The Golfer's Emotions
ALL games have their moments of anguish, and golf can certainly claim no monopoly. Not for the most enduring but for the most acute agonies I am inclined in my insularity to claim preeminence for an English game, cricket. I feel the profoundest pity of all for the young batsman going in to play his first innings in his first big match at Lord’s. It is such a terribly long walk out to the wicket, he is such a terribly small speck in the big arena, there are so many people looking at him, and at nothing but him, and he feels in the very marrow of his bones that they are looking. And then if he fails there is that same long walk back, this time not with mingled hope and fear in his heart, but only despair. Cricket is such a cruel game because it does not, unless you are lucky, give you another chance. You have been tried and found wanting, and you will probably have nothing to do for several hours but sit and ponder over it.
The football player waiting for a ball high in the air, conscious of his enemies’ fierce rush coming ever nearer; the runner poised on the mark in a hundred yards’ race wherein a good start or a bad one will make all the difference; the baseball player, as I should ignorantly imagine, running under a mountainously high catch (though to be sure they never seem to miss them) — all these and several others must have a horrible cold sensation at the pit of the stomach, and feel as if their knees were made of brown paper. Their misery, however, is momentary; it comes and goes in spasms and is swallowed up and forgotten in violent exertion, but the golfer’s suffering is long drawn out; it may endure from the first tee shot to the last putt and there is no swift movement to make him forget it; he is on a slow fire. Those who gloat over his tortures — the hard-hearted spectators — are quite close to him all the while; there is scarcely a twitching nerve they cannot see, not a stifled groan they cannot hear. Thus the student of gameplaying psychology finds his richest field in golf, and there is probably no game in which temperament plays so important a part or is so constantly discussed.
Especially is it quite openly discussed by the ghoulish clan of reporters, of whom I am one. It was not ever thus. I remember when we used to read such a sentence as ‘At this point (perhaps all square with one to play) X unaccountably missed a short putt.’ Now if the man who wrote such a sentence really believed what he wrote, he must have been an insensate idiot. ‘Unaccountably’! Why, there is nothing that could be called unaccountable at all square and one to play, no act of terrorstricken folly of which a golfer would be incapable. However, I prefer to believe that the writer was not an idiot but a kind-hearted man, who did not want to hurt the player’s feelings. To-day the pendulum has swung the other way with a vengeance, and we read how the unhappy X approached that critical putt ‘trembling like a leaf.’ Perhaps it has swung too far, for after all it is as well to remember that to miss a putt is not a criminal offense and does not prevent a man from being an excellent husband, father, and citizen.
Still, this brutal frankness does make accounts of golf matches more interesting, and does present a truer picture. If the reporter has some experience and imagination he can nearly always put his finger on the event which was the turning point of the match, the thing which caused one player to strike the stars with uplifted head, the other to feel a broken man. It may come quite early in the game or it may come late; it may be a piece of pure good or bad luck, or it may be some one tremendous thrust not to be parried. Whatever it may be, it is not easy to mistake. An experienced watcher looking at a match will generally be able to say at a certain hole, ‘That’s done it; it’s all over now,’ and he will seldom be wrong. The strain of a hard match is for most people a very severe one. Something happens which lightens the strain for one side and makes it unendurable for the other. That something counts two and indeed much more than two on a division.
I remember a friend, who was once in the Oxford eight, telling me of a certain sculling race which he won. He was behind and so could not see how his enemy was faring, but he himself felt as if he were in his death agony, as if he could not pull more than another half-dozen strokes to save his life. Suddenly someone shouted to him from the bank that the enemy had capsized. Instantly he sat up, feeling perfectly at ease, and finished more or less as fresh as paint, sculling in excellent form. The same thing happens at golf. The strain suddenly lightens and we play as if we were walking on air, having but a moment before felt leadenfooted. It is interesting, — horribly interesting sometimes, — but it is not in the least ‘ unaccountable’; the reason of it is plain for all to see.
Some golfers collapse easily under the strain, others have great powers of endurance, but none are immune; there is no one who has not ‘cracked’ at some time or other in his career. In particular there is no one who has not been overwhelmed by the ‘holes dropping away like snow off a dike.’ To have what appears a winning lead and to see it dwindle and dwindle — this is what no one can bear with perfect equanimity; and it is all the harder to bear just because the adversary’s spirits, which but a little while since were at zero, are now so obviously and rapidly rising. When one of these sudden landslides of holes has occurred, it is not infrequently said or implied that the leader had become slack or overconfident. Generally speaking, I do not believe a word of it. No doubt there are some who feel pleasantly lazy when they are four or five up at the turn, but they are not many and they are not of the kind that collapse when one or two of those holes slip away. Overconfidence may have slain its hundreds, but overanxiety has slain its tens of thousands. We are in such a desperate hurry to win quickly and so be spared the strain of the last few crucial holes. We are not content to let victory come gradually in its own good time; we want to accelerate it, and there is no better way of putting it off forever. We look too far ahead; we hear in imagination the band playing ‘See the conquering hero’ and feel our friends patting us on the back.
