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A Distinguished Walker Cup Substitute

by John Hopkins - September 3, 2013

Paragraphs I shall never write even if I live to be 102, which is my father’s age:

"In 1922 I went to America again, this time as a camp follower of the team that was to play in the first match for the Walker Cup. I went there for The Times ... And it so chanced that in the end I became an actual member, because Mr Harris, the Captain, fell ill; I had to play in his stead and became Captain of the team in the field."

The man who wrote that paragraph was Bernard Darwin, the famous golf writer, and there are some thin threads that link me to his coattails. Darwin was the golf correspondent of The Times, not that you would know because his golf was always described in the paper as being by "By Our Golfing Correspondent."

The paragraph above refers to his covering the first official Walker Cup, which was held at the National Golf Links on Long Island, New York. (There had been an unofficial match at Hoylake the previous year, won 9-3 by the U.S.) I was golf correspondent of The Times, and this week I shall travel to the National Golf Links to report on the 44th Walker Cup.

If those were similarities, here is an enormous and unbridgeable difference, one as wide as the Atlantic Ocean. In his opening paragraph Darwin talks of playing instead of the captain, Robert Harris, who fell ill. Darwin, who was 45 at the time of the 1922 Walker Cup, does not say how good he was, so I shall tell you that he was not quite as good a golfer as he was a golf writer but good enough to have twice reached the semifinal of the Amateur and played for England on eight occasions.

What he does not say in this paragraph, though he goes into it later, is that though he lost his foursomes, he won his singles, against W.C. Fownes Jr., the son of the founder Oakmont Country Club. Never in a month of Sundays will I be called upon to stand in in the event of one of the GB&I team falling ill.

You know a bit about Darwin, don’t you? Grandson of Charles, the naturalist, Bernard Darwin was the lawyer who turned to golf writing and at that had a career as long as a John Daly backswing, extending from 1907 to 1961. From the Great Triumvirate to after Ben Hogan and his annus mirabilis in 1953, Arnold Palmer and a young man who was approaching the first tee, Jack Nicklaus.

He wrote about Harry Vardon, James Braid, J.H. Taylor as well as Freddie Tait, John Ball and Harold Hilton and Bobby Jones. Darwin wrote that Gene Sarazen reminded him of the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland in the way that his grin remained with us long after Sarazen himself had disappeared.

The one person he rarely wrote about was himself. He was so modest that Modesty not Meirion could have been one of his forenames. When he and Joyce Wethered won the Worplesdon Mixed Foursomes in 1933 he referred to himself in his report for The Times as "the elderly gentleman whose name for the moment escapes me."

If you want to read vivid golf reporting, then read Darwin on the 1913 U.S. Open where Francis Ouimet, the amateur, defeated Vardon and Ray in a playoff. Darwin was the only British daily newspaperman present at The Country Club and it was he who marked Ouimet’s card during the playoff.

Darwin was probably the only British reporter present at the National Golf Links in 1922, his second visit to the U.S. and described in an essay in "Green Memories." He stayed with Mr. and Mrs. Charles Blair Macdonald, the architect, and reported that on the eve of the match there was a thunderstorm.

"American thunderstorms are not like ours," Darwin wrote. "They go away and then they come back and yet back again. Consequently, the course was almost drowned. It stood the ordeal very well but even so some of the greens were soft, and in the foursomes one ball stuck fast in the green of the "Cape" hole. Mr Bobby Jones tried to play it with his niblick and the ball jumped back and hit him on the foot."

Defying his natural modesty, Darwin records being dormie 2 up in his singles and " ... Mr Fownes ... was in the crossbunker ... I turned to my black caddie and said, 'I believe I really am going to win a match,' and I can still see the beautiful and seraphic grin that spread gradually across his countenance from ear to ear."

Darwin reported that there was a " ... great and glorious banquet after the match," which was won by the US by a margin of 8-4. The next day, Darwin wrote, " ... we set forth for my old friend The Country Club at Brookline where the Amateur Championship was to be played ... "

Not by train, they didn’t. Oh, no. Two of the millionaires of the National came forward and put their "steam yachts" at the disposal of the visitors and so: " ... We had a delightful voyage down Long Island Sound and across to the pleasant, drowsy, trim little town of New London, whence quite a short railway journey took us up to Boston."

Whether my journey to or from Long Island comes anywhere near matching Darwin’s all those years ago remains to be seen. Some things are certain, though. Darwin is dead. New London is not trim and probably not drowsy and in 2013 the man from The Times will not be called on to participate in the match as his distinguished predecessor was 91 years ago.

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