On Giving Up Golf Forever by Walter Prichard Eaton

Story type: Essay

Last season I gave up golf forever two days before our course opened in May, on the evenings of June 17th and July 4th, at noon on July 27th, on the evenings of August 2nd, 9th, 15th, and 21st, at 11:15 A.M. on Labor Day, again Labor Day evening, on September 19th, 23rd, 30th, and October 3rd, 11th and 18th. I am writing this in mid-January, when the drifts are piled five feet deep over our bunkers, and the water-carries are frozen solid. I have played my last game of golf. The coming season I shall devote to the intensive cultivation of my garden. The links have no allure for me.

“And if,” says my wife, “I could believe that, I should be happier than ever before in the long years of my golf widowhood.”

“But you can,” I answer, with grieved surprise.

She looks at me, with that superior and tolerant smile women know so well how to assume.

“You men are all such children!” is her, it seems to me, somewhat irrelevant retort.

I fell to musing on my friend, the noted war correspondent (now a Major in the United States Army in France). All things considered, he was the most consistent, or perhaps I should say persistent, quitter the game of golf has ever known. He used to quit forever on an average of three times a week, and I have known him to abandon the game twice during a round, which is something of a record. He played every summer on our beautiful Berkshire course, which crosses and recrosses the winding Housatonic, not to mention sundry swamps, and boasts the most luxuriant fairway, and by the same token the rankest rough, in all America. It is the course Owen Johnson once immortalized in his story, Even Threes.

How well I remember that peaceful, happy May, back in 1914! Our course had emerged from its annual spring flood, newly top-dressed with rich river silt, and a few warm days brought the turf through the scars and made the whole glorious expanse of fairway, winding through the silver willows, a velvet carpet. I had given my orders to the greens-keepers, and gone to New York for a day or two–reluctantly, of course–and there met the famous war correspondent, in those peaceful times out of a regular job and turned novelist pro tem. He had just relieved himself of his final chapter, and readily yielded to my persuasions to return with me to the velvet field and the whistling drive. We “entrained,” as he would say in one of his military dispatches.

As far as the Massachusetts-Connecticut state-line he talked of Mexican revolutions, Theodore Roosevelt, Japanese art, vers libre, mushrooms, and such other topics as were of interest in the spring of 1914. But at the state-line, chancing a look out of the window, he saw the doming billow of blue mountains which marks the entrance to our Berkshire intervales, and a strange gleam came into his eyes. His square jaws set. His whole countenance was transformed. Turning back to me, he half hissed, grimly,–

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“I am not going to press this season!”

I knew he was fairly on his way to giving up golf forever.

Of course, when a man hasn’t played all winter, but has been engaged in the mild and harmless exercise of writing a novel, his hands become soft. Then, when he suddenly begins to play thirty-six holes a day, and takes a lock-grip on his clubs as tightly as if he supposed somebody was trying to snatch them away from him, he is apt to develop certain blisters. To a war correspondent and traveler over the Dawson Trail, such blisters are nothing. To a golf player they are of profound importance. The next day, in our foursome, they affected the war correspondent’s game. He became softly querulous.

“I wish you wouldn’t talk when I am about to drive,” he complained to a caddie.

“This mashie is too heavy for me,” he muttered to himself.

“Every time I make a stroke, that crack on the third finger of my left hand, above the top joint, opens and pains me,” he declared to anybody who would listen.

His drive from the eighteenth tee went kerplunk into the mud, and buried itself like a startled woodchuck. He said nothing, but took a left-handed club from his bag–for he began the game left-handed, and had switched over the year before, upon hearing our professional say that no left-handed player could ever become a great golfer. With this fresh implement, he began to dig. He finished the hole left-handed, with three perfect shots! We tried to cheer him up, but he was not to be cheered.

“What’s the use!” he wailed. “Here I’ve spent a year and a fortune unlearning how to play left-handed. I’m never going to play the confounded game again!”

And, by way of token, he began to talk about Theodore Roosevelt.

