Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/A golf tournament in Scotland

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2946152Once a Week, Series 1, Volume IX — A golf tournament in Scotland
1863Henry James Moncreiff


Will the reader permit me to assume first that he is an Englishman? If he refuses me this small favour there is an end of the matter. But if he does not, and if he agrees to be an Englishman, why should not he be my old Harrow friend Norman, who is here, paying Scotland a visit for the first time? Now that this is all amicably settled, I shall not ask any leave for my remaining assumptions, as you must be quite aware, Norman, that you are utterly ignorant of our national game of golf, and also you must admit to a sneaking desire to see what it is like. You are a good cricketer, and I have no doubt, if you devoted yourself to golf, that you would play that game well, too. I am taking you to-day to a place where you will see golf in perfection. I know that, if I left you to your own devices, you would get yourself up in a terrific pair of football boots for the purpose of breaking your adversaries’ shins, as I never could get you to understand that the game did not consist in violent running, and pushing, and hitting, and kicking.

Here we are at last, after a three hours’ journey on the worst line in the kingdom. The day, be it known, is the 30th of September; the hour 11.30 a.m.; the place St. Andrews, Fifeshire, N.B.

I dare say you never heard of the place before, yet its name is dear in the ears of the Scottish gentleman—not on account of its historical associations,—not on account of its ancient haunts of learning,—but because it is here that the Scottish gentleman, in his hours of leisure, may play at the game that he loves from morn till eve, and bet his habitual half-crowns, and smoke unlimited pipes, and talk never-ending shop.

Not equally dear is it in the ears of the Scottish gentleman’s spouse and daughters; and that for manifold good reasons. All that you can get them to say about it is, that the air is very bracing, &c. &c. The reason is this, the presence of a female is repugnant to the game of golf. No sooner does an unlucky woman stray on to the course than,—like the Derby dog,—she is hooted at and bellowed to, and told to go one way by one person and another by another; all which induces a most piteous state of vacillation, in the midst of which the ball whizzes past her at a pace which would inevitably prove fatal were it to hit her. It is needless to say that the unprotected female does not often repeat the mistake of straying on the pleasure-grounds of the golfer. Then her husband is perpetually bringing some fellow-golfer home, without notice, to lunch or dinner, and the two sit talking about their eternal golf, and not a word on any other subject is to be got out of them. The place itself, with the exception of golf, is dull enough, but not through any fault of its own. It would be the same at the most fashionable watering-place, if a conscription were levied on all the male inhabitants to fill the ranks of the noble army of golfers.

St. Andrews is not without merits of its own, irrespective of the attractions of golf:—a university, the remains of a gigantic cathedral; wide, clean-looking, handsome streets; and other architectural advantages. But I really decline to act as guide-book to you; you must devote an hour or two to-morrow to seeing the lions.

The present week is the only time in the year at which ladies at all like St. Andrews, or have any attention, besides that of the nature aforementioned, shown them. This week corresponds, in regard to golf, to the Canterbury week in the annals of cricket. This day is the medal-day; the day on which all the best gentlemen-players assemble to compete for the blue riband of the golf course. To-night there is going to be a large dinner of the Golf Club. To-morrow night a ball—hence the multitude of ladies and non-golfing gentlemen, this being the only time when the latter are tolerated here. All the houses in the neighbourhood are filled, and so the place is really rather gay.

The station which we have just come into is what you would expect, in comfort and splendour, as the terminus of a line like that we have left. Did you ever see such a collection of ragamuffin boys of all ages, rushing about, bustling, and jostling?

Ah! would you like to know what that bundle of queer-looking sticks, like coach-whips, is which that urchin has just snatched from the young fellow who was in the carriage with us? Know, Saxon, these are the weapons with which the Scot avenges Flodden. They are golf-sticks, or clubs, as they are called. They are fearfully and wonderfully made, and their name is legion. Any attempt at present to explain their various uses would unseat your intellect entirely. Only observe that the general cut of them is very much like that of a hockey-stick, long shaft and crooked head; the shaft is tapering, and the head, which is a remarkable combination of wood, horn, and lead, is firmly spliced on to the shaft.

Do you perfectly understand that you are not intended to hold by the head? That’s right. You hold by the end of the shaft, which is done up like the handle of a coach-whip with leather. Those clubs with iron or steel heads, which look rather like shovels, are intended for taking the ball out of sandy or muddy places. But it is of little use to explain all this to you till you see the game played.

