Dermot Gilleece recalls the antics of some of golf’s celebrated bad boys
Bad temper in golf is a weakness for which the great Henry Longhurst, had profound sympathy. When questioned on the subject, he would justify his views by referring to his great contemporary in golf-writing, Bernard Darwin, who, according to Henry, got really cross at golf and had a kind of love-hate relationship with the game for the best part of 70 years.
Indeed after a particularly upsetting incident when playing at Rye, Darwin was heard to mutter savagely to himself: ‘Why do I play this ****ing game? I do hate it so.’
By way of illustrating infuriating aspects of a pursuit which would dominate both their lives, Darwin told Longhurst about the unfortunate experience of a former leading Scottish amateur, prior to World War I. Longhurst wrote: ‘Though a big man, he made the discovery, as people do from time to time, that you can putt remarkably well one-handed, with a little putter about the size of a carpenter’s hammer’.
As always happens, it lasted splendidly for a while but proved fallible in the end. The climax came when he missed a tiddler with it on the ninth green at Muirfield. Raising himself to his full height, he flung it against the grey stone wall bordering the green. ‘You little bastard!’ he cried. ‘Never presume upon my good nature again!
Which leads me to the discovery that all fishy tales in golf are not necessarily reserved for the 19th hole, nor with company well -nourished with seasonal cheer. The experience of the hapless Scot brings to mind a certain English gentleman by the name of Albert Haddock, who was famously brought to heel for repeated outbursts of intemperate language on the course.
His story was revealed in a book titled Uncommon Law by a British member of parliament, AP Herbert, and published in 1936. Among 66 unusual legal cases which formed the basis of the book, the one about Haddock hinged on the issue as to whether a golfer should also be a gentleman.
We’re informed that Haddock was charged under the Profane Oats Act of 1745 with swearing and cursing on the Mullion course in Cornwall. A breach of the Act carried a fine of one shilling for each transgression, if one happened to be a labourer, soldier or seaman. If one were of higher social status but under the ‘degree of gentleman’, however, the fine was increased to two shillings and for a person ‘of or above the degree of gentleman’, each offence carried the penalty of five shillings.
Herbert’s book informs us that Haddock was charged with no fewer than 400 ‘maledictions’ which, based on his gentleman’s status, meant a potential fine of £100, which was a very significant sum in those days. Small wonder that Haddock strenuously defended the charges.
According to the book: ‘The defendant admits the offences, but contends that the fine is excessive and wrongly calculated, on the curious ground that he is not a gentleman when he is playing golf.’ The game of golf, claimed Haddock, created circumstances that would ‘break down the normal restraints of a civilised citizen’, while inflaming powerful passions, comparable to the discovery of another man molesting one’s wife.
It seems that Haddock played Mullion twice each year and usually played well enough until reaching the 12th, which featured a tee-shot across an inlet of the sea bordered by cliffs 60 feet high. Known locally at The Chasm, it never failed to catch Haddock’s well-intentioned drives. So it is hardly surprising that it began to prey on the golfer’s mind.
We’re told that initially, Haddock would hit six or seven golf balls into the sea before finally abandoning the hole and moving on. Based on experience, however, he later reduced his losses to two balls and, finally, he settled for hitting one ball onto the boulder-strewn beach below, before clambering after it and flailing his way to high ground, 60 feet above.
Herbert writes: ‘On one or two occasions, a crowd of holiday-makers and local residents have gathered on the cliff and foreshore to watch the defendant’s indomitabe struggles and to hear the verbal observations that have accompanied them. On the date of the alleged offences, a crowd of unprecedented dimensions collected, but so intense was the defendant’s concentration that he did not, he tells us, observe their presence.
‘His ball had more nearly tranversed the gulf than ever before; it struck the opposing cliff but a few feet from the summit and nothing but an adverse gale of exceptional ferosity prevented success. The defendant therefore, as he conducted his customary excavations among the boulders of The Chasm, was possessed, he tells us, by a more than customary fury. Oblivious of the surroundings, conscious only of the will to win, for 15 to 20 minutes he lashed his battered ball against the stubborn cliffs until, as last, it triumphantly escaped.
‘And before, during and after every stroke, he uttered a number of imprecations of a complex character, which were carefully recorded by an assiduous caddie and by one or two of the spectators. The defendant says that he recalls with shame a few of the expressions which he used, that he has never used them before and that it was a shock to him to hear them issuing from his own lips; and he says quite frankly that no gentleman would use such language.’
While expressing admiration for the brilliance of Haddock’s defence, the author explained that evidence had been called “to show the subversive effect of this exercise upon the ethical and moral systems of the mildest of mankind.” He went on: ‘Elderly gentlemen, gentle in all respects, kind to animals, beloved by children and fond of music, are found in lonely corners of the downs, hacking at sandpits or tussocks of grass, and muttering in a blind, ungovernable fury, elaborate maledictions that could not be extracted from them by robbery or murder. Men who would face torture without a word, become blasphemous at the short 12th.’
Herbert further expressed the view: ‘It is clear that the game of golf may well be included in that category of intolerable provocations which may legally excuse or mitigate behaviours not otherwise excusable, and that under that provocation, the reasonable or gentle man may reasonably act like a lunatic or lout respectively, and should legally be judged as such.’
After this lengthy preamble, you’re entitled to wonder how Haddock made out in court. It transpired that much consideration was given to the true nature of a gentleman before this ruling came down:
‘That provocation was so exceptional that I cannot think that it was contemplated by the framers of the [Profane Oaths] Act; and had golf at that date (1745) been a popular exercise, I have no doubt that it would have been dealt with under a special section. I find therefore that this case is not governed by the Act.
‘I find that the defendant at the time was not in law responsible for his actions or his speech, and I am unable to punish him in any way. For his conduct in The Chasm, he will be formally convicted of Attempted Suicide while Temporarily Insane, but he leaves the court without a stain upon his character.’
On reading about Haddock’s escapades in the January/February 1985 issue of the sadly defunct American magazine Golf Journal, I can remember having a serious chat about it with the Editor, the late Robert (Bob) Sommers. Realising that I had not taken the story cum granu salis, Bob got a fit of laughing. ‘The clue is in Haddock, the golfer’s name,’ he said. Then he walked away, chuckling to himself.