A Possibly Mis-Spent Life

Bernard Darwin risked the family name to chase his dream, then etched it into the game's history

In certain times and places, a family name comes weighted with promise and expectation. A particular air attaches itself to scions of the Kennedys, Carnegies, Rockefellers, Mannings—add your favorite to the litany. Even among the less illustrious, there is the sense that who and where you come from shape a person. Expectations can sometimes suffocate, though—or, less dramatically, leave room for lingering disappointment over what some might consider a life ill-spent.

In one such time and place—late 1800s, southeastern England—Darwin was such a name. Charles, of On the Origin of Species fame, was only the most prominent member of an already distinguished family that included physicians, scientists, inventors and noted men of industry. He married his cousin, Emma Wedgwood, in 1839, and they had 10 children. Three were knighted. One of these was Francis, born in 1848, who, though trained in medicine, spent his professional life as a botanist, carrying out experiments with his father and eventually editing Charles’ autobiographical writings and letters. 

In 1874, Francis married Amy Ruck, of Welsh descent. In September 1876, they had a boy named Bernard. To the great loss of both father and child, Amy died days after giving birth. Bereaved, Francis took his newborn son into his parents’ home, Down House, in Kent. Darwin spent his first years there, and his few lasting memories of his famous grandfather, whom he called “Babba,” provided him a “clear vision” of Charles, including a walk the two once took over a plowed field, which he remembered as “a great event.”

Though lonely at times, Darwin received a loving upbringing. He was given a top-notch education both in and out of school. He learned to play golf on holiday with his father, Francis having been recently brought to the up-and-coming game by his Welsh brother-in-law. Darwin took to the game with fervor, and it’s clear in his writing about that innocent period of life how it captured his imagination. He attended Eton—a proper schooling fitting his station—then Bernardo, as he became known to friends, attended Trinity College at Cambridge. He played on the golf team, which became one of the enduring anchors of his life. He graduated in 1897 and set out on his unenthusiastically chosen line of work: law. 

23 A Possibly Mis-Spent Life Bernard Darwin
Bernard Darwin, circa 1921, when he was an established reporter and still a competitive player, reaching the semifinals of the British Amateur.

“Thanks to Bernard, golf has acquired the sturdiest literature of any game. The best of it is Darwin’s—about two dozen books in all—and the rest is as good as it is largely because he showed the writers who came after him how golf could and should be written.…I have never met any serious golf writer whose love and understanding of the game was not nurtured on Darwin. In fact I know of more than a few golf writers and golfers who are inclined to think that they gravitated to the game because they found that reading Bernard Darwin struck some responsive chord within them, and they wanted to get closer and closer to the world (and the way of life, too, for it is nothing less) that he evoked.”

Herbert Warren Wind, Sports Illustrated, Sept. 3, 1956

His decade or so as a solicitor and barrister was uninspired. Among other trials, his golf was now relegated to weekends. In a refrain so many of us know too well, he wrote, “on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday I wore a hole by swinging on the carpet and longed for Saturday to come round again.” He married Elinor Monsell in 1906. About a year into this new life, a door creaked open and Darwin was given the chance to write a weekly article on golf for the Evening Standard. He remembered that “this was the most exhilarating news amid the encircling gloom of the law.” A trickle became a stream, and gigs with Country Life, The Times and The Sunday Times materialized in short order. With this, Darwin decided to push off into the broad unknown, recounting later that “sometime in 1908 I sold my wig and walked out of the Temple a free man.”

He reportedly once said that sports writing was “a trade into which men drift, since no properly constituted parent would agree to his son starting a career in that way.” Finding themselves bored in some early occupational endeavor, “they take to this thing which is lightly esteemed by the outside world but which satisfies in them some possibly childish but romantic feeling.” In 1908, many might have wondered if this drift of Darwin’s—a newlywed with children of his own in the wings—would lead to his letting down the promise of the Darwin family name. The Darwins were known for myriad well-regarded professions and contributions to society, not something as potentially frivolous as sports writing. What would be the consequences if this gamble didn’t come good?

We, the beneficiaries of hindsight, can view both crisis and resolution. Yet at the time, the result was anything but certain. Credit Darwin’s bravado and verve for the fortuitous breaks he made. Standing on his shoulders, we can now see that his decision was a boon, not only to his benefit and that of the readers of his time, but for us today and future golf diehards yet born. 

