It is said Bernard Darwin invented golf writing as we know it today. He was the first golf writer to transcribe facts and figures into a branch of literary journalism and he did so with style, wit and an ability to turn a phrase.
Born September 7, 1876 in Downe, Kent, England, Darwin’s grandfather was Charles Darwin, the great naturalist, who proposed the theory of evolution. Bernard never trained as a journalist. After graduating from Cambridge with a law degree (where he played on the university golf team and was captain his senior year), he practiced law in London for a few years. Eventually, golf overcame Darwin and he gave up his law career. Despite no formal training, he embarked on a new path writing about golf for various publications.
“Once Darwin dipped his toe into golf writing, the reports he produced regularly for The Times of London over a 45-year period and his ruminative essays for the weekly Country Life possessed a quality that no one else has ever approached,” wrote fellow Hall of fame writer Herbert Warren Wind. “We are simply very lucky that a man of his high talent was so smitten by golf that he wrote endlessly about it.”
“To start at the beginning, Bernard Darwin is the greatest writer on golf the world has ever known. He is much more than that. He may be the greatest of all sportswriters.” – Herbert Warren Wind
His description of Royal St. George’s reveals Darwin’s deep affection for his work: “My pen has run away with me over the first six holes, as I knew it would, and there still remain twelve more holes to play.”
In The Times of London style, Darwin wrote anonymously and his pieces were signed, “By our golf correspondent.” But, according to Wind, there was no mistaking the author: “His work had such a distinction that everyone came to know it was Darwin.”
Darwin remained an avid and outstanding player. This experience informed his writing to a great degree. To read a story by Darwin was to be placed in the center of the action. Occasionally, Darwin was actually in the center. Notably, he served as the scorer in the historic playoff for Francis Ouimet in his improbable victory over Harry Vardon and Ted Ray at the 1913 U.S. Open at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts.
In 1922, Darwin made his first trip back to the United States. This time, he was covering the first Walker Cup competition between the U.S. and Britain for the Times. But on the eve of the matches, the English captain Robert Harris fell ill and Darwin was hurriedly asked into service. He and Cyril Tolley lost to none other than Ouimet and Jesse Guilford in the opening foursomes. The Americans ended up winning the Cup, but not before Darwin beat W.C. Fownes, Jr., the U.S. captain, 3 and 1.
Bernard Darwin was the marker of Francis Ouimet’s card when Ouimet defeated Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in the 1913 U.S. Open playoff.
Darwin would not relate any part of a tournament that he had not witnessed himself: if he did, it was always “a kind friend told me that…”
But he witnessed plenty of golf history and thrilled his readers with it. Darwin saw Ben Hogan’s victory at the Open Championship during Hogan’s incomparable 1953 season. Darwin summed it up with the confidence of a writer who knew he had experienced a command performance: “If he had needed a 64 on his last round, you were quite certain he could have played a 64. Hogan gave you the distinct impression he was capable of getting whatever score was needed to win.”
Darwin was a prolific writer. Over the years he became acknowledged as one of the best essayists in Britain. He sprinkled his text with quotes from Charles Dickens, of whom he was a leading authority. “Where others today would quote Nicklaus, Darwin, had he still been working, would have quoted Nickelby,” wrote his successor at the Times, Peter Hyde.
When he wasn’t writing, he could usually be found on a golf course. He was a semifinalist in the 1909 and 1921 British Amateur. Darwin was also captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews in 1934.
Above all, his writing has a timeless quality. “To me he appealed to the reader on the most individualistic terms. He TALKED to us, apologized to us, cried to us, bared his temper to us, and made us laugh with him, all in an attempt to reveal his deep, deep love for golf to us,” wrote Hall of Fame member Ben Crenshaw in an afterword to “Golf Between Two Wars,” a reissue of Darwin’s 1944 classic. “Darwin’s writings have given me as much pleasure and as sound education as anything in my golfing life. His words express closely what we feel about the game, if we have taken this game to our heart, as he did.”