Golfers of Two Countries

I

I HAVE just received a letter from a golfing friend whom I have not seen for some time. He writes from a seaside town on the east coast of England. In summer time it is a busy watering place, yet it takes a pride in itself in that it is comparatively small and select, and harbors every year the same faithful visitors. In winter it lies, I imagine, bleak and solitary enough, so that any small piece of news travels from end to end of the town on excited wings. It appears from my friend’s letter that a terrible feud has been raging there. The community is divided into two relentless factions. One declares that a ‘birdie’ signifies the playing of a hole in one under the ‘ par’ score; the other says it means one under the ‘bogey’ score. Bets were made, and then came the question of who should decide the question. An eminent professional was written to and he declared unhesitatingly, as of course he would, for the par school. Still the supporters of bogey declined to be convinced, and my friend says he has been deputed to approach me. I have written in the most emphatic language of which I am capable in favor of par, and I am now waiting to hear that the bets have been paid and that my correspondent has drunk my health from his resulting gains.

It makes a rather touching picture, the little township keeping itself warm in the biting winter gale by frenzied argument; yet I did not begin my article with it on that account, but because it is an illustration of the influence in England of American golf. ‘Birdie’ is, of course, an American term. We knew it several years ago and have struggled against it. All in vain, however; it was too useful to be resisted, and now it has marched right over us, horse, foot, and artillery, and become impregnable established. It is as firmly fixed here as is the jersey or jumper — call it what you will — in place of the coat. Personally I cling to the coat. Let me add that this is not from any prejudice: I love the sensation of the jersey, — it makes me feel, comparatively speaking, like a young Greek god, — but alas! it makes me hit the ball like a broken-down cab horse. Age has not yet sufficiently tamed the youthful and eel-like qualities of my swing; it still needs a coat to control it, and the liberty of the jersey degenerates into license; so I stick to my old friend, but I feel terribly old-fashioned, and for one coat on any British course you may to-day see twenty jerseys.

America has conquered us by her invading champions, and ' peacefully penetrated ’ with her birdies and her jerseys. Yet the game as played in America is in many respects different from the game as played here. I do not mean in respect to climate, which is an obvious difference, or to such small variations in language as that a ‘bunker’ in England is a ‘trap’ in America. There is, to some extent, an essential difference in spirit, though it is one exceedingly hard to put into words. There is a little story of my grandfather that always pleases me — of how, in the middle of his scientific work, he would suddenly stop and exclaim, ’Now what the devil do I mean?' Well, what the devil do I mean in this case? I am not quite sure that I know; but it seems to me the American golfer is, in almost every respect, in the superlative degree as compared with his British brother.

He is, for instance, very sociable in his golf — much more so than we are. Take any club near London on a crowded week-end and you will find the great majority of members playing singles. Those who want to play four-ball matches are probably not allowed to do so unless there is a second course to which they can be relegated. The single comes first and has its inalienable rights. Now the American golfer, as I know him, does not want to play a single. He wants a game that will embrace more friends than one. Rather than start away on a single, he will wait at the clubhouse till some more friends appear, in order that he may play what we still call a ’four-ball match,’ confining ’foursome’ to its ancient and strictly legitimate meaning of a match of four players and but two balls. Moreover he will not be content with his own four-ball match, but, when he comes in to luncheon, will be matching cards with other friends who have been playing in other matches. This seems to us rather overpowering and elaborate, and it certainly makes for slow golf, since everybody proceeds on a nil desperandum policy of holing out, no matter how many shots he has played, on the off chance that someone at the other end of the course may take still more shots. To the American golfer the sociableness and jolliness of it, the feeling of being a member of as wide a circle as possible, more than compensates, I suppose, for the disadvantages.

I am very far from saying that we do not talk to other people about our rounds when we come in to luncheon. Of course we do; we make most fallacious statements about them and, on the strength of being allowed to do so, we pretend to listen to those of our neighbors; but we are bored with keeping cards and do not want to put each other’s statements to the proof.

