"Of all the frivolous activities we supposedly higher apes have devised in the name of entertainment, surely there is none as silly as golf," declared my friend Sherlock Holmes one day. "Why a man who is free to do so many things would choose to spend the better part of a day striking and then hunting down a small ball is a mystery beyond even my powers to solve."
This is an article from the July 24, 1995 issue
Although Holmes had never made a secret of his disdain for athletic competition, which he deemed a pointless expenditure of energy, the bitterness of his outburst took me by surprise. We were in our Baker Street chambers, I with a book, while he lay motionless on the divan in a posture of utter lassitude. It was the summer of 1895, and we had just completed one of the busiest periods in Holmes's great career. In the past few months he had brought to a halt the curious harassment of Miss Violet Smith, the "solitary cyclist" of Charlington, and had traveled to the Continent at the request of Leo XII to investigate the mysterious death of Cardinal Tosca. Soon, Holmes would put his considerable talent for disguise to good use in solving the case of Black Peter. I knew from experience that gloomy depressions often followed periods of intense excitement, so I did not despair.
"I see you have been reading the Times' preview of the upcoming Open championship," I remarked as casually as possible.
"Bravo, Watson!" said Holmes, leaping to his feet. "You know my
methods well. You've noted a fact -- that I've offered my
opinion of golf, which is rather low. You've combined it with
another fact, namely that I retrieved the paper from our
doorstep not an hour ago. And from the two you have drawn a
quite reasonable inference, albeit a rudimentary one. I have
been reading the Times' piece on the Open. It...."
But before he could finish, a knock came at the door. Poking her head around the corner, Mrs. Hudson said, "There's a gentleman to see you, sir. Says it's most urgent."
It must indeed have been urgent, for no sooner had she spoken this word than a young gentleman stepped into the room. From his demeanor, it was impossible not to receive the impression that he was being eaten alive by his own nerves. He was a good four inches under six feet, I would judge, with sandy-brown hair and a stocky build. He wore a neatly trimmed mustache and a tweed suit, and he seemed utterly incapable of standing still.
"I'm terribly sorry to intrude," said our visitor, his eyes darting from one of us to the other. "But I must speak to Mr. Sherlock Holmes."
"I am Sherlock Holmes. Please sit down," said my friend, gesturing to a chair while he studied our visitor keenly. "How are things at Westward Ho!? I trust you've worked the kinks out of your sand game?"
I thought our poor visitor would collapse. "This is astonishing," he said, recovering himself. "My accent, I suppose, identifies me as Devonian. But how can you possibly know that I am a golfer and have been working these past few weeks at the Westward Ho! club on improving my sand game?"
Holmes smiled. "Westward Ho! is the only real course in the west country. I took an educated guess. And as to the sand, when you sat down a few grains of sand fell from your trouser cuffs." Holmes stooped to examine the floor. "Here they are on the rug. I am the author of a small monograph on the 17 distinct types of sand found from Land's End to John o' Groat's. This sand is of the fine variety quarried in Cornwall and used predominantly in golf-course bunkers in that area. You are either an extraordinarily bad golfer, or an extremely diligent one who has spent the morning standing ankle deep in the stuff, practicing."
"Truly, Mr. Holmes, your reputation scarcely does you justice,"
said our visitor. "It is true: The bunker shot, which used to be
the one constant in my game, has deserted me. I hit 100 balls at
the club this morning and then raced to catch my train. I've
just arrived on the 10:08 from Barnstaple, and I mean to leave
London today for Edinburgh and thence for St. Andrews, where I
am to play in the Open. I am the defender, having won the title
last summer at Sandwich."
"My congratulations," Holmes said to Taylor. "But I'm sure it is not for the purpose of advertising your prowess as a golfer that you've come to consult me."
"To tell the truth, Mr. Holmes, I do not know whether the matter that brings me to you is worthy of your attention. I don't know whether it's a mystery -- or just a silly prank. My name is John Henry Taylor, though in the golf world I am known as just J.H. I am 24 years old, and, as you have already divined, I am from Devon. I was born in Northam, a tiny village on the north coast. My father was a laborer, a proud man who worked himself to death while I was still a boy.
"Though he left me little in the way of material gifts, he was more than generous in providing me with a large dose of ambition. Not far from my home was Westward Ho!, the cliffside premises of the Royal North Devon Golf Club. I learned from a friend that the club was always on the lookout for trustworthy lads to caddie for the members on weekends. I applied and was accepted.
