One thing you can count on when they play the PGA Championship at Riviera this week:
It won’t top what happened the first time they brought the PGA to Los Angeles.
For the final day of the 1929 PGA at Hillcrest Country Club, spectators eagerly anticipated the 36 holes of match play between Leo Diegel and Johnny Farrell.
The gallery that day, about 5,000, was called at the time the largest to see a golf event in Southern California.
What it got, however, wasn’t golf. At least, by today’s standards.
They got eight-ball pool.
Diegel and Farrell wound up deciding their match with shots that could have been inspired by Willie Hoppe, Minnesota Fats, Cicero Murphy or Fast Eddie Felson.
This one should have been played out in cigar smoke and green eye shades, not fresh air and sunshine. And with pool cues, not putters.
What happened that day was attributable to a nearly forgotten part of golf, the “stymie” rule.
Stymie remains in our language (to be blocked, thwarted or frustrated), but not our golf game. After more than 200 years of controversy, the stymie rule was thrown out in 1951.
Before 1951, in match play, there was no such thing as marking a ball on a green.
If your opponent’s ball blocked your path to the cup, you had to go up and over (you might select a niblick for this task) or around it.
Stymies were provided for in the first known rules of golf, published in 1734. Between 1734 and 1951, controversy raged.
Purists generally believed it was simply part of an ancient game and should be left alone.
Modernists favoring abolition generally believed golf was a sport of shotmaking, that a stymie somehow didn’t fit.
Before 1951, stymies played deciding roles in a number of major tournaments:
--In the 1936 U.S. Amateur Championship, Jack McLean was on his way to the title until he was stymied by a putt by eventual winner Johnny Fischer at the 34th hole.
--In Bobby Jones’ 1930 Grand Slam year, he beat Cyril Tolley at the British Amateur on a 19th-hole stymie.
But the 1929 PGA at Hillcrest topped everything.
It was a championship decided by stymies on successive holes, renewing the abolitionists’ chorus.
Diegel, the defending PGA champion, had beaten Gene Sarazen and Walter Hagen to reach the final against Farrell, who had beaten Henry Ciuci and Al Watrous.
Diegel had an early four-hole lead, but Farrell battled back and they finished the first 18 holes even.
On the 27th, Diegel muffed a short putt, but his ball blocked Farrell’s five-foot path to the cup. In trying to nudge his ball around Diegel’s, Farrell knocked Diegel’s ball in.
Incredibly, the same thing happened on the next hole.
Farrell then missed a three-foot putt on the 29th hole, and his game rapidly came apart. Diegel won, 6 and 4.
When the stymie was jettisoned in 1951, purists raged and anti-stymieites rejoiced.
Wrote one stymie-backer, golf reporter J.H. Taylor: “It will usher in a time when golf becomes but a feeble representation of the real thing . . . [and] what is of far graver intent, [it will be inflicted] upon the golfing posterity which follows who will never know the real game as it was intended to be played.”
Diegel, who for many years was the pro at Agua Caliente Country Club in Tijuana, died at 52 in 1951. Farrell was 87 when he died in 1988.