As we started from the fifth bunker box, we had quite a following

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, May 27, 1933.

“How is it,” asked Jimmie Frise, “that you and me have never taken up golf?”

“Pah,” I replied contemptuously, “the most fruitless pastime in the world!”

“Even so,” said Jim, “there must be something in it, so many thousands of men play it. Men of our type.”

“I know of no sight more depressing,” I quoted some unknown philosopher, “than that of a golfer plodding hopelessly from shot to shot.”

“Do you think,” asked Jim, “there is something psychological in it? Is it possible these fellows, after failure at the office, disagreements at home and general despair with life, go out and defeat themselves at golf just to make the rest of their all-round licking seem less painful?”

“Listen, Jimmie,” I said, “don’t go into any of those complicated psychological theories of yours!”

“No, but look at history,” said Jim. “For ages, when none of us had turned easy-going, whenever we were filled with troubles, what did we do? We put on a hair shirt and turned hermit. That is like golf. A man goes out and suffers the torments of golf so as to make seem easier the troubles of business and home.”

“It might be,” I admitted admiringly. “But I would just as soon play postman as play golf. It’s the same sort of thing. Walking along, stopping and starting, going over familiar ground all the time. Give me fishing, where a fellow can visit new country every time he goes forth.”

I’m afraid you don’t know the rudiments of golf,” said Jim.

“I am thankful I don’t,” said I. “All I know is, I never heard of a golfer who won. If they don’t lose to their partner, they lose, anyway, by not doing as well as they did once before, about 1928. It is a gloomy game. A game of perpetual defeat.”

“Do you even know how they play it?” asked Jim.

“Sure,” said I. “They have a small hard rubber ball which they hit with different kinds of sticks with iron blades and knobs on the ends. They have half a dozen or more of these sticks, all different, so that no matter which one they use, they can believe it was the wrong one. If they used their birdie, they can always say, in a bitter voice, that they should have used their bunker or their giblet, I think they call it. It is a game with a bagful of alibis.”

“What is the object of the game?” asked Jim, slightly sneeringly.

“To play from hole to hole with as few shots as possible,” I replied. “Sometimes they play nine holes, and sometimes eighteen. The more holes they play, the greater is their defeat. I knew a fellow who once played twenty-seven holes on a Saturday and was so filled with grief he entirely forgot the depression.”

“My friends are always inviting me out to play golf,” said Jim. “I think some day we might try it, just to know what we are not missing.”

“The only reason I would ever visit a golf course,” I retorted, “would be to give it some new ideas, to introduce something to the game. For instance, I have often heard these old boys telling how they went around in eighty-four. But when I asked them how long it took them, they just stared. Do you know, Jimmie, they let them take all the time they like? Yes, sir, these old badgers go prowling around the golf course, pausing and thinking before every shot, taking all kinds of practice swings and figuring out every shot, every move, like chess players. Imagine hockey, in which every player was allowed to have the puck until he had figured out what to do with it? That’s what’s the matter with golf. It needs action. It needs some manly indecision about it. If these old guys could say, I went around in eighty-four in thirty-eight minutes, there would be something in it. But just to say they went around in eighty-four over the week-end is simply comical. That’s what it is, comical.”

Borrowing a Bag of Alibis

“Suppose I could get an invitation,” asked Jim, “would you come out and we would try a whirl at putting some speed into golf?”

“I imagine I would,” said I.

So Jim got in touch with a few friends and got an invitation for us to go out to a golf links on Thursday. The first few friends were overjoyed, and thought Jimmie meant he would come out with them. It is pathetic the way these golfers like to initiate a fresh sufferer. But Jim had to explain that he had an important friend up from New York, who was not only deaf and dumb, but was deformed and he hated mankind, and would only play with Jimmie. So one friend very gladly gave Jim a letter of introduction to his club. Jim borrowed a fellow artist’s outfit and I got a bag of alibis from my brother. There were nine balls and fourteen sticks in the bag, not to mention spare socks, small sponges, a raincoat that folded up about the size of a hankie and a whole lot of little things such as scoring gadgets and so forth, the meaning of which only amused me.

We arrived out at the club about two ‘clock, by which time there were several hundred people dotted all over the fields, all having that bowed, hopeless look that prisoners have on prison farms, as they go about their tasks.

We dressed up in the locker room in our ordinary fishing and shooting outfits and dragged our golf bags out to the starting place.

“You have to follow a certain course,” explained Jim in a low voice, as we waited for six men to start off. “These holes are numbered, and you must take them in proper order.”

“But we don’t even know that order,” I protested.

“We can ask as we go along,” said Jim.

“Nonsense,” I said. “How could we make any speed if we had to slow up all the time and say where do we go from here?”

“What do you suggest?” asked Jim.

“We play from one of these bunkers with the box on it, don’t we?” I demanded. “And we shoot for one of those little flags?”

“That’s it.”

“All right, starting here, we shoot for the nearest flag, and from there, we go to the nearest box, and in that way, work straight out, taking them as they come.”

“How will we know we haven’t done one hole before?” asked Jim.

“We simply won’t put the flag up,” I explained. “We will be working fast. The idea will be to see how small a score we can make in the shortest possible time. So after we do each hole, we’ll just leave the flag down and beat it for the next one.”

“What will all these gentlemen think of that?”

“They may be a little disturbed, if they notice it,” said I. “But they’re so engrossed in their game, they’ll never notice a little thing like a flag being up. Anyway, suppose they do get a little sore? When they realize what we are doing for the royal and ancient game of golf, when it comes out that we have revived, resuscitated, modernized a dying game, they will tell their grandchildren that they were actually on the links the very time Frise and Clark conducted their first experiment. Don’t worry about these people.”