The American golfer, although he is so sociable, is yet almost diabolically energetic; and that seems to us an odd combination of qualities. The British golfer who has the sociable instinct strongly developed is not, as a rule, an energetic golfer. He is not greatly interested in his score, nor passionately anxious to improve, nor disposed to go out practising in his spare time. If he prefers three friends to one for the sake of companionship, he plays an oldfashioned foursome, largely because he has to hit the ball only half as many times as in a single. Incidentally the foursome proper has never become in the least popular in America — because, I imagine, each player wants to get the maximum of shots, and also because he is so keenly interested in his individual and unaided score. In this respect, looking at the matter impartially as far as is possible, I think the American’s temperament is the happier of the two. He can combine what one may call a selfish interest in his own game with an unselfish one in that of other people. Perhaps this is only another way of saying that he has more superfluous energy.

Of this last fact there is, I think, little doubt. In America the average golfer — I am not talking of crack players who may make something of a business of the game — is far more anxious to learn and to improve than he is in Britain. I remember, when I visited that most wonderful and most difficult of courses, Pine Valley, near Philadelphia, saying to one of my hosts that the more obese and middle-aged members of the club must find the course too severe for them. He replied no — that they reveled in the difficulties and that if they could reduce their previous record from 115 to 112 they were as pleased as could be.

That is a truly noble spirit which I am afraid we cannot match. To be sure, I have come across one striking instance of it. I played once upon a very engaging private course which belonged to a duke. At a certain hole a steep hill covered thickly with woodland was straight in front of the tee. It was scarcely possible to carry the wood unless with a tremendous tee shot, but there was a way round to the left, which everyone took; everyone, that is to say, except the noble owner of the course, who deliberately made a frontal attack and ploughed his way through the trees because he enjoyed doing so. That is the exception to prove the rule that our average middleaged golfer is generally in a state of semimutiny against the difficulties of the course. He complains of back tees, long carries, and mine-fields of bunkers; he does not want his course to be a ‘fine test of golf’ or a ‘championship course,’ but a pleasantly unexacting playground for himself and his kind. He murmurs, not unreasonably, that he pays the piper, and he does not see why the few good players in the club should call the tune. I am bound to add that his bark is worse than his bite; he never actually raises the red flag of revolt and consigns the scratch players to the tumbrils, but he is always going to do so.

II

I have been very much struck, when visiting American courses, by the fact that the average golfer, even when he does not hit the ball very well, has yet something of an orthodox method of trying to do so. He is in his humble way a stylist; he believes in trying to do a thing in the right way, whereas his brother in England will often be seen trying to do that thing in a way of his own, wholly prohibitive of success. Because he thus wisely desires to learn the right way, the American golfer takes more lessons than we do and, I fancy, will submit to more dragooning on the part of his tutor. I have just been reading in an American magazine an article on the art of teaching golf. The writer declares that the professionals very often do not take a firm enough line with their pupils, that they ought to refuse to undertake the golfing education of any aspirant unless he agrees to devote himself entirely to practice and not to play a single round of the links until his tutor allows him. I am sure that is sound advice, but I do not think a professional in this country would dare to be so imperious; neither, if he did, would he have many pupils. As a nation, whether for good or ill, we simply are not capable in any game of trying so hard as that advice implies.

In this matter of coaching there is something to be said, not about the average player, but about the promising young golfer who may blossom into a champion. Our professionals are kept reasonably hard at work teaching, but their material is seldom promising. I have sometimes watched the great James Braid teaching a stout lady who will clearly never be able to do more than topple the ball a few yards off the tee, and have marveled at his placid and unvarying courtesy, his strenuous efforts to effect the impossible. The stout ladies have plenty of lessons, but the hopeful boy picks up the game by imitation. That is, in the main, a very good way, but a boy may pick up bad tricks of style as well as good ones, a little alloy amid the gold, that will cling to him as long as he lives; and so the watching of good players should be reënforced by at least a little coaching. Of those who to-day play for their respective countries in the Walker Cup Match, the young Americans have all been coached in boyhood — the young Britons for the most part have not. No one watching the two teams can doubt which side hits the ball in the smoother, easier, and more orthodox style, and style tells its inevitable tale.

