Vanity Fair, September 1919

Golf: The Last Phase

The Evils of Playing the Game for Money



I HAVE just been playing golf for money (a thing I hadn’t intended to do till the Fall of 1925), and somehow the world seems a different place. To the beginner at golf a money match is, I take it, rather what her first ball is to the debutante and his first burglary to the aspiring cracksman. It establishes his status. After that, he may play well or he may play badly, but at least he is a genuine golfer and entitled as such to bore people with detailed accounts of his methods on the occasion when he did the long hole in par. There are three milestones in the golfer’s life. The first is when he makes his initial shot off the tee. The second is when he plays his first money-match. The third, I suppose, is when he becomes champion.


THE thing was sprung upon me. Personally, I do not consider that my development as a cleek-hound or spoon-swinger is sufficiently advanced to justify me in making rash wagers on my ability to do any one hole in under double figures: but I was invited by a friend to play in a foursome: my friend did not turn up: and the two strangers who were to complete the foursome graciously asked me to go round just the same. “A dollar a hole?” they said. “Fine!” I replied—just like that,—airily.

Now that it is all over, I see that there are drawbacks to playing golf for money. In the first place, it is so hard to make a final adjustment of winnings and losings after the match is over. The idea is that on each hole the second man pays the winner one dollar, while the third man, besides paying the winner one dollar, also pays the second man one dollar. It sounds simple enough till you come to get down to it. You take a box of matches and dole them out, and then count each match as a dollar. Unfortunately, just as we were getting along nicely, the supply of matches gave out, and somebody suggested that we should break our existing matches in half and put the halves in the pool and start again. This might have answered, had it not been that half way through the second distribution one of us suddenly remembered that he had put two half-matches in the pool instead of one, and he couldn’t remember just how many double half-matches he put in.

At this point a mathematician joined the group, a man who got hold of a piece of paper and a pencil and began to work the thing out with a series of plus twos and minus twos and cancellations and additions; and the end was that we left him at it. He was looking a little feverish but otherwise in good health, and he had the score-card and the paper and the pencil and also a second box of matches which the waiter had just brought to the table. His first calculations had left me a few dollars down, but, when I went away, I was coming along strong and looked like overhauling the field. I shall not know the actual result for a day or two. It depends on the second box of matches.


THE suspense is trying, of course, but it seems to me that the real objection to playing golf for money is that it militates against the true spirit of the game. As every beginner knows, true golf is a thing of give and take. If your opponent drives into the rough, you say “Take it back, old man,” while, similarly, if you are left with one of those three-foot putts, there is a tacit understanding, a gentleman’s agreement, that you are not supposed to make a serious shot. You merely give the ball a debonair one-handed tap and say “Down in——” whatever it is, irrespective of whether the ball goes anywhere near the hole or not. Under these conditions, golf becomes the king of outdoor sports. All the bitterness is taken out of it, and you come home with a genial glow of self-approval, feeling that you are on the whole rather a devil of a fellow.

But, when money is involved, these refinements of the game are impossible. If you get into the rough, your opponent’s only thought is that this is where he gets the long-awaited chance to buy baby a pair of new shoes. And every putt must be putted out, however technically dead the ball may lie. And it is putting that poisons the game. It is such a silly business, so entirely a matter of chance. James Braid and the rest of them urge their readers to study lines and mark which way the mower has been drawn over the green and allow for the wind and all sorts of things, but this is mere persiflage, and they put it in their books simply because they have to have a chapter on putting and have to think up something to say in it. They can’t give you pages and pages of real scientific stuff about drives and approach-shots and then, when they come to the putting-chapter, simply say “Trust in God.” So they give you the impression that putting really can be learned, thereby embittering who knows how many young lives. The only decent way to behave on the putting-green is to make your approach putt and then pick your ball up and call your score in a firm and determined voice. And this is what every sensible man does except when he is playing for money.


AND then in a money-match you have to bother about the rules. The rules of golf may be all right for Walter Hagen and a few others, but they are merely a nuisance to the man in his first season. The rules say that a club may not be grounded in a bunker. The absurdity of this is manifest. If you can’t ground your club, how the deuce are you to scrape away enough sand to tee the ball up? And, if you don’t tee the ball up, how in the name of Colonel Bogey are you ever to emerge from the abyss into the fair light of day? I know all about that hitting-an-inch-or-two-behind-the-ball stuff that you see photographs of in the books. It doesn’t work. There is only one way to get out of a bunker, and that is to excavate until the ball is nicely propped up on a pinnacle of sand and then swat it in the lower ribs with a niblick. Any rule that militates against this practice should be expunged from the book.

And that rule about moving your ball. On ordinary occasions, when I slice into the rough and find the globule sitting in a hole in front of a young bush, I stand no nonsense. I look about till I have found some kind of a plateau, free from shrubs, and I place the darned thing in the middle of it, thus rendering it possible for me to do one of those light-iron shots of mine which turn pro’s pale with envy. This is what I call a triumph of my indomitable soul over the blows of fate. Why should any reasoning being proceed out of a clump of grass in a series of two-foot hops, when, by a little ingenuity he can reach the green in one? But, when you are playing for money, you can’t even give the ball an absent-minded kick on the chance of sending it into a better lie.


NO, take it for all in all, playing for money is not such a good game as the one to which I have given so much thought and time. The terrible part of it is that, once you have started, the gambler in you tempts you to go on. I am already laying my plans for my second money-match. There is an old gentleman with a stiff leg whom I have seen pottering round the course now and then. I am laying for him. I have seen him drive and I have seen him approach, if you can call it approaching, and one of these days I am going out after him. I shall not be hasty about it. I shall be subtle and patient. First, I shall put in a further course of study of Braid’s book and Vardon’s book and Taylor’s book and the A. B. C. of Golf, and I shall practise my swing in front of a mirror until I have induced my head to limit its oscillation to a radius of a foot or so, and then I shall get some mutual friend to introduce me, and I shall get him out on the first tee. And then I shall say “Dollar a hole, what?” in a nonchalant voice. And then, at last, I shall be able to paper the spare room.

And there you have one last objection to playing golf for money. It blunts the finer feelings.