The Golf Causerie – John Sutherland of Royal Dornoch Golf Club

Some things are better forgotten: those troubling shots that shoot off at a direct right angle to your intended target (I refuse to acknowledge the word); the clothing you wore in the 1970s. Others are best remembered, including the writings of John Sutherland.

John Sutherland served as the secretary of the Royal Dornoch Golf Club beginning in 1883 for a period of fifty-eight years. He was also a fledgling architect and laid out a couple of courses, including one for Andrew Carnegie at Skibo. While Donald Ross served as greenkeeper at Royal Dornoch he and Sutherland would often walk the course at night and talk about what improvements could be made. Sutherland also wrote a golf column for a London newspaper, The Daily News, under the name “Golf Causerie.” A causerie is an informal article or talk. Thus, the title of a newly published book: Golf Causerie.

The 492 book, which was compiled and edited by Robin K. Bargmann, republishes the “rediscovered” articles to coincide with the 400-year anniversary of golf at Dornoch. The articles (there are 252 in the book) were published between 1906 and 1912 and give interesting insights about golf from the period.

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John Sutherland pictured on the cover with his impressive mustache

The book has many interesting vignettes, and as an American I will pick out a few from the 252 focused on America. A product of the countryside, Sutherland was not a fan of New York City: “Nowhere is life more complex and artificial.” Sutherland visited the United States in 1909 and showed up unannounced at Merion and was allowed to play.  As the Scot tells it, “Within five minutes club and course were at my disposal, and the best of partners was given to me for this my first round on American soil.  To hear of the American’s free-heartedness is one thing: to experience it, quite another, and to thoroughly appreciate it, you must need go, amongst other places, to Merion Country Cricket Club, Pennsylvania, unknown and unintroduced.”

He also played at the Chevy Chase Club and while there he met with the sitting President of the United States, the golf-obsessed William Howard Taft, a notorious duffer. The maximum allowable handicap at Chevy Chase at the time was thirty and Taft was rated an eighteen, and Sutherland noted skeptically, “I guess that is just about correct.” He was impressed with the venue, “The Chevy Chase Club is the leading country club in the United States as there is no similar organization which has so many prominent names in every walk of life on its membership list.”

The Dornoch man took on C.B. Macdonald in 1910, writing an article titled The Bluff About America’s New Course, throwing cold water on the idea that the National Golf Links of America would be instantly great. “The popular idea that the best eighteen holes in the world elsewhere are to be reproduced on this Long Island course is a delusion that it is time to expose.” He called Macdonald a Wall Street magnate: “what could a Wall Street magnate necessarily know about golf or golf course construction? America produces no natural turf, and therefore it has to be procured from seeding.” Interestingly, he cites Walter Travis as saying that the weakest hole on the course “is the 16th (today’s 7th hole), which is a duplication of the 17th at St Andrews; but this was about the latest work undertaken, and it may yet improve.” Sutherland calls the 17th at St. Andrews not the Road Hole but instead the “Stationmaster’s Garden,” a term I had never heard before.

Sutherland’s topics range far and wide: he writes about Walton Heath, James Braid, the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, H.S. Colt, ladies golf, the Schenectady putter, Sunningdale, Oxford & Cambridge golf, handicapping, the virtues of match play over medal play, Cruden Bay, and Royal Aberdeen. He also complains about the price of golf balls and the continual rules changes. A hearty soul, Sutherland writes about playing golf in January, “Next to curling and skating, one can hardly think of a more agreeable occupation for an off day than a round on the links on a bright, crisp, frosty forenoon.”

The book also contains scores of early black and white (and the occasional color) illustrations that enhance its appeal, and I was drawn to it immediately. How could it be that a serial newspaper column from over a century ago can be so strangely enthralling? A good question. Maybe because Sutherland wasn’t thinking much about posterity when he wrote the daily columns; they reflect an up close view of the world that books written to last for decades do not. That, plus the informal nature that a causerie writes in makes you feel like you have been transported back 100 years and are sitting in the smoke-room overhearing conversations of informed early twentieth century golfers in the home of golf.

Kudos to Bargmann for taking the painstaking time to scan and edit the articles and for bringing this back to life.

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A portrait of Freddie Tait from Golf Causerie

              — John Sabino

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Valuable Book Group specializes in rare, collectible and valuable golf books. We are avid collectors ourselves obsessed not only with playing the game, but also its history and the literature of the game.
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