The Great Game of Golf


I suspect that ardent golfers who watched Tom Watson’s performance at the 2009 Open  were of two minds when it ended. They were sad for  “Old Tom,” but happy to be associated with such a great Game. For most of us, that happiness is not so much based on our whether we can hit long drives or make short putts, but rather on the many pleasures we associate with participating in the sport. And who knows, with practice or devine intervention, our abilities sometimes improve, even if only for a brief time. Sir Walter Simpson, an early golf historian whom I have previously quoted, wrote in his book The Art of Golf (1892),

Golf is not one of those occupations in which you soon learn your level. There is no shape nor size of body, no awkwardness nor ungainliness, which puts good golf beyond one’s reach. There are good golfers with spectacles, with one eye, with one leg, even with one arm. … It is not the youthful tyro alone who has cause to hope. Beginners in middle age have become great, and, more wonderful still, after years of patient duffering, there may be a rift in the clouds. … In golf, whilst there is life there is hope.

That final thought provides lasting inspiration to us all.

In the May 1915 issue of The American Golfer, the correspondent who wrote “New England Notes” included a poem that reflected both the frustrations and pleasures of “patient duffering,”

My drive is erratic, my brassie’s the same,
My irons atrocious, and awful my aim,
My mashie is fearful, my putting worse still,
My scores have the look of a dressmaker’s bill;
My legs are a-weary, my wrists are quite lame,
But I am most happy, — I’m playing the game.



Photo Credit AP

Photo Credit AP

I’m giving myself a two stoke penalty for breaking my rule of posting only on Mondays. But Tom Watson’s performance at Turnberry deserves at least one poetic response.  So I offer the following:


From the tee at eighteen
He looked down towards the home hole
Like a pitcher with a one run lead
Looks toward home plate needing one more out.

As he drove his ball
We knew what the magic number was
When the camera showed a safe white speck
We exhaled in unison and subtracted one.

Now it was an eight iron to the green
Or was it a nine?
A question to be answered twice
The first time by Watson alone.

He was thinking nine but hit the eight
And as we watched with growing anxiety
The ball bounced hard and rolled too far
We held our breath and subtracted one.

Again a choice: to chip or putt
“One of the best chippers of all time”
The words of an old pro in the booth
But the third stroke would be a putt.

From off the green the ball raced up
Then by the hole a good eight feet
He said he had seen grain
Down to one, we saw trouble.

Once more a putt to win the Open
But this was not a kid with a dream
This was a Champion Golfer five times over
Yet now we feared the worst.

While he took two short practice strokes
We lost interest in counting
And as the ball rolled weakly off his putter
We lost all hope as well.

“I made a lousy putt,” Watson’s words
“Then it was one bad shot after another”
A self-stated epitaph marked the close:
“The Old Fogy Almost Did It.”

And so the golf writers lost their story
To an illustrious sage from an earlier time
It wouldn’t be about Watson winning or losing
But how he had played the Game.

And did he ever!

Leon S White
July 22, 2009


Does Golf Improve Health? – A Turn of the Century (20th) View


Before I begin, please note that this Post is not an argument for adding Golf to the President’s Health Care Reform Bill!

According to Murray G Phillips, an Australian sports historian writing in the May 1989 issue of the Journal of the Australian Society for Sports History, around the beginning of the 20th Century,

“Golf’s major justification rested on the belief that sporting participation improved one’s health. The game was lauded for its ability to aid in health-related matters. Consider the testimony of the English champion of 1902 [Sandy Herd] who was successful at 53 years of age. To him it was ‘golf and golf alone that kept him of the youthful side’.”

Philips goes on the quote a review article on golf in Australia written around 1900 in which the writer claims that,

“There is no other form of sport which is so recommended by the medical faculty.”

Interestingly, some of the golf poetry of the time echoed this theme. For example, from a 1906 issue of Golf Illustrated,

There is an old person of Bickley
Who for sixty long years had been sickly;
.       Since taking up golf
.       His ailments are off,
He’s renewing his youth very quickly.

Here are a quick four lines from an 1893 issue of Golf,

To drive the Golf ball on the ground,
To spoon it o’er the hill,
Will keep both mind and body sound,
And save the doctor’s bill.

