Even normal folks can drive and putt: golf requires technique more than strength

March 26, 2017

Golf is one of the few sports that shorter, less muscular people can excel at, because the game requires more skill than strength. Marlene Stewart Streit is a good example. The five ft tall woman began golfing in 1952, and is still playing well in her sixties.

Golf is one of the few remaining civilized games in which a normal person–that is to say, anyone under six feet tall and, oh, 175 lb.–has a remote chance of winning in the upper reaches of competition.

Take hockey. Good nutrition is making most kids taller, and year-round weight training is turning players into icebound Arnold Schwarzeneggers.

Take football. Blimps fill the defensive lines, 300-lb. human specimens. Charlie Ward, the quarterback for Florida State University last autumn, the 1993 winner of the Heisman Trophy as the best college player in the known galaxy, was not selected by a single team in the National Football League’s postseason draft. Pourquoi? Parce que at six feet, two inches, 180 lb., he was too small for the pros.

Take basketball (pul-eeze). Nobody under the height of eight feet, three inches is allowed in the building.

Take baseball. Anybody know a short pitcher? They’re all approximately six feet, two inches and up, topped by Randy Johnson, a six-foot, 10-inch former Expo left-hander currently terrifying American League hitters for the Seattle Mariners. Jimmy Key, a onetime Blue Jay now the Yankee bellwether, is considered a scrawny guy getting by on control and changes of speed, too fragile to throw hard. Fragile? Jim is six feet, one inch and 190 lb.

Back to hockey. An occasional runt, such as Toronto’s flyweight Nikolai Borschevsky (five feet, nine inches, 165 lb.) is allowed in the rink without a ticket, but, generally, standouts such as Vancouver’s Trevor Linden at six feet, four inches aren’t particularly conspicuous. I remember a conversation with Freddie Shero back when the late Fred ran the Broad Street Bullies in Philadelphia. He was five feet, 10 inches or so and lean, and he said to me one day during a Flyers practice: “Look at those guys. Can you believe that when I played for the Rangers I was a defenceman?”

Nowadays, players tower over people the size of the late Freddie and numerous other stars of another time, such as Terrible Ted Lindsay or the twin water bugs, Doug and Max Bentley or, before them, the immortal King Clancy, all of five feet, eight inches. Now, even Eric Lindros at six feet, four inches and 225 lb. does not look out of place while knocking some oaf of a defenceman into the rail seats.

Leaving golf standing almost alone (there’s also soccer) as a game normal folks can play for profit. If you look at the world’s best golfers, you’ll observe that the top of the heap, Nick Price, is a six-footer. Tom Kite is just five feet, eight inches and Jeff Sluman, the former PGA champion, resembles a small caddie at five feet, seven inches and 140 lb.

Woman can play golf, too, a game they can handle at a high level most of their lives. That’s because golf requires technique more than strength. Indeed, without technique in golf, strength is no asset whatever.

Thoughts of this nature stirred in mid-July when the Ontario Ladies’ Golf Association staged its amateur championship tournament over the severe hills and dips of the Mad River Golf and Country Club some 100 km north of Toronto. I went up there because Marlene Stewart Streit was competing, and I hadn’t encountered Marlene for, yipe! fully 42 years.

For it was early in 1952 that Ralph Allen, the Maclean’s editor back then, dispatched me to the village of Fonthill near Niagara Falls to do a piece on Canada’s newly elected athlete of the year, Marlene Stewart, not yet 18 and on the brink of an arresting career on the world’s golf courses. I wrote then that her face was “freckled, girlish, sun-crisped and crowned with a cropped thatch of chestnut hair.” Also that she “wore sweaters and skirts and two-tone saddle shoes and white ankle socks.” She often babysat for her golf instructor, Gordon McInnis, the pro at the Lookout Point Country Club, the local course where she got interested in golf as a caddie. She was five feet and a half inch tall, weighed 108 lb., and when she hit a golf ball it could hardly have travelled straighter even if controlled by radar.

The following year, just past her 19th birthday, Marlene won the British amateur championship at Porthcawl in Wales, and the Brits called her Little Miss Robot. Desmond Hackett, a noted columnist on one of London’s national newspapers, wrote glowingly of her. “We have seen a girl who will surely become the greatest ever woman golfer.”

No one had a real chance to assess Hackett’s forecast because Marlene’s time did not coincide with the explosion in women’s golf and the ensuing professional tour. And, anyway, her husband, Doug Streit, a geologist, was well enough off financially that Marlene didn’t have to pursue a living chasing birdies. The Streits had two daughters, Darlene and Lynn, and Marlene never did turn pro.

But in the years that followed her British victory, Marlene reached a golfing pinnacle. She beat American Hall of Famer Joanne Carner for the U.S. women’s amateur title in 1956 and in 1963 won the Australian amateur in Sydney. Three years later, she won individual honors at the women’s world amateur championships in Mexico City and, in 1985, she added the United States Golf Association’s senior title. Oh yes, not to be overlooked, she has won the Canadian amateur crown 11 times and also won Ontario’s provincial title 11 times.

Now here she was again at this rolling Mad River course north of Toronto, still tiny, still trim, walking in brisk strides in pursuit of the distant ball, her tee shots embarking on high, straight rides a couple of hundred yards down the middle, her approaches biting the greens, her putts flirting with the holes but this time refusing to provide a sub-par score. She finished tied for fourth, trailing the winner, Winnipeg’s Aileen Robertson, the Manitoba champion, by five shots after three rounds in the upper 70s. “I putted well,” Marlene reflected, “but the ball just wouldn’t drop.”

Ah well, at 60 those things happen. Who, outside golf, can come that close without muscles on their muscles?