Here we are on the links, or common, on which the game is played; the course stretches away to the left for about a couple of miles along the sea-coast. It is very narrow, and is lined with thick gorse, and studded with many hazardous and fearful-looking sandholes. Before us is the sea, dashing up into a little bay. About 300 yards to our right, is the beginning or end of the course, whichever you like to call it. What a crowd there is swarming about it. Let us cross that small burn and inspect it more closely.—Heaven and earth! Take care what you’re doing, you young scamp; you very nearly hit me just now. The little blackguard sent a ball uncommonly near our heads. You think it would not hurt you much? Feel that. It is rather smaller than a tennis-ball, and made of gutta-percha; and I can tell you it stings uncommonly. Do you fancy that if that ball, hit with a force which would carry it 170 yards in the air, were to hit you on the back of the neck at 10 yards’ distance, it would not hurt? Before this day is over, perchance you may have an opportunity of judging.

But, as I was about to say when I was interrupted, this is really a gorgeous spectacle. Crowded into a space of 100 yards square is a motley crowd—well-dressed ladies of all ages, badly ditto, old gentlemen, middle-aged gentlemen, young gentlemen, boys, professional players, cads, and blackguards of every description.

With regard to the male portion of the crowd, I must here draw your attention, if it has not been already drawn, to a strange phenomenon, observable as soon as you come within a radius of two miles of St. Andrews. The natives usually have hold of something in the shape of a stick, whether it be golf-club, walking-cane, umbrella, hoe, hedge-bill, or spade; whatever it may be, they manipulate it gingerly, wagging it about, and now and then making it whistle through the air. These alarming symptoms are accompanied with a morbid swaying of the body, and wild tossing of the arms. A lamentable indifference is displayed as to the vicinity of their neighbour’s head, or anything that is his. The monomaniacs fancy that they have golf-clubs in their hands, and they are practising what they are pleased to call their swing.—There! I knew that the young gentleman would hurt some one. He has swung one of the iron-headed clubs into that jolly-looking old boy’s waistcoat. You observe that gentleman with the confined swing. It is currently reported that he owes that short swing to practising the proper action, not within reach of his neighbour’s ears, but of his own furniture and crockery, in the solitude of his chamber,—a spiteful calumny.

There is the real attitude for you, knees together, toes turned in, club grasped firmly but not tightly, adjust it to the ball, bring it slowly up over your shoulder till the head appears, as the Scotch would say, west of your left ear, and then bring it down, shoulders, wrists, backbone, legs, and everything going into the blow.

The crowd is waiting for the ceremony of opening the meeting to take place. We’ll come back presently. I wish you to see our club, that snug one-storied building, at the head of these steps, which overlooks the course.

It is the Union Club of St. Andrews, sacred to golfers. The cheapest club I ever had anything to do with. There’s the reading-room; those coffin-looking cupboards which meet your eye in every direction do not contain the remains of the gentlemen whose names appear upon them. They are intended for the reception of the coach-whips when not actively employed. This is the parlour. But we must not stay, as business, and a ballot, and all manner of things are going on, and you’re a stranger; so come through into the billiard-room, and we’ll have a game till the real business of the day commences.

There goes the gun. They’re off. Let us out. Now, if you imagine that those respectable and, in some cases, portly gentlemen, are going to rush upon each other with uplifted clubs, hack, bully, and shin, and then tear away whacking the ball before them, you are mistaken. In order to play this game you need never stir faster than a three-mile an hour walk.

The moment has at length arrived when an attempt must be made to convey to the understanding of the Saxon a few of the elementary principles of the game.

You see that hole, four inches in diameter by six in depth, punched in the turf. The end and object of all that whacking of balls, swaying of bodies, and stretching of limbs, is to get that small ball into this hole after it has been at the bottom of seventeen other holes in succession. A series of these holes are punched all along the course at intervals of from 300 to 400 yards. The object of the game is to knock the ball from one hole to another in as few strokes as possible; and whoever goes the round of eighteen holes in fewest strokes wins the medal. The members of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews have just drawn for the order in which they are to play. They play in couples; each man counting the strokes of his immediate opponent and marking them on a card.