And so Darwin began to cover golf full-time. “The game is afoot,” as his beloved Sherlock Holmes would have said. He immediately set about transforming a previously staid profession. Darwin was the readers’ man on the ground at tournaments and matches. At times he even performed double duty, both playing and reporting. More than just an observer or critic, he was a contestant in the arena. His accounts were lively, even folding in offhanded commentary from the gallery, an unheard-of style then. His assignments brought him to the heart of what historians agree are some of golf’s foundational moments, often putting their gravity into perspective in real time. Perhaps none were more important than his presence at the 1913 U.S. Open at Brookline. Beyond his reporting, Darwin served as Francis Ouimet’s marker for the playoff against Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. The scorecard bears Darwin’s signature—hard to find a more embedded reporter than that.

Golf had been written about prior to Darwin—he didn’t bring the genre into being ex nihilo—but he brought it to a new level, expanding its horizons and heights, intelligently and charmingly showing its possibilities. When he arrived on the scene, golf reporting was essentially the recounting of scores, rudimentary and basic. Darwin gave his readers something of the sound and smell of what it all meant and felt like. An impressionist with a pen. 

While it is no surprise that a man of his gifts eventually bored of covering yet another match or tournament, he would, more often than not, find something on the course to get his interest roused, often “thrilled to the very marrow of my bones.” This energy would find a way to his readers, his prose pulsing with atmosphere. As he said by way of some writerly advice, “Your excitement ought to get into your ink.” 

He brought his classical education—especially his Latin training and his expert knowledge of Charles Dickens—to his golf writing, enriching and embroidering his reporting and his general essays about the game. This wasn’t highbrow snobbery; Dickens was common currency for many of Darwin’s readers, and his references from literature made the golf more knowable and creditable, especially important given its relative newness on the popular sporting scene. 

23 A Possibly Mis-Spent Life Bernard Darwin

It’s not difficult to pinpoint what made Darwin so good. First, he knew golf better than almost anyone else, as a player, writer, lover and caretaker of the game. Robert Macdonald, a publisher and editor of Darwin volumes, once identified a key to Darwin’s superlative achievement, namely his “ability to empathize with others and to thoroughly understand and appreciate those who were not only different from him but…from a different class.”

With this perspective born of empathy, Darwin provided his readers with vivid sketches of the great characters in the golfing world. He also wasn’t above hero worship. There are many such portraits we could consider: Young Tom Morris, Vardon, James Braid, Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, “that small colossus” Ben Hogan, Ouimet, and on and on. Pluck out any of them and enjoy, but a couple stand out. 

Darwin had the highest regard for Bobby Jones; a chapter in The Darwin Sketchbook, a collection of his works, is called “The Immortal Bobby.” He chronicled many of Jones’ famed successes on the course, eventually considering him a “cherished friend.” Darwin’s ability to get on the inside of his subjects may never be clearer than in his writing about Jones. Darwin, himself known for troubles with what we would now call the mental game, appreciated the following: 

For the mere striking of the ball he has an inimitable genius, but he has virtues that can be imitated. He seems to me the perfect example of the essentially highly-strung and nervous player who is more formidable than an easy-going one, because he has known at once how to conquer and how to nurse his own nerves.

He also had a keen appreciation for Jones’ physical motion, observing, “The swing itself, if not positively slow, had a certain drowsy beauty which gave the feeling of slowness.” Darwin fondly remembered Jones winning the Open Championship at St. Andrews in 1927, and the narration of his memory takes on an almost mythic quality:

There is Bobby Jones winning the Open championship at St. Andrews. His ball lies in the hollow before the home green, called the Valley of Sin. The crowd are halted solid behind him. The moment he has played his shot and scrambled up the bank, the crowd rush up irresistibly behind him and halt again, making a black fringe around the green. He taps in his winning putt and the next moment there is no inch of green to be seen, nothing but a swirling mob, with Bobby in the middle, perched on adoring shoulders and his putter, “Calamity Jane,” held in precarious safety over his head.

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The 15th green at Rye Golf Club, as seen in Darwin’s The Golf Courses of the British Isles.

Now for Miss Joyce Wethered. She’s considered the best female golfer of the interwar years, winning the British Ladies Amateur four times in the 1920s, despite a spell of retirement. She reemerged on the competitive scene to win her final Amateur at St. Andrews in 1929. At this triumphant return, Darwin remarked, “The great heart of the general public was once more stirred to its depths by ladies’ golf.” She and Jones played together, the latter saying how no other player ever made him feel so outclassed as Wethered. Like Jones, she essentially left high-level competitive golf at the height of her powers. Darwin marveled at the two of them, the best in the world, “both tired of battles and conquests at the age of twenty-nine and longing to play golf for fun.”

