Golf in a High Wind

The grandson of Charles Darwin and himself a writer, sagacious and charming, BERNARD DARWINwas for four decades the golf correspondent for The Times and one of the best amateurs in the British Isles. For going on sixty years he has known and played with the great competitors on the famous links and has watched their behavior under the most exasperating conditions when the wind was high and the greens fast as lightning. When not golfingor thinking of golfMr. Darwin is the Justice of the Peace for Kent.

by BERNARD DARWIN

1

IF a ball at rest be moved or the lie altered by any outside agency except wind” — so begins No. 27 of the Rules of Golf and goes on to lay down that the player shall replace his ball without paying any penalty. But there is no such leniency in the case of the unsleeping and inexorable enemy, wind. It makes a plaything of the ball and its antics must be endured with constancy. The golfer must learn to hold his own as best he can in this eternal battle: he must not allow the wind to be his master; he must try to make it his servant.

We in Britain incline to believe that our golf courses are more violently attacked by this old enemy than are those in America. This may be a little harmless vanity on our part, since an American friend complains to me of the westerly breezes of September and the “storm wind of the Equinox.” However, a larger proportion of our courses are by the sea and that is where the wind blows fiercest. I have felt it blow reasonably hard, unless my memory fails, on the National Golf Links at Southampton and I have no doubt that it can blow at Kittansett and elsewhere. I claim no superiority for British seaside winds as such; I only say that they play a greater part in our golf. There was a time when we believed that having been brought up to fight this foe, our men would do better on a windy day. Before an international match some deluded Briton might in nautical fashion whistle for a wind. We have long learned better from humbling experience. The man with the best method, who hits the ball most truly, will do best in a wind. If ever we uttered such arrogant prayers before a Ryder or a Walker Cup match, we do so no more.

At the same time each one of us is, I think, proud of his native gales. He is disinclined to admit that it can ever blow quite so tempestuously on another man’s course as it does on his. I am not prepared to say that it blows harder at Hoylake, that nursery of great golfers, the home of the Royal Liverpool Golf Club, than it does elsewhere, but I know that the men of Hoylake think it does. Let the innocent stranger go there and rashly expatiate on the gusty buffets he has received. “Wind!” his hospitable friend will exclaim. “We don’t call this a wind at Hoylake — this is only a gentle breeze.” Well, I will admit he has a right to be proud; it does blow there, and this is emphasized by the constant menace of out-of-bounds territory. An old friend of mine, member of a distinguished golfing family, used to boast that he had been out of bounds at seventeen out of the eighteen holes at Hoylake. I can confirm him that it is a conceivable if difficult achievement, for I once put so many balls out of bounds at a single hole there that I had to give up the battle from Jack of ammunition.

It was the winds of Hoylake, moreover, that had a hand in educating the greatest amateur golfer we here have ever possessed — the now almost legendary John Ball. It was he who, having returned an incredibly low score in a gale of wind, remarked, with delightfully modest understatement, that he happened to be hitting a ball of the right height for the day. The other great Hoylake golfer, Harold Hilton, was a master of using the wind, now with a hook and now with a slice, in a way seldom seen today and perhaps indeed seldom needed with the modern ball, which can bore its way through the storm. I do not intend to pose as a praiser of the past, but no one who did not play with a gutty ball has any real notion of what the wind can do. That now semivenerable personage has got to be old, since Mr. Haskell conferred on golf the doubtful benefit of his rubber-cover ball about the turn of the century; but he need not be yet in his dotage.

A friend of mine once gave to a patentee a testimonial in the words: “Your club has added fifty yards lo my slice"; but fifty yards represented a comparatively small slice. When the wind really got under the tail of a sliced ball it could whirl it to the ends of the earth. On a certain course in Wales, an obscure schoolmaster not otherwise famous made himself immortal by slicing onto the railway line at eight of the first nine outward holes. Could a man do such deeds with the pampering rubber-core? Perish the thought. The ball could be and sometimes was blown back over the striker’s head. At Westward Ho there is a black and Stygian ditch some forty or fifty yards from the first tee, and on a medal day of mighty wind only one man carried it with his tee shot. At least so it was said, but that wind may have risen with the years.

