The Golf Sportsmanship Incident That Inspired a Famous Poet to Write

Tommy Beck was an amateur golfer whose game never took him to the heights. Edgar Guest was a professional poet whose prowess with the pen made him, at one time, one of the most famous writers in the world. Their lives intersected at the 1954 U.S. Amateur Championship when Beck disqualified himself after breaking the rules, inspiring Guest to write a poem entitled Victory.

Beck was 19 years old at the time of the 1954 U.S. Amateur. From Tulsa, Oklahoma, Beck had played in several of the USGA's Junior Amateurs before matriculating to the U.S. Amateur. I can find no information about him beyond the 1954 U.S. Am, so if anyone knows what became of him (e.g., did he become a club pro?), let us know.

Edgar Guest, on the other hand, was, in 1954, a very famous man in the United States. Born in England in the 1880s, he had been an American citizen since 1902. He began as a journalist at the Detroit Free Press just before the turn of the century, and his poems began appearing in 1898. Before long, Guest was writing poems that were syndicated to, at one point, more than 300 newspapers around the U.S. He had a radio show. He published multiple, big-selling books of poetry (affiliate link). He event had a television series on NBC in the early days of TV.

Guest's poems were not high literature. He was not a Milton or a Tennyson, an Eliot or a Yeats — except in popularity, in which, at one time, he probably rivaled Robert Frost. His poems were optimistic, they celebrated things good and cheery and sentimental. He was called "the people's poet."

He was also a golfer. And at the time of the 1954 U.S. Amateur, Guest was a member at the Detroit Golf Club. The tournament was being played at the Country Club of Detroit.

Tommy Beck had a bye in the first round of match play at the U.S. Am, then faced Foster Bradley Jr. in the second round. On the fourth hole, Beck stood over his golf bag and something caught his eye: It appeared a little too full. He counted his clubs. Disaster — there was a 15th club in his bag, one above the limit of 14 clubs.

Beck had a choice: Keep it to himself and keep playing, or turn himself in and, under Rule 3 in place at the time, forfeit the match.

"Tommy knew exactly what to do," the USGA reported in the November 1954 issue of its Through the Green publication. "He disqualified himself under Rule 3 and walked disconsolately back to the clubhouse to pack for the return trip to Tulsa."

But Beck's act of sportsmanship — catching himself breaking a rule and turning himself in, even though it meant disqualification — caught the eye of Edgar Guest.

"The incident so moved Edgar A. Guest, who is a lover the game himself and a member of the Detroit Golf Club, that he immediately penned this poem entitled Victory," the USGA wrote.

The poem was published in the Detroit Free Press. Later the USGA reprinted it in its article about Beck and Guest. As far as we know, Beck and Guest did not meet and never corresponded. But at least Beck would have known that his sportsmanship inspired a famous poet.


Of him all golfers should be proud
Who found when starting out to play
He had more clubs than are allowed
And in the match refused to stay.

He told his rival with a grin:
"Just three holes played. I lose; you win."

Perhaps the Championship that cost.
What might have been no one can know.
The chance to try for it was lost
And that the record books will show.

But nothing on his trophy shelf
Will show him winner over self.

He walked away with head erect.
He'd lost his chance but not his pride.
He still possessed his self-respect
The minute that he stepped aside.

Perhaps, when all is said and done,
His was the greatest victory won.

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