So well and thoroughly have the best American golfers been coached that they seem to British eyes to play, one and all, in an extraordinarily uniform style. I will not set forth in what it consists, for this is not a technical disquisition; but it contains all those virtues which I may call the ‘copybook’ virtues, the things that all learned writers have told us that we ought to do. The difference is that we do them sometimes and the young American golfer does them all the time, as if by second nature. The young Briton, if he were coached, might acquire that second nature also; but he is not coached. It may be that the American boy specializes more when he is young, and that the young Briton is, when at school, more of an all-round player of other games. I do not know enough about American schools to speak positively, but in any case I am skeptical of this excuse. We have advanced it so often when we have been beaten at some game or another; and there is plenty of time to play other games at school and yet be soundly grounded in golf in the holidays. With a naturally athletic and keenly imitative boy, a little grounding goes a long way and gives him a foundation to his game for the rest of his life. The trouble with so many of our boys is that they do not get just that little.

The greater desire of the American golfer to improve is shown by that passion for keeping his score to which I before alluded. I remember very well a little incident that occurred when I visited some Chicago courses now fourteen years ago. I was playing in a fourball match, and at the first hole my partner’s ball lay dead at the hole in two, while mine was in a bunker. As I could not conceivably be of any help to him I picked my ball up, whereupon my host explained to the onlookers that such was the British custom. He did it from a very kindly motive, thinking that otherwise they might believe me to be picking it up because I had lost my temper with the bunker. Hitherto I have been rather praising the American golfer at the expense of my own countrymen; but on this point of keeping scores I am persistently insular. It does seem to me that so much superfluous holing-out of putts which cannot affect the match, purely for private satisfaction, is, frankly, a bore. Certainly if we are going to tell people about our score we had better do so veraciously; but I am not sure that all this holing-out is not too high a price to pay for veracity. Moreover it seems now and again to take some essential flavor out of the match, and golf is primarily a match and not a scoring competition. It is a little depressing to find our adversary more intent on beating his record than on beating us. I would rather he said to me, however truculently, ‘That makes me three up at the turn,’ than ‘That makes me out in thirty-six.’ It is likewise damping to play a four-ball match, to win it at the last hole after a great struggle, to feel full of the spirit of comradeship toward our partner who has shared in this glorious exploit, and then to have him say to us, ‘You were 78, were n’t you? I was 77 — I beat you by one shot.’ An opponent or a partner who takes too intense an interest in his own score is apt to ‘cast a gentle melancholy upon the soul.’ He can be just as easily found in Britain as in America, but he has been sometimes more snubbed here, and made to conceal his feelings.

It seems to me, on looking back, — and I can look back on golf for fortytwo years, — that English golfers used to keep their scores more assiduously than they do now. That was when the game, as far as England was concerned, was more or less new. We were all beginners together, and our scores were naturally interesting to us as a barometric chart of our improvement. The Scotsman, however, to whom the game was not new, snubbed us. We were told about an alarming and stately old Scottish gentleman, Sir Robert Hay by name, a very fine golfer in his day, which was the day of buffing spoons. Some incautious person had once asked him, after an ordinary game, what his score had been. He replied that there were only two days in the year on which he could answer that question — the days of the Spring and the Autumn medals. And so, partly under the posthumous influence of this terrifying old gentleman, partly because we came to be less new at the game and our improvement was consequently less rapid, we ceased, at any rate overtly, to keep our scores. We came to believe that to hole out a putt which could have no effect on the game was rather tiresome, both for our adversary and for those playing behind us, and we abandoned the practice.