Jim and I waited patiently while the six of them, two by two, leisurely gazed off into the distance, watched their slow-footed predecessors get out of range, and I think they all flattered themselves at that. Then we scratched our heads and repressed our feelings as they each one stood forth, leisurely laid their ball, waggled their sticks, waggled their nether anatomies, paused, thought, gazed, thought again, made a few cautionary swings, all in perfect style, and then, with no style at all, socked the ball off to one side.

Jim and I didn’t even nudge each other.

At last we stepped forth, by which time there were four other players ready behind us.

“Wait for those birds ahead to get out of range,” said Jim as I set the ball down.

“Nothing doing,” said I. “I have just taken the time as I set the ball down. The game is on. We’ll shoot for that flag right near there.”

I aimed at a flag down in a valley, only about 75 yards from us and off at an angle from which the others had played. I hit the ball high in the air and about half way to the flag, without any waggling whatsoever. Jim leaped up and laid the ball down without delay, socked it and we seized our bags and raced off on the first hole.

“Hey,” shouted one of the men who were coming next after us.

But there was no time to waste in explanations. We ran nimbly down the valley. I had the stick ready by the time I reached my ball, threw down the bag, socked it, picked up the bag and ran after it before Jim had even reached his ball.

Jim hit his beautifully and put it near the flag. I took three quick, short bats at mine before I laid it on the green, as they call it, although it was a kind of brown. holed in nine, Jim in fourteen, in exactly two minutes, fourteen seconds.

Just a little way to the side was one of those boxes on a bunker which is the starting place for each new hole, and we raced over to it. No silly dawdling. This was a contest not only of skill with the stick, but speed, endurance, strength, fortitude. We socked the balls away and dashed after them just as four men walked over a hillock and stood staring at us with some astonishment. But we rushed up to the balls, batted them a little way, and I found that if you did not lay the bag down but just hit the ball with a polo action, in your stride, you would hit it just as far and just as straight as some of those fellows who took five minutes to get at it. So Jim followed my style, and we dashed off the next hole in ten and sixteen, despite the fact that two men were near the hole and coming from the opposite direction.

“Are you ahead of us?” called one of these men, not at all snootily, but just sort of surprised to see us.

“We’re so far ahead you can’t imagine it,” I replied, as Jim and I dashed for the next box bunker.

“The flag?” shouted this man.

“Never mind the flag,” I called to Jim, “It’s this conversation and palavering that makes golf so slow.”

We made the next hole in nineteen and forty-one, Jim developing a bounding style, which did not send the ball far but at least did not delay us ten minutes looking for a lost ball. We passed through two parties of golfers, one going one way and one another, who stopped and held a discussion, probably about us, as it turned out. But we did this hole in three minutes flat, the whole score being on the first three holes, Jim 71, self, 38, with a time of only eight minutes and seventeen seconds.

Others Get the Idea

The nearest flag we could see on the fourth hole was quite a distance away, all of a hundred yards. We dashed up to the box, banged off the balls and were just getting into our stride, I with six strokes, Jim with eleven, when two elderly gentlemen in gray sweaters came over a rise and started running after us. Each held one golf club in his hand.

“It’s taking on!” I yelled to Jim. “Here’s two others have caught the idea.”

It developed into a race. We had the advantage of age, because both the old boys were staggering behind large, swaying stomachs. We finished the hole in a net score of Jim, 91, self, 50, time, eleven minutes, one second, when we saw, joining the elderly men, six or eight more, some of them younger and faster, and as far as I could see, they were not playing fair, because I could see no balls at all. I suspected them of kicking the ball ahead. Which was not a bad idea, and I tried it. You can get better distance kicking it, but not the direction.

Anyway, as we started from the fifth bunker box, the followers numbered twelve, and four of them were gaining rapidly on us.

“Experienced golfers,” I puffed to Jim. “We’d be better, too, if we spent half our lives on the golf links.”

We succeeded in getting away from the fifth start before the leaders caught us, but I had only got thirty yards before two of them, both twice my weight, caught up to me, and to my consternation, tackled me as if it were rugby we were playing and slammed me down.

“Foul, foul!” I yelled, and with some justice, as I was really the inventor of the game.

As they picked me up, I saw the other two catch up to Jim and grab him. By this time everybody had caught up, even the stout old men, who had gray moustaches and purple faces, and they were speechless. They just made gestures. Six men each carried Jim and me across the fields and down a little gully, where, I am sorry to admit, they threw us into a small muddy creek, without a single word. Not a word. They just carried us down, perspiring, and never a word out of them, and said one, two, three, and heaved us in.

“Now get out!” shouted one of the old men, who had a husky voice.

“Our clothes at the club house!” I called from the creek.

“Our golf bags, they’re borrowed,” called Jimmie, from the same place.

“Get out!” repeated the old gent. It was all he could think of to say.

They stood on the bank and watched us so we just waded out and up the bank and climbed a fence and signaled, as they say, a passing motorist who happened to be driving a truck, and for fifty cents he drove us home.

They carried Jim and me down a little gully and threw us into a muddy creek…. They stood on the bank and watched us, so we just waded out and up the bank and signaled a passing motorist

I explained to my brother about his clubs and my good clothes, and he just laughed and said a friend would pick up his bags.

I asked him what he thought of our idea, and he said it was an excellent one, but suggested we try it out some time when there were not many people on the links.

“When would that be?” I asked my brother.

“Well, say, the First of July; it’s a public holiday, and everybody will be away fishing.”

“But so will I,” I explained to him.

“Oh, well, then some other time,” he suggested.

May 25, 1940

Editor’s Notes: palavering means to talk unproductively and at length.

This story was repeated on May 25, 1940 as “Fruitless Pastime“.