When things go wrong and we realize that after all the match is going to be what the Duke of Wellington called the Battle of Waterloo, ’a d―d closerun thing,’ the disappointment unnerves us altogether. If once we can arrest this panic rout, we may recover ourselves, and the enemy’s counterattack may die away, but it is so difficult to arrest it. In such moments our ambition seldom soars beyond a halved hole; we play too cautiously, and the half just escapes us again and again. Sometimes the best thing for us is to lose all our lead and be done with it. As long as one hole remains to us we are still banking to some extent on our reserve, feebly trusting to the chapter of accidents rather than to our own efforts. When the last hole is gone, we awake to the fact that our back is against the wall, and then at last we fight.
This particular phenomenon is often noticeable when a match in a tournament is halved and the players have to proceed to the nineteenth hole. A has been perhaps three up with four to play; he has hurled victory away with both hands. B, on the contrary, has fought with a tigerish courage of despair and has pulled a hopeless match out of the fire. Surely and obviously, you would say, B must be the man to back at the nineteenth hole. Yet, in fact, A wins it quite as often as not. It is his now to experience the blind courage of despair, whereas B has begun to think. During those last four holes B did not really think or hope, he just fought. Now he realizes that after all he has a chance — a great chance — of victory, and it often unmans him.
What is the cure for this horrible tendency to collapse on the threshold of success? I know of none save to try to play each hole as if it were a new and separate match, looking neither forward nor backward; and that is advice easy enough to give and — ye gods! — hard enough to follow. As a corollary may be quoted a remark of General Briggs, not a great golfer, but a great character, who used to play for many years at St. Andrews. ‘When I am six up,’ he said, ‘I strive to be seven up. When I am seven up, I strive to be eight up.’ These are brave words and contain a piece of sturdy, ‘common-sensical’ wisdom — not to be content with halves when we have got the lead.
If this game of golf is so severe a trial of the nerves, what is the right kind of man to play it successfully? The obvious answer seems to be, ‘The man who has no nerves.’ ‘The more fatuously vacant the mind,’ wrote Sir Walter Simpson, ‘tire better the play. Alas! we cannot all be idiots. Next to the idiotic, the dull unimaginative mind is the best for golf. In a professional competition I would prefer to back the sallow, dull-eyed fellow with a quid in his cheek, rather than any more eager-looking champion.’ There is much in what he says. The word ‘eager’ implies that dreaming of triumph before it has arrived which I have already reprobated. Yet I do not believe that Sir Walter’s is altogether the right answer, and I do not believe in the man with ‘no nerves.’ He, the ‘dull-eyed fellow,’ may do steadily, but he will not do the great things. I do not know how it may be with other people, but I distrust myself most profoundly on the days when I feel that I do not care. It is an unnatural lull before a brain storm and I feel sure that on a sudden I shall come to caring too much. As far as outward appearances go, there has never been quite so apparently phlegmatic a golfer as James Braid, but I have heard him say that he likes to feel ‘a little nervous’ before starting a match. Give me the highly strung man with self-control, the nervous man who can conquer his nerves.
Of this truth, if it be a truth, American golf can supply some admirable illustrations. There was the late Walter Travis, for instance. When he was playing he looked cold, calm, inscrutable as the Sphinx; there was something positively inhuman about him; yet those who knew him best always declared that he was really wrought up to a high pitch of tension. Then — a still better example— there is Bobby Jones. Here is a highly nervous player who has had to conquer not only his nerves but a fiery temper as well. As we know from his own delightful account of his sensations in Down the Fairway, he still longs now and again to throw his clubs about. Yet he is at once a model of outward suavity and a most gallant fighter. I do not believe that there is a golfer alive who suffers more over the game than he does, partly from nervous tension, partly from his own extreme fastidiousness as an artist, which makes him rage inwardly at any stroke not played with perfect art. He has told us that he regularly loses I don’t know how many pounds in weight in the course of a Championship. Yet he has conquered himself and he has conquered the world. Had he been placid and lethargic I do not believe he would have accomplished half as much.
