The Ailing Golfer


NEVER was the golf doctor so busy or so prosperous as he is at present. His consulting room is full to bursting, and prospective patients must needs put their names down weeks in advance for a treatment. A gathering of golfers is not unlike the daily meeting at the pump room at some famous spa, where the victims compare notes as to their ailments and the various baths, cures, and diets which their respective doctors have prescribed for them. There is scarcely a golfer who is not ‘under’ some specialist, so that the few who are not conscious of more than normal frailty, and play the game as best they can with reasonable success, are quite out of it. Hitherto rather proud of their ignorant robustness, they now feel crude and ashamed in that they do not, in the old phrase, enjoy bad health.

To drop the language of metaphor, nearly everybody to-day has golf lessons, — lots of lessons, — and this is not only true of the struggling and middle-aged, the inglorious proletariat of golf. The good young golfers who have played almost from their cradles and used enviously to be spoken of as ‘natural’ golfers are the most assiduous of all the learners. It is my possibly old-fashioned view that they are inclined to overdo it. However, these young gentlemen are relatively few compared with the great body of players who are the backbone of the game. Let us leave them alone for a while and turn to this rank and file w ho are not young, who have not a great deal of time for golf, and whose humble ambition, if they have one, is to break a hundred.

Doubtless all of these would be the better for a little doctoring in their golfing infancy. At the same time, the golfing beginner ought at the outset of his career to have one important piece of knowledge which nobody can give him: he ought to know himself, or have at least a notion how golf will take him. Of course he will say that he is going to play for fun, but what is the precise kind of fun that he is going to get out of the game?

There are some who will simply enjoy the fresh air and the friendliness, who w ill be perfectly content with the sensation of an occasional and accidental clean hit, an occasional long putt holed, and will have no ambition to play any better. It may be that they are the happy warriors, and it would be futile to urge on them any system of teaching; by all means let them thump and be happy. But theirs is the exceptional case. The average beginner may be pretty sure that golf will arouse some ambition in his breast, if it is only that of hitting the ball as far as possible. He will be happier if he attains a certain modest standard of skill, and his best way of doing so is to begin with lessons. Our beginner may say in effect, ‘I don’t know whether this game is going to get me or not. Let me make a start and see. If I find myself growing keen, then I w ill have lessons.’ The answer is that by this time a good deal of harm may have been done which might have been prevented and may never be wholly undone. Unless he is something of a natural genius, he will very likely have acquired tricks that will stick to him like burrs through all his golfing life.

Take one point, which probably seems to the beginner the simplest of all — that of holding the club. He thinks that he cannot go wrong if he holds it in a way that he calls natural and comfortable, but alas! he can. Experience shows that what may be a capital way of holding a battle-axe is not adapted to a golf club, and, however natural and comfortable he may feel, he may be pretty sure that he looks neither; in fact, he often looks distorted to the point of agony, and his hands are obviously warring against one another. If he had allowed a teacher to make him feel unnatural and uncomfortable for a little while those sensations would soon have vanished, but by the time his bad habits have grown even a few months old they will take ever so much more exorcising. And since, as I said, he is sure to want to hit far, let us bribe him into virtue by telling him this, that the grip which feels to him at first the most powerful and least cramped will probably turn out in the end prohibitive of all real power or freedom.

Again, it is worth pointing out to him the obvious truth that he cannot see himself. The malleable small boy can learn by imitation; the grown-up, as a rule, cannot. He may have visions of himself resembling the lissom professional. Yet, sad to say, to any impartial observer he resembles an ancient cab horse in the throes of paralysis. Having been told something of the virtues of ‘slow back,’ he may think he is taking the club back slowly, and so in a sense he is; but it is with the slowness of a man, in Sir Walter Simpson’s happy phrase, trying to grab a fly on his ear. There never was such a game for selfdeception. We are always fancying ourselves as doing one thing when we are doing almost the exact opposite. A teacher can at least see us with clear eyes and, if he has some gift of mimicry, can hold up the mirror to our contortions. This last service, however, will not be required by the beginner in his earliest stages, because he has not yet acquired contortions. He is apt to be stiff, wooden, and unhandy, but he has not got tricks; he has nothing to ‘get out of,’ and that is why these early lessons may be so valuable. They may save him from so much.

