag of 35 or 40 golf balls and spend two hours practicing, getting down sometimes on his hands and knees to inspect the divots for evidence of his swing path.” The witness, Rick Haldas, is a reliable one: He went on to serve as Sands Point’s golf professional for 33 years. He also recalls that Wind’s golf bag was filled with a lot of clothes because he liked to be prepared for any kind of weather. The account squares with Wind’s legendary proclivity for dressing up at tournaments as if he were preparing for the mother of winter storms: tweed jacket and slacks, wool cap, button-down sweater underneath, lined raincoat for outerwear, with a scarf at the ready, along with an umbrella and sitting stick. It’s a wonder he ever found a free hand to take notes, but he always did, carefully, in his tiny memo books.
Befitting the image of the country gentleman that he cultivated, Wind bought into a rural Connecticut retreat in July 1962 when he acquired a small two-house compound and 7.6 acres north of Milford for $13,500. His neighbor was the famed American actor Fredric March. Wind also joined sleepy little nine-hole Lake Waramaug Country Club—3,128 yards, par 35—with a modest farmhouse for a clubhouse. The wonder is that Wind, a notoriously bad driver, made it up and back to Connecticut in his car without serious incident.
He never married. There were dates and girlfriends, but nothing seemed to click. Work was paramount, and that included an intense travel schedule domestically and internationally that would have strained any long-term relationship. An early serious dalliance was nixed by his parents because the woman wasn’t Jewish. Another potential relationship involved a nationally ranked amateur golfer whom Wind met when she competed in the 1958 U.S. Amateur at Wee Burn Country Club in Darien, Connecticut. (During interviews for this profile, she asked not to be named.) They saw each other a few times and Wind was apparently smitten, but he had to go to Scotland for a weeks-long trip to cover that October’s inaugural World Amateur Team Championship for the Eisenhower Trophy at St. Andrews. Robert Tyre “Bobby” Jones served as team captain and was slated to receive an award from St. Andrews as Honorary Burgess of the Borough. Wind, who adored Jones and wrote fawningly about him for decades, was in attendance when Jones made his famous acceptance speech that ended with the memorable line, “I could take out of my life everything except my experiences at St. Andrews and I would still have a rich, full life.”
Upon his return from St. Andrews, Wind found that the woman he had been keen on had met another man and was already engaged. Fourteen years later, after she had divorced, she happened to meet Wind again and began seeing him socially, not romantically. There were dinners, occasional rounds of golf and extended conversations, which gave her a peek into his character that he does not seem to have revealed to many others. “He missed not having family,” she said. “I got the sense he led a sad life, not a happy one. He once told me that one of the saddest things in his life is that no one ever expected anything of him.”
He poured himself into his work, churning out long articles immersed in history that made the past come alive as part of the present day. A revealing example of his sports mind: During his account of Venturi’s win in the searing heat of the 1964 U.S. Open, Wind described how, on the 14th hole, Venturi’s “slow walk decelerated into a painful trudge and his head began to droop. Into my mind’s eye, as I watched him, came a photograph from old sports books showing Dorando Pietri, the little Italian marathon runner, being helped by his countrymen across the finish line in the 1908 Olympic Games after he had crumpled in exhaustion a few yards from his goal.”
Wind stayed with The New Yorker until 1989, when new editors were determined to give the magazine a fresh look and to de-emphasize sports, particularly golf. He was already busy with a new enterprise, serving as editor of the Classics of Golf, a book-club style of subscription service that annually released half a dozen famous old golf books, with introductions penned by Wind. His partner in the enterprise was a former television executive named Robert Macdonald. Together they helped revive the fortunes of 37 titles covering architecture, instruction and casual essays, many of which might have quietly remained as dusty library relics had they not been reintroduced in this series. Among the titles they reissued were Arnold Haultain’s The Mystery of Golf, Bernard Darwin’s Golf Between Two Wars, P.G. Wodehouse’s The Heart of a Goof, Robert Hunter’s The Links and Byron Nelson’s Shape Your Swing the Modern Way.
By 1990, Wind was showing signs of decline. His mind wandered. He got agitated at people and things that previously never would have aroused his ire. He had by then given up golf entirely. He moved out of his East Side apartment to a residence in Weston, Massachusetts, that allowed him to be near his surviving sisters. In 1995, he flew on his own to Los Angeles to receive the Bob Jones Award, but the long trip disoriented him and he had to be escorted off the stage before finishing his rambling acceptance speech. He attended his last Masters in 1997, then quietly retreated back to the Boston suburbs, where he eventually moved to an assisted-living facility. His dementia gradually worsened until his death from pneumonia on May 30, 2005.
Wind never got to write about Tiger Woods. He never visited Sand Hills Golf Club in Nebraska or Bandon Dunes in Oregon. If he ever attended a PGA Merchandise Show, he never commented on it publicly. He was a man of an earlier era, and it showed in his prose and his presence. He was a curmudgeon with class, a figure out of his own literary imagination, someone who self-consciously constructed himself as a caricature in order to fit in, even if it involved a time warp to do so.