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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.

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