Yet another example is a golfer whom I should rate as at least as good a match player as I ever saw — Jerome Travers. He too had to conquer something in himself anti has confessed that sometimes his nerves were so ‘raggedy’ that it was all he could do to keep them under control. Yet his frozen calm and his power of pulling matches out of the fire were proverbial; they not only won him many matches but frightened many other people into losing them. If I had to pick out one of Mr. Travers’s ‘temperamental’ qualities for praise, it would be his power of putting aside and forgetting. He was never afraid of showing momentarily his annoyance over a bad shot, just because he was so sure of himself and knew that he would instantly regain control. But the best example of this power of forgetting was shown in his wrestlings with his wooden clubs at a time when they betrayed him so seriously that he had to drive with an iron from the tee. When I saw him win the Championship at Garden City in 1913 he was constantly trying his driver, losing his lead in consequence, and then putting the peccant driver away again and taking to his iron. Other people might possibly have won while driving with an iron, but they would have had to stick to the iron from first to last. To be able to try those antics and then settle down again, not once but several times, in the course of a match, seemed to me a miracle of concentration, of obliterating from the mind everything but the one hole, nay, the one stroke to be played next.
There is another very great American golfer whose temperament seems to demand some analysis, and that is Walter Hagen; but him I do not profess to understand. Does he feel nervous? I imagine that he does, because I cannot believe that he could rise to such heights if he did not; but I certainly have no evidence to bring forward in support of my views. He impresses one beyond everything else as really enjoying the fight. Because he is a great showman as well as a great match player, he has clearly cultivated this quality in himself for all it is worth, but it must, to begin with, have been a natural one. There are two kinds of fighters: those who actually want to be in the ring and those who will fight bravely when they find themselves there, but would instinctively prefer to keep out of it. The former is the happier class, and Hagen is at the very head of it. With this rejoicing in the battle he seems to have cultivated another quality, that of an eminently sane philosophy. He has not the point of view of Bobby Jones, as he has not his flawless art. He is always likely to make a bad mistake or two in the course of a round, and accepts them as natural and inevitable, not to be resented, only to be compensated for. Bobby is always trying to do the best; Hagen tries to do his own best,
I feel that patriotism demands of me that I should give at least one example of great fighting qualities from among British golfers, and there is one at any rate ready to my hand. That is the now veteran champion, J. H. Taylor, and never was there a better example of a highly strung man capable of keeping a hold on himself and rising to the occasion. It has been said — and perhaps rightly, on the whole—that the poetic temperament is a bad one for golf; but there never was a man with a more palpably poetic temperament than Taylor. He is a man of strong emotions. When I think of him I always remember some words from Mr. Jarndyce’s description of Lawrence Boythorn in Bleak House: ‘It s the inside of the man, the warm heart of the man, the passion of the man, the fresh blood of the man. . . . His language is as sounding as his voice. He is always in extremes; perpetually in the superlative degree. . . . He is a tremendous fellow.’ Taylor is a tremendous fellow and so a tremendously exciting golfer. He fights himself and the fates and furies of golf and every other man in the field, all at the same time. He confesses that he has tried the plan of ‘letting up’ between whiles and then concentrating fiercely on the stroke in hand, but it is not in him; he must be boiling and bubbling all the time. All this pent-up or partially pent-up emotion takes it out of him most prodigally, and yet no man can last better in a crucial finish up to the very last putt. However great the agony, wild horses would not draw from him the admission that he hates it. He would despise himself it he did. No, in his own way he loves it, and if there is one thing that rouses his ire it is a young golfer who professes not to enjoy the fight.
Such a temperament has the defects of its qualities, and occasionally, very occasionally, ‘J. H.’ may have beaten himself; but much more often he struggles and wrestles with adversity until he overcomes it, and then, when a great stroke or a piece of good luck has turned the tide for him and things begin to go right instead of wrong, he is far more dangerous than any more placid or phlegmatic person. I remember sometimes to have watched him when things have been going badly and to have felt that I should not dare speak to him for a thousand pounds. I have wondered what would happen if some ill-advised. spectator did speak to him, half hoping, half fearing that it might happen, like a small boy who knows that there is a firecracker in the fireplace behind his master’s coat tails and wonders when and how it will go off. I remember particularly one such occasion in an Open Championship at Deal years ago now. For nine holes or so Taylor, who had started favorite, was pursued by every kind of adversity and he looked like a powder magazine about to explode. Then, I think at the tenth hole, a long putt went in for three and from that moment he was positively scintillating, a man inspired; there was no need to look any further for the winner of that Championship.
Perhaps the most famous match player we have ever had in England is John Ball, who won the Amateur Championship eight times. He is of a different type, outwardly dour, silent, unruffled — a man, you would say, made of granite. Yet I have seen Mr. Ball before the beginning of a big match stripping the paper off a new ball, and his fingers almost refused their office. Assuredly his is no ‘dead’ nerve.