"One of my regulars -- at least when he was down from Oxford --
was Horace Hutchinson, the amateur champion. Mr. Horace was a
kind man. He would always allow me to borrow a club or two while
he ate lunch or had a drink with his mates. We caddies regularly
conducted our own fierce little tournaments behind the caddie
hut, and before long I was the most proficient player among the
"Yet for some reason -- perhaps because I had my poor father's
example always before me -- I could not bring myself to think of
golf as work. So in those first few years of my professional
life, I sampled other kinds of employment. I was a gardener's
boy for three years, then a mason's laborer, carrying bricks and
mortar up ladders for 15 shillings a week. I tried repeatedly to
enlist in the army, but was rejected for poor eyesight and flat
feet. I was turned down by the navy, as well, and was too short
for the police. Finally all these rejections and false starts
pointed me to one inescapable conclusion: Golf was the life I
was meant for. There was no fighting it.
"With my own reservations at last quelled, I returned to the game with a new fervor. By the time the first working man's club in England was founded at Northam in North Devon seven years ago, I was playing off scratch and had the great honor of beating Mr. Horace 3 and 2. I began to travel to matches at clubs in Somerset, Cornwall and Hampshire and, what's more, to win them.
"Two years ago, when the Open was held at Prestwick, I began the tournament by playing as well as I ever had. I was out in 35, and not only was my 75 the first-round leader, it was a course record and gave me a three-stroke advantage. I think the excitement of my success must have played on my mind, for I shot 89 for the afternoon round and was never again in contention.
"Last year, however, at Sandwich, I led from the first day and won the Challenge Cup, becoming the first English professional to do so."
"Yes," said Holmes. "By coincidence, before you came, I was reading of the ceremony in which the cup is passed from the outgoing champion to his successor."
A terrible groan came from Mr. Taylor. "You anticipate the very reason for my visit, Mr. Holmes," he said, hanging his head. "I no longer have the trophy."
"You've lost it?" asked Holmes, leaning forward in excitement.
"No -- at least I don't think so."
"Come, man. Don't be so cryptic."
"These past 12 months, I have kept it in the trophy case at Westward Ho! Last night I took it from its case and carried it home to pack it for the trip to Scotland. I left my living room for no more than a minute, and when I came back downstairs, the cup, which I'd left on my own mantel, was gone. The front door was ajar, so I suppose the thief entered and left by that means."
"Who knew of your plans to take the cup home?"
"Only a few of my closest friends at the club, but I cannot seriously suspect any of them. It's my great misfortune that the Open is being contested this year at St. Andrews. As you know, if I lose, I must present the cup to my successor. The ceremony is to be held at perhaps the most famous spot in all of golf, the 18th green at St. Andrews. If I don't have the cup," Mr. Taylor said, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath, "it will be a terrible blow, not just to my honor but to the honor of English golf."
"There's not much we can do at this moment, I'm afraid," said Holmes. "It seems any number of people could have entered your house and taken it."
"Please, Mr. Holmes, if you won't help me...."
"Calm yourself, I only meant that there was nothing we can do here in London. If I'm not mistaken, there's a two o'clock express to Edinburgh. If we hurry to the station now, we may just be able to catch it."
Mr. Taylor proved to be an entertaining traveling companion. He may not have had a formal education, but his father would have been proud of the way he'd compensated. He was, it turned out, one of the game's great innovators, his many contributions including an overlapping manner of gripping the club, the expanded use of a club he called the "mashie" and a style of foul-weather play he referred to as "flat-footed golf," which I understood to mean spreading his feet wider and striking the ball with a short, compact swing.
It was evening when we changed trains in Edin-burgh and from there crossed the rolling hills of Fife. As we approached our destination, Mr. Taylor's spirits rose higher and higher, and he seemed briefly to cast off his worry. "It is the great ambition of my life, Mr. Holmes, to bring golf to ordinary working people who at the moment have nowhere to play." He chuckled upon seeing the look of deep skepticism that crossed Holmes's face. "Ah, it's a great game, Mr. Holmes! I grant it might seem a bit daft to a cerebral chap like yourself, but once the fever has invaded your blood, it is hard to root out."
"Yes," said Holmes dryly, "I have little doubt that the Thane of
Fife's wife -- had she the misfortune of living in these
golf-besotted times -- would have been a golf widow."
At Leuchars Junction we transferred to the local carriage that would take us the remaining few miles to St. Andrews. The first part of this stretch was through woodland. Then we rounded a bend, and directly before us was one of the most glorious sights in all the world. To our left was the dark expanse of linksland, which the late-afternoon sun had turned the dark brown of old oil paintings, and beyond it the still darker line I knew to be St. Andrews Bay. We could make out, here and there, the brighter yellow blotches of what the Scots call whins, but the scene was for the most part utterly lacking the bright greens of English courses. In the years since, I have seen many courses, but none possessed the stark beauty of St. Andrews.