Now the first pair are just going to strike off. Behold the ball is mounted upon a little pyramid of mud which rejoices in the name of a tee, to the end that the smiter may get the more cleanly at it. A ball is only teed at starting from each hole; after each first stroke the player must hit the ball as he finds it. What an ordeal this is. All that crowd we saw before, ladies, &c., &c., and all kinds of cads, are drawn up in two parallel rows, leaving a vista of certainly not more than five yards. Through this narrow opening the two wretched men before us, on whom the lot has fallen, have to hit their balls, going neither to the right nor left.

There will certainly be manslaughter or cad-slaughter committed before long, if the vista does not widen.

The victims are trying hard to look cool. The younger one has just lighted a weed and is trying to smoke it with unconcern. The elder, in the scarlet coat (uniform of the club), is badgering the boy who is carrying his clubs.

Now then, gentlemen.

The young fellow throws away his weed, and taking a most genteel, thin-shafted club, straddles—the word explains itself—straddles to his ball. Three or four times he looks earnestly up the vista, then at his ball, the club in the meantime wagging like a demented pendulum.

At last he addresses his ball.

What a charming word! Addresses is used to express the final, affectionate, and accurate adjustment of the face of the head of the club to the ball previously to uplifting the club for the last time.

Up goes the club with a mighty sweep, and down it comes, down on the top of the ball, which, instead of bounding into the air, tumbles tipsily off the tee, and rolls gently into a little hole! The exclamations of the crowd are appalling.

“Eh, see till the muff; he canna caw a ba’ a yard,” hoot the rabble.

“Is that considered a good hit, papa?” says a young lady, in the vicinity, with cruel innocence. The victim rushes upon the boy who is carrying his clubs, and snatches from him a short, stumpy, resolute-looking little club, the face of which is scooped out for the purpose of taking balls out of any difficult place, and retires to allow his senior to strike off.

There is no nervousness about this at all events; no more there should be, considering that the gentleman has played golf more or less every day for the last ten years. The same look at the vista, the same waggling, the same straddling and addressing, a short jerky swing, a little curtsey to the ball and—whack, off goes the ball hit as clean as a whistle, and falls on the other side of the road; a very fair stroke.

The young fellow now goes at the ball for the second time, and to some purpose; the ball is well hit, and flies out of the hole into which it had rolled, but, as bad luck will have it, lights in the road.

Well, I don’t think we need accompany that party. The next party must wait till they have crossed the burn, about 250 yards on, before they strike off.

By-the-by, while we were playing billiards, we missed the inauguration of the meeting. I do not remember whether I told you that the Prince of Wales had consented to be captain of the club. Unfortunately he has not been able to come here. I hear some one saying that his wine has come; ten dozen, too. But do not imagine that the young man is in the habit of travelling about with ten dozen of champagne all handy in the van. As captain of the club he is expected to provide champagne for the ball which you are going to to-morrow night. That’s all.

Now, if he had been here, he would have had to go through the ceremony which, in his absence, was performed for him by that gentlemanly looking little man in a red coat. He would have had to strike a ball (anywhere—it did not matter where—probably into the legs of the mob), and thereafter an entry would have been made in the books of the club to the effect that H.R.H. the Prince of Wales had won the Adelaide medal and the silver club by doing the round of the links in ninety strokes. This solemn announcement will doubtless be received by posterity a century after this with awe and wonder, but implicit belief; and men will sigh over the good old days when Great Britain had a prince athletic enough to thrash all his subjects at the game of golf; ninety strokes, be it known, is a wonderfully small number to go round the course of eighteen holes in.

The day is rather cold, and one feels chilled with hanging about here. I think when we see a really good pair of players strike off, we had better go round with them. I observe (and with all respect and dismay I observe), that the noses of some of the fair spectators are positively assuming a bluish tinge. Still the vista is not widened a yard; quite the contrary. It is really a wonder that no one has been hit.—Ah, there at last! A whack, a shriek, a sharp cry, a fall, a rushing to and fro of the crowd; some one has been hit. It is only a little boy who has been hit on the shoulder, one of the players through nervousness having struck his ball askew. Now all is right again; the boy’s ears have been boxed for being in the way by a loving but sternly just parent; and one good result of this accident is, that the vista is now widened, and there is plenty of room to strike.

