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Few-people are better qualified to introduce Bernard Darwin to those who may not know his work than SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S Golf Editor Herbert Warren Wind. In England last year he persuaded golf's grand old man to write the personal recollections which begin on page 63; and from his own memories of a long association, he has culled the tribute which follows:
Next week, on September 7th to be exact, Bernard Darwin will be 80 years old. It is SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S privilege on this happy occasion to be able to present to its readers an article by Mr. Darwin (which begins on page 63), and it is my pleasant task to tell those of you who have yet to make Mr. Darwin's acquaintance a little about the man and why his 80th birthday is an occasion.
To start at the beginning, Bernard Darwin is the greatest writer on golf the world has ever known. He is much more than that. He may be the greatest of all sportswriters. Many think he is. Sir John Squire, an English critic, rated him one of the six finest general essayists since Charles Lamb. Numerous Dickens scholars feel that no one has ever written quite so felicitously of their hero as has Darwin. His children's stories are wonderful. Golf was simply very fortunate that so excellent a writer should have chosen to devote so much of his time to it. Thanks to Bernard, golf has acquired the sturdiest literature of any game. The best of it is Darwin's—about two dozen books in all—and the rest is as good as it is largely because he showed the writers who came after him how golf could and should be written. This brings to mind a remark I once heard to the effect that Artie Shaw never would have become a great swing clarinetist had there been no Benny Goodman to show him the general direction in which to head. On that I am in no position to comment, but I have never met any serious golf writer whose love and understanding of the game was not nurtured on Darwin. In fact, I know of more than a few golf writers and golfers who are inclined to think that they gravitated to the game because they found that reading Bernard Darwin struck some responsive chord within them, and they wanted to get closer and closer to the world (and the way of life, too, for it is nothing less) that he evoked.
A grandson of Charles Darwin, the famous naturalist who propounded the theory of evolution, Bernard Richard Meirion Darwin was born in 1876 and grew up in the inevitable plexus of stimulation afforded the members of that remarkable family. (Gwen Raverat's recent bestseller, Period Piece, contains some very entertaining glimpses of Bernard the boy.) He entered Cambridge University in 1894. It was at just this time that the first great British professionals—J. H. Taylor, Harry Vardon and James Braid—were coming excitingly to the fore, and Bernard's enthusiasm for golf, which was immense to begin with, was further increased by the trips he took to watch the glamorous triumvirate in action. After graduation he became a lawyer. Then one day in 1906 he came to the decision that the legal life was not for him. He turned in his wig, as one might say, and shortly afterwards embarked upon a new career as the golf writer for the Times of London. He filled that position for, roughly, the next 45 years.
In accordance with the Times's tradition, Darwin's columns were signed only with the phrase "By our golf correspondent," but his work had such a distinction that everyone came to know it was Darwin, just as most readers of The New Yorker know that the bulk of the superb, anonymous "Notes and Comments" that lead off that magazine's "Talk of the Town" section are the work of E. B. White. Darwin also wrote some of the Times's light editorials and contributed to a slew of magazines in Britain and America, foremostly to Country Life, for which he continues to write. Then there were his books, of course, and of these I only wish to say that three of his most recent ones—Golf Between Two Wars, Golf (an anthology) and James Braid—are heartening demonstrations that there are some writers whom age cannot wither. These books have all of that unpresuming but telling command, that fusion of springtime spirit and autumnal thoughtfulness that characterized Out of the Rough, Playing the Like and those other earlier pillars of golf libraries scattered throughout the green corners of the world. Bernard never tried to bowl his readers over with exhibitions of his brilliance or power, but his writing, modest and restrained as it is, has a quiet magic and a terrific staying power. Though never intended to be literature, it is.