Darwin put his admiration for Wethered on full display, describing her as “the most remarkable lady player who has yet appeared, one as outstanding and memorable in her own realm as Bobby Jones in his.” Darwin marveled at Wethered’s poise and concentration, noting once when a train pulled past a putting green—a train “which puffed and snorted loudly as Miss Wethered putted and of which she was so entirely unaware, that, on being congratulated on her imperturbability, she is alleged to have asked, ‘What train?’” Aside from her silky swing—video of which is worth tracking down and watching—Darwin admired Wethered’s temperament, “keen, strung up by the great occasion to exactly the right degree, capable of seeing the humour of the most lamentable situation and having a power of pegging away and hoping for things to come round.” 

Darwin showed an acute admiration for the women’s game. He once wrote:

I think I like watching women better than men because their golf is more interesting, and it is more interesting because of their wooden-club play; this is more accurate than that of men, and there is more of it. It may be that nothing can give quite so exquisite a thrill as the difficult iron shot perfectly executed, but day in and day out, that which excites the wildest hopes and the deadliest fears beforehand, the greatest relief and enthusiasm when it has been well played is the brassy shot. And how well these modern ladies do play their brassies!

Beyond his admiring appraisal of their accuracy and general excellence of play, Darwin encouraged his readers to “be thankful to the ladies for giving us a glimpse of what golf ought to be.” What golf ought to be, in Darwin’s view, was jeopardized by the “Juggernaut strides” of the long-hitting men of the day. He wished they’d see—is he speaking to us?—that “golf would be for them a far better game, more amusing, and more testing, if they had to play it as the ladies do and play brassy shots up to the flag instead of heaving up ball and divot with a number something.” While he saw, even in his own day, the necessity of stretching out yardages beyond the 7,000 mark for championship play, “it is not the least cheering to hear of it.” He lamented that it may be the case that there is no way out of the tangle, but if there is, Darwin said, “it lies in doing something to the ball and not to the course.” 

And in all this we see Darwin’s acute relevance. He shouldn’t be read through a sepia-toned filter. His concerns about the game then are ours today. He also got out from behind the typewriter to do something about it: He was a committed committeeman, lending his expertise in multiple capacities across several clubs, serving as captain of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club in 1934 and contributing to the rules of the game as chairman of the R&A Rules of Golf Committee responsible for the 1950-51 code. If you care about developments in clubs, balls and distances, and the effects these have on courses and the game as a whole, know that Darwin cared before us all, and in his prose we can find still-poignant answers to our pressing questions. 


Part of this imbued wisdom was fortunate, as his career found him astride different eras of the game. He joked that for his first golfing years, “I was metaphorically before the stone age and the iron age and the bronze age: I am the Neanderthal man or the Presapien; I come before the mashie.” Consider that he began playing with the gutta-percha ball, then witnessed the transformation brought about by the advent and adoption of the rubber core. He was around for and part of the initiation of the great international competitions like the Walker and Ryder cups, watched golf’s majors evolve from including amateur events to focusing solely on the pros and experienced the invasion of conquesting American players on British soil. Put another way: He was born the year after Young Tom Morris’ untimely death and lived into the days of Nicklaus and Palmer. 

It should then come as no surprise that he had an abiding interest in course architecture, the battlefields of the game. Though golf courses had been written about before, Darwin’s The Golf Courses of the British Isles is seminal, setting a new kind of tone. Originally written in 1910, still the early days of Darwin’s golf-writing career, he boldly takes course writing in a ruminative, romantic direction. The book adorns Darwin’s text with Harry Rountree’s alluring watercolors, a perfect medium to depict the moods and personalities of a golf course. Together, the prose and paintings bring us to some of the great homes of the game. Gil Hanse calls the book one of his first and most enduring inspirations.

Consider part of Darwin’s assessment of Pine Valley. Regarding its fifth, even then a Herculean par 3, he wrote:

What a memorable short hole is the fifth—one full spoon shot over a tremendous chasm stretching from tee to green, a wilderness of fir trees on the right, big bunkers on the left. To land the ball on that green—and there is no reason in the world why you should not do it if you are not frightened—provides a moment worth living for.

Thinking of Pine Valley’s terrifying array of bunkers, he concluded, “They are so close to the green, so omnipresent that it is dreadfully easy to get out of one into another and then back again to the end of the chapter. This almost amounts to eternal punishment and eternal punishment had better be left for the day of judgment.” 

But don’t be fooled by the occasional self-deprecating swipe Darwin makes at his own golf. He was a stick. His love, skill and passion—temper and putting woes included—were well known. “Unlike most boys,” he remembered, “I played a good deal of golf actually at school.” In these early years of English golf, there was a fraternal feeling between golfers, “because we were conscious of being an elect and almost persecuted body, assembling in secret places to practice obscure nonconformist rites.”

