Fred Astaire was born Frederick Austerlitz in Omaha, Nebraska, right before the turn of the 20th century. Astaire’s mother dreamed of escaping Omaha by virtue of the talents of her children and in 1905, after Fred’s father suddenly lost his job at the Storz Brewing Company, the family packed up and moved to New York City to launch the show business careers of Fred and his sister Adele. The brother and sister act was common to Vaudville at the time.
Fred’s mother suggested they change their last name to Astaire because she felt Austerlitz sounded too much like the name of a battle, but family legend attributes the name to an uncle with the last name L’Astaire.
So what does this American dance icon have to do with golf? Astaire was a lifelong golf enthusiast who played to a single-digit handicap. On April 15, 1938, for the musical film Carefree with Ginger Rogers, Astaire hit golf balls for a 2 minute 45 second tap dancing scene – and nailed it on the first take.
The scene was filmed at Busch Gardens in Pasadena, and it was said that when the balls were collected after the fact, all the shots were concentrated in two distinct landing areas with very little dispersion. Astaire had a flair for a style and a rhythm that clearly carried over to his golf swing. Pay special attention to Astaire’s balance and tempo in this clip:
In September of 2000, The New York Times published an article diagnosing Astaire’s swing based solely on this famous sequence.
With Fred Astaire to Emulate, Can Golf Be That Hard?
By Mindy Aloff
Until the current craze for golf brought the game into high visibility, everything I knew about golf technique I learned from a dancer: Fred Astaire. Astaire was a passionate off-screen golfer and in ”Carefree,” his 1938 movie with Ginger Rogers, he included a golf solo for himself, to a tune by Irving Berlin. The choreography is built around two golf actions, the warm-up waggle and the swing, and its wit depends upon the conceit that an analogy can be made between a swing in golf and swing in jazz.
In ”Carefree,” Astaire plays what must be the most improbable psychiatrist in world cinema, with Rogers as his unanalyzable analysand. The setup for the golf solo is that he tries to impress her on the course after she teases him for pontificating in his office that one should be able to coordinate several actions at the same time. He whips out a harmonica and tap dances while he plays it, splicing in a pirouette from ballet. Crossing two irons, he performs a Highland sword dance.
At one point he lines up several balls and, instead of wielding the iron he holds, he uses the side of his foot, in a hoofer’s step called a wing, to hit each ball with a chip shot, taking one musical count for each stroke. Finally he picks up a wood, lines up more balls, and, again taking one musical count for each swing of the club, drives them, one after another toward what the set design proposes is the deep space of the green. (He drives off Rogers, too. On the number’s afterbeat the film cuts to the place she was standing and discovers that she has gone bicycling.)
Pretty spectacular. Still, how good exactly was Astaire’s golf swing?
Recently I took a videocassette of ”Carefree” to a New York pro, Joe Cowhick, at the indoor Richard Metz Golf School in Midtown Manhattan. Mr. Cowhick has taught golf for some 30 years, and his background includes experience on the PGA Tour, writing an instructional workbook and inventing various ingenious training aids.
Mr. Cowhick’s assessment of Astaire: ”He kept his swing short. He probably shot in the low 80’s, maybe broke 80 on a good day. The average golfer shoots in the high 90’s.”