Now is our time. The pair who are about to strike off now are two of the best players on the green. They have hit their balls clear and true, and they have both fallen some way over the road. With their second strokes, if they hit the balls fairly they ought to send them over the burn, into which if he gets, the traveller will have to return with the loss of a stroke. But the safer plan is to play the ball gently up to the edge of the burn with a short club, and then, with your third stroke, you can send it over with an easy blow, which if straight ought to land the ball within a few yards of the hole. Both our players are well over. And here let me mention, once for all, that in speaking of the ball you confer on it the name of the individual who strikes it.

“Where’s Jones?”

“He’s in the burn.”

“Where’s Thompson?”

“He’s lying dead.”

This alarming statement means that Thompson’s ball is so near the hole that he cannot fail to put it in. One of the strokes was a very good one, and the ball is lying about seven yards from the hole. The other player (short little man in knickerbockers) would have gone too far if it had not been for that lady who stopped the ball with her dress; but as it is he is lying almost dead. And for the benefit of ladies generally let me tell them, with all due deference, that there is no game which they are less qualified to understand than golf, and none at which their presence is so utterly obnoxious and discouraging to the gentlemen whom they deign to patronise. There, now! I have delivered myself of a speech which has long been rankling in my heart, and often hanging on the tip of my tongue. The large man has laid his ball dead in four strokes, and goes in in five. I expect little—shall we say M. for the little man, and B. for the large one?—little M. to hole his ball; he is making tremendous preparations. He has taken a short thick club called a putter, and is carefully examining the ground between his ball and the hole. A speck of sand is carefully brushed away. He has walked twice round the hole, and inspected the ground from every point of view. Now he is going to strike. No, some one spoke; silence! Now, then. Well, my friend, you have managed to commit the gravest offence! How in the world did you contrive that the shadow of your head should fall upon M.’s ball; and why in the name of all that’s unlucky did you wag it just as he played. He has missed his stroke, and takes five strokes after all to get into the hole. It can’t be helped; but do take care. How fiercely he is scowling at you. Please don’t laugh, or I shall have to take you home again.

I dare say you are not aware of the fact, but golf is one of the most nervous and fidgety games imaginable. Some men cannot hit a ball if any one near them is speaking or moving. And a story is on record regarding an enthusiastic lover of the game, who positively refused to play with a man who had the misfortune to have on a pair of light nankeen inexpressibles. He said that they dazzled him.

B. and M. are getting on very well this hole. But at last the gallant little player is caught up in one of these sand-holes or bunkers, as they are called. Whereupon he seizes the largest of the iron-headed clubs and leaps into the hole. A mighty swing, a thud, a cloud of sand, and lo! out of the cloud the ball emerges, and falls on the turf. He has regularly disembowelled that bunker. Woe to the next man whose ball gets into the hole M. has made. B. gets into the hole (proper) in six strokes, which, with five for the first hole, makes eleven. And M. gets in in seven, which, with five, makes twelve strokes for the first two holes. B. is one stroke ahead. You see now how they count.

Now let us stand at one of the holes, say the fifth, and see the various pairs come up. What fun it is to watch the different faces. Some are almost white with excitement, some hopeful, some stern yet confident, and (what’s this?) young Webster smoking; that’s a very bad sign; “How are you getting on, Webster?”

“Very badly; I got into a rabbit-scraping last hole, and took eleven to it.”

That is the worst of this counting of strokes; every hit at the ball counts a stroke, even although you do not move it.

Here comes a great crowd; they are accompanying two favourites. One of them has done these five holes in twenty-six strokes, which is very great play. That last stroke up to the hole was a beautiful one. The ball was lifted high into the air over that large bunker, and fell on the green, scarcely rolling a yard after it alighted.

But I dare say you have seen enough of this. In the meantime, let us go back and get some lunch, and then come out and see the finish.

All is over. Time 3.15, p. m. The medal has been won by that tall handsome man in red, in ninety-five strokes. So now to lunch all ye disappointed, tell how but for whin-bush or bunker you must have won. Tell how your favourite club broke at the critical moment, how a man stopped your ball from going into the hole, how through nervousness you missed holing your ball three times, when perfectly dead. And may it soothe your gallant and wounded spirits.

Then set to and make up matches for yourselves in which you cannot fail to win!

