Should Married Men Play Golf? by Jerome K Jerome

Story type: Essay

That we Englishmen attach too much importance to sport goes without saying–or, rather, it has been said so often as to have become a commonplace. One of these days some reforming English novelist will write a book, showing the evil effects of over-indulgence in sport: the neglected business, the ruined home, the slow but sure sapping of the brain–what there may have been of it in the beginning–leading to semi-imbecility and yearly increasing obesity.

A young couple, I once heard of, went for their honeymoon to Scotland. The poor girl did not know he was a golfer (he had wooed and won her during a period of idleness enforced by a sprained shoulder), or maybe she would have avoided Scotland. The idea they started with was that of a tour. The second day the man went out for a stroll by himself. At dinner-time he observed, with a far-away look in his eyes, that it seemed a pretty spot they had struck, and suggested their staying there another day. The next morning after breakfast he borrowed a club from the hotel porter, and remarked that he would take a walk while she finished doing her hair. He said it amused him, swinging a club while he walked. He returned in time for lunch and seemed moody all the afternoon. He said the air suited him, and urged that they should linger yet another day.

She was young and inexperienced, and thought, maybe, it was liver. She had heard much about liver from her father. The next morning he borrowed more clubs, and went out, this time before breakfast, returning to a late and not over sociable dinner. That was the end of their honeymoon so far as she was concerned. He meant well, but the thing had gone too far. The vice had entered into his blood, and the smell of the links drove out all other considerations.

We are most of us familiar, I take it, with the story of the golfing parson, who could not keep from swearing when the balls went wrong.

“Golf and the ministry don’t seem to go together,” his friend told him. “Take my advice before it’s too late, and give it up, Tammas.”

A few months later Tammas met his friend again.

“You were right, Jamie,” cried the parson cheerily, “they didna run well in harness; golf and the meenistry, I hae followed your advice: I hae gi’en it oop.”

“Then what are ye doing with that sack of clubs?” inquired Jamie.

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“What am I doing with them?” repeated the puzzled Tammas. “Why I am going to play golf with them.” A light broke upon him. “Great Heavens, man!” he continued, “ye didna’ think ’twas the golf I’d gi’en oop?”

The Englishman does not understand play. He makes a life-long labour of his sport, and to it sacrifices mind and body. The health resorts of Europe–to paraphrase a famous saying that nobody appears to have said–draw half their profits from the playing fields of Eton and elsewhere. In Swiss and German kurhausen enormously fat men bear down upon you and explain to you that once they were the champion sprinters or the high-jump representatives of their university–men who now hold on to the bannisters and groan as they haul themselves upstairs. Consumptive men, between paroxysms of coughing, tell you of the goals they scored when they were half-backs or forwards of extraordinary ability. Ex-light-weight amateur pugilists, with the figure now of an American roll-top desk, butt you into a corner of the billiard-room, and, surprised they cannot get as near you as they would desire, whisper to you the secret of avoiding the undercut by the swiftness of the backward leap. Broken-down tennis players, one- legged skaters, dropsical gentlemen-riders, are to be met with hobbling on crutches along every highway of the Engadine.

They are pitiable objects. Never having learnt to read anything but the sporting papers, books are of no use to them. They never wasted much of their youth on thought, and, apparently, have lost the knack of it. They don’t care for art, and Nature only suggests to them the things they can no longer do. The snow-clad mountain reminds them that once they were daring tobogannists; the undulating common makes them sad because they can no longer handle a golf-club; by the riverside they sit down and tell you of the salmon they caught before they caught rheumatic fever; birds only make them long for guns; music raises visions of the local cricket-match of long ago, enlivened by the local band; a picturesque estaminet, with little tables spread out under the vines, recalls bitter memories of ping- pong. One is sorry for them, but their conversation is not exhilarating. The man who has other interests in life beyond sport is apt to find their reminiscences monotonous; while to one another they do not care to talk. One gathers that they do not altogether believe one another.

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The foreigner is taking kindly to our sports; one hopes he will be forewarned by our example and not overdo the thing. At present, one is bound to admit, he shows no sign of taking sport too seriously. Football is gaining favour more and more throughout Europe. But yet the Frenchman has not got it out of his head that the coup to practise is kicking the ball high into the air and catching it upon his head. He would rather catch the ball upon his head than score a goal. If he can manoeuvre the ball away into a corner, kick it up into the air twice running, and each time catch it on his head, he does not seem to care what happens after that. Anybody can have the ball; he has had his game and is happy.

They talk of introducing cricket into Belgium; I shall certainly try to be present at the opening game. I am afraid that, until he learns from experience, the Belgian fielder will stop cricket balls with his head. That the head is the proper thing with which to play ball appears to be in his blood. My head is round, he argues, and hard, just like the ball itself; what part of the human frame more fit and proper with which to meet and stop a ball.

Golf has not yet caught on, but tennis is firmly established from St. Petersburg to Bordeaux. The German, with the thoroughness characteristic of him, is working hard. University professors, stout majors, rising early in the morning, hire boys and practise back- handers and half-volleys. But to the Frenchman, as yet, it is a game. He plays it in a happy, merry fashion, that is shocking to English eyes.