That was his first renunciation for 1914. The next few days the game went well, and so did work on a new novel he had commenced, fired by his success in getting off seventeen perfect tee-shots. But he reached his fourth chapter and an off afternoon on the same fair Saturday. What a lovely day it was!–you know, one of those early June days that invariably causes some woman to quote Lowell. But the famous war correspondent saw no charm in the leafy luxury around him, in the blue sky, the lush grass. He heard no pipe of birds nor whisper of the breeze. His driver wasn’t working right. Then his over-worked mashie went back on him. By the fourth green he was taking three putts, and by the eighth he was picking up. His face was a thundercloud; his vocabulary disclosed a richness gleaned from camp and field which was a revelation even to our caddies; and that is no insignificant accomplishment.

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Our tenth hole in those days was close to the club-house, and the tee was but 195 yards away–a good iron to the green. By the time we reached this tee, the war correspondent had very nearly exhausted even the stock of expletives he had acquired on the Dawson Trail, and had declared seven times that he was through, yes, forever!

“Oh, come on and play just this hole–keep going to the club-house anyway,” we pleaded.

“Well,” he said, “I’ll take one more shot–it’s my last–positively. I’m going back to New York to-morrow.”

He tossed a scarred, cut, battered ball on the turf, scorning to make a tee. Yanking a cleek from his bag, he stepped up with the speed of Duncan and swung. To our amazement, the ball flew like a bullet to the mark and disappeared over the lip of the green, headed straight for the pin. But he never saw it. He wasn’t watching.

“Good shot!” we cried, with real enthusiasm.

“I wasn’t looking, where’d it go?” he asked, with an attempt at scorn, which, however, was manifestly weakening.

“Got a putt fer a two,” said his caddie.

The noted man cast a withering look at this object of his previous invective. He still suspected something. We backed the caddie up, and he strode down the fairway with a certain reviving spring in his step.

There on the green, not six inches from the cup, reposed his battered ball!

“Been anybody else it would have gone in!” he muttered, as he sank it for a two.

That was his proud surrender. He said no more. He strode ahead to the next tee, and tore out a long, straight drive. Then he lit a cigarette and remarked that he had never seen the willows more beautiful, more silvery in the afternoon light.

Ah, well, poor chap, he did give up golf on the first of August, if not forever at least for the longest period of abstinence in his career on the links. On our last afternoon over the velvet together, before he left for the steamer that was to take him into the maelstrom, he paid little attention to his game, and a surprised and, I fancied, even a slightly disappointed caddie followed him. (He was always most generous to his caddie when he had most abused him, like the hero of Goldoni’s comedy.)

“I sha’n’t see nice, sweet, unscarred green sod again for a long time,” he said, digging up a huge divot with unconscious irony. “I’m going to my last war, though.”

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“Gracious,” said I, “are you going to give up War forever, too?”

“The world is going to give it up forever, after this one,” he replied.

I have seen him twice since, once when he was still a correspondent, once more recently when he came back in the uniform of Uncle Sam. And each time his greeting has been the same:–

“Have you got rid of that hook yet?”

Then he smiled–a wistful, tragic smile, and asked where all the new traps and bunkers are, how we contrived to lengthen the course, whether the new sixth green is in play yet, all the pathetically unimportant little gossip of our eighty acres of green meadow.

“Ah,” he said the last time we parted, “some day I’m coming back and make that 79 at last! Anybody can go over the top, but to break 80 at Stockbridge–!”

Then he left for the trenches of France.

I have another good friend who, unlike the Major, has never given up golf forever. This, as he himself admits (or I should not dare offer the explanation), is because he has never yet really played it. He, too, is rather well known at his avocation of play-writing; but golf is his real business in life when the season once gets under way. He has enabled several professionals to buy motor-cars, he has sent numerous fore-caddies through the high school, he has practised by the hour with individual clubs, but still, after almost a quarter of a century, he has never broken 90 on a first-class course. From my superior position (I have on three never-to-be-forgotten occasions broken 80, one of them at Manchester!), I sometimes wonder what keeps him at the game. Then I play with him, and realize. He has the divine, inexplicable faculty, once or twice in a round, of tearing off an astounding drive of 300 yards, by some subtle miracle of timing, which after hours of rolling finally comes to rest far out beyond any other ball in the foursome, or even the professional’s drive. What does it matter if he scruffs his approach? What does it matter if he takes three putts? He has the memory of that drive, the unexpected, thrilling feel of it in arms and body, the tingling vision of the day when he will find out how he did it, and be able to repeat at will! That keeps him going–that, and a trophy he once achieved by winning the beaten eight division of the sixth sixteen. It was a little pocket match-safe, but it is more precious in his eyes than pearls, aye, than much fine gold or his reputation as perhaps the deftest writer of dialogue on the American stage. It represents definite achievement in the game of Golf.

