Although everybody must admit the fascination of the thing, it is a somewhat curious matter, when one comes to consider it, this hitting of a ball with a bat or club. So universal and clamorous an instinct must have its base somewhere very far down in human nature, for it has manifested itself in all climes, except, perhaps, in the torrid zone, and in all ages, while advancing civilisation seems only to develop and confirm the more primitive, but still inevitable, tendency. What subtle and potent agency working within us, is it, that hurries us in our thousands to the cricket-ground, regardless of the claims of business and society - not to perform in our own proper persons - but only that we may sit and watch a man hit, with a piece of wood, a round ball hurtled at him by another?
What madness in their blood is it, that causes obese and elderly gentlemen, who ought to be thinking of their latter end, to array themselves in knickerbockers and gaiters, and to take early suburban trains to inland parks, that they may strike with a club, round trees, and over ditches, a sphere of gutta-percha, and babble of their prowess in the family circle? Surely so strange a manifestation, so overwhelming and imperious in the claims it makes on its victims, must be a recrudescence of some primeval habit of the race, the precise nature and purpose of which it is now impossible to divine.
But apart from this mysterious and metaphysical aspect of the fascination of golf, the reasons for its widespread popularity are not far to seek. With the gradual centralisation of our population, and the ever-increasing strain and struggle of city life, physical recreation, both for its own sake and for the rest and healing it brings to the over-worked mental energies, has become a necessity of existence. Cricket, tennis, football, and cycling, all do their share in meeting this demand, but none of these can compare with golf as a healthful recreation for all ages and conditions of people. For it is not only the overworked city man who has found in golf the health-giving recreation he so much needed. In our country there is a large and increasing leisured class, men who have retired from the active pursuit of their professions, while still in possession of their physical energies. For these men, bilious and bored with the inaction and monotony of town life, broken only by the afternoon rubber at the club, or the yearly shooting or fishing holiday, golf has come as a boon and a blessing indeed.
The healthy surroundings of the game are doubtless another element that go far to make its popularity. Cricket and football are too often played in confined spaces, sometimes in the centre of large towns, surrounded by smoke and bad air. For golf, an open park or common of considerable size is necessary, and of course its original and proper home is the breezy "links" by the seashore.
As a physical training, golf is surpassed by no other form of exercise. No other game develops and strengthens, so evenly and roundly, all the muscles of the body. Here there is no dangerous straining of muscle or organ such as occurs in rowing, running, or football. The nature of the exercise is continuous, and calls into active play all the chief muscles of the body, but without violent strain, and, in consequence, the heart is strengthened in a gradual manner, and the circulation improved, to the manifest advantage of all the other organs.
These characteristics which golf possesses make it the game par excellence for all men whose physique, whether from constitutional weakness or from the weight of advancing years, has become impaired, and who are consequently debarred from the more violent forms of exercise. Many a cricketer and football player, whose heart or lungs have gone wrong, has found in the pursuit of golf not only improvement and cure for his body, but equal scope for the satisfaction of his sporting instincts. Many a man past fifty, who has imagined that all outdoor games were henceforward beyond his capacity, has in golf renewed his youth, finding himself under the spell of the game, half cheated of his years and his anxieties. It is quite common to hear such a man declare that golf has added ten years to his life.
The presence of elderly men enjoying themselves on the golf links, however, has led to golf being frequently described as "an old man's game"; and this remark is not intended to convey, what indeed would be cheerfully admitted, that it is capable of being played and enjoyed by our uncles and fathers, but the implication is, that it is not a game which any young man should take up, to the neglect of, say, cricket or football, unless he wishes to be set down as a muff. This view of the matter, it need hardly be said, is seldom expressed by those who have ever tried to play the game themselves, and it will probably surprise the irresponsible outsider to learn that no golfer has ever attained first-class form who began golf late in life, or, so far as I am aware, after he was out of the twenties; that, conversely, all the best players who have ever lived or are now alive, have played from their childhood, or at any rate from their teens. As a general rule, experience and history confirm the view that a golfer plays his best game between the ages of twenty and thirty, and usually when he is nearer twenty than thirty. At that age he possesses, in the highest degree, the activity, suppleness, and strength which are essential to a powerful, long game, and a long-sustained call upon his physical energies. At that age, too, he has more confidence in himself, his attitude of mind is simpler, less analytical, than at a later stage, when worldly cares and worries have done their work upon his nervous system.
It is quite true, on the other hand, that, against the decay of his more purely physical forces, the golfer often gains valuable compensation in the judgment and steadiness which come to him from experience and the formation of character. In consequence, many golfers, who have played, and played well, all their lives, only reach their best form comparatively late in life - though this, of course, can only occur before any marked physical deterioration has set in. Mr. Balfour-Melville, who won the Amateur Championship in 1895, is perhaps the most eminent example of this class.
But while golf confers these physical advantages on its votaries, its importance and usefulness as a training for the mind and character cannot be overestimated. In the course of a game of golf, all the strength and weakness of a man's nature come to the surface, and lie bare to the gaze of the most superficial observer. In the ordinary pursuits and intercourse of life, men comport themselves in a more or less conventional manner, so that their strong and weak points are often hidden, even from themselves.
On the golf green, under the storm and stress of a tight match, these masks are flung aside, and we see our own and our neighbours' real natures in all their nakedness. Here, as in the greater issues of life, it is the "still, strong man" that endures. Pluck, steadiness, patience, and self-restraint are the qualities that win the day. The sanguine and excitable temperament, though often found in combination with extreme brilliancy, nearly always cracks under the strain of bad luck, or if the struggle be much prolonged. The game thus provides a bloodless arena, where the highest attributes of human character - the qualities of courage, patience and self-restraint - may be studied and cultivated, and where a man may learn his true relation to his environment, and how to comport himself before his fellows.
But there is yet one more aspect of golf which endears it to its votaries, and that is its social aspect. Like its sister game of curling, it is a great leveller, and, on the golf green, social dis-tinctions are ignored, and.all men are equa, or separated only by the breadth of their handicaps. No matter how rich, or influential, or talented a man may be, he is judged on the links by his golfing capacity and his good-fellowship, and by nothing else. Here the simple confound the wise, and out of the mouths of babes and sucklings the great ones of the earth extract golfing wisdom. The game thus performs a great and patriotic service, in bringing all classes of the community together on a common basis, where they learn to know and respect each other finding out, as they inevitably do on the golf green, what a deal of human nature there is about everybody. The golfing snob we of course encounter, but he is a vara avis on the golf links, and, from his position of splendid isolation, is incapable of doing much to disturb the prevailing harmony of the proceedings.
Now that the ladies have taken up the game in real earnest, and are proving themselves such redoubtable performers, there seems nothing to be added to the completeness of the social side of golf.
Talleyrand has said that he who does not learn to play whist lays up for himself a miserable old age. With equal force the remark may be applied to golf. To enjoy golf, a man may begin at any age. It may be that to become a first-class player a golfer must begin early, and have, besides, a natural aptitude for the game; but be the period of his probation long or short, or his ultimate proficiency what it may, he will never regret the happy days he has spent in pleasant places, and he will he thankful that he has embraced a game which, as time goes on, will not cast him off scornfully, unmindful of his youthful devotion, but which will accompany him gladly, making his failing steps easy and pleasant, down the vale of years.
ST. ANDREWS LINKS (From a sketch by Garden a. Smith.)