Museum Moment: British Humor Among Highlights In USGA Library

May 20, 2010

By Rhonda Glenn, Manager, USGA Communications

Of sports writing, it’s often said, “The smaller the ball, the greater the literature.” This, of course, references the great writing about golf, and there’s no finer source than the USGA Library at Golf House, the USGA headquarters in Far Hills, N.J.

The USGA Library contains more than 20,000 golf books, and other research material that includes magazines, newspapers and assorted other writings brings the collection to about 40,000 volumes. Many a researcher has spent pleasant hours in the library reading among the stacks, assisted by the USGA’s team of Library staff members. Golf has many stories to tell, and the net result of all of this research ranges from award-winning golf books to fine movies that revolve around golf.

Devoted readers have their own favorites and, almost without exception, those books are part of the USGA’s vast collection of biographies, autobiographies, novels, club histories, instruction books, historical tomes and books of golf humor. Many of the authors salute the American side of the game and among these, Herbert Warren Wind, of Sports Illustrated and The New Yorker, and Charles Price, who wrote for a lot of publications, are personal favorites. Wind’s writing was a lyrical, detailed and serious analysis of the game’s great championships, courses and players. Price delved into anything that caught his fancy and wrote about it with devilish flair and a good, humorous kick at the end.

So many wrote of golf’s funny side – P.G. Wodehouse, Jim Murray, and Dick Taylor, to name a few – although while Taylor, the late editor of Golf World, wrote some really humorous pieces, he was funnier in person than in print. We recall Taylor’s request upon his death to have his ashes scattered in the middle of the second fairway at Pine Needles, “because, first of all, I’ve never been in the middle of the second fairway at Pine Needles.”

If you’re searching for a book of golf humor, I refer you to two little-heeded books from 40 years ago. Both are in the USGA Library and both authors are British. British humor, of course, is a matter of taste, and just as some citizens of Great Britain don’t care for American humor, some Americans don’t care for the British approach. An exception is generally made for Winston Churchill, who seems to touch all the bases of merriment for both schools.

British humor can be clever, witty, often mocking, and ripe with irony and dry sarcasm. We’re not talking Monty Python here, but of the careful, erudite musings of British golf writers such as Henry Longhurst and Stephen Potter.

Longhurst was more than just “the guy who did the 16th at the Masters” on CBS television each spring, plus many other golf broadcasts. For 45 years he penned one of the most widely-read features in British newspapers, a weekly golf column for The Sunday Times of London. Few of Britain’s million-plus golfers ever missed it.

“When it came to writing a thousand fascinating words about golf week after week for years and years, Longhurst was in a class by himself,” Herbert Warren Wind once said.

On television, Longhurst was a gifted phrase-maker and it was he who identified the “Fletcher’s trolley” effect on the greens of Augusta National and, to my delight, once described the difficulty of stopping a downhill chip to a green as like trying to stop a marble going down a staircase. With Longhurst, you knew just what he was talking about.

His book, “The Best of Henry Longhurst,” 1978, published by Golf Digest, Inc., and distributed by Simon and Schuster of New York, is a collection of his writings on golf and life. With great humor, Longhurst covers everything from when he shot his first stag to his fondness for the praying mantis, and then he gets around to golf. One of his most famous essays is “Up the Tower,” a reminiscence of his early days in golf broadcasting written in 1971, and it will provoke wry smiles.

The rich centerpiece for me, however, is a hilarious 1941 tale of his strange encounter with Miss Gloria Minoprio, who played in the English women’s championship with just one club. (Her young caddie actually carried two clubs. “The other was a spare in case of accident.”) After reading the last sentence, I began chuckling and for five minutes after, laughed out loud. The story is “Sic Transit Gloria” and it’s one of Longhurst’s finest .

The second book is Potter’s “The Complete Golf Gamesmanship,” published in 1968 by Heinemann: London. Potter only dabbled in golf writing. Most of his work revolved around editing, biography and criticism, with excursions into natural history and broadcasting.

Gamesmanship, the attempt to psyche out one’s opponent, is more suited to match play. That doesn’t mean that gamesmanship has disappeared, but I would bet that older players will recognize the tactics to a greater degree than the young. In fact, this theory was prompted when I read the passages out loud to the great hilarity of several Curtis Cup players from the past. Today’s club players, however, will no doubt find Potter’s writing a scream.

The names of Potter’s characters, such as Rimming, Scatter, Cosmo Tickler, and various ex-Army colonels and club secretaries cause a smile. He doesn’t neglect the woman golfer, at one point referring to taking Mrs. Bassett to the Woking Club, where there is a small changing room for women, “complete with wash-basin and a coat-hanger which (she told me with shining eyes) ‘although it had the name Mrs. Wilson on it was regarded as being free for use when Mrs. Wilson was not present.’ ”

In one suggestion, Potter recommends making a fabulous practice swing to rattle an opponent, and tells just how to do it, “…with a touch of nobility, as if one were looking towards the setting sun.” He then suggests that golfers who find such a practice swing impossible can go to the opposite extreme. “It is possible to let go of the club almost completely at the top of the swing, recover it, and by a sort of half-paralyzed jerk come down again more or less normally. Opponent will find himself forced to stare at you, and may lose his rhythm.”

It’s all in good fun. Of course, I don’t practice gamesmanship myself, but I do know of one occasion when an older woman was asked by a strong young man if he could accompany her on the back nine from the forward tees. It couldn’t be that hard, he said. In British terms, he was a cocky 2 and she was a 5. The woman agreed and they teed off on the 10th hole, a par-5, where the man reached the green with a driver and a wedge. For the only time in her life, the woman began to work on him with “the pour.”

“You really pounded that one,” she told him after another of his long drives. “You’ll no doubt drive the greens of these par 4s.” And so it went, until he was swinging from his shoelaces, slashing at his drives and trudging into the woods after them. He shot 41. When she walked off the 18th green with a slight smile, she had fired a nice round 38. Potter would have liked that, I think.

(USGA Museum)