Introductions by Bernard Darwin

A new book about Bernard Darwin.

I am indebted to Adam Ruck for suggesting to Dick Verinder that he send me a copy (no. 42 of a limited print-run of 575 copies) of his recently published “Introductions by Bernard Darwin”, it being an anthology of Darwin’s introductions to books mainly by other authors. 

As we all know the great ‘Bernardo’ as his friends called him, is generally regarded as the doyen of golf writers. 

Introductions by Bernard Darwin, Dick Verinder,

The book outside its slip case

Though I often quote Darwin, especially as he has not only a comfortable way with words but was nearly always on the side of good sense, I have to admit to knowing less about him than I would like. 

Much as my father, a wet bob (a rower, rather than one with sticks and balls ability) spent so much time re-reading, during his 32 years of retirement, all of Plum’s (P G Wodehouse’s) works, I might imagine I might well do the same with Bernard Darwin. 

A good place to start is Dick Verinder’s book which lists 57 introductions starting in 1920 and finishing in 1961, the year Darwin died. It covers 293 pages, with each chapter having a clear explanation of its context. Indeed Dick’s intense knowledge of his enormous subject gives us a framework through which the great man comes alive. 

Darwin, born in 1876, was the grandson of the famed author of ‘On the origin of species’ and won scholarships to Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge before being called to The Bar in 1903. He played golf for England and Scotland eight times and once in the Walker Cup in 1922. He wrote for at least 70 newspapers and magazines but his associations with ‘Country Life’ and ‘The Times’ were the longest, starting in 1908 and continuing until his death.

Dick describes Darwin as a most humble and unassuming man, at least when not ‘in combat’ on the links. 

Darwin was Captain of the Royal and Ancient GC 1934-35 and chairman of the R&A’s Rules of Golf Committee that brought forth in 1950 the first rule changes since 1934, including the speeding up of play by a reversion to a penalty of only ‘distance’ rather than ‘stroke and distance’ for a ball lost or out of bounds, sadly overturned two years later to the great detriment of the recreational game of nowadays.

If you are unsure what the former effect has been, then join us at the inaugural FineGolf day at the beautiful Temple GC on September 10th when this aspect of Ted Dexter’s speedier golf rules will be applied. 

Bernard Darwin, The beauty of Darwin’s prose does not just cover golf but other areas of interest such as his great passion, Dickens, and in particular ‘ The Pickwick Papers’, the gardener Gertrude Jekyll, the Southern Railway and as a Cambridge man, he was invited to give the introduction to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. 

Darwin was particularly in love with his sacred golf locations of Rye, Aberdovey, the ‘collective devilry’ of Prestwick and the Old Course at St Andrews which he felt most conspicuously needs knowledge gained over a period of time, if it is to be appreciated. Verinder’s book succeeds in covering all and sundry aspects of Darwin’s thoughts on golf courses, teaching, rules and whatever. 

I have to step carefully at this juncture as one of the very best caddies in Scotland is a reliable, good friend but I must quote Darwin when he says in the introduction to ‘Candid Caddies’ by Henry Longhurst and Charles Graves:

“Caddies as a race possess a genius not for witticism but for brusque and penetrating home truths. Here is one mild little example. Not long since, I was playing at Addington and my bag was in rather a dilapidated and makeshift condition, reinforced by pieces of string. So after my first tee shot, which, I may add, was the very best of which I am capable, I apologised to my caddie for the bag and said I must get a new one. ‘I shouldn’t do that, sir,’ he replied, ‘this one will last you as long as you’re likely to want to play golf.’ That was a typical caddie’s thrust, such as we enjoy when it is at the expense of our particular friends.” 

It was only after Darwin’s death that the fashion for over-watering greens appeared in Britain and he took it as natural that the finest golf was played on ‘running’ courses. There was no need for golf writers in his era to understand grasses and green-keeping. 

Bernard Darwin,

Bernard Darwin putting as a boy

In his introduction to Martin Sutton’s ‘Golf courses design, construction and upkeep’ in 1950 he remarks:

“He is a master of a subject of which I am utterly and conspicuously ignorant. I know nothing of Fescues. I am one of that great, unthinking body of golfers who incline to take for granted all the treasures of care and thought that people like Mr. Sutton expend for our benefit. They give us good lies and velvety greens and we are not half grateful enough. It is too late for me to learn now, but I can see, if only dimly, the fascination of Mr. Sutton’s subject, and I believe that many people will get much pleasure as well as profit from him. To see someone else enthralled over the roots of a grass which to me is ‘just green grass’ is to realise what I have missed.” 

With regard to golf course design, Darwin comments:

“We are apt to deem ourselves perfectly capable of laying out, if not a whole new course – our vanity is seldom quite as monumental as that – at least a new hole or two. And yet we have seldom devoted much real thought or observation to the matter. We have a general impression that a certain hole is a good one and that is just about as far as we go. ‘I don’t care,’ an old friend of mine used to say, ‘whether the fellow likes the hole. I want to know why he likes it.’ It is just on that point that many of us cannot withstand cross-examination.” 

He goes on:

“A course that seems to a stranger completely honest and plain sailing is a dull one. The other day I was cross with a hole because, not knowing it well, I had no notion what to do with the second shot; it seemed to me an ignoble toss-up what happened. Yet, in fact, had I known it, it would have seemed quite an interesting shot, and not a very hard one. A good hole always keeps us guessing a little… The really great hole keeps those who know it best in delicious, agonising eternally recurring doubt.” 

The words of a true master but to his eternal regret he failed to make the pilgrimage to Royal Dornoch. He would have swooned at ‘Foxy’ . 

Thank you, Dick, for giving us in one book so much of Darwin that, my ignorant mind supposes, has lain only scattered across many bookshelves.

Reviewed by Lorne Smith 2013

Do note that the book was named in Golf.com/Sports Illustrated (USA) list of Top 10 Golf Books of 2012.

The book is available from Amazon.com but not from Amazon.co.uk so for British FineGolf readers Dick has kindly offered to reduce the price to £50 (normally around £70 including postage) if you contact him on his email at   dv@texasbb.com 

Reader Comments

On July 8th, 2013 Peter Newman said:

This sounds like a very good read … and something to treasure too!

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