One of the reasons Bernard wrote, and writes, so well about golf was that he was a real player himself. He represented England countless times in international matches against Scotland, Wales and Ireland. He played for Britain in the first Walker Cup match in 1922, though this needs a word of explanation. Bernard had come over to the States that summer—his first trip since '13 when he had been Ouimet's scorer at Brookline in the momentous playoff with Vardon and Ray—simply to cover the Walker Cup match for his paper. However, on the eve of the event, Robert Harris, the British captain, became ill, and Bernard was rushed into the breach. He and Cyril Tolley lost their foursome to Ouimet and Guilford, but old Bernard won his singles handily from Bill Fownes. Having been under fire in hot competition himself, Bernard understood perfectly the feelings, involved and vagrant, experienced by players in the strain of tournaments. It brought unusual excitement to his writing—you were right with the golfer.
Several other facets of Darwin's style served further to endear him to his readers. His wit and erudition are those of the full man who happens to love sport and not those of a sportswriter pressing to attract attention through gimmicky phrases. He had the courage to waive ubiquity and omniscience; in golf, hustle as you will, you cannot see every important shot, and Bernard was not hesitant to confess that as he stood, say, at the 17th tee, a wild shout went up from the fifth green to which he hustled to arrive only just as an even more colossal roar broke the air at the 12th. He was extremely sympathetic to the golfers he wrote about. He never dismissed them with a superior "So-and-so cracked wide open" or "So-and-so then muffed that simple shot"; his experience as a tournament player gave him a more complete understanding of what was taking place, and he wrote of it from the golfer's viewpoint. Do not be misled, though, into thinking of Bernard as having the gravied generousness of Daddy Long Legs. Not at all. There is an implicit strain of toughness in him. He always called a spade mashie a spade mashie. I doubt if he ever wrote a line he did not believe in. He never praised a golfer whom he did not consider praiseworthy. When he admired someone, you could be sure that person was worthy of admiration.
One of the rarest things in the world is the man of unmistakable talent who in "real life" possesses even a thread of the attractive traits which his work would lead you to believe were the warp and woof of his personality. Bernard was quite different: the man at the desk and the man away from the desk were one and the same person—warm, honest, enjoyable and unfailingly gracious. A few years ago—I think this anecdote is as illustrative as any—I happened to be starting on a golf anthology and wrote to Bernard asking if, from his extensive reading, there were any particular pieces he felt should be included in such a collection. I don't have his letter around, and I can only paraphrase what he wrote. It began with an explanation that my request was somewhat difficult inasmuch as he had recently completed an anthology of his own. However, he went on, I would do well to look into—and herewith he reeled off a whole parade of books, essays and reports by a dozen authors that struck him as being of unusual quality.
At all get-togethers of golfers, there is talk of Bernard, and this invariably includes several people's bringing up some recent line of his they got a particular kick out of. One I heard last year which sticks with me uncommonly well is a simple short introductory phrase: "Until the fatal spread of education...." It would appear to reveal the most snobbish of outlooks, if you did not know the source to be the most feeling of men, and then you cotton on to all that the phrase implies. For me, rightly or wrongly, it is like the screen door entrance to Bernard Darwin's attitude to living in general, to golf specifically. One of the commanding frustrations of life is that all too often the things one likes best and respects the most somehow get misdeveloped or lost through a lack of appreciation of their worth, or some supposedly progressive trend popularizes all the charm and pleasure out of them. When I read Darwin, I get the feeling that his love of golf (and the world of golf) has more than a little to do with its being one sector of life that he found sweet and wonderful as a boy, which he hoped would remain as appealing as he first thought it was and which, indeed, has remained so. It is a climate in which one competes on friendly terms: where to win is satisfying, to lose is not humiliating and where no one in his right mind would choose to stand on the sidelines since he would be missing so much wonderful stuff that has to do neither with winning nor losing.
It has been said of Dr. Johnson that it was not what he wrote that was important but the ideas and thoughts he started rolling. This is not exactly true of Bernard Darwin—he is a better writer than Johnson—but, like the doctor, his writing constitutes a very small part of what he has done for golf and golfers.