Feature Interview with Jeff Silverman
Jeff Silvermans golfing life took a serious turn when he was caught, at 15, sneaking in after hours to play Seawane Country Club, a Devereax Emmett track that abutted the backyard of the house he grew up in on Long Island. In lieu of reform school, he opted to caddie. In the years since, hes carried his share of baggage as a columnist for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, and as a screen and TV writer in Hollywood, during which he regularly wrote about the industry on the side for The New York Times. In 1996, he moved back east to Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, about midway between Stonewall and Merion. Last year, in one of the most important stories since Watergate, he opened golfs version of Pandoras Box by shining a light into the dark corners of GolfClubAtlas.com for Sports Illustrated. His most recent book, ‘Bernard Darwin on Golf,’ is the first comprehensive collection of Darwins golf essays ever published in a general edition in the United States. His other books include ‘The Greatest Golf Stories Ever Told,’ ‘The Greatest Baseball Stories Ever Told,’ ‘Classic Golf Stories,’ and ‘Lardner on Baseball.’
1. How did you first come across Bernard Darwin?
Well, I was thinking of taking a break for a bit from the Hollywood grind Id gotten myself into when an editor friend called up and asked if Id like to profile Fred Couples for the Los Angeles Times magazine. I thought that could be fun, so I said sure. But Id never written anything on golf before. So I asked a bunch of my golf-obsessed friends this was in the early 90s who the best golf writer was theyd ever read. They all concurred: Herbert Warren Wind. I found a copy of ‘Following Through,’ and there, on page 153, I read this sentence, which continues to tie up several brain cells: ‘There is little disagreement that the best golf writer of all time was an Englishman named Bernard Richard Meiron Darwin.’ By the time Id finished Winds piece marking the centenary of Darwins birth, I was hooked. I desperately wanted to read the guy. But I couldnt find his books anywhere. Over the years, through some pretty careful scouring of used-book stores, friends in England, and, eventually, the Internet, I wound up compiling a pretty good Darwin library. Ive also come, for various reasons, to truly love the game. Given the quality or lack thereof — of my own play, theres not much I can give back other than replacing my divots and putting together a nice, new, relatively comprehensive collection of Darwins essays. Since Id just done a couple of other books that sold pretty well, I was able to hold my publishers head under water just long enough for him to finally say yes to the idea.
2. What in Darwin’s background made him well suited for writing about golf?
Interesting tee ball. I think its really a combination of things, not the least of which was his grandfather, and the fact that Bernard and his own father lived with the Grand Man between the years after his mothers death, at Bernards birth, and the time he was about six. We know from Bernardos memoirs that he loved spending time with his grandfather. Its hard imagining the two walking together which Bernard writes about and Charles Darwin not instilling in the young boy the love of observation. Bernards father, a doctor by training, was also a botanist. Same thing. Scientists observe. And so, of course, do writers. So, Id suspect that almost from the outset Bernard was a dedicated observer of the world around him.
Its also important to remember that he was an only child, with an only childs overstimulated imagination. As a kid, he regularly made up players and teams to play imaginary soccer and cricket matches in his head, which, as a scribe in training, he duly reported on. He was also a voracious reader an expert on and lover of Dickens, Sherlock Holmes, early sporting literature like Hazlitts and Egans and much, much more that he wound up liberally sprinkling through his own writings.
In short, he was primed to be a writer. So, the question becomes, why a golf writer? The job didnt really exist until he came along and invented it.
So, lets add to that incubator the fact that his family on his mothers side created Aberdovey giving it special meaning to him as place as well as golfing place — and that his father started taking him out, at 8, to Felixstowe to play, and youve got the golf writer ready to burst from the cocoon. That Bernardo became as good a golfer as he did fostered it all; he didnt just observe the game, he internalized it, as well.
To use the language of Bernardos first profession the law — he had both motive and opportunity, and that first profession offers the final clue to your question. Darwin hated being a lawyer. That he could actually leave practicing the law to write about golf was something of a gift he didnt take lightly. He became one of the rare human beings who actually loved what he did, and he wrote quite movingly about how much personal satisfaction he derived from a job that most, at the time he started doing it, deemed wholly unfit for an adult. Gratefulness in a writer is a stunning quality. Most of us skulk and bristle.
