Controversies in golf are usually associated with change in the rules, equipment or form of play. Currently, the groove rule change is front and center. In early times, controversies arose when the switch began from the feathery to the gutta percha ball in 1848 and with the switch from hickory to steel shafts in the 1920’s. The R & A banned the Schenectady putter in 1911. This was the putter that Walter Travis used to become the first American to win the British Amateur Championship in 1904.
Golf controversies today are reported by the traditional media, newspapers and magazines, but also by the traditional media’s dot.com outlets and by the social media, blogs and tweets. The impact of Internet golf reporting has shifted the focus to reporting stories bit by bit in real time with immediate commentary by “followers.” The opportunities to place a hot story in its historical context and search for humorous and ironical dimensions are few. Twitter has trumped poetry as the means for story telling.
But, of course, this has not always been true. For example, in the early 20th century most amateur golf in Great Britain was played under the rules of match play. But the introduction of the score card and pencil stub made medal or stroke play scores easy to record. And by 1912 medal play was on the rise. Robert K. Risk, a Scottish poet and writer and a golf traditionalist, believed that match play defined golf and that this shift harmed the character of the game.
In voicing his opposition to the increase in medal play he was not limited to a time deadline or to 140 characters. Instead, he took his time and fashioned a poem of depth and imagination and biting wit. His poetical protest did not stem the tide of medal play, but does survive as an interesting contrast to how golf controversies are aired today.
“Medalitis,” Risk’s poem, was originally published in the English humor magazine Punch on October 2, 1912. Please be patient as you read it. If you have time, a second reading will help to fully enjoy Risk’s work.
In the full height and glory of the year,
When husbandmen are housing golden sheaves,
Before the jealous frost has come to shear
From the bright woodland its reluctant leaves,
I pass within a gateway, where the trees,
Tall, stately, multi-coloured, manifold,
Draw the eye on as to some Chersonese,
Spanning the pathway with their arch of gold.
A river sings and loiters through the grass,
Girdling a pleasance scythed and trimly shorn;
And here I watch men vanish and repass
To the last hour of eve from early morn;
Dryads peer out at them, and goat-foot Pan
Plays on his pipe to their unheeding ears;
They pass, like pilgrims in a caravan,
Towards some Mecca in the far-off years.
Blind to the woodland’s autumn livery,
Blind to the emerald pathway that they tread,
Deaf to the river’s low-pitched lullaby,
Their limbs are quick and yet their souls are dead;
Nothing to them the song of any bird,
For them in vain were horns of Elfland wound,
Blind, deaf and stockfish-mute; for,in a word,
They are engaged upon a Medal Round.
Making an anxious torment of a game
Whose humours now intrigue them not at all,
They chase the flying wraith of printed fame,
With card and pencil arithmetical;
With features pinched into a painful frown
Looming misfortunes they anticipate,
Or, as the fatal record is set down,
Brood darkly on a detrimental 8.
These are in thrall to Satan, who devised
Pencil and card to tempt weak men to sin,
Whereby their prowess might be advertised —
Say, 37 Out and 40 In;
Rarely does any victim break his chains
And from his nape the lethal burden doff —
The man with medal virus in his veins
Seldom outlives it and gets back to Golf.