Such a wind as that with a gutty ball had rather to be circumvented than encountered in open fight. An old golfer long dead, Mr. J. R. Hutchison, a good player of the elder school, told me how he had once been playing Sir Walter Simpson, the friend of R.L.S., author of that admirable book The Art of Golf. It was a day of furious wind by the sea and Mr. Hutchison was stealthily progressing by half cleek shots which kept the ball close to the ground. Sir Walter, never a great golfer though full of theories on the subject, was exposing his rather elaborate swing to the full force of the gale with calamitous results. “Look at Mr. Hutchison,”said his caddie, “He’s no playing a proud game.”

There are hurricanes, no doubt, that can reduce golf to a farce. Not so a good, stiff wind, which emphasizes all the greater virtues of a golfer’s method, his power of standing firm on his feel, his mastery of balance and rhythm and control. Such a wind in a championship separates the wheal from the chaff, the sheep from the goats. It did so most surely in the days of the gutty, but it always provides a touchstone of quality. I remember J. H. Taylor telling me once how he and James Braid were sharing a room at a championship. Braid was first out of bed in the morning and, looking out of the window, announced a fine day. “Well, that s a blessing anyhow,” said J.H. Braid strongly demurred; such a day would make golf easy for plenty of people “who are far better putters than you and me.” Taylor was certainly altruistic in his praise of fine weather, for if ever there was a great player in bad weather, he was the man. To see him pull bis cap down over his eyes and plant his feet like two rocks on the ground was to see the defiance of Providence carried almost to the point of blasphemy. He made no adroit allowances; his ball flew straight through the gale, as if making a hole in it. If the wind was reinforced by sheets of rain, so that he could pitch his mashie shots right up to the flag on the sodden greens, then he was supremely happy.

Another who reveled in the wind was Arnaud Massy, a splendid figure of a man sprung from fisher folk and bred up at Biarritz amid Atlantic storms. Asked on the eve of a championship for his taste in weather, he expressed the hope that it would blow hard enough to blow down every tree in Sandwich.

I have watched many of our championships, both open and amateur, won by American golfers, but I cannot recall any of them being played in a real gale. A good strong wind there often was — notably, if memory serves, on the last day of Snead s ( hampionship at St. Andrews — but nothing in the nature of a storm. I am not suggesting that it would have made the least difference to the result if there had been. Gene Sarazen in particular I should reckon a player second to none in a high wind —of just the right shape, so firm and compact, foursquare, fronting the elements with so cheerful a confidence.

2

SEASIDE winds afford a fine education for a golfer, perhaps in all but one regard: I fancy they sometimes destroy his courage on the green. To be forced to give the ball the most timid of little prods lest it run away down wind far past the hole on an ice-keen green cannot be the best way to learn putting. What is wanted is an essentially free stroke, and that can probably be best acquired in still weather on reasonably grassy greens. Having once gained smoothness, boldness, and freedom, the player will not lose it in more testing circumstances.

I remember playing with that delightful man and fine golfer, the late George Rotan, on his first round of the National Golf Links. There was a breeze, the greens were keen, and he could for a little while make neither head nor tail of the putting. He was used to the greens of his native Texas, which are,

I believe, inclined to be slow and grassy. But he was a good putter and after a round lie quickly adjusted himself.

In all other respects the wind must be a good teacher unless, indeed, it is in alliance with a ferociously narrow course. If the young player is too frightened of his ball being blown into impenetrable bushes, his hitting may become cramped and short. “ I don’t like to see a young one too careful,” I once heard John Ball say, and I am sure it was a wise saying.

The golfing winds are as distinct from one another as are winds in general. When one did Latin verses at school and was well acquainted with Eurus and Boreas, Zephyrus and Favonius, one might have applied their names to the winds of golf. Since classical names have now grown dim, I think of them rather under four main titles in plain English; there is the wind against, the wind behind, and, of side winds, the wind on your back and the wind on your face. Of the four, three are definitely hostile; the fourth, the wind behind, intends, I believe, to be friendly but too often overdoes his friendliness. He is a rollicking, boisterous fellow, who really does mean to do us a good turn by bowling our ball along for huge distances in front of him. Unfortunately he applies the same principle to our approach shots and helps them forward so vigorously that they end in horrid places beyond the green. On the green, too, he is tactless in his good nature. He does not in the least understand the terrors of a down-wind putt on a slope. It is all the same to him; with the very best intentions he just blows us to perdition.

