Forbes 4 March 2002
Remembering the Oldest Member
If your handicap is no longer funny, maybe it's time you read the forgotten golf stories of P.G. Wodehouse.
"I wish to goodness I knew the man who invented this infernal game. I'd strangle him. But I suppose he's been dead for ages. Still, I could go and jump on his grave."
--The Heart of a Goof
From roughly 1920 to 1930, according to biographer Frances Donaldson, P.G. Wodehouse wrote the lyrics and part of the book for 14 musical comedies, all but two of which were produced in London or New York. He also wrote or adapted four dramatic plays. He published 20 books, four of which were short story collections, the rest novels, and he still managed to cover sports for his old prep school newspaper.
Merely having to read of this kind of productivity would be enough to make most writers' legs "wobble like asparagus stalks," to use one of the Master's own splendid similes. But consider that Wodehouse left time to accomplish one more feat during that decade: He learned to play golf.
This accounts for a couple of dozen or so wonderful golf stories that, unless you are a Wodehouseian extraordinaire, you may never have heard of. It's not that they've been lost for years in an attic so much as that they've remained entombed by the weight of the author's better-known works, such as the Jeeves series, the Wooster books and the Psmith chronicles. Ninety-six books in his 93 years.
Any reader who can name even three Wodehouse stories at all knows that they are mainly long on charm and short on depth. Wodehouse, in fact, disdained convoluted narrative. He could not abide Dickens, and observed of a Russian novelist in his story The Clicking of Cuthbert that, "Vladimir specialised in grey studies of hopeless misery, where nothing happened till page three hundred and eighty, when the moujik decided to commit suicide." No, one reads Wodehouse for his elegant, nutty, flapper-era characters and for his masterful touch with the language. That's the ticket, Mable.
Nearly all of the golf stories are narrated by an ancient sage known as the Oldest Member, from whose clubhouse aerie above the 18th green of the Manhooset Golf and Country Club in Long Island he has observed generations of spiffy young swells and well-heeled cheats play through. The Oldest Member is not so much world-weary as he is singularly aware of what others cannot see, that golf equals life. "The Great Mystery," the Sage declares of the game. "Like some capricious goddess, it bestows its favours with what would appear an almost fat-headed lack of method and discrimination."
Many of these dramas open with some "biffer," some "swatter" raging into the clubhouse after having "the boots licked off him" on the back nine. He may snap his putter over his knee and exclaim, "Oh...Dash-it all! What earthly good is golf?"
Thus, the Oldest Member stirs, orders a small lime juice from the club attendant and begins a golfing tale from the past meant to comfort the poor clam, whether the poor clam wants comforting or not.
From The Long Hole:
'...It is curious that you should have brought up this subject, [said the Oldest Member] for only a moment before you came in I was thinking...But perhaps I'd better tell you the whole story from the beginning.'
The young man shifted uneasily in his chair.
'Well, you know, I've had a pretty rotten time this afternoon already ...'
'I will call my story,' said the Sage tranquilly, ' "The Long Hole," for it involved the playing of what I am inclined to think must be the longest hole in the history of golf.'
'I half promised to go and see a man...'
'But I will begin at the beginning,' said the Sage. 'I see that you are all impatient to hear the full details.'
The Oldest Member's tale will invariably settle upon one of two types of duffer. The first is the callow dingbat--Bertie Wooster is Wodehouse's spiritual ideal--who disdains nothing in life, except perhaps croquet, and whose highest ambition in life is to do the dog-leg hole at the Squashy Hollow Golf Club in under double figures. He is a man about whom it might be said has, "...many engaging qualities--among them an unquestioned ability to imitate a bulldog quarrelling with a Pekingese in a way which had to be heard to be believed" (Ordeal by Golf). He is independently wealthy or at least lightly tethered to some position in the City that serves mainly as a distraction from golf. "...I myself have heard James...say, while lunching in the club-house, that he had half a mind to get Wall Street on the 'phone and ask how things were going" (A Woman Is Only a Woman).