From the point of view of the general pleasantness of the game I think we were right. From the point of view of ambition we were probably wrong. The holing-out of short putts instead of pretending that one could have holed them is good discipline for a golfer’s soul, and a constant striving after a good score keeps him up to the mark. It does not accord so well, however, with a casual, friendly game. Those epithets ‘casual’ and ‘friendly’ apply more to the British game than to the American. The Englishman is more ready to loaf up to the clubhouse, pick up a partner there, and play an easygoing game for love. The American wants more of a set match, with something at stake; he will take more trouble to arrange it beforehand, and has more often a regular foursome which is played constantly and is productive of a keen and traditional rivalry. He is fonder of competitions than we are; he plays in far more tournaments, which is incidentally very good for his golf. In this respect I have an uneasy suspicion that we are a little inclined to be hypocritical. It is true that as a nation we prefer the friendly game to the competition, but some of us are fonder of competitions than we admit. Those same severe critics who frightened us over our scores, by means of Sir Robert Hay, dubbed ‘pothunters’ those golfers who were fond of playing in monthly medals. They said rude things about people who collected ‘pots and pans’ and ‘butter dishes,’ and made us think that there was something not quite comme il faut in constantly playing in competitions. It may be that this is an unjustifiable belief of mine, but I set it down for what it is worth. My personal feelings in the matter, which I believe to be genuine, are that when I am actually in the ring I take a certain painful pleasure in the fight, but my first instinct is to betake me to a course where there is not a competition.

III

I have been, I am conscious, talking about the golfers of the two countries as if they were all of two perfectly uniform types. Of course they are not. They must vary greatly among themselves; ours certainly do so. We have them at opposite poles: the high-anddry Tory golfer, who is usually associated in the public mind with St. Andrews, and the extremely modern one, who would probably be described by those who disapprove of him as the cockney golfer. Moreover we have another quite distinct type, the lady golfer.

The lady golfer in this country plays the game, generally speaking, in an obviously different frame of mind from her husband or her brother. She is, if I may so express it, extraordinarily well organized. Her governing body, with its many ramifications, is an extraordinarily efficient instrument, — to the male mind it is almost too efficient, — and it rules her kindly but very firmly. She likes it, but a man would not like it. I shall never forget a journalistic acquaintance of mine, who had a good deal to do with ladies’ golf, throwing up his hands in the air with a despairing gesture and exclaiming, ‘Miss So-and-so is as despotic as the Tsar of Russia!' Ladies will do gladly what men would not submit to doing at all in quest of handicaps. They must regularly send to their authorities a number of cards for that purpose. I have heard — and on my honor I believe the story to be true — of one poor lady, not very young or a very good player, who returned with infinite pains and labor her six scores. Five of them were well over the hundred mark, but the other, in which she had altogether surpassed herself in brilliancy, was in the nineties. She was told that it was not understood why one score was so much lower than all the others, and that she must clarify the position by returning six more scores.

Our ladies kiss the rod. They like being dragooned for their own ultimate good. They do not like being casual. Certainly they do not like a casual game as men do. Theirs is the true competitive spirit, and they are forever playing in medals and matches, club matches and country matches, and matches between various societies. They have, it is true, on the average more time than the men. Thus a tournament that goes on from week to week, and month to month, is not the same incubus to them as to a man who may only get his week-ends; but this, I am sure, does not account for the difference. It is a radical difference of temperament and of outlook on the game. If I had the pen of Mr. Thackeray or some other dissector of the female character, I might be able to explain it. As it is, I merely set it down. Whether what I have said is in any degree true of American lady golfers I cannot tell, because, to my sorrow, I do not know them well enough.