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You may suppose, dear Reader, if by some miracle you are not a golfer, that I have been pressing the essayist’s privilege and indulging in an attempt at whimsicality. Nothing, I assure you, could be farther from the fact. I am, in this chapter, a realist. All I have here set down is a record of actuality. Nay, I have erred on the other side. I have said nothing whatever about my own reasons for giving up golf forever. Nor have I told the story of the elderly gentlemen at a course near Boston, whom I once observed in an exhibition of renunciation that perhaps deserved recording.

This course was of nine holes (it is now the site of several apartment houses), and the last hole called for a carry over a little pond, to a green immediately in front of the club-house. The somewhat elderly and irascible gentleman in question, playing in a foursome, had reached this ninth tee on the shore of the pond, and even from the club veranda it was evident that his temper was not of the best. Things had not been going right for him. His three companions carried the pond. Then he teed up, and drove–splash!–into the water. A remark was wafted through the still air. He teed again–another splash. Then followed an exhibition which I fear my wife would describe as childish. First this elderly gentleman spoke, in a loud, vexed voice. Then he hurled his driver into the pond. Then he snatched his bag of clubs from the caddie’s shoulder, seized a stone from the pond side, stuffed it into the bag, grasped the strap as a hammer-thrower the handle of his weight, swung the bag three times around his head, and let it fly far out over the water. It hit with a great splash, and sank from sight. His three companions, respecting his mood, discreetly continued their game, while he came up to the club-house, sought a far corner of the veranda, and with a face closely resembling a Greek mask of Tragedy, sank down huddled into a chair.

On the veranda, too, his grief was respected. No one spoke to him. In fact, I think no one dared. We were careful that even our mirth did not reach his ears. He was alone with his thoughts. The afternoon waned. His three companions again reached the ninth tee, drove the pond, and came into the club-house to dress. The caddies were about to depart. Then a strange thing happened; at its first intimation we tiptoed to a window to observe. He roused himself, leaned over the rail, and called a caddie.

“Boy,” we heard him say, in a deep, tragic voice, “can you swim?”

“Yes, sir,” the caddie replied.

“All right. About thirty feet out in front of the ninth tee there’s a bag at the bottom of the pond. Go get it for me, and I’ll give you five dollars.”

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The caddie ran, peeling his garments as he went. Modestly retaining his tattered underclothes, he splashed in from the tee, while the somewhat elderly golf player gesticulated directions on the bank. Presently the boy’s toes detected something, and he did a pretty surface dive, emerging with the bag strap in his right hand. He also rescued the floating driver, and we saw the promised bill passed to him, and watched him drag on his clothes over his wet undergarments. Slowly, even tenderly, the somewhat elderly gentleman emptied the water and the stone from his bag, and wiped the clubs on his handkerchief. With the wet, dripping burden over his shoulder he came across the foot-bridge and into the locker room, while we hastened to remove our faces from the door and windows, and attempted to appear casual.

He entered in silence, and strode to his locker. The silence grew painful. Somebody simply had to speak, or laugh. Finally somebody did speak, which was probably the safer alternative.

“Decided to try again, eh?”

The somewhat elderly gentleman wheeled upon the assemblage, his dripping bag still hanging from his shoulder.

“Yes, damn it!” he thundered.

Well, I have never thrown my clubs into a pond, and I am sure you have never done anything so childish, either. But how many times have you and I both given up golf forever, and then returned to links the following day–“damn it”! We do not play for the exercise, we do not play because it “keeps us out in the open air.” Neither motive would hold a man for a week to the tantalizing, costly, soul-racking, nerve- and temper-destroying game. We play it because there is some diabolical–or celestial–fascination about the thing; some will-o’-the-wisp of hope lures us over swamp and swale, through pit and pasture, toward the smooth haven of the putting green; some subtle, mysterious power every now and then coordinates our muscles and lets us achieve perfection for a single stroke, whereafter we tingle with remembrance and thrill with anticipation. Golf is the quest of the unattainable, it is a manifestation of the Divine Unrest, it spreads before us the soft green pathway down which we follow the Gleam. That is why you and I shall be giving it up forever on our eightieth birthday.

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