Serendipity? An idle moment in Wantage, and upon what should I chance but Darwin On The Green, keenly – I am tempted to say insultingly – priced at £3.50. This is an anthology of essays brought together by HJ Weaver and published in 1986, fully a quarter of a century after BD’s death, by Souvenir Press.
Mr Weaver’s method of selecting the 50 essays involved picking one for each year of BD’s association with Country Life (1908 – 61, minus the WW1 years). Given application and/or a good computer programme, it might be possible to use the book to come to some conclusions about the evolution of his style as the years went by, but I have not applied myself in this studious way; not yet anyway. It might be wasted effort: in Mr Weaver’s opinion, Darwin’s ‘easy yet elegant style remained virtually unchanged throughout his long career.’
Instead I have dipped in and found some treats, including Golf Goes To War (1918), a description of the six golf courses built by the British in Macedonia during World War One; The Golfer’s Cigarette (1947), written in response to a government exhortation to cut down on smoking on economic and patriotic grounds; and Horses for Courses (1943) a wartime essay provoked by petrol rationing in New York. After dealing with the matter of riding to golf on horseback, and ‘Shanks’s Mare’, Darwin considers the bicycle ….
“… a most treacherous ally. After a certain not very long distance it produces some odd and disconcerting effect on the wrists whereby the player plunges the clubhead deep into the ground or scalps the extreme top of the ball. … Such at least used to be my doleful experience, after bicycling from near Machynlleth to Aberdovey or from Cambridge to Royston. The distance in each case was not great, eleven or twelve miles or so, nor did one feel a penny the worse for it until one tried to hit the ball; then how varied and desperate were the effects!”
Darwin goes on to enumerate golfers who managed to combine golf and cycling more successfully. AJT Allan won the Amateur at Muirfield in 1897, arriving each morning by bicycle from Drem Station. Walter Travis – also cited in the smoking essay for his cigar which created a great impression at Sandwich in 1904 – used to bicycle from his home at Flushing to Oakland. Whether he smoked his cigar while bicycling is not recorded. Cycling and smoking is another story.
In Darwin’s view the length of the pre-golf bike ride was critical. A short distance such as Cambridge to Coldham Common was harmless. Drem Station to Muirfield is a mere 3 miles and Walter Travis’s ride can’t have been more than that.
My only contribution to our understanding of this important subject comes from a recent visit to Kiawah Island, where I borrowed a bicycle to explore for a couple of hours before a late afternoon round on one of the junior courses. I should not have been surprised by how badly I played, because it happens more often than not, but I remember I was. Balls disappeared left and right from the tee, but never straight. I had not read Darwin on bicycling at the time, so it did not occur to me to blame the boneshaker. My performance on the Ocean Course the next morning, after no cycling, was not much better, but a bit.
I will do some more research of my own on this, and perhaps consult Camilo Villegas, the only current top golfer who is also a dedicated cyclist. Does he combine the sports, I wonder, or keep them apart?