Mr. Taylor had a room reserved at the Grand Hotel, an imposing red sandstone block standing right on the edge of the 18th green, and we learned, upon enquiring, that one suite remained. Exhausted by our hasty journey, I bid my companions good night and went up to bed. I must have begun dreaming the instant that my head touched the pillow because I fancied I heard, growing out of the rhythmic surge of the sea, the mournful drone of bagpipes.
I was awakened the next morning by the sun shining brightly in my window. Checking the adjoining room, I was surprised to find that Holmes had left. After a delicious breakfast of eggs and Scottish salmon, I had just wandered out the hotel's front door when Holmes came striding around the corner of the clubhouse, his face burnished red from the wind.
"Watson, you slugabed, I peeked in on you when I awoke, and I am pleased to say that you looked positively cherubic. I have been exploring the links. Truly, there is nothing as invigorating as a morning walk along the sea."
"You really should have waked me, Holmes," I said. But our conversation went no further for at that moment Mr. Taylor burst through the hotel door and rushed up to us. "I found this slipped in under my door," he said, handing Holmes a scrap of paper on which two lines were written:
Burning to play?
Tom has the time.
"What can it mean, Mr. Holmes?" asked Taylor, his voice tight with anxiety.
"It means our adversary is a playful soul," said Holmes slowly. "Is there anyone in the field named Tom?"
"Not that I'm aware of," said Taylor, "though until recently you'd have found two Toms in the field at every Open, and both very likely near the front. Between them, Old Tom Morris and his son, Young Tom, won eight of the first dozen Opens. Young Tom died a mysterious death on Christmas Day in 1875, and all agree the cause was a broken heart. The 18th hole, which you see before you, is now called Tom Morris, in honor of Old Tom."
"Do all the holes have names?" Holmes inquired of Taylor.
"Yes, the 1st is called Burn because of the stream that cuts in front of the green."
"That's it!" Holmes exclaimed. "Burn-ing to play. Tom has the time. If there's a further clue, we'll find it in the vicinity of these two holes."
He turned slowly, surveying the grand hotels and humble shops that stretched up the 18th fairway. When he had turned almost all the way around, his gaze fell upon the solid stone box of the clubhouse, and there it stopped. A satisfied smile crossed his face.
Holmes was staring at the clock on the southwest corner of the Royal & Ancient's clubhouse. Seeing nothing out of place or amiss with the clock itself, the three of us rushed inside and up to the corner room on whose outside wall the clock was fixed. There, pinned to the wall was a note written in an elegant, spidery hand. It read:
Well done, Mr. Holmes, you've
interpreted my first clue. Then again,
it was not that difficult, was it?
We'll call it even up. For now.
"We can do nothing now but await our adversary's next clue,"
said Holmes. "Mr. Taylor, I suggest you make whatever
preparations are necessary for your round today. Just in case
our friend tries anything, Watson and I will follow you as
inconspicuously as possible."
I had never attended a golf tournament so the entire day was a revelation to me. The Scottish weather, so renowned for its capriciousness, was sunny and calm. Unfortunately, Mr. Taylor was not. He started well, scoring 4s on each of the first two holes, but on the 3rd, which was called Cartgate Out, the strain of the past 24 hours began to take its toll. His first shot was a corker. The ball streaked down the middle of the fairway and aided in part by the wind and in part by its own perverse spin, turned abruptly right and headed straight for a knot of spectators clustered beside a clump of whins. Mr. Taylor stood as if paralyzed. My own voice was frozen.
"For god's sake, look out!" screamed Holmes.
Just then the wind came roaring up off the bay, carrying away most of his words. But the urgency of Holmes's shout must have penetrated the gale, for at the last possible moment the group scattered and the ball landed harmlessly amongst them. Rattled by this near catastrophe, Taylor shanked his next shot into one of the odious little hazards called pot bunkers. He had to hit out backwards and recorded a 6 for the hole. He never regained his composure that round. His 86 placed him at equal fifth.
"I'll have to play much better than that if I'm to have any chance of defending," he said rather glumly when we were seated for lunch in the hotel. "It's not easy with this mystery hanging over me."
"You must place your trust in me," said Holmes. "Until the cup turns up, we can assume that whoever has it is keeping it with an eye to producing it at some appropriate time. Until we know his motive, we can't discern what that time might be. Now, since I've heard so much about haggis, I think I'll try a wee bit."
Boiled sheep innards do not appeal to me, and so I repaired to my room. When I knocked on Holmes's door on my way out to watch the second round, I was greeted by an awful groan. Entering I found my friend in bed, his face blanched and his head hanging over a wastepaper basket.
"What is it, Holmes?" I asked.
"Alimentary, my dear Watson, alimentary," he said with a sick smile. "The haggis seems not to have agreed with me. Go on with Taylor. I will catch up later, no doubt."
But I did not see Holmes again until that night. Where he spent the afternoon, I cannot imagine. Certainly I saw him nowhere on the course as I followed