A short lunch, a glass of beer, and a cigar, and off they go again, and this time they go out for the most part in parties of four; two playing as partners against the other two. Each pair of partners has only one ball between them, which they hit alternately. The game now is, not who will go round the course in the fewest strokes, but who will win most of the holes. That is, as far as strokes go, they start fresh at the beginning of each new hole.

Talk of ill-assorted marriages. I never remember to have seen a party of four in which each man was perfectly satisfied with his partner’s performances.

“Did you win your match, Bruce?”

I win? we win? how could we? I never in my life saw a fellow so utterly off his game as Forbes was that last round.”

Or else.

“Well we did win by a miracle; if I had not been playing a topping game (for me), I don’t know where we should have been; for, as for ——, &c.”

Now here are four worthies trying to arrange how they shall play, each trying to make a good thing of it for himself.

They cannot agree.

“Doctor, do you think that you and I can hold our own against Campbell and the Major?”

“Not unless they give us odds.”

“Well, then, will you and the Major play Campbell and me?”

“Yes, I’ll do that.”

“That’s no match,” says Campbell, and so the dispute goes on. At length something is settled, and off they go.

A foursome in which each man implicitly believes in his partner, and is not perpetually watching his adversaries’ proceedings with a critical and jealous eye, is only to be hoped for in a golfing millenium.

The most ominous sign of all is, when, after his partner has been making a series of mistakes, missing his balls, sending them into bunkers, whins, and burns, the face of the player, which has been previously gloomy and lowering, suddenly and spasmodically brightens up; he pulls out his cigar-case, lights a weed, and offering his partner one, remarks:

“Well, this is a charming view; capital bracing exercise this; does one a power of good!”

This extraordinary change is intended to express this:

“It is useless to try to play with a muff like you for a partner; let me, however, enjoy the beauties of nature, the soothing weed, and the bracing exercise; but as for calling this golf, my dear fellow, you have clearly mistaken your vocation.”

Tremble, Saxon, when in after years your partner lights a pipe.

To-morrow and next day you will have an opportunity of seeing some really important foursomes. There is going to be a match between four of the best professional players in Scotland. And then several matches have been made up, in which one gentleman and a professional play another gentleman and a professional; all four being first-rate players. These matches are well worth seeing, and they usually play for pretty high sums. And if so be you are so minded, you can make your little bets upon them.

And now, Saxon, do you, after what you have seen, dare to deny that golf is a scientific game? You think that hitting a ball along the ground looks easy. Wait until you try. At the first attempt most probably you will not hit the ball at all; nor at the second; nor very probably at the third; at the fourth there is every chance of your breaking the club. Now at cricket a muff may go in and hit the best of bowling about; all in wrong directions it is true, but still making runs which count. The ball may come against his bat and go off in the slip for three, even supposing that he never moves his bat. But at golf you have an inert lump of gutta-percha lying obstinately motionless in front of you. Unless you hit that ball there is not the remotest chance of its budging an inch of its own accord. At cricket the farther a ball goes (provided it goes not into a field’s hands) the better; may it run for ever, may it go down a well where it may be seen but not touched; may it go out of the ground into the next field. But at golf if you do hit the ball how are you to manage to make it stop when you wish it to do so? You have set the ball in motion, and roll it will, though it be making inevitably for a bunker. You may not “rush in hands low,” field the ball, and return it, “with a long and arrow-like throw,” to the place you wish it to lie. You must stand by and see your hopes buried in a grave of sand.

And then consider the unspeakable advantages of golf. No toiling, and running, and sweating in the heat of a summer’s day to the end that you may jerk your arms off returning the ball only that the batsman may hit it the harder, and that you may perspire and be sworn at again.

No solitary “over from Jackson,”—one on the knee, one in the abdomen, one in the eye, and the fourth in the wicket,—and then instant and utter extinction for hours to come. But one perpetual jubilee of hitting and whacking—the worse the player the more the hitting: a game, my Norman, where you are never put out except in temper, never run, never perspire, never sw—but enough, I see that I have touched you, you yield, you are a proselyte. Come! let me gently lead thee by the hand into yonder workshop, where, for the modest outlay of two shillings and sixpence, or at most of three shillings of the coin of this realm, thou mayest purchase the shortest of short spoons—there is nothing personal in the name, my friend, it is that of a short and stumpy club—and thus begin, though humbly, a career which cannot but end in a happy, a vigorous, and a contented old age.

H. M.