The interesting thing about him as a match player is that, though he is so doughty a fighter, he does not seem to make a personal fight of a match. He tries, I think, deliberately to forget about his enemy, bending his whole mind to doing his own duty and getting the hole in the right figure. He has one mood for both medal and match play, and one simple object — namely, to do his best. To-day this principle is called ‘playing against par,’ and the adoption of it is said to have strengthened the one slightly weak place in Bobby Jones’s harness. Obviously it is a good plan, but much determination is needed in order to adhere to it. The best of plans can be too inexorably pursued and there are occasions in which it is a tempting of Providence not to pay attention to the enemy’s plight. When a five will certainly win the hole no sane man takes a very big risk in pursuit of his par four. On the other hand, hundreds and thousands of holes have been thrown away by thinking too much of the adversary and so playing overcautiously. Once we begin to approach the green too consciously on the installment system, to take irons from the tee and to putt round bunkers for fear of pitching into them, there is no end to the strokes we can fritter away. It is the height of folly to credit our opponent with supernatural powers, but at the same time we must not forget that the most utterly crushed and downtrodden enemy may hole a long putt. Carefulness has lost infinitely more holes and more matches than have ever been lost by temerity.
I have been talking chiefly of match play because it is the more clearly dramatic: it possesses the elements of a battle; it provides an interesting clash between two diverse temperaments. But in any article which tries to deal with the emotions of the golfer it is quite impossible to be altogether silent on score play. The card and pencil are infinitely more terrifying to the average golfer than any fleshand-blood opponent. They can turn many a stout-hearted match player into a little whipped cur. Familiarity can breed a measure, not of contempt, but of passive endurance toward these twin engines of torture; but in England, at any rate, the average golfer does not play in enough scoring competitions ever to grow familiar with them. So every time a medal day comes round he is just as frightened as he was before.
At least one of the causes of this terror is this: that on a medal day golf loses, or appears to lose, one of its kindliest and most charitable qualities. In match play it is always giving us another chance. The worst of errors can but lose us a single hole; but in medal play it is possible — or so it seems, at any rate, to our jaundiced imagination — to make an error of so appalling a character as to ruin us once and for all. This is seldom really so; the rules have always limited our liabilities even in the most hopeless of situations and are more forgiving now than they used to be; but still on a medal day ‘All hope abandon’ seems to be written in the sands of great bunkers. Consequently strokes that in the ordinary way do not cause a twitter of the pulse become horribly alarming. The man who usually thinks nothing of the big sandhill with the black-timbered face says suddenly to himself, ‘Heavens! Suppose I topped it!’ Or he visualizes, long before the time comes, the splash of the ball where that simplest of little pitches has to be played across the corner of the lake. Hydrophobia is a disease that may attack almost any man on a medal day, and on no other day are there so many people to be heard simultaneously explaining in the clubhouse that they have done something which they have never done before in all their lives.
The worst thing, however, and the commonest that can befall us on a medal day, is an attack of shortness. The way to win a medal is, for most people, to say, ‘Aut Cæsar aut nullus,’ to recognize the fact that someone is sure to do a good score and that the only way to beat him is to go out for everything in reason. Yet in fact we do just the opposite. We carry the installment system to its extreme limit; we are most cramped just when we ought to be most free, and as to our shortness on the putting green — well, let any spectator count the approach putts that are past the hole on the first green on a medal day; his ten lingers will, it is likely enough, suffice him for all his reckoning even in a big field. There is some malign power that positively holds our putter back, and the brave ring of the ball against the back of the tin is seldom heard.
If golf is so dreadful a game, ‘aye fechtin’ against ye,’ as the old Scottish golfer said, why do we go on playing it? I have often wondered, but I have never — no, not even for the bitterest instant — dreamed of giving it up. I can only recollect one man who quite deliberately thought the matter over, came to the conclusion that he would be happier without golf, and acted upon it. He was gifted as a games player altogether beyond the common run of men. He was a cricketer and a tennis player and took to golf like a duck to water. In about a year from his beginning, his handicap had come down to ‘scratch,’ which did not mean what it would to-day, but yet stood for a respectable standard of play. And then he found the game a cause of such intense exasperation that he gave it up and took instead to a little peaceful domestic practice with the bow and arrow. There must have been moments when he regretted it, but he never admitted this. It amused him to see other people play, and now and again at long intervals he would try a shot with a friend’s club, much as a long-reformed drunkard might trust himself occasionally to drink one glass of beer. He knew himself and in that knowledge was probably wise, but for the rest of us, surely, both the manlier and pleasanter course is to go on trying and hoping.
For myself, I am convinced that were I to give up golf there would come to me a series of revelations, and I should know how to exorcise the chronic slice, the dancing of the toes, the shortness of the putts which had afflicted me all through my golfing life. And then it would be too late.