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Glove Story

It’s unsettling to think that golfers have something in common with Michael Jackson, but who else was known for performing while wearing one white glove?For him it had to do with expressing his divided nature and symbolizing the isolation of the postmodern celebrity. Or something like that. But what’s our excuse?

I know, I know: more control, surer feel, less slip. Get a grip, guys. I mean that literally. Given the tacky, resilient, weather-resistant materials grips are made from these days, do you really need a glove?If your handicap is like mine—double-digit but semi-respectable—don’t you feel a bit self-conscious pulling it on?Isn’t the whole showy, shimmying, inch-by-inch procedure a kind of reverse striptease?

Rituals, I admit, are reassuring, and golf has a shag bag full of them. And the glove is not hard to lyricize: We don this gauntlet before taking up our cudgels, before entering golf’s heightened realm of endeavor, and when at last we finish, there is solemnity in its removal, returning us to the real world. Its purity of color, whether white or black, symbolizes the unity of mind and body the game demands.

I can understand wearing waterproof gloves in the rain and insulated gloves in the cold. But apart from the most humid summer days, when perspiration pours from every pore, isn’t it possible that the standard golf glove has become an affectation?

These heretical thoughts were prompted recently by looking at photographs of old-time golfers. In the days of hickory shafts and wrapped leather grips, which became hard and slick if not regularly cleaned and replaced, virtually no one wore a glove. The few pictures of Old Tom Morris or Horace Hutchinson swinging clubs reveal bare hands, as does the famous photo of C. B. Macdonald driving in the first U.S. Amateur championship, in 1895.

But even then, golf gloves were available for those who wanted them. Ten years ago, in anticipation of selling its fifty-millionth glove, FootJoy researched glove history and found an 1898 catalog offering gloves with open backs and others with open knuckles. An 1899 issue of Golf Illustrated advertised "the New Simplex Glove. For Left Hand, the most Perfect Glove made."

They just didn’t catch on, however, perhaps because back then R&D focused on grips rather than gloves. Collector Jeff Ellis, author of The Clubmaker’s Art, says "grips were made in the early twentieth century of gutta-percha, cork, rubber, rubber with cord inlay—many things were tried to combat the problem of slippery grip."

So the bare-knuckle era, judging by visual evidence, continued on through Willie Anderson (U.S. Open champion in 1901 and from 1903 to 1905), Walter Travis (U.S. Amateur champion in 1900, 1901 and 1903) and Francis Ouimet in his historic 1913 U.S. Open defeat of the also gloveless Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. Jerry Travers, Chick Evans, Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones also exemplified this world without glove.

A shift began in the late thirties. It’s hard to pin down a more precise date because in many photos the left hand is hidden from view or the golfer is too far from the camera or the picture is too grainy to tell. The earliest hand-in-glove photos I found were of Sam Snead posing for a publicity shot in a bunker prior to the 1937 Nassau Open and of Ralph Guldahl shaking the hand of his caddy after the 1937 or 1938 U.S. Open (he won both).

Guldahl’s glove appears to be fingerless. In the book Sam: The One and Only Sam Snead, by Al Barkow, Snead is seen wearing a backless glove at the 1940 North & South Open. This was, Barkow writes, "not long after the gloves were first introduced—another example of Sam not being bound by tradition. If something new worked, he went for it."

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