Despite the days spent on the course, these sloshers are mainly only fair-to-lousy golfers. Sometimes they never get the game at all. "...James had the mournful distinction of breaking a record for the course by playing his fifth shot from the tee."
The second type of Wodehouse protagonist is the oft-married and divorced blowhard millionaire. Typically, his youth has been "misspent in the pursuits of commerce," before doing an inevitable stretch at Sing Sing (where, in Wodehouse's world, they play Yale in football). "Many a time in the past, when an active operator on the Street, [Bradbury Fisher] had done things to the small investor which would have caused raised eyebrows in the fo'c'sle of a pirate sloop..." (Keeping in With Vosper).
The millionaires now mainly hang around the club, avoiding wife number five, or "the present incumbent," and picking up high-stakes games. "He possessed...an overwhelming confidence in himself," begins one description in The Heel of Achilles, "and the ability to switch a cigar from one corner of his mouth to the other without wiggling his ears, which, as you know, is the stamp of the true Monarch of the Money Market."
It turns out that these wheezy old fools, like their younger counterparts, aren't particularly good at golf either. "It was his habit, as a rule, to raise his left foot some six inches from the ground and, having swayed forcefully back on his right leg, to sway sharply forward again and lash out with sickening violence in the general direction of the ball."
Into each of these protagonists' lives softly alights a plot involving some fly in their otherwise warm ointment, or as Wodehouse would have it, there arrives "a caterpillar in the salad." Everything threatens to come undone. In Sundered Hearts, for example, Mortimer Sturgis wants to marry a warmhearted young girl--nearly all of Wodehouse's young girls are warmhearted--but first he must risk making what he sees as a horrible confession.
'...judged by the standards of your snowy purity, I am not a good man.
I do not come to you clean and spotless as a young girl should expect her husband to come to her. Once, playing in a foursome, my ball fell in some long grass. Nobody was near me. We had no caddies...God knows I struggled against the temptation. But I fell. I kicked the ball on to a little bare mound, from which it was an easy task with a nice half-mashie to reach the green for a snappy seven...Ah! You shrink from me! You are disgusted!'
'I m not disgusted! And I don't shrink! I only shivered because it is rather cold.'
'Then you can love me in spite of my past?'
Likewise, the stuffed-shirt millionaires find that there is risk beyond riches in golf. Disaster always lies only a stroke or two from the pin. In High Stakes, Bradbury Fisher wagers surrendering his beloved butler to fellow millionaire J. Gladstone Bott.
'...You wouldn't dare to play me for anything that really mattered.'
'I'll play you when you like for anything you like.'
'Very well. I'll play you for Blizzard.'
'Oh, anything you please. How about a couple of railroads?'
'Make it three.'
Toward the end of his life Wodehouse looked back to see the game he had known passing. At age 92 he wondered in print what had happened to the golf bag that once held a "baffy," a "spoon," a "niblick," a "cleek" and a "mashie." All the clubs had numbers now, he lamented. There were no pros named Sandy McHoots or Jock Auchtermuchty, no spiffers named Rollo Podmarsh "zigzagging about the fairway like a liner being pursued by submarines." "No stopping Progress," he wrote, wistfully.
The world may change, but what the golf stories leave behind are their imperishable verities about the game, lessons that resonate today in the era of Tiger Inc. as amusingly as they did in the Roaring Twenties. Wodehouse exaggerated golf's importance in his characters' lives to lay bare their delicate egos. Imagine, being so wrapped up in the direction of a stupid little ball. But it still happens, probably today more than ever. So much depends on that long drive off the first tee, and then that first step on one's long walk into an afternoon peril. "When you turn in a medal score of a hundred and eight on two successive days," the Master once wrote, "you get to know something about Life."
And there's one more unassailable truth about the game Wodehouse knew would never change. "The only way...of really finding out a man's true character is to play golf with him," he wrote. "In no other walk of life does the cloven hoof so quickly display itself."