Bernard Darwin: History’s Best Golf Writer

The scion of a great English family wrote about golf better than he played it, which is saying a lot

The life story of Bernard Darwin—arguably history’s first golf writer, inarguably its best—reads like a season of Masterpiece Theater. He was born in 1876 into a family of Victorian-era royalty: His grandfather was the naturalist Charles Darwin; his father trained as a doctor but gained famed as a botanist; his uncles included a professor, an economist, and an engineer. As one of his golf-writing heirs, Herbert Warren Wind, wrote, “Brains are inherited. The Darwins had a lot of them.”

Befitting his time and pedigree, Bernard received a gentleman’s education, including Eton and Cambridge. He was an avid sportsman and fan his entire life, but was an especially keen golfer, having been introduced to the game at age eight by his father. He captained the Cambridge golf team and likely had the most impressive playing record of anyone who made a career writing about the game: He was a semifinalist in the British Amateur in both 1909 and 1921, won the 1924 Presidents Putter (a prestigious annual tournament for past and current golfers from Oxford and Cambridge), played for England in top amateur team events, and was Captain of the R&A in 1934–35. Darwin also competed for Great Britain in the inaugural Walker Cup, in 1922 at National Golf Links on Long Island, filling in at the last minute for captain Robert Harris, who took ill; in two matches he went 1–1, defeating U.S. captain William C. Fownes Jr. in singles, 3 and 1.

Where Darwin’s game suffered was on the green and between the ears. His own worst enemy and critic, he routinely buckled under pressure and berated himself after bad shots. But he was fine once a match was over and mean only to himself: He never wrote a cruel word about another golfer. As one reference put it, “The human friendliness of the game delighted him even more than its thrills.”

bernard darwin
Bernard Darwin (photo by Getty Images)

After Cambridge, he practiced law but hated it, and in 1907 jumped at the chance to sub for a journalist friend covering a tournament. In no time he was the golf correspondent for The Times (of London), writing about events and producing essays that revealed the game and its attractions to the avid participant as well as the uninitiated.

Before then, most golf articles were little more than the scores of matches accompanied by often inaccurate synopses. Darwin followed the play himself, and as the famed English golfer and broadcaster Peter Alliss said, “he wrote about what he actually saw.” That didn’t always mean describing how the leaders or even the winner played, but bringing the proceedings to life in a novel way, from experienced observation. It was the same when he wrote about the triumphs and travails of weekend players or courses around the British Isles, sprinkling his manuscripts with Latin phrases and quotes from great writers past, including his favorite, Charles Dickens.

Of course, the best way to appreciate Darwin is to read him, and many collections are available. As a taste, here is his recollection of Francis Ouimet winning the 1913 U.S. Open:

“The clearest picture that remains to me is of the youthful hero playing all those last crucial shots, just as if he had been playing an ordinary game. He did not hurry; he did not linger; there was a briskness and decisiveness about every moment, and whatever he may have felt, he did not betray it by as much as the movement of an eyelash. Yet he did not play as one in a dream, as people sometimes do at supreme crises; he was just entirely calm and entirely natural.”

Bernard Darwin’s last piece for The Times appeared in 1953. He died in 1961.

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