If there is one pursuit in which rhythm, timing and tempo are more important than they are in golf, it has to be poetry. Yet in the rich history of golf literature, verse has long trailed prose in popularity.
Golf’s most memorable lines stem from books and magazines, from Bob Jones’ observation that a golfer “may be the dogged victim of inexorable fate,” to Herbert Warren Wind’s evocation of “Amen Corner where Rae’s Creek intersects the 13th fairway near the tee …”
And golf hasn’t matched the poetry of other sports, which have produced stanzas that transcend their respective playing fields. Even non-fans of baseball are familiar with the closing lines of Ernest Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat”:
Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville – mighty Casey has struck out.
Sportswriter Grantland Rice was also a prolific poet – he even wrote a sequel to “Casey at the Bat” called “Casey’s Revenge.” Rice’s most enduring work remains his paean, “Alumnus Football,” from which the final couplet continues to inspire athletes – not just football players – to this day:
For when the One Great Scorer comes to write against your name,
He marks – not that you won or lost – but how you played the Game.
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Rice also wrote golf poetry, and Leon S. White would like more golfers to appreciate the verses written by Rice and others. Part of White’s one-man effort to increase the awareness of golf poetry is his book, Golf Course of Rhymes: Links between Golf and Poetry through the Ages, which contains nearly 120 works spanning hundreds of years. The anthology is the culmination of six years of research by White, 75, a retired professor and health-care executive.
In addition to uncovering poems by Rice, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling and Ring Lardner, White included works by Robert Trent Jones Jr., architect of 2015 U.S. Open site Chambers Bay, and Chick Evans, the winner of both the U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur in 1916.
White had been retired for more than 10 years when he took a poetry class that sparked an interest in golf poetry, an area that nobody really had explored for decades. As well as writing golf poems, White has been showcasing the genre on his blog: golfpoet.com.
White believes the messages conveyed by golf poems are timeless, whether they were written in the 17th or 20th century, by a national champion or a duffer. He is always happy to discuss golf poetry and share the little-known works that describe universal truths about the appeal of golf – its joys, wonders, frustrations and challenges.
USGA: Which came first for you, golf or poetry?
Leon White: I began my golfing career at Claremont Country Club [in Berkeley, Calif.] when I was a junior in high school. When I went to Stanford, I put away my clubs and didn’t pick them up again until 30 years later, in 1984. And the reason I did was that my wife’s parents had taught my two sons how to play golf. And I said to myself, if they’re going to play, why shouldn’t I play?
How did you get interested in poetry?
I was what I like to say a birthday-and-anniversary poet for a long time. But I didn’t get serious until my wife intimidated me into taking a course in reading and writing poetry at the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement in 2005.
Once I started, it raised a question: Is there a literature of golf poetry? I had never come across any golf poetry. The golf magazines didn’t have any poetry.
I found this website called worldcat.org, and when I put in the term “golf poetry,” I got back a long list of books. Most were no longer in print, and most were written before 1930. On top of that, I discovered there was poetry in early golf magazines. Fortunately, the USGA has digitized a fair number of them. I started going to your website and I just went page by page through one magazine after the next.
I really enjoy writing poetry, although it’s not easy. I wrote a couple of poems that are in the book, one about Tiger Woods’ chip shot on No. 16 in the Masters in 2005. And one about Tom Watson’s failure in the British Open a couple of years ago. Those are not rhyming poems, but I think they were pretty good.
What made you decide to compile the poems into a book?
Some of this poetry really deserves to be read by golfers today. If they have any kind of serious interest in the game, this poetry reflects an earlier generation of golfers. And they’ll see how the relationship to golf, to the course, to the agony, to the challenges, to the joys, hasn’t changed a bit.
Reading through the book, it’s remarkable how many great writers have produced golf poetry.
That was one of the things that surprised me – not only that they wrote the poetry but that they played the game. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle visited Rudyard Kipling near Brattleboro, Vt., in November of 1894. Doyle brought his golf clubs and gave Kipling a golf lesson. And apparently he also either brought or sent Kipling skis, and legend has it that Kipling introduced skiing to Vermont.
So [2011 PGA Championship winner] Keegan Bradley wasn’t the first golfer-skier; Rudyard Kipling beat him to it. These are the kinds of things that I found along the way that make it more than a little interesting.
What was the earliest golf poem?
As far as I know, in 1638, there was a guy who was mourning the death of a friend. And he wrote a long poem that included some lines that related to golf. In 1687, Thomas Kincaid wrote this 12-line poem, and he lays out how you play.
Most of the poems in the book are from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Why is that?
That was the heyday of poetry. Before the radio, before television, people used to recite poems at the kitchen table after dinner. Golf clubs in England and Scotland, when they had meetings, often had someone who was the resident poet who had prepared a poem for the meeting.
Grantland Rice, who was the first so-called dean of American sportswriting and who was the editor of The American Golfer, was a very good poet. If you have these kinds of people around golf, the poetry was there as well.
What are some of your favorite golf poems?
It’s hard for me to pin down individual poems. One of the exciting things in the research was all the parodies that I found of Omar Khayyam’s “Rubaiyat.”
A poem that I really like is by Chick Evans, called “A Chronic Semi-Finalist.” When he wrote this poem, he had been a semifinalist in the U.S. Amateur three straight years, and he was totally frustrated. So he wrote this poem, which appeared in the January issue of The American Golfer in 1912. It’s a self-mocking poem. It’s a clever poem. [Adding to the frustration, Evans was a finalist in 1912 and again a semifinalist in 1913.]
And then he went on, a few years later, to win both the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open [in 1916]. He was the first guy to do that [in the same year], and Bob Jones was the only other player to do that.
You did include a couple of contemporary poems, including one from golf course architect Robert Trent Jones Jr.
Mr. Jones' poem fit in well in the chapter on St. Andrews, so I asked his permission and he kindly agreed. Earlier, he had agreed to write the foreward after looking at a draft of the book. And [former U.S. Poet Laureate] Billy Collins wrote a poem which I included in the book. He’s an avid golfer.
But I really didn’t focus on contemporary poets. I wanted to resurrect the poetry of old because their work would have been lost.
Is there any hope of a renaissance of golf poetry?
Poetry is a hard sell. Poetry is certainly not part of our culture.
The number one thing about poetry is you have to read it out loud. The drama of poetry and the sense of what it’s trying to tell you come out better when you recite it than when you just read it.
I don’t have great expectations. But on the other hand, there are certainly a good number of golfers who have an interest in literature. And if they have the opportunity, I think they would find it interesting and enjoyable.
How well do these poems get to the essence of the golf experience?
I think they do a very good job. And hopefully, if I did a good job, there’s a lot of poetry in the book that people will connect with in different ways and enjoy.
There’s a poem in the preface that was written by Grantland Rice. It’s a dedication to the duffer. The beauty of poetry is that it doesn’t take a lot of words, but it takes the right words in the right order.
Hunki Yun is a senior writer for the USGA. Contact him at email@example.com.