Finding the best way to waste his college years at Cambridge, his “existence at Trinity seems to have been an absurdly one-sided one, for very little except golf seems to have happened.” He captained the Cambridge squad in his final year. A deep, excitable and fervent attachment to Cambridge’s teams would never leave him. He was an original member of the Oxford and Cambridge Golfing Society—once winning its legendary and still ongoing President’s Putter competition—saying of the organization, “I have had out of it some of the very best fun in an ill-spent life.” It must also be noted that he reached the semifinals of the British Amateur, then one of the most important tournaments in the world, in 1909 and 1921, losing to the eventual champion each time. 

In one of the most delightful turns of fortune in golf history, Darwin was dispatched to cover the inaugural Walker Cup being hosted at the National Golf Links of America in 1922. The American side included Jones, Ouimet and Chick Evans. As it happened, Darwin was listed as the reserve for the Great Britain and Ireland team. Lo and behold, British playing captain Robert Harris fell ill just before the competition and couldn’t play. Nothing to be done but call in Bernardo! He and his foursomes partner Cyril Tolley took an 8&7 beating from Jesse Guilford and Ouimet, but he bounced back to beat W.C. Fownes, of Oakmont notability, in singles competition 3&1. Not too shabby for the reserve reporter. Though the GB&I side lost, it remains an enjoyable episode and a testament to Darwin’s singular golfing life. 

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Playing the Sandy Parlour at Royal Cinque Ports Golf Club, as seen in Darwin’s The Golf Courses of the British Isles.

He certainly wasn’t the first golfer with a temper, nor will he be the last, but Darwin’s is as well known as some of his best lines. Legendary golf reporter Herbert Warren Wind, who knew Darwin personally, said, “His eruptions were often so spectacular and, from a safe distance, so hilarious that even today, years after they took place, it remains a regular pastime of his old friends to sit around an evening retailing Darwin stories.” Not long after Darwin’s death, his friend Frank Pennink, an Oxford man, recalled playing a match partnered with Darwin on an Oxford and Cambridge Golfing Society trip. They went 6-up through the first seven holes, but lost the next four. During this defeated stretch, Pennink recalls that “Bernardo went back on his heels, strayed behind and began to mutter to himself.” This muttering “became louder and fiercer” as the match continued to tighten. Pennink recalled that the flow of frustration went something like this:

“Those conceited Oxford brats (meaning me)! They think they know all about the game, but as soon as they are under pressure they go to pieces.” Then oaths and imprecations followed. My Oxford blood chilled.

The pair held on to win 2&1, and back in the clubhouse Darwin resumed his regular charming way, seemingly “oblivious to his eccentricities on the links.” He would confess later in life, more self-aware than Pennink’s story credits him, that he had “always had a greedy desire to win and an unbridled hatred of being beaten. This is a quality which does, I think, help to keep one young in games, but is otherwise repellent; I am ashamed of it, but I cannot help it.”

Eventually his body betrayed him, and severe gout and arthritis forced Darwin to give up the game (aside from a few pleasantly painful practice strokes taken about his home, the feared fate of every active golfer). Yet, as he considered it, the loss was not complete:

For the retired warrior there are no anxieties, no agonies, no thwarted ambitions, no wretched little jealousies, no bitter regrets. Never again will he toss and tumble, thinking of the match that is before him on the morrow. No black demon of a missed putt from the match that is past will crouch beside his pillow to arouse him at midnight. He will not watch his conqueror going on gaily from round to round and murmur to himself that that is where he ought to be. There will be no penitence for having been cross, for as far as the game is concerned he need never be cross any more; no miserable pretence of being a good loser, for there is nothing to lose.

On the morning of the match the course had always a hard, unsympathetic look. The greens so beautifully trim and smooth seemed like places of public execution made ready, on to which the criminal must step out with a show of bravery at the appointed hour. The very flags blowing out straight from their sticks spoke to him of the wind as a personal enemy. Fate still hangs brooding heartless over the course but him she cannot touch. The voice of the starter is no longer the voice of doom. There will be heaps of slain ere the bloody day is out, but he will be alive in inglorious security. 

Even a basic sketch of Darwin can’t neglect the broad and wide range of his interests outside golf. A lover of the sporting spirit, he wrote about cricket and boxing. His expertise on Dickens bordered on scholarly, with a host of the novelist’s characters and quotations at the ready for his pen. Even broader, in 1941 Oxford University Press tapped Darwin to introduce its thick Dictionary of Quotations. He was a self-described Sherlockian fundamentalist. He and his artist wife even joined efforts on a couple of children’s books. No matter his breadth, though, he was forever tethered to golf. At the outset of one of his autobiographies, he said that “golf must come breaking in sooner or later since it has played so large a part in a possibly mis-spent life.” 