These ladies have led me away on a bypath of gallantry from my original theme: namely, the differences between the male golfers of the two countries. There is one which must have a word or two — the difference in match-playing temperament; and here I am afraid I must give my vote in favor of America. The American golfer can combine a measure of light-heartedness with a most strenuous concentration. He can say good-morning to a friend, make his little joke, and then in a moment get down to business and think furiously of nothing in the world but hitting the ball. Now the Briton as a rule cannot do that. He can try as hard as anyone, but if he is going to try, then he must try all the time with no intervals. If he is going to be light-hearted, then the same rule applies. One of the very greatest golfers and greatest fighters that ever lived, the now veteran professional, J. H. Taylor, wrote the other day that he had often tried to play golf in a gayer or more carefree spirit, but that when the tussle really began he could not do it. His case is the converse of that friend of Dr. Johnson’s who said, ‘I have tried too, in my time, to be a philosopher; but, I don’t know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in.’ Taylor, as pleasant a companion as may be found at other times, is indeed a formidable example of concentration when he is playing a big match, with his square jaw set and his cap pulled down almost aggressively over his nose. He does not then look as if he wanted any man to say good-morning to him. Golf would presumably have been less painful a pleasure to him if his concentration could have been more intermittent, but nature has not made him in the requisite mould and he has wisely played the game in his own way. His way is, generally speaking, the way of our best players, though less markedly so, because we have few people of such tremendous character. Our golfers, while they are at their work, are traditionally ‘dour,’ to use the expressive Scottish word. Perhaps that is partly because so many of them have been Scots. It was an ancient St. Andrews caddie who reproved a promising young player with the words, ‘Nae champion was ever freevolous.’

The American golfer is not so dour, because he has the gift of unbending between his paroxysms, if I may so term them, of concentration. It is a valuable and delightful gift, and I emphasize it for the sake more of British than of American readers. Britons know that Americans have a great power of ‘specializing’ in, and taking pains over, games. Wherefore, if they have not played against Americans, they are prone to think of them as gloomy, silent enemies with their minds set wholly on the ultimate goal. I who have played against them want to say that this picture is a false one, and that in fact they combine, in perfect proportions, cordiality and friendliness with what Mr. Horace Hutchinson once called an ‘oathful desire for victory.’

I say this in all sincerity, and I only wish we could learn the recipe for this admirable mixture. To some extent I suppose it can be learned, and that the golfing Ethiopian can change his skin; because it seems to me that within my recollection the American golfer has changed. When first he came here, or we saw him play in his own country, he was almost too painstaking; he had many practice swings; he looked long and laboriously at his putts. Consequently his game of golf was rather too solemn and slow an affair. Perhaps to some extent he was told of this tendency; largely, perhaps, he found it out for himself. At any rate he changed; he now plays very quickly and easily, and puts us to shame; it is we who are by comparison the slow coaches to-day. I am writing here primarily of the good players. In reading Mr. Jerome Travers’s book the other day I was surprised to find that he addressed to the general body of his fellow countrymen a short, sermon about undue slowness and pondering, and the taking of practice swings. Mr. Travers naturally knows more about American golfers than I do, and I must assume him to be right about the average golfer, but about the golfers at the top of the tree I am humbly sure that I am right too.

One more point of difference occurs to me, and it is one for which I ought personally to be thankful, since it enables me now and then to earn a little bread and butter. It is that America is prepared — nay, is even apparently eager — to read much more about golf than we are. I have written reports of American championships for an English newspaper. In that paper a report appeared as a column or more, of ample and dignified proportions. When it appeared, as it did also, in an American paper, it was but a drop in the ocean. Where the English reader will read one column, the American reader will, as it seems, read five. When I was at the Country Club at Brookline I used to get my modest column finished early and then take myself off to the wooded solitudes of that charming course for a little peaceful communing with club and ball; I could never get so far from the press tent that I could not hear the clicking of a hundred typewriters producing those five columns far into the night. It was a grateful sound. I thanked Heaven that so much was not expected of me.

Finally, since I have now been trying, through several columns, to expound these differences that I fancy myself to see, let me say that none of them matter in the very least degree in the world. That opinion will, I feel sure, be endorsed by anyone, whichever his country, who has played in or been present at a Walker Cup match or any other match in which American and British sides have taken part. There could be none more truly friendly. I know that our teams have enjoyed their visits to America, and I believe the same is true of American teams here. At any rate, we have enjoyed their coming. We have even learned some of their songs. I have heard grave and reverend personages in the British golfing world, who are old enough to know better, singing haltingly, but with every appearance of happiness, that infectious chorus which begins, ‘I was drunk last night, I was drunk the night before.’ The words may not be superficially refined, but they have come in our ears to have an almost sacred sound, as a hymn of friendship between the golfers of two countries.