The average golfer does not begin in this virtuous manner. He thumps his way along for a while by the light of nature, and then is suddenly stricken with the desire for improvement. He will have got tricks and must suffer the more in trying to get rid of them, but in the end he will be the happier man for some teaching. After all, it must be a mistake to set out to do something in a way in which it cannot possibly be done; yet that is one which many people commit, especially in the short game. There are some things about golf that seem unnatural, and one is the fact that the way to get a ball up with an iron is to hit it down. A walk round any crowded golf course will show us many victims of the scooping theory of iron play, and they may scoop forever if somebody does not make them experience in their own persons the delicious and surprising sensations of the stroke properly played.

This is but one elementary example of what a lesson can do. It shows the pupil that his teacher is not a magician but only a man doing a thing in the best possible way, and that something at least of this way can be acquired. There are many golfers who have never hit a ball truly in their lives. The moment in which they first do so can afford an ecstasy akin to that of first wobbling unaided on a bicycle. They discover with the blinding shock of a revelation that the thing can be done.

I suppose that an enormous percentage of all the golf lessons given in the world are lessons in driving. That is what the learner wants to learn, and insists on being taught. It may well be that the teacher would prefer him to begin with some lofted iron, and learn the fundamental stroke of the game (R. A. Whitcombe calls it the ‘breadand-butter shot’) with that and so work up to the driver; but the teacher has his own bread and butter to earn and will not press his views unduly. So it is driving, driving all the way, and the learner is right in so far as there is no more exhilarating fun in the game; but he is dreadfully wrong if he thinks that there is nothing to learn about the iron.

Some men who are natural game players with good eyes and good wrists become more than respectable drivers and never understand their irons. I used sometimes to play golf with the most famous of all cricketers, Dr. W. G. Grace. He had not begun till he was quite old, but, having a supreme genius for hitting a ball, he became an extremely straight and steady driver, as far as I know without any kind of lesson; but he never could manage an iron shot, and except for those who learn in boyhood by imitation I believe it is much the harder shot of the two.

As to niblick play, did anyone ever see a professional imparting its secrets in a lesson? Well, I did once. At a course in Wales many years ago we had no professional, but the foreman in a neighboring timber yard, himself a player of very moderate skill, would sometimes take a beginner in hand. We used to observe with joy his methods, which never varied. He put his pupil with a club and several balls in a certain sandy, stony ditch and stood over him while he tried to get out. In that case the pupil had no option. Those who have might do much worse than have a lesson with the niblick, but they think — heaven knows how erroneously — that in bunkers all men are equal.


So far I have been talking of golf teaching in its simpler forms for rather elementary players. Obviously, save for the happy thumpers, it is a good thing in moderation, especially as the professional of to-day has made a serious study of his business. Now I come to the players of a higher class, who are apt to have lessons to what I deem an immoderate extent. That some of them benefit I do not deny, but let us see what are the disadvantages. For one thing, the pupil who surrenders too entirely to his teacher is apt to lose self-reliance and the power of looking after himself. We all know that a teacher can have a magical effect upon us, as long as we are under his eye. He gives us confidence, and confidence is half the battle. It does not much matter for the moment what he tells us to do so long as we believe in him and consequently in his gospel. We slash away at the ball with perfect faith and so with perfect timing, and away it sails, sails all the more gloriously because we are probably not shooting at any precise mark.

There was once tried at Assizes a farmer charged with wounding a boy who had been robbing an orchard. His defense was that he had fired merely in order to frighten the boy. The judge began his summing-up as follows: ‘Gentlemen of the jury, the prisoner says that he aimed at nothing. Unfortunately he missed it.’ At golf when we aim at nothing we generally hit it, in the sense that a drive, unhampered by any object save that of hitting, flies far and sure. So on the practice ground, with the professor’s encouraging eye upon us, we perform prodigies and set out for the links next day full of hopes. Too often those hopes are delusive. We have no master to wish us well, we have an opponent to wish us ill, and we have the cramping limits of the fairway forever before us. We feel miserably alone.

