On Taking Golf Seriously

I NO longer suffer when I play golf badly: consequently I no longer enjoy playing. This seems to me strange — like nearly everything else connected with the game. To put it differently, I no longer take golf seriously, so it is no longer a pastime.

Many years ago I was playing in a foursome which threatened to become what the judge in Mr. Barrie’s play called it — a ‘fearsome.’ One of the players was of the elect — in fact, he had recently reached the semifinals in the National Amateur Championship. We had a gallery, including this star performer’s wife. At a short water hole he topped his tee shot into the pond, and in a fit of rage brought his iron down on the porcelain tee marker, shattering that piece of club property into a dozen fragments. His wife stepped up to him. ‘Remember, John,’ she said quietly, ‘after all, golf is a pastime.’

But the point is just here — it is n’t a pastime if you don’t get mad enough to smash things when your game goes wrong. Of course, you should n’t smash things, because that ruins your coördination, but you must want to. It is a sad day when you come home happy after a bad round. You are about ready to putter in your flower beds for recreation.

I was never a good golfer, but I could pretty consistently play around in the eighties, with rare and never-to-be-forgotten dips into the seventies, and not so rare ascents into the nineties, invariably the cause of agony to myself and my family. Though not a good golfer, I yielded to few in my capacity to be made miserable by a bad score and to communicate my mood to all and sundry for the rest of the day. My wife could stand on the club-house verandah and tell from my walk and general bearing far out on the course how things were going. Sometimes she would get herself an invitation to dinner, and hurry home to leave a note beside my plate. At other times she would hang around till our foursome came up to the eighteenth green, and watch my last putt go down, with the indulgent smile mothers have for the brave performances of their offspring. Not that she cared, of course. But a putt was one of those silly things men set their hearts on, and you must let them see that you appreciate their triumphs.

And now all that is changed, so much so that my wife does n’t even bother to go near the club. The other day I played a course which I have done again and again in the low eighties, a course over which I have tramped in successful pursuit of useless silver cups, cigarette cases, military brushes, and other articles emblematic of tournament prowess. I topped three drives with my driver. Then I took a brassy and hooked three tee shots into the rough. After that I had to drive with an iron, and could n’t make the carries. I looked up on seven approaches. I had eight three-putt greens. My score was 104. In fact, the exhibition was little short of ghastly. I sprained my back. My feet grew weary and ached. I experienced every physical symptom known to all golfers who have played 104 shots, all of them wrong. Yet I was perfectly calm, and even moderately cheerful.

At first I did not fully realize the profound significance of this. In fact, I had reached home, put the car in the garage, closed the door calmly and quietly, and entered the house before realization came. My wife greeted me, after a preliminary survey.

‘Well, you had a good game, I see,’ said she.

‘No,’ said I, ‘I had a perfectly terrible game.’ And then I paused, at the light of incredulity in her eyes, and full realization broke! I had played abominably, in a way to mortify and infuriate even a duffer — and I did n’t care!

I have n’t played golf since — and that was three weeks ago, and the autumn weather has been perfect.

‘Are n’t you going to play golf to-day?’ says my wife.

‘No,’ I answer, ‘what’s the use? It’s a silly game. Besides, I want to move those iris so they’ll make good roots before frost.’

I was playing once in a tournament — in the first sixteen, if you please! — against a well-known player noted for his jovial disposition as well as his excellent golf. In the process of beating me he told me several stories, one concerning himself and ‘The Old Man,’ Walter J. Travis. ‘You’ll never win a major tournament,’ Travis said to him, ‘until you take golf seriously.’ He never did either. Presently he dropped out of golf altogether.

Travis played as long as he could hold a club. Once in a friendly match, walking from green to tee through a grove, his companion said, ‘Hear that wood thrush!’

‘Damn your bird —I’m playing golf,’ Travis is reported to have replied.

He enjoyed golf. It was his pastime.

The truth of the matter is, I suppose, that golf is a kind of art. It is more than swatting a ball. The concentration, coordination, and skill required to attain proper results are so great, and the results, when attained, so beautiful to watch, so profoundly satisfactory to you, that your attitude is that, at the very least, of a creative craftsman. I cannot imagine taking any pleasure in music, finding it a pastime, if I could neither play nor sing without some competency, and if I did not suffer an inner agony at failure. I cannot imagine finding pastime in painting pictures if I produced merely idle daubs (though just now there seem to be various professional men who perpetrate the most atrocious canvases in the name of pastime, and even ask their friends to witness). I cannot imagine finding pleasure in the practice of any art if I did not take it seriously, and take my own efforts to master it seriously. There can be no pleasure in creating art unless there is pain at failure. There is no pastime in golf unless a bad score makes you unfit for human society.

I brought my clubs home from the locker the other day and threw them in a corner. This afternoon I was trying my driver on small green apples. It felt as if I had got the swing back. As somebody always says at the end of Act II, ‘I wonder —’