I envy Bernard Darwin, and I've envied him since the day we met in 1993, some thirty years after his death, when Herbert Warren Wind introduced us. I'd been assigned to write a profile of Fred Couples, and having never written about golf before, I asked some cronies to point me toward the best writer I could steal from. To a man, they fingered Wind.
So I started reading... and I bumped into Darwin via Wind's lovely New Yorker encomium marking the 1976 centenary of Bernardo's birth. Its opening sentence still thrills: "There is little disagreement that the best golf writer of all time was an Englishman named Bernard Richard Meirion Darwin."
I was sold, and soon began stockpiling his work. By the time I'd cobbled together the 2003 anthology Bernard Darwin on Golf, my envy had stockpiled, too.
I envied his prose: elegant, insightful and so welcoming. (On its breadth and bravura, Darwin entered the World Golf Hall of Fame last November.) I envied his game: An original Walker Cupper, he was twice a semifinalist in the British Amateur. I envied his work ethic: Only once in fifty years as golf correspondent for the Times of London and Country Life magazine did he ever file late—and history blames the wireless on the ship carrying him across a stormy Atlantic.
But mostly I envied him Aberdovey. What golfer doesn't yearn for a course to call home?
As vividly as Darwin described golf's heroes and heroics, he distanced himself from the field with his knack for capturing golf's places; and he captured no place better than the links in western Wales that he grew up on and returned to regularly—in person and on the page. Through a long and distinguished golf life, his Aberdovey excursions—always by rail, even if the rest of his family traveled by car—became rites he shared with readers: the daydreaming, the packing, the train ride, the conductor calling stations along the way. Ian Woosnam thinks his grandfather, a conductor on the Cambrian line, might have chatted with Darwin en route. In summer, Darwin's trip included his wife and children; in winter, he'd go for a New Year's week with friends. "It can be warm enough in January to play in a T-shirt," Woosie told me, though removing his jacket was as far as Darwin ever went.
More than just a place, Aberdovey became for Darwin a fixed landscape against which he could mark time and measure himself, and upon which he bestowed affection in embarrassingly delicious public displays. It was, he confessed, "the course that my soul loves best of all the courses in the world."
Having chased the words, I wanted to catch that soul. And I had no doubt where I'd find it.
The wind was up on the October morning that I arrived on Aberdovey's first tee. No one else was on the course yet. Longtime member Richard Darlington had warned me in the clubhouse that this had the makings of an unusual day; the wind was blowing off the mountains to the east rather than off Cardigan Bay. Darlington knows Aberdovey well; Bernardo chronicled Darlington's victory in a children's championship in 1929, and later Darlington caddied for the writer. "Mr. Darwin swung like a monkey on a stick," Darlington recalled. Given the gale, that had the sound of a sensible swing tip.
I took my time on the tee to survey so much of what seemed so familiar through Darwin's descriptions: the railroad tracks on the inland edge of the course, the tumorous Cader bunker that must be traversed on the par-three third, the marvelous vista that would more fully reveal itself when I climbed the Pulpit tee box on number four, the sandhills I'd play through coming home.
Bernardo was present at the creation of those holes and—appropriate for Charles Darwin's grandson—continued to be present as the course, and the golfer in him, evolved. My inner Freud can't help inferring that Aberdovey's hold on him stemmed in part from a survival mechanism he developed: His mother, Amy, died a few days after his birth, yet I suspect she lived, for him, through Aberdovey.
As a boy, Darwin spent summers with his grandmother and uncles just inland from Aberdovey at Machynlleth. The house was called Pantlludw—the name's still on the gate—and his mother had loved it: "I believe," she wrote in her diary, "it is as much of a paradise as is possible." He inherited that affection, and golf would expand it: His uncles, Arthur and Richard Ruck, were golf nuts with no place in the neighborhood to play. So they created one. And Darwin helped.
The nine rudimentary holes they laid out in 1886 on the local linksland officially became the Aberdovey Golf Club six years later when Uncle Dicky, with Bernardo assisting, designed a full eighteen—using real cups this time, instead of flower pots. (Colt, Braid and Fowler would later tinker, not always to Darwin's liking.) The Rucks bestowed full member status on their nephew, just fifteen.
Darwin deemed that a significant "step in life," and it left a significant footprint. It's visible on the silver in Aberdovey's trophy case and in the photos and clips that line the walls of the club's boardroom, honoring his service—first club captain in 1897, and twice president—and his stature. You don't have to journey there to find it, though. A bit lies in everything he wrote, because he carried Aberdovey—and its memories and the happiness he found there and what that meant to him—wherever he went. Oh, he might waltz around St. Andrews or Royal St. George's (he captained the former and was president of the latter) and pretty much every other loop from the North Sea to the Channel Isles. Yet Aberdovey burrowed into his skin and stayed there. "About this one course in the world," he conceded, "I am a hopeless and shameful sentimentalist and I glory in my shame."
Yes, we're all capable of turning into shameless sentimentalists the moment a golf ground captures our imaginations. But Darwin drew something deeper from Aberdovey, something elusive and personal, and then generously shared it with the rest of us. And as I walked his footsteps and played his links, the epiphany hit: What he found on this field was the gift he wished for golfers everywhere—"blind and unreasoning affection" for a golf course. My jealousy was as gone as half my shots would be in the wind.
I still envy much about Darwin, but Aberdovey?No. Given what it gave him, and what he gave us in return, there's nothing to begrudge at all.
Aberdovey Golf Club, Tywyn Road, Aberdovey, Gwynedd, Wales; aberdoveygolf.co.uk