Thus that utter faith in the master which is such a source of strength in his presence may be a weakness in his absence. The man who has no notion how to cure a golfing disease save by trying to remember what his master said — very likely about quite a different disease — can be a pitiful object. He is further to be pitied in that he misses some of the best fun that the game has to give. There must, I am sure, be many golfers who look back with the greatest pleasure to hours spent in solitary communion with a club and ball on some summer evening.

Personally I have a distaste for practice grounds. Give me the course itself, if only I can get it to myself. What greater ecstasy can there be than the making of a discovery in these lonely wanderings? How I have dashed after the ball in the failing light, ‘and in my heart some late lark singing’! How I have shouted ‘Eureka’! True, many of the discoveries made on these occasions turn out to be fallacious, but even so the delusion has been so pleasant that the subsequent disappointment is worth while. And just a few of them are genuine and abide. They can be recalled sometimes when they are badly needed.

It may well be that in many cases the solitary student could have taken a short cut to the knowledge thus acquired by consulting a professional; but I do not believe it is true of all cases, and there is a particular relish about something that we find out for ourselves, even as there is about the bread and cheese that we earn for ourselves. We get to know our own strength and still more our own weakness, and that knowledge, even if no more than a corollary to what we have been taught, will stand us in good stead. I do not agree with Sir Walter Simpson, who wrote, “‘Know thyself” may be good philosophy; it is bad golf.’

There is another reason for distrusting overmuch teaching — namely, that, save in the case of people who are abnormally strong and gifted with little imagination, it takes away the dash and freshness and spirit without which the most severely ‘mechanized’ golf will break down. I cannot help thinking that some otherwise excellent teachers work their pupils too hard.

Not long ago I watched for a few minutes a young lady of great promise who was hitting away scores of balls under the eye of a distinguished professional. He issued his commands in short, sharp tones, now to hit one with a slice, now with a hook, now high, now low, and in the intervals of these refinements he bade her ‘sock’ them as hard as she could. She obeyed with skill, with docility, with apparent enthusiasm; it was rather like watching a performing animal at a circus. She had been at it for an hour or so; she was going on till luncheon; she was going to start again afterwards, and she had been doing this sort of thing for weeks. The lady is very young and very strong, and no doubt her professor has brought her on rapidly. So far, perhaps, it has been all to the good; but, putting on one side the question whether this is a reasonable manner in which to play a game, I cannot believe it will be to the good unless she soon calls a halt. I have seen other young players go the same way, and what they have gained on the swings they have lost, and more than lost, on the roundabouts. They may have become more mechanically accurate, at any rate in practice, but they have lost something essential of fire and spontaneity, and their ‘temperament,’ once their strong point, has become their weak one. To have a swing well ‘grooved’ is important, — nay, essential, — but it must not be grooved at the expense of mental weariness. Golf can never be entirely mechanized.

Too much golf ‘doctoring’ can be more than usually perilous if it is in the hands of several physicians, either simultaneously or even successively. ‘ Who is So-and-so under now?’ is a question I have often heard, and the answer is that So-and-so began with A, went on to B, and now swears exclusively by the ministrations of C. I am not prepared to say that the last state of So-and-so is always worse than the first, but it very often is. The professors may all inculcate more or less the same doctrine, and golf teaching has become, so to speak, more stabilized since photography has shown the masters what they really do as opposed to what they think they do; but if they mean the same thing they assuredly say it in very different ways, and the pupil who goes from one to another is likely to grow sadly puzzled and muddled. He may think that, having sucked all the good that he can out of A, he can gain a further benefit from the fresh mind of B, a little final polish of the iron shots from C, and so on, but that is not the way in which it always works out in practice. He is more likely to resemble one of those hypochondriacal persons who are forever dosing themselves with patent medicines in a general and speculative manner.

And, apropos of medicine, the ordinarily sane person does not take medicine when he is in good health. He knows that he cannot be better than well and reserves the doctor for when he is ill. Too many golfers do not proceed on this principle, because they think that they can be better than well. So, well or ill, they go regularly to some golfing doctor or other, and he, poor fellow, does not like to turn money from his door. Besides, even the best and sanest of golfing doctors has some pet little theory of his own which he likes to try on his patients. There was a pleasant old jingle about the doctors who attended King George III, which has a golfing application.