Now, put all of that together, and you could still get a hack. That Bernard Darwin ultimately developed and displayed his abilities as well as he did is clearly nothing less than a miracle of evolution. He helped originate a species the golf writer then did his damndest to make sure it would survive, with him preeminent among the fittest.
3. What sources proved the most useful in finding these essays?
Id like to tell you that I went back and pored through The Times and Country Life, but, alas, thats not true. Figuring Bernardo himself had the highest standards for himself, I raided his own collections, particularly ‘Playing the Like,’ ‘Rubs of the Green,’ ‘Golf Between the Wars,’ and ‘Out of the Rough.’ I also used a few bits from his first volume of memoirs, ‘Green Memories,’ and, as a reference, quite like Peter Rydes collection, ‘Mostly Golf.’
What I did go through were old Atlantic Monthlies on microfilm to ferret out his contributions and winnow them down to the pieces I wound up selecting, none of which had ever been republished. Most of the American Golfer pieces I included in ‘Darwin on Golf’ had been collected before, but I went back to the magazine to come up with another one or two.
It was all a real treasure hunt. The hard part, once Id actually built my Darwin library, wasnt finding the pieces. The hard part was consigning so much wonderful writing to an anthological limbo. The book could have easily been twice the length without suffering a single iota in its quality.
4. Horace Hutchinson, Sir Walter Simpson and Bernard Darwin were the first major golf writers. How did they interact with one another?
First, as writers, Hutchinson and Simpson both greatly influenced Darwin. In Darwins final book, ‘The World That Fred Made,’ he talks about the golf books he read growing up, and he reserved a special niche for these two. Heres what he said. ‘Just at the end of the eighties’ Bernard would have just been into his teens then ‘came two books which will, I hope, never be forgotten The Art of Golf, by Sir Walter Simpson, by no means a great teacher but a great and humorous philosopher, and the Badminton volume edited and largely written by Horace Hutchinson,’ whom he goes on to call ‘a golfing prophet.’
Hutchinson was, certainly, the greater influence. In ‘Fred,’ Darwin also recalls the first moment he saw Hutchinson on the golf course during a family vacation at Eastbourne when he was a kid. Writing some 70 years later, Bernard recalls, ‘I could today walk to the exact spot blindfolded.’ Thats a pretty indelible memory.
Darwins respect for Hutchinson never abated. Years later, when Bernardo ran his famed contest in Country Life to pick the best design for a two-shot hole for his great friend C.B. Macdonalds Lido, he tapped Hutchinson to be a judge. The design they wound up choosing, of course, was one of Alister Mackenzies, and the rest, as they say, is history.
As writers, there was a big difference between Hutchinson and Simpson on the one hand and Bernardo on the other. For the first two, writing about golf was an avocation. For Darwin, it was a job. Like Tiger on his worst days, he still had to grind it out or miss his paycheck. Having been a newspaper columnist for several years myself, I can tell you that the fear of knowing theres gonna be a hole in the paper courtesy of you if you cant fill it is far more of an inspiring kick in the butt than ever delivered by any Muse.
5. Can you decipher between his early writing and say that which came after WWII?
Certainly, he grew through the years, but by the end of World War II, he was already both an old man and an old golfer, and while he continued soldiering on for Country Life and The Times, his arthritis was bad enough by then to force him to pretty much retire his clubs. Even sidelined and this is amazing to me — he managed in print to maintain his enthusiasm for the game and admiration for those who played it at the highest level Im thinking particularly of the piece he wrote on Hogan at Carnoustie. Still, a certain wistfulness entered his golfing universe. Bitterness was not part of his vocabulary, but wistfulness was, and in 1945, he wrote what I think is his most beautiful and personal piece ‘Giving Up the Game.’ It was the only golf essay in his lovely volume called ‘Every Idle Dream’ and I confess right here that its my favorite single volume of his — a book that roamed over a wide patch of ground covering such diverse fields as tin soldiers, Christmas spirit, looking for matches (the kind you light, not foursomes or four-balls), and reading aloud. I used the essay as the last piece in ‘Darwin on Golf,’ because its such a perfect valediction.