The fact is that he is rather stupid. The same thing is mercifully true of the wind against. He is a completely honest foe, with nothing in the least tricky or shifty about him; he just tries to stop us as hard as he can. If we can persuade ourselves not to hit too hard — not, in short, to play too proud a game — much of his enmity will be wasted. When it comes to approaching, he is a positive friend if we can only make up our minds to bang the ball right up to the hole. Moreover, he gives us one of the most delicious of golf’s sensations, that of a ball struck perfectly clean and flying low into the wind’s eye.

The two side winds are in every way far less pleasant characters. They are crafty and evilly disposed creatures and essentially bullies. If they see that a man is frightened of them they are ruthless. The poor slicer aims farther and farther to the left, and the wind on his back, realizing that he has a coward to deal with, blows his ball farther and farther to the right. But if the slicer takes his courage in both hands, makes no allowance, and even stands boldly for a hook, the bully wind will often surrender on the spot. Conversely, much the same is true of the wind on your face, but as more of us are slicers than hookers, so most of us fear him the less. He tempts rather than precipitates us to destruction. Driving with a hook is a flattering amusement, since the ball seems to run forever. Sooner or later, of course, will come one hook too long into the heart of a gorse bush — but it was fun while it lasted. I said these side winds were bullies; and they are also snobs. When they meet a really great player who can master them, they grovel before him and slavishly do his will.

Yet another of the wind’s unattractive traits is its low cunning. It has a habit of hiding behind a hill, so that the player on the tee feels himself in a blessed calm. Scarcely has the ball left the club, however, when out rushes the wind from its hiding place and sweeps the ball far away.

The wind has other knavish tricks that it can play upon us, admittedly of a minor character. It can flap the mackintoshes of spectators, if we are so fortunate as to attract any, in a manner extremely disturbing to the concentration. It is no doubt a rather ridiculous confession, but I can well remember a certain nineteenth hole in a certain tournament, when I believe my second shot was flapped into a disastrous place by an innocent mackintosh. I can still hear the sound of it in my dreams. For that matter, the wind can flap our own trousers as we are dealing with a crucial putt. And then it has a habit of whining through the anatomy of a shooting stick, with what Robert Louis Stevenson would have called “an infinite melancholy piping.” It would be as absurd to complain of it as of the lark pouring out its song above our head, but it can be on occasions strangely disconcerting.

Now and again the wind can implant in our breasts some flattering beliefs. I once played a whole week’s golf on a frozen ground in a strong east wind. It was bitter work even though there was benedictinc after lunch and divine apple jelly for tea when we had climbed up a steep hill homeward. But heavens! how beautifully far the ball did go with that wind behind it. As we came in to lunch, each one of us had his little boast of some landmark passed, some inaccessible bunker reached. Of course this was but a touching delusion on everybody else’s part. Poor old fellow! he would never learn to drive an inch farther. But, for ourselves, surely we had discovered a little something, hard to explain but impossible to have imagined, which would make us longer drivers forevermore.

Now that I can play no more I love to lie snug in bed or hear the wind rumbling in the chimney on the eve of some great match. The sight of the flags standing out straight and straining at their sticks gives the course on a medal day morning a fine relentless air. I might not feel the full charm of it had I still to hear my name called aloud by the cold, passionless voice of the starter and go out to face the tempest. Today when it is pleasantly still and warm, I incline to say disparagingly, “Oh — anybody can do a good score on a day like this.”Yes, circumstances do alter cases, but still, play or watch, walk or sit, I shall maintain that golf would be a poor game without our old enemy. A reasonable wind gives a spice to golfing life.

Let me quote what a very wise golfer, John L. Low, wrote of it. “We must regard the wind as a friend that may be treated as a nodding acquaintance. We must recognise its presence, but not make obsequious obeisance when we meet it on our journey. If a ball be freely hit the wind will affect it but slightly; it is when we try either to use it too freely or to counter it in anger that we make our worst play.”Those are words to be taken to heart, at once brave and prudent.

“The only argument available with an East wind,” said James Russell Lowell, “is to put on your overcoat.” The stout hearted golfer will hardly confess to so cautious, almost cowardly a policy. Mittens perhaps and a woolly waistcoat, for no wise man disdains armor for the fight, but a genuine stand-up fight it will be. He will never capitulate; he will hit through the wind low, piercing shots that shall be blown neither to the right nor the left. And when he has carried the last cross bunker, all the trumpets shall sound for him on the other side.