Your partner’s service rather astonishes you. An occasional yard or so beyond the line happens to anyone, but this man’s object appears to be to break windows. You feel you really must remonstrate, when the joyous laughter and tumultuous applause of the spectators explain the puzzle to you. He has not been trying to serve; he has been trying to hit a man in the next court who is stooping down to tie up his shoe-lace. With his last ball he has succeeded. He has hit the man in the small of the back, and has bowled him over. The unanimous opinion of the surrounding critics is that the ball could not possibly have been better placed. A Doherty has never won greater applause from the crowd. Even the man who has been hit appears pleased; it shows what a Frenchman can do when he does take up a game.

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But French honour demands revenge. He forgets his shoe, he forgets his game. He gathers together all the balls that he can find; his balls, your balls, anybody’s balls that happen to be handy. And then commences the return match. At this point it is best to crouch down under shelter of the net. Most of the players round about adopt this plan; the more timid make for the club-house, and, finding themselves there, order coffee and light up cigarettes. After a while both players appear to be satisfied. The other players then gather round to claim their balls. This makes a good game by itself. The object is to get as many balls as you can, your own and other people’s–for preference other people’s–and run off with them round the courts, followed by whooping claimants.

In the course of half-an-hour or so, when everybody is dead beat, the game–the original game–is resumed. You demand the score; your partner promptly says it is “forty-fifteen.” Both your opponents rush up to the net, and apparently there is going to be a duel. It is only a friendly altercation; they very much doubt its being “forty-fifteen.” “Fifteen-forty” they could believe; they suggest it as a compromise. The discussion is concluded by calling it deuce. As it is rare for a game to proceed without some such incident occurring in the middle of it, the score generally is deuce. This avoids heart-burning; nobody wins a set and nobody loses. The one game generally suffices for the afternoon.

To the earnest player, it is also confusing to miss your partner occasionally–to turn round and find that he is talking to a man. Nobody but yourself takes the slightest objection to his absence. The other side appear to regard it as a good opportunity to score. Five minutes later he resumes the game. His friend comes with him, also the dog of his friend. The dog is welcomed with enthusiasm; all balls are returned to the dog. Until the dog is tired you do not get a look in. But all this will no doubt soon be changed. There are some excellent French and Belgian players; from them their compatriots will gradually learn higher ideals. The Frenchman is young in the game. As the right conception of the game grows upon him, he will also learn to keep the balls lower.

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I suppose it is the continental sky. It is so blue, so beautiful; it naturally attracts one. Anyhow, the fact remains that most tennis players on the Continent, whether English or foreign, have a tendency to aim the ball direct at Heaven. At an English club in Switzerland there existed in my days a young Englishman who was really a wonderful player. To get the ball past him was almost an impossibility. It was his return that was weak. He only had one stroke; the ball went a hundred feet or so into the air and descended in his opponent’s court. The other man would stand watching it, a little speck in the Heavens, growing gradually bigger and bigger as it neared the earth. Newcomers would chatter to him, thinking he had detected a balloon or an eagle. He would wave them aside, explain to them that he would talk to them later, after the arrival of the ball. It would fall with a thud at his feet, rise another twenty yards or so and again descend. When it was at the proper height he would hit it back over the net, and the next moment it would be mounting the sky again. At tournaments I have seen that young man, with tears in his eyes, pleading to be given an umpire. Every umpire had fled. They hid behind trees, borrowed silk hats and umbrellas and pretended they were visitors–any device, however mean, to avoid the task of umpiring for that young man. Provided his opponent did not go to sleep or get cramp, one game might last all day. Anyone could return his balls; but, as I have said, to get a ball past him was almost an impossibility. He invariably won; the other man, after an hour or so, would get mad and try to lose. It was his only chance of dinner.

It is a pretty sight, generally speaking, a tennis ground abroad. The women pay more attention to their costumes than do our lady players. The men are usually in spotless white. The ground is often charmingly situated, the club-house picturesque; there is always laughter and merriment. The play may not be so good to watch, but the picture is delightful. I accompanied a man a little while ago to his club on the outskirts of Brussels. The ground was bordered by a wood on one side, and surrounded on the other three by petites fermes–allotments, as we should call them in England, worked by the peasants themselves.

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It was a glorious spring afternoon. The courts were crowded. The red earth and the green grass formed a background against which the women, in their new Parisian toilets, under their bright parasols, stood out like wondrous bouquets of moving flowers. The whole atmosphere was a delightful mingling of idle gaiety, flirtation, and graceful sensuousness. A modern Watteau would have seized upon the scene with avidity.

Just beyond–separated by the almost invisible wire fencing–a group of peasants were working in the field. An old woman and a young girl, with ropes about their shoulders, were drawing a harrow, guided by a withered old scarecrow of a man. They paused for a moment at the wire fencing, and looked through. It was an odd contrast; the two worlds divided by that wire fencing–so slight, almost invisible. The girl swept the sweat from her face with her hand; the woman pushed back her grey locks underneath the handkerchief knotted about her head; the old man straightened himself with some difficulty. So they stood, for perhaps a minute, gazing with quiet, passionless faces through that slight fencing, that a push from their work- hardened hands might have levelled.

Was there any thought, I wonder, passing through their brains? The young girl–she was a handsome creature in spite of her disfiguring garments. The woman–it was a wonderfully fine face: clear, calm eyes, deep-set under a square broad brow. The withered old scarecrow–ever sowing the seed in the spring of the fruit that others shall eat.

The old man bent again over the guiding ropes: gave the word. The team moved forward up the hill. It is Anatole France, I think, who says: Society is based upon the patience of the poor.

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