6. He was an extraordinarily modest man – do you have a favorite passage that highlights this characteristic?
You know, I think he was less modest than remarkably self-confident and self-reliant in his abilities as a writer. He knew he could produce. He also knew he was a good enough golfer to play the game at very high levels. After all, he made it to the semis of the British Amateur twice, and won his singles match in the first Walker Cup when he was close to 50.
He was a smart enough reader and writer to know that the drama of golf is in how fleeting and difficult the game is, and its more fun and interesting to write about how the game masters and flusters us rather than reporting how well we might happen to be playing at any given nanosecond. So, Darwin developed a self-effacing tone about his game in print, which to my thinking became the key to his success. He didnt write down to the average golfer. No, instead he included himself among the frustrated and the whipped, the defeated and the damned, thus making his own odyssey with the game the universal one, albeit one relayed with memorable style and grace, evidenced in this wonderful passage from an essay called ‘Absit Omen’:
‘We should be better golfers than we are if we could overcome the feeling that the Fates, after favoring us grossly, are sure to turn against us. It is much too strong for most of us. To hole one or two good putts is eminently encouraging, for we think, truly enough, that we are hitting the ball well and we have confidence in our latest new method, whatever may be. But when the putts are too long or too frequent, then we grow afraid and make perhaps the most lethal of remarks, that we must have had our ration.’
Its an observation, reported elegantly, that unites us all, and there are hundreds of others like it in his work.
I want to say one more thing here, not about his modesty, but his generosity. Bernardo truly enjoyed seeing golf played at its best. He reveled in its magic moments, and he appreciated what the games magicians could do. He wasnt just a homer. Beyond the British golfers like Vardon and Ray that stood atop his pantheon, he had a big space in his heart for the colonials Ouimet, Sarazen, Hogan, and, of course, Bobby Jones. His biggest rooting interest was golf itself. Bernardo was big enough to embrace all comers who served the game honorably.
7. From having studied and sifted through so much of his writing, what do you gather are his likes/dislikes when it comes to golf course architecture?
Hes not shy on this, and the best place to go for his take is the section of ‘Darwin on Golf’ that Ive called ‘Fields of Play.’ In its opening essay, ‘Architectooralooral,’ Bernardo displays his architectural prides and prejudices quite gamely. He particularly likes courses that reflect classic strategies and that thoughtfully and challengingly utilize the kinds of features that golfers look forward to playing in, out, over and around. As he says, the ‘charm’ of a good hole is that it ‘keeps us, unconsciously perhaps, thinking that we have always got to make up what we are pleased to call our minds; that we have to decide between on the one hand, a highly dangerous but highly profitable course that may lose us several strokes but may gain us one invaluable stroke, and, on the other, a comparatively safe, easy course that ought not to lose us much but may just lose us something intensely important.’ A good golf hole, in short, ‘is a perpetual adventure.’ I love that phrase.
Strategy and intelligence were far more important than length (check out his essay ‘The Ladies,’ as relevant on the canard of length now as it was then.) Anything that contributes to creating smart, challenging golf is a plus. Anything that detracts deserves banishment to the bottom of Hells Bunker.
8. According to Herbert Wind, ‘Golf has acquired the sturdiest literature of any game.’ How much credit for that belongs with Darwin?
While others had certainly written beautifully and delightfully about the game before Im thinking of Arnold Haultain, Simpson, Hutchinson, and, in one of my favorite essays, ‘The Humours of Golf,’ future British prime minister Arthur Balfour Darwin wrote about it for the long haul, infusing the craft with a very developed and individual personality, grace, elegance, wit, and intellect. Hes like Homer with a cleek, Shakespeare with a spoon, or Paul McCartney with a mashie: Nobody does it better, or has done it better. Before him, people wrote about golf. Darwin is the writer who elevated the craft. Hes the rock on which its literature is built.
9. How often in his writing did he talk about the architect of a course? Or was his writing more confined to the course as he saw it?
