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09 Nov

Bernard Darwin, A True Contributor

Nowadays it is popular to talk about genes and heredity. So try this on for size. Charles Darwin was the genius that advanced the idea of “the origin of the species” fromold bunker at prestwick which much of our study of evolution has evolved. Then along came Bernard Darwin, the grandchild of Charles Darwin, and as good as the old man was in his field Bernard was Grandfather’s equal in his own field—writing. Especially when it came to golf.You will get a sensitive, even enchanting description of the great holes, the not so great, and the downright poor. But never maliciously described, rather cleverly balancing one with the other. He actually made you feel like you are experiencing the course as if it was revealed to you for the first time

Bernard Darwin was born in 1876 and died in 1961, which was 85 years of a remarkably productive life. He was known throughout Britain and the USA. He was one of those rare individuals who transcended his profession and became, in a sense, a Godlike figure, greatly admired by his peers and respected by those who came after him.

“As a writer on golf, Bernard Darwin was not just the origin of the species, he remains, decades after his death, one of its aces, as well.”Ben Crenshaw

Bernard Darwin wrote diverse columns in newspapers, articles in magazines, and books. These included essays, reports of events, descriptions of golf courses, profiles of people, and even general rhapsodies about the pleasures of playing the game of golf. He was an instantly recognizable figure; slender and wiry, with sharp features, pipe in mouth, wearing knickers, coat, tie and woolen golf cap, and equally at home on the links or in the club lounge.

Darwin went to cover the first Walker Cup match in 1922 between the best American and British Amateurs. There the British Captain, Robert Harris, became ill. Not on the roster of players, Darwin stepped into the captaincy, played and won his match against a truly formidable American golfer, William C. Fownes. A confirmed amateur, Darwin had previously won the Golf Illustrated Golf Vase in 1919. Later, he went on to win the President’s Putter of the Oxford and Cambridge Golfing Society in 1924. He also teamed up with Joyce Wethered, the foremost woman golfer on the planet in her day, to win a mixed foursomes competition.

Darwin’s words were never sloppily chosen but always the precise way to best “paint” a word picture of a course or the emotion in a competition. Here’s the way he described the 1927 British Open victory by Bobby Jones.

“He holed his short one and the next instant there was no green visible, only a dark seething mass, in the midst of which was Bobby hoisted on fervent shoulders and holding his putter, ‘Calamity Jane,’ at arm’s length over his head lest she should be crushed to death.”

“He holed his short one and the next instant there was no green visible, only a dark seething mass, in the midst of which was Bobby hoisted on fervent shoulders and holding his putter, ‘Calamity Jane,’ at arm’s length over his head lest she should be crushed to death.”

Darwin was prolific as a writer. He basically filled a bookshelf with the many books he wrote over the years. And readers always came back for more. His interests ranged from reporting on national championships to encouraging golfers to travel away from their home venues to discover the variety that is in golf. One of his books was especially effective in documenting this variety and the enchantment of courses in England, Scotland and Ireland. Called The Golf Courses of the British Isles, it became a classic in its own time and remains so today. Want to know what one of these courses was like (perhaps one you have played and fondly remember) in the period around 1910? You will get a sensitive, even enchanting description of the great holes, the not so great, and the downright poor. But never maliciously described, rather cleverly balancing one with the other. He actually made you feel like you are experiencing the course as if it was revealed to you for the first time.

The Golf Courses of the British Isles was first published in 1910 and it started a trend of including illustrations of particular holes on various courses to convey the essence or spirit of the course. To provide the 64 images he enlisted the artistic talent of 32-year old,rountree player caddiie who had come from New Zealand nine years earlier. Rountree had established himself as a first rate illustrator of children’s books and then moved on to illustrating nature scenes, including a beautifully illustrated book on the Dolomites, a mountain range in Italy. When he hooked up with Darwin it was as though the minds communicated, for the Darwinian magic with words was matched by the Rountree magic with watercolors.

Consider the following gently worded text and gently painted art. The subject is Musselburgh, a very early course in Scotland, near Edinburgh, which is significant for a number of reasons of historical significance, even hosting the Open. It is not, however, a course that people visit much today because it has been superceded by the modern game and the modern style of course design. It is only nine holes and comingled with a racecourse. But Musselburgh has a certain charm that Darwin caught, and the names of the holes there tell a lot.

“The first rejoices in the cheerful name of the ‘Graves,’ owing to the conformation of the putting green, which, with its little barrows, is like a grass-grown burial ground.” And Darwin continues, “Next comes another hole with a famous name—‘Mrs. Forman’s’—and we approach Mrs. Forman’s tavern with two shots to the left, followed by a run up, or—more perilously—by two shots on the dead straight line. By the latter method we may, indeed, get home in two, but we may also be under the posts of the race-course or in the electric tram-car, or in a variety of bunkers, and it may be added that they do not pamper us at Musselburgh by raking the bunkers or trimming the steep over-hanging cliffs thereof.”

Some of the illustrations in The Golf Courses of the British Isles are not of golf courses, but of the human character that appears in connection with some of these wonderful old courses. For example, Rountree’s illustration for Sandwich (Royal St. Georges, in southeast England) is titled Playing on to the green from ‘Hades’. It shows a golfer trying to rescue himself from a downhill lie, complicated by scrub brush, in a dune on the ‘Hades” hole. Here’s how Darwin describes it, “My pen has run away with me over the first six holes, as I knew it would, and there still remain twelve more holes to play. ‘Hades’ will, no doubt, deserve its name if we top our tee-shot, though otherwise it is a reasonably easy three, but the ninth is in reality a far more formidable affair.”

