THE FIRST WORDS ever written about golf appear in an edict issued by the Scottish King James II, who was affectionately nicknamed "fiery face" by his subjects. This decree, passed by the Scottish Parliament in 1457, outlawed the playing of golf with the stern invocation that "the futeball and golfe be utterly cryed downe and not to be used." James was increasingly alarmed by the golf mania sweeping his realm, which was distracting able-bodied men from the archery practice required during wartime. "Fiery face" later met an untimely and befitting death when he was killed by a cannon that blew up while he was inspecting the muzzle.
In the time elapsed since golf's genesis in those Scottish hinterlands, Bernard Richard Meirion Darwin has been the game's greatest chronicler. Although Darwin is indisputably the best golf writer who ever lived, many also rate him the greatest sportswriter to set ink on paper, and that estimation takes into account such noteworthy members of the genus as Ring Lardner, Grantland Rice, Leo Tolstoy, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner.
Peter Ryde, who succeeded Darwin as the golf correspondent for The London Times in 1953, has compiled an anthology of Darwin's essays that broach a wide range of subjects although most touch in some way on the game that consumed his life. The book, entitled Mostly Golf, was recently released to commemorate the centennial of Darwin's birth on September 7, 1876 in Downe, Kent.
The volume represents only a fragment of the articles that Darwin wrote in his cramped, feverish longhand over a 46 year span and had dispatched by telegraph to London, at the night rate of eighty shillings a word. When Darwin was abroad, luxury liners like the Baltic and the Lusitania ploughed the seas carrying his copy in stow.
Mostly Golf captures the enduring appeal of Darwin's airy and cultured prose which is leavened by a trenchant wit. In later years, Darwin moved away from straight narratives of golf matches and Mostly Golf contains numerous childhood reminisces, discourse childhood reminisces, discourse on the family dogs, and humorous essays of a philosophical bent.
ASCION of the intellectual coffers of the Darwin family, he often visited his renowned grandfather Charles Darwin before his death in 1882. His father Francis Darwin was one of three of Charles's sons who were knighted for their contributions to science. Bernard spent a good deal of his childhood at his Welsh grandmother's estate, as his mother died in childbirth.
Darwin, in fact, was somewhat of a journalistic pioneer. He embarked on a career as a barrister after passing the Law Tripos at Cambridge before his first article appeared in the Times in 1907 under the heading "Golf and the Championship." Prior to Darwin, sports in newspapers had been consigned to the old Victorian concept of "Sporting Intelligence," which amounted to a few morsels of trivia and numbers. Darwin's literary flair and telegraphic accounts of matches quickly made his Saturday features an eagerly awaited treat savored by thousands of readers.
Darwin had the same gift as the best impressionistic painters to capture a scene with a radiance that transcends time. His self-professed motto was "writing about sports in worth nothing without gusto." The effervescence of his narratives is most apparent in a stirring passage from an essay entitled "Crowd and Urgency." After a discussion of crowds in general, he writes:
In every golfing scene I remember over the years the crowd plays its part. How often have I seen it--how often, alas! have I described?--John Ball starting down the first hole in a great match with a rose in his button hole, with the trampling and the hum of the prayerful Hoylake crowd behind him, held back by the blue-jerseyed fishermen manning the rope. To ancient hero-worshippers of my generation there never was and never can be again so moving a spectacle as that. But others, second only to it, come back. There is Bobby Jones winning the Open Championship at St. Andrews. He taps in his winning putt and the next moment there is no inch of green to be seen, nothing but a swirling mob, with Bobby in the middle, perched on adoring shoulders and his putter, 'Calamity Jane', held in precarious safety over his head.
Although Darwin was a man of unsurpassed personal charm, his enthusiasm for sports and the pugnacious attitude that allowed him to become a championship golfer in his own right, added a certain lovable but disarming, and at times boorish, intensity to his personality. The passion that infuses all of Darwin's writings can perhaps best be traced to Ryde's insight that "every game he watched or took part in assumed the proportions of an heroic encounter."
At the age of eight, Darwin muttered to his father, who was playing in a sedate foursome, "let us beat those beasts." He remained a partisan zealot the rest of his life. In 1929 the British ladies champion Joyce Wethered was five down in a match to her American counterpart, Glenna Collet. Before she sunk a putt that proved the turning point in the contest and enabled her to go on to victory, Miss Wethered noticed Darwin in the gallery and recalls that "his face wore an expression that was a mixture of fury and dejection." Darwin took no solace in the notion that the best man or woman deserved to win on a given day. He termed such thinking "anaemic rubbish."
The emotional wrenching Darwin suffered as a spectator comes across clearly in his description of the 1931 British Open won by Tommy Armour:
Finally, and most poignant of all, was Jurado's tragedy, also at the 17th...One thought of all sorts of mistakes he might make but one never dreamed of the one he did make, when he popped the ball into the burn off the tee, more or less in front of his nose. It was terribly sad, for he is a splendid little man (he does not weigh 10 stone) and had played splendidly courageous golf, full of smiling excitement but always keeping control of himself. I wish these horrid things were not inevitable in championships.
Essays like "When Slices Were Slices" and "More Strokes, More Fun" provide an inkling of the lighter and wittier side of Darwin's writings. One of the more entertaining selections in Mostly Golf is "A Musical Cure," written in 1935. It describes Darwin's own experience searching for that elusive rhythm in the golf swing by practising to music. With his swing temporarily out of synch, Darwin writes.
There is a traditional prescription for its recapture, which consists in swinging the club to a waltz tune.... So away I went to a secret valley, a very muddy one in the season of rain, where no human eye could see my contortion nor human ear hearken to my carolings, and 'Gad, there I was,' as Jos Sedley once observed, 'singing away like--a robin.