He gives credit where its due. In ‘Architectooralooral,’ for instance, he writes about Fowler (whom he elsewhere described as daring and original), Colt, and Simpson, among others, and there are some terrific bits in his memoirs about Macdonald. He was well-aware of the contribution architects good and bad made positively and negatively to the game, and does credit the architects in ‘Golf Courses of the British Isles.’ Ultimately, though, I think he was more interested in the courses themselves than how they got to be the way they got to be.
10. What courses in the United Kingdom most impressed him?
The usual suspects. St. Andrews and St. Georges, both of which he was thrilled to get to captain in his lifetime. Muirfield. I love his line about Blackheath: ‘As we hack our ball along with a driving mashie out of a hard and flinty lie, narrowly avoiding the slaughter of a passing pedestrian, we feel that we are on hallowed ground.’ Woking. Worlington. Sunningdale. Gullane. The list goes on, with, of course, an almost mystical niche carved into his heart for Aberdovey, the one course to which he always returned.
11. What courses in the United States most impressed him during his visits?
Lido, which Darwin considered the hardest course hed ever played anywhere, but even if it werent the hardest I think he would have felt a bit proprietary about it given the contest he ran at Country Life. Pine Valley, where theres ‘an eternity of woe awaiting every bad shot.’ The National. The Country Club. (He took particular pride in the fact that he was Francis Ouimets official scorer in the play-off round of the 1913 Open. He secretly cheered for the young American that day great writers love great stories — despite the Times having sent him to America to produce odes to Vardon and Ray.) The one American course that he went out of his way to note he wasnt a particular fan of was Garden City. ‘It is one of the courses,’ he wrote, ‘that Americans think more highly of than Britons do,’ adding that the 1913 Amateur ‘was extraordinarily interesting, although I do not think Garden City made a very interesting battlefield.’ In his mind, it was neither ‘stimulating nor
picturesque.’ Who knows, perhaps the hackles of his national pride were still up from Traviss victory in the 1904 British Amateur.
12. What makes Darwin so worth reading today?
His observations are timeless. While he provided superb coverage of events for his readers, his best writing was about the character of the game and the golfer, which really doesnt change. Read an essay like ‘Card and Pencil Golf,’ about the joys to be had on the course by not keeping score, or ‘Hydes and Jekylls,’ ‘The Sounds of Golf,’ ‘The Black Flag,’ ‘The Dissembling Golfer,’ ‘The Golfers Emotions,’ or, again, the essay I mentioned earlier, ‘The Ladies.’ Last year I wrote a column for SI about how much we he-men masters of the links would improve if we stopped to watch women play because the men professionals play a game most of us cant dream of approaching. Darwin was saying something similar 60 years ago. But, truly, it was the way he used golf as his prism to refract the human condition that makes him worth dipping into again, and again, and again.
By the way, thinking of pencils, Im reminded that Tommy Naccarato owes me one. To quote the Who, ‘Tommy, can you hear me?’
13. Do you have a particular favorite Darwin essay?
I do. ‘The Links of Eiderdown,’ in which he reflects on the golf holes formed by the sheets draped over him when hes in bed. Not long ago, I was talking to ‘Golf in the Kingdom’ guru Michael Murphy for something I was doing for SI when Darwins name came up, and he just went into paroxysms of rhapsody about the piece. He called it very Tibetan. Im sure Bernardo would have loved the compliment.
Being an inveterate crossword puzzler, I also have a particular fondness for ‘The Golfer and the Crossword.’ Even after our golf game plateaus, we can still improve in our crosswords.
14. How has your appreciation of Darwin affected you as a writer?
It brings out the envy in me. For all of his gentility on the page, Bernardo was a fierce competitor on the course, known to hurl, from time to time, both expletives and clubs. And while I dont exactly believe that writing is a competitive sport, when I read Darwin, I want to write better. Theres no fault in not being as good as he was few are but there is fault in not trying to improve, especially when theres such a good model to strive towards.
