Edited by Peter Ryde
Peter Ryde might have started this project, the celebration of a century since Bernard Darwin’s birth, with Darwin’s words in mind: “The afternoon round began with a greatly increased crowd and an almost overwhelming feeling of confidence in our own champion.” This anthology by the golf correspondent of The Times of 48-pieces of his immediate predecessor’s work is, surprisingly, not all about golf. Ryde’s confidence in “his man” is so great he dares to introduce golf readers to Darwin’s writings on other selected subjects. Do not be misled: the book is full of golf from the turn of the century to the 1950s, but there is enough of a sprinkling of other topics to allow a glimpse of the whole man. For example, in 1934, when he ‘played hooky’ from covering an international golf match at Wentworth and went, with the glee of a small boy, to watch a foot race between two champions. “The buzz of excitement when the men came out was worth all the money; one could have wished for a false start or two to prolong it…what fun it all was!” However, golf is never far from Darwin’s thoughts no matter the location. “I could not help feeling that, exciting and agonising (sic) as golf can be, it lacks a little something in that element of tactics. Perhaps it would be more than we could endure if it had it, and we ought to be thankful. At any rate, say what we will, it does lack it. Golf is a contest of temperament, but not of wits.”
One of the inescapable charms of Darwin’s writings is his ability to see with the eyes of a child while thinking with the mind of a highly educated adult. He is an unabashed hero worshiper and yet has the audacity to say ‘The king has no clothes’ if true. What gives the scholarly Darwin pleasure on the tee? “Einstein’s theory of relativity is of course beyond my comprehension, but I have my own theory of relativity in regard to hitting to which I am indissolubly wedded. Some of us cannot hit as hard as others, but the joy is in hitting as hard as we can.” Here is a Walker Cup player, who twice reached the semi-finals of the British Amateur Championship (1909 and 1921), dean of golf writers world wide, saying grab your club, put the ball down, have some fun: hit the Hell out of it!
An Attack of Socketing is Darwin at his impish best. At worst, it is a story going nowhere; at best, it is a story that ends up where it began. Read how an attack of the “shanks” or “socketing” (when the ball goes dead right at impact for a right-handed player) can and does infect the average and best players. The tale unfolds, explaining how the shanks go away (or one would have stopped playing golf to escape them) and how they can, or is it, will, come back. The irony of the story is that the hapless protagonist has anti-shank irons and still manages to shank! As if to assuage our fears, the mischievous Darwin finishes obliquely: “Meanwhile, I do hope that, by describing his torments in such detail, I shall not have put socketing into somebody else’s head…” Of course you know he did.
Hogan at Carnoustie, the immortal James Braid, Ouimet at Brookline, Bobby Jones in quest of the Grand Slam and after his announced retirement: all are the subjects of wonderful pieces. However, the more obscure Darwin becomes in search of a topic, the better the results. Take When Slices were Slices, which contains no advice, although it is loosely about the six different types of slices Seymour Dunn describes in Standardised Golf Instruction. Sensitive of his reader’s game, Darwin avoids detailing the six slices “because to read a medical book is to invariably to believe that one has got every disease under the sun.” Rather, he makes the challenge that no current player, with rubber core ball and steel shaft, could ever achieve the truly monumental slices produced with the wood shaft and hard gutty ball in a seaside wind. “I have convinced myself the modern golfer knows nothing of slicing.” Darwin details minor slicing records and some slicers of note, like a schoolmaster acquaintance.
Foreword by Herbert Warren Wind, Afterword by Donald Steel.