And then there is Ireland, and Rountree’s charming painting of golfers titled “Coming Home”, which shows golfers returning from a round of golf at Portmarnock, near Dublin. They are riding in a horse drawn cart to the mainland, obviously at high tide.

Darwin wrote, “I also feel just a little uncomfortable at the thought of the last occasion on which I crossed over from Portmarnock to the mainland. When the tide is low, one can drive across an expanse of soft, wet sand while clinging ungracefully but tenaciously to an outside car, but on this occasion the tide was low, and we had to make the journey by sailing boat. A snowstorm was raging intermittently, and the wind blew piercing, cold, and strong, reminding one with its every blast that on the morrow all the horrors of the Irish Channel had to be faced.”

As stated earlier, Bernard Darwin was a golf columnist for the London Times and Country Life Magazine. His columns were so much fun to read that a number of them were collected and published in book form. Playing the Like is that kind of book. One especially enjoyable article was titled “Putting Paralysis” which at the time afflicted Darwin himself.

Here’s how he told it, “I once had a knee, and when I limped into my club I had so many sympathizers that I was kept busy for a long time writing down the names and addresses of all the magicians who were going to cure it. I have now got another ailment—alas! Of long standing; not a physical, but a mental and golfing one, and I find that, in something of the same way, everyone is prepared not to tell me of a physician, but to heal me himself. I call my disease, for short, putting paralysis, and I am well aware that I am far from being the only person who has ever suffered from it. The symptoms are, roughly speaking, these: when the victim goes out by himself to a practice putting green, he can putt more or less as well as anybody else, or, at any rate, as well as he could putt it before he was afflicted; but as soon as he has a real putt to tackle in a real game, no matter how mild a game, then he 'comes over all of a tremble,' sweat pours from his brow, he feels utterly paralyzed, and it is as much as he can do to make himself hit the ball at all.”

Another article included in the Playing the Like volume was Darwin’s thoughtful telling about a great Scottish golfer (though short lived) who was a hero of old,fg tait last medal round Freddie Tait. Darwin reported on certain details of the match play British Amateur in which Tait had to play in the fourth round against the reigning Open Champion, Harold Hilton, on Hoylake, Hilton’s home course. Here’s a piece of Darwin’s report.

“At lunch time I saw Freddie assiduously practising putting in front of the club house. ‘Is it going well?’ someone asked him, and he answered with victorious ring in his voice, ‘It will be this afternoon.’ It did; so much so that he won by 6 and 5 and the poor Open Champion crumpled sadly beneath the attack.”

Freddie was killed in the Boer War, cutting short a marvelous golfing future. The last tournament in which Tait played was at Prestwick, and many Americans have played this wonderful old course, the site of the very first British open, at one time or another. But the following report on the match between Freddie Tait and another great player of the day, John Ball, tells us more about what it was like to play in those days than simply what happened in the match.

“It was in that match—at the thirty-fifth hole—that two much quoted shots followed one another from the big Alps bunker, Freddie playing the ball out of a deep puddle on to the green,alps bunker prestwick and John Ball following with an equally great shot from the hard, wet sand close under the face of the black wooden sleepers. I can still see Freddie’s ball rocking on the little waves that he made in the puddle as he waded in. I can hear a Scottish friend next to me crying out in agony, ‘Wait till it settles, Freddie; wait till it settles.’ I don’t think he had the least notion that he was speaking above a whisper. Yes, that was a day of heroic emotions.

The ball that floated was of course a gutty, and Freddie never played with or heard of, any other kind, He was dead and buried before the Haskell was invented.”

Darwin became the Captain of the Royal and Ancient in 1934 and was Chair of the Rules of Golf Committee for the R & A in 1947. Truly, though these may have been honors that recognized his stature in the game, the legacy he left us in his writings is the way we should remember Bernard Darwin.


Collectors actively seek out Bernard Darwin’s books, and since first editions have long been sold out they have become increasingly valuable with the passage of time. Fortunately, reprints of a number of Darwin’s books are now available. Included are such books as: Green Memories which is autobiographical, Golf Between Two Wars which describes golf during the 20’s and 30’s, Golf in which he talks about the pleasures of the game, A History of Golf In Britain, telling just what it says, Mostly Golf, an anthology published 100 years after Darwin’s birth, The Darwin Sketchbook which profiles early champion golfers, The Games Afoot! Darwin’s edited work on sports writing over 150 years, The Happy Golfer A collection of Darwin’s articles in The American Golfer, James Braid The story of one of the great golfers in the history of Britain, Playing the Like comprising various essays, excerpted above, The Golf Courses of the British Isles describing courses, excerpted above.

Last modified on Friday, 09 November 2012 23:56
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Scott’s Profile: A native Northern Californian with a deep love for pacific coast golf courses.  Favorites: Olympic Club, Spyglass, and Pebble Beach.  First golf memory: Introduced to golf at age 3 with a wooden shafted putter (while on a family vacation to Calgary),the putter didn’t make it home in one piece – broken after chasing a gopher down a hole.  Inspirational golf personality: as a kid captivated by many superstars of the 70s and 80s, ultimate inspiration was Arnold Palmer.  Current passion in golf: a slowed competitive ambition, and a love for learning, exploring and appreciating the finer points in golf. Favorite golf activity: traveling abroad and meeting new people, share a love for the game, and of course exploring both new and classic golf courses.  Hole-in-one count: 6. Handicap: a debatable 1.0 index.  College: USF

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