I'm presently reading Mostly Golf: A Bernard Darwin Anthology edited by Peter Ryde, who succeeded Darwin in 1953 as the golf correspondent for The Times of London. It's quite a read, and one that any soul with even a remote appreciation of golf as a parody for life more generally would be well served to finger through on a lazy weekend afternoon. I should also say the volume was kindly lent to me by Paul Rudovsky, our friend and host in Pinehurst, NC. Thank you Paul.
Having just read a passage Darwin scribbled in 1934 entitled Lovelock's Mile, I felt compelled to share it with you lot. I think it gives a nice illustration of Darwin's mischief and his love of a contest - not to mention his partisanship, particularly as it pertains to the rivalry between the heathen Oxford and his beloved Cambridge. It betrays a man who loved the game and its every idiosyncracy; and a man who nonetheless thought, and wrote, critically about its curious properties.
Over the coming weeks I'll share a few more chapters, but for now, I hope you enjoy this one.
There is no doubt where I ought to have been last Saturday; I ought to have been at Wentworth watching the match at golf between England and France. I shirked it unashamedly and went to watch something which I deemed, with all respect to the golfers, better worth the seeing, the mile race at the White City between Lovelock and Bonthron.
Nothing in this life, not even our next holiday, is ever quite so good as we think it is going to be, and, apart from the glorious circumstance that the right man won, I suppose that this great mile was just the least bit disappointing. Yet I would not have missed it for any earthly consideration. Why, the buzz of excitement when the men came out was alone worth all the money; one could have wished for a false start or two to prolong it. So of course was that supreme instant that comes in every race, when we could shout 'He's got him!' with defiant conviction, with no timid thought of propitiating the Fates. So most of all in this undemonstrative country was the genuinely emotional rush of dark and light blue blazers to embrace the victor.
Then, almost as good as any of these things in a less agitating way was the talk afterwards. I stood silent and awestricken among the heroes of old. There was one whose record had stood for seven-and-forty years and still stood at the end of the day, though it had a nasty shake; I swear I saw his jaw drop when the artist on the loud-speaker announced forty-eight and paused a second before coming to the four-fifths. There was another whose half-mile is immortal and I shook his revered hand. There was a third whom I had seen as a schoolboy when he won his first mile at Queen's Club, looking very prim and young with very large, round spectacles, and Oxford thought that they could beat him and found themselves deliciously wrong. There was, to mention just one more, he who I had seen nearly forty years ago rolling down the straight at the end of a famous quarter with a famous red head behind him. These, and 'such great men as these', had much to say of the tactics of the race. Ought the Cornell pacemaker to have gone faster for the first two laps? Why, when with Leach in close attendance he did draw some eight years ahead, did Bonthron seem disinclined to go up and stayed behind with that pattering dark blue Nemesis at his heels? There was one there, a great ally of Cambridge and I think the shrewdest of them all, who when those first two laps were done foretold the end. The Americans, he said, were playing into Lovelock's hands, for if it was going to come to a finish, there was only one man who could win it.
What fun it all was! I could not help feeling that, exciting and agonising as golf can be, it lacks a little something in that element of tactics. Perhaps it would be more than we could endure if it had it, and we ought to be thankful. At any rate, say what we will, it does lack it. Golf is a contest of temperament, but not of wits. We may be tactical in playing short of a bunker or taking a particular line, but that is only with the view of doing the hole as well as we think we can, not in order to outwit or bamboozle the enemy. We cannot say to ourselves, 'All right, if he wants to do fives we will do fives too and come with a rush of fours at the end'. If we attempted any such insanity we should be far more likely to come with a rush of sixes. Even in a qualifying round in score play the golfer cannot save up his best efforts for the real test to come; he cannot keep the ball out of the hole if it wants to go in, although he knows that, against his will, he is using up the ration of putts which is all the grudging Fates allow a mortal. No; all we can do at golf is to play as well as we can from the very start and to the very end. That is a very dull remark, perhaps, but it may be nearly the whole truth.
I remember a rather bombastic young gentleman, a very fine golfer, coming in much pleased with himself after the first round of a championship. He had been drawn against one who had beaten him in another tournament and he had had his revenge. 'I was determined to have no nonsense about it this time', he proclaimed, 'I went all out from the very start', and proceeded to reel off an imposing list of fours. 'That's all very well', commented an eminent and long-suffering personage, 'but suppose he had gone all out from the start too'. The young gentleman was a little damped and could make no answer. Indeed there is no answer to make, for, as I said, there is nothing to do but to start as well as possible and keep it up for as long as possible. A golfer is sometimes said to spurt and the word is permissible, for it conveys a picture, but his spurt is not like that of a runner, deliberately kept back waiting for the right moment. What, in fact, happened was that, having played badly, he began to play better; he would have liked to have done those fours and threes earlier in the round if he could and then he would not have needed them at the finish; there would not have been a finish because he would have been walking in triumphantly from the 14th green.
There are, to be sure, tactical methods of harassing the enemy, but our fellows do not think very well of us if we employ them. We must not walk fast if our opponent does not like being hurried - a method sometimes recommended by the older race of Scottish caddies; we must not lie on our stomachs interminably contemplating the line of the putt against one who is notoriously impatient of delay. We must not - perhaps most criminal of all - say that we should like to give our adversary a short putt but feel regretfully bound to see him hole it. There is something else in that matter of short putts which we ought not to do to him and yet I am sure we often do it, though not of malice aforethought. We concede with an airy grace a couple of short ones and then when he has a rather shorter one to tackle we stand silent, like graven images, contemplating the distant horizon. I have seen this highly effective course of conduct, but it is not a laudable one, and if we never gave short putts the question would not arise.
I heard the other day of a case of rather great subtlety. B had two for it on the first green from a moderate distance and A at once gave him the hole. Said a friend to A: 'That was rather a lot to give. I should have let him putt.' A replied: 'He might have holed in one and that would have given him confidence in his putting.' Was this a permissible piece of tactics or was A rather too deep a dog? I am not prepared to give a verdict, but I am sure of this: that the oftener I am given the hole when I have two for it the better I shall be pleased.
Having now sweated from my fingertips across the keys of my laptop I can now see how Kerouac took such pleasure in punching out on his keyboard the entire text of Scott Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby. Oh to be able to write so! (Though I may pick out a shorter extract next time...!).