And in another issue of Golf, later the same year, a poem “A Song of Golf” included the following healthful and colorful stanza:

When doctors fail to cure you, and you go from bad to worse,
Your head just like a toy shop, and existence but a curse,
You need not knuckle under, be it fever, chill, or cough,
Just take your clubs and caddie, and then whack away at Golf.
.                Then whack away at Golf,
.                Then smack away at Golf,
You can banish pills and potions if you whack away at Golf.

(These verses all come from an unpublished collection of poems put together by the late Joseph S. F. Murdoch, the renowned golf book collector and bibliographer. I was extremely fortunate to receive a copy of this collection from one of his close friends.)

It is interesting to note that today, at least in the U.S., the health benefits of golf are often lost to golf carts, unwalkable golf courses and cigars. Meanwhile, many professional golfer prepare to play golf by adhering to rigorous exercise routines designed by expert trainers. Golf isn’t the source of their improved fitness, it’s the driver.


Golf and the Need for Self-deception

Bernard Darwin

Bernard Darwin

Herbert Warren Wind, himself an outstanding golf writer, described Bernard Darwin as “the greatest writer on golf the world has ever known.” Darwin (1876 – 1961), was a grandson of Charles Darwin. He was trained in law at Cambridge where he also played golf.  He disliked the practice of law but loved golf. So despite having no formal training, he began what would become an illustrious career writing about golf. He covered the sport for The Times of London from 1907 to 1953 and for Country Life from 1907 to 1961, the first writer ever to cover golf on a daily basis, instead of an occasional feature.

Darwin wrote more than 20 books on golf. In one, simply called Golf, he wrote,

“Is there any other game in which the player is so constantly wondering what is the matter with him and so regularly finding a cure which he believes will heal him for ever, only to suffer a dreadful relapse next day? I can hardly think there is since so few other games give the same opportunity for solitary practice, and it is the solitude above everything else that promotes this pleasant  form of self-deception.”

Robert Risk, a Scottish writer and poet, published a book of 36 poems in 1919 called Songs of the Links that included a poem “The Golfer’s Discontent” that expands on Darwin’s observation. The last stanza is acutely perceptive.

The evils of the Golfer’s state
Are shadows, not substantial things—
That envious bunkers lie in wait
For all our cleanest, longest swings;
The pitch that should have won the round
Is caught and killed in heavy ground.

And even if at last we do
That 80, coveted so long,
A melancholy strain breaks through
The cadence of our even-song—
A 7 (which was “an easy 4”)
Has “spoilt our 77 score.”

And thus, with self-deception bland,
We mourn the fours that should have been,
Forgetting, on the other hand,
The luck that helped us through the green;
Calmly accepting as our due
The four-hole which we fluked [luckily stroked] in two.

The drive that barely cleared the sand,
The brassy-shot which skimmed the wall
The useful “kick,” the lucky “land” —
We never mention these at all;
The only luck that we admit
Is when misfortune comes of it.

And therefore, in a future state,
When we shall all putt out in two,
When drives are all hole-high and straight,
And every yarn we tell is true,
Golf will be wearisome and flat,
When there is naught to grumble at.


Advice on Putting in Prose and Poetry


In last week’s Post I included a poem, “Dedicated to the Duffer” from a book, The Winning Shot, by Jerome Travers and Grantland Rice published in 1915. But what is “the winning shot?”  According to Travers, who won the U.S. Amateur Championship four times and the U.S. Open once,

“Undoubtedly “the winning shot” in golf is the putt. There can be no question about it.”

Travers later on in the chapter continues,

“We all know that there is less of the physical and more of the psychological in putting than in any other part of golf. To be putting well the golfer must have absolute control of his nerves…”

Travers ends the chapter with “a few condensed suggestions” to improve your putting:

  1. Stand well over the ball and keep your head still.
  2. Keep your eye on that ball and don’t move your body.
  3. Cut out the jab or the stab, learn the pendulum swing, and get a follow through with the club.
  4. Cultivate, in practice as well as play, the knack of being a trifle beyond the hole if you miss. Make a steady practice of giving the ball a chance.
  5. Cultivate the habit of concentration.
  6. Cultivate the habit of confidence and determination, for mental faults can be improved as well as physical ones.
  7. And then practise putting wherever and whenever you get the chance.

Remember these words were written almost 100 years ago. They hold up well when reading the modern gurus Pelz, Utley, Rotella and Valiante.

And yet, as the following poem suggests, when you compare all the words of wisdom regarding putting, the result is more often confusion than improvement.  [Read more…]

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