15. What prompted you to approach Sports Illustrated with the idea on an article about GolfClubAtlas.com?
I figured youd get around to that. I actually began looking at the site in the spring of 2001 when I was writing a piece for Philadelphia magazine on Gil Hanse. Gil suggested I take a look at the interview that youd posted with him. And I did. And I admit it, I was thoroughly entranced in a perverse sort of way by the train wrecks in the Discussion Group. But I also found a lot of good information there. Then Yankee magazine asked if Id create a virtual all-New England golf course by mixing and matching holes throughout the region. Some of your course reviews Im thinking of Ekwanok, Taconic, and Yale in particular were pretty helpful. So I kept looking at the site and curiosity got the better of me. Who are these guys who seem to care so much about the depth of sand in a bunker, whether or not Tom Fazio is the devil incarnate, and whats up with Phil Mickelsons breasts? And I began to imagine the little dramas that percolated from that. I mean, does Tom Paul ever sleep? I
needed to know. Which translated into it looking like GCA had the makings of a good story. So I pitched SI, and got an immediate go-ahead.
16. From the time that SI said yes until the piece was completed, what surprised you the most?
How truly contagious the site can be. And that whatever time I logged on, Tom Paul had just posted something that Pat Mucci had immediately taken issue with, or vice-versa.
17. What do you most recall from the time you spent with the GolfClubAtlas.com group while writing the article in Los Angeles?
You mean besides your hook? OK. That no one I played with at PGA West, Rustic Canyon, and Riviera ever took a pencil out of their pocket to jot a score on the scorecard, at least not in front of me, they didnt. That the conversation was pretty good. That the site really brought a bunch of people together in a good way. And that I learned more about Riviera historically and strategically in one round with you guys than I did in the I dont know how many rounds Id played there previously when I lived in LA. More than all of that, though, meeting the Most Loved Man in Golf was truly unforgettable.
18. If there had been room in the magazine article for another 1,000 words, what else would you have covered?
Its probably best that I dont go into the sex and drugs. Just kidding. Probobly deeper into detail and personality, and more on some of the more contentious and interesting postings themselves.
19. Whats your favorite golf course?
Newport Country Club, hands down. And Id say that even if my Better Halfs mother hadnt gone into labor with her while walking up the ninth fairway at the end of the summer in which she won the club championship. I played it the first time during the summer of 1994, about 10 days before the Amateur. Then watching the championship on TV back in LA, I was convinced that guys were playing the stray Titleists Id left out there for them. What I most love about Newport, almost a decade later, is after some 100 rounds there, Im never bored, Im always learning something new, and I guess this is cosmic I still cant seem to par No. 9. But I do know the holes secret. On the tee, you aim for Jackies window. The roofline in the distance is Hammersmith Farm, Jackie Kennedy Onassiss summer home growing up. I usually just aim for the cross-bunker, figuring anything I aim for I cant hit, but its amazing how rarely that theory works for me on that hole.
20. How did you become interested in golf course architecture?
Playing Newport had a big hand in that. Its the first course I ever bothered to know well enough to really try to figure out, and its just so much fun to play a Tillinghast course, especially one thats been so beautifully restored. Dove-tailing into that, in the late 90s, I found out that both of my hips were rotting away from a high school baseball injury. (Mothers, dont let your babies grow up to be catchers!) Over the next few years, until I finally had them replaced in 2001, my game deteriorated because my swing, such as it was, completely fell apart. But I loved golf, and wanted to keep at it, even if I could no longer walk courses or bang out drives. So I put my scorecard away, and began to appreciate other aspects of the game, one of them being design. I figured that if I could understand what the architect was thinking on a hole, it might actually help what was left of my game. The bonus was an entire new vista opened up to me.
21. What are you working on now?
Well, besides my putting, I just wrote a piece for SI on Jackson Park, a Chicago muni, and the group of black golfers that regularly plays there for the Open preview issue. And Im continuing to review golf books for the magazine. Beyond golf, Im in the middle of a web project for the state of Pennsylvania on baseball in conjunction with historical markers throughout the state, and Im also finishing another anthology, scheduled for publication in the fall, on Ring Lardners World War I journalism and fiction. I love Lardner. I did a collection of his baseball stories earlier this year, and have used one of his golf stories in each of the golf anthlogies Ive published, except of course, the Darwin. Not that I didnt try to shoehorn one in. It just wouldnt fit.