Similarly, while Darwin’s influence is still felt in many arenas today, golf and sports are where it is heaviest. John Updike consoled himself with Darwin’s writings during long winter months, short of light and golf, calling him one of the “silver-tongued bards of the game.” It’s subtle but poignant that the introductions, forewords and afterwords of the many Darwin volumes in circulation were written by his inheritors, the scribes and players who followed in his line. One such example is Ben Crenshaw providing the afterword to the republished The Golf Courses of the British Isles. He says the book is like a good golf course, as it “makes you want to play so badly that you hardly have the patience to change your shoes,” so that “you want to hop on the next plane and play each and every course described by Darwin and illustrated by Rountree.” 

A full account of Darwin’s writing lineage should begin with Wind—a man many consider Darwin’s equal, and who famously coined the term “Amen Corner” in a Sports Illustrated report on the Masters. Wind was Darwin’s most prominent champion, calling him “the Dean of the Grand Old Game.” Wind’s praise is effusive and eloquent, informed by his long personal acquaintance with his hero. Of Darwin’s place in the pantheon of golf and sports writing, Wind put it simply: “There is little disagreement that the best golf writer of all time was an Englishman named Bernard Richard Meirion Darwin.” Beyond this, Wind posits that some consider him not just the best golf writer, but the best ever to write about sports and, still yet further, just one of the best essayists in the English language. Overstating the point, Wind even went so far as to say that Darwin “had practically invented golf writing.” Though not strictly true—Darwin would quickly and humbly point us in the direction of his own predecessor, Horace Hutchinson—it nonetheless tells us how Wind viewed Darwin’s part in the whole. 

Wind believed there was something enigmatic about Darwin. From one side he appears a man of a bygone time, like a character out of a Holmes story. And yet, says Wind, “when you look at Darwin from a different angle he seems to be thoroughly modern.” Maybe this is to say that Darwin was, like us all, of his day, yet, like the true greats, he continues to transcend his span of years. Wind puts his finger on why, thinking it an obvious explanation: “Nobody ever knew more about golf than Darwin or wrote about it so intuitively.”

The influence of Darwin certainly hasn’t ceased now that Wind is also gone. Wright Thompson holds a particularly esteemed place in the present-day sports-writing scene. His style and substance—personal, funny, existentially ponderous with a seriousness borne lightly—bear strikingly similar tones as Darwin’s. Their writing is about the games people play and the deep-down human stuff that shines through them. They both bring you to the scene of the action, with its elevated joys, its bottom-falling-out sorrows and the costly grind that precedes both. The two also, whether it’s Darwin covering the Open at St. Andrews or Thompson writing about Manchester United, give the texture of a people and place and what these round-ball endeavors mean in a deeply cultural way. 

“I love him,” Thompson tells me. He came to Darwin’s golf writing late, almost accidentally, through the back door of his book on cricket. Now deeply acquainted, Thompson says “he is what every sports writer wants to be.” Thompson admires that Darwin was “a real renaissance guy, a legit Dickens scholar, who shows us what sports don’t mean as well as what they do.” Wright continues his praise, noting, “There’s two tracks of sports writing: One is 100% about sports and nothing else, and two is barely about sports. Darwin was a member of the church of barely about sports.” Perhaps we can say that option two takes as its subject the human condition framed and elicited by the worlds we build with sticks and balls and chalk lines. Surely this was Darwin, as it is Thompson. 



In all this we can see Darwin as an exemplar, a North Star and a forebear. As Thompson observes, you don’t get Wind without Darwin, extending further, “There’s a line from Darwin through Wind through Roger Angell through Gary Smith.” We can place Thompson on that line as well. Summing up Darwin’s influence, Wright puts it well, as he so often does: “The better angels of all that sports writing involves flow through him.”Bernard Darwin died in October of 1961. He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2005, less than a century removed from that 1908 moment when he left the Temple free, set to traipse about whichever golf course was next. Between and beyond 1908, 1961 and 2005, he had given shape to a new sort of golf writing and established a rarely surpassed standard. With his eclectic literary allusions, snippets of Latin and vibrant, full-blooded love of the game, Bernardo is in some ways sui generis. In the end, he showed himself another genius in the familial line, but of his own stamp, belonging to an exotic species: the golf lover. Not bad for a Darwin.

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Darwin in the 1920s, trying to get up and down on the Road Hole at St. Andrews.