Three doctors see our sovereign daily,
Willis, Heberden and Bailey.
All three wise and learned men,
Bailey, Willis, Heberden.
One of them quite sure to kill is,
Bailey, Heberden and Willis.


It must be remembered, of course, that golfing doctors and golfing patients both differ widely in kind. There is, for instance, the ordinary club professional, who is a good golfer but in no way famous either as a player or as a teacher. He corresponds roughly to the general practitioner, the workaday family golfer. Apart from those in the elementary stages who are taking a regular course, most of his patients come to him because they have been attacked by one of the mild and inevitable golfing ailments which correspond to a cold in the head or a pain in the stomach. Like the family doctor, he prescribes, as a rule, some well-known nostrum. It may be in the comparatively violent nature of a pill if he sees something in the system of play needing radical alteration. It may be, if he can diagnose no very obvious complaint, merely a dose of soothing syrup, such as the advice not to hit so hard. This will often be highly effective if backed up by a good bedside manner. In either case the patient pays his fee and goes back to ordinary life, nor does he return to the doctor until the next time he feels ill.

On a higher plane is the specialist, who has made a reputation both as player and as teacher and so attracts pupils from other clubs and courses than his own. Between these specialists there are considerable differences. Some try primarily to make the best of the patients’ golfing constitution as it is. They have an almost uncannily observant eye for some small cause of mischief such as a foot a few inches too far forward or back. They put these little things right rather than attempt any radical change of system. Yet by insinuating small reforms — a little widening of the swing’s arc, a little freer turn of the body and so on — they can often do remarkable things. There are others who have more trenchant views and are not so much interested in the mere patching up of their patients. They prefer to begin again at the beginning, and so their course of treatment is longer and more severe.

At the present moment in this country there is probably no teacher who has so many pupils from afar off as Henry Cotton, and certainly none who has probed more deeply into the mysteries of the golfing swing or tried out so many methods in his own person. He is an excellent and stimulating teacher, but chiefly, I think, for pupils who come to him, not for a temporary alleviation of a passing fault, but because they are fired with a noble ambition for general improvement. They are ready to put away all preconceived notions and to absorb the master’s views from the very beginning. Their treatment is rather in the nature of a cure at a spa; it takes time, and the patient may very likely feel worse before he is better, but if he is enthusiastic and hard-working he does often emerge in the end very decidedly better, even to the extent of a whole class in golfing society. A cure of this comprehensive kind is chiefly for those who are young and strong and already reasonably good players. To be sure, hope springs eternal, and many a golfer has improved when his years seemed to forbid it, but a middle-aged dog can seldom learn wholly new tricks.

Besides professional golf doctors with whom the patient is as a rule tolerably safe, as long as he sticks to one at a time and does not overdo the cure, there are some teachers who may be called quacks. They are as a rule amateurs, in the sense that they have never played golf professionally, and have taken to the game late in life. They have generally found some one movement which they believe to be the key to all golfing greatness, and a very excellent movement it may be; but they are apt to ride their hobby too hard with a pathetic enthusiasm.

I recollect being peremptorily summoned to a newspaper office by one of these enthusiasts, who declared that he had discovered the secret of the golf swing and could not wait a moment for fear that somebody else should discover it too. He was a stout patriot and particularly frightened lest America should anticipate him. He swore me and my colleagues to secrecy by the most solemn oaths and then demonstrated his discovery to us by hitting little paper balls about in the rather confined space at his disposal. He wanted no material reward for his secret; his single-minded ambition was to benefit British golf, and he was terribly disappointed when we would not give a page to its revelation in the newspaper. I recall one of my colleagues saying soothingly to him, ‘You know, Mr. So-and-so, you can’t discover the secret of the swing as you can the North Pole,’ but he was not to be comforted. I felt a heartless beast, but at any rate my conscience is clear on one point: I can never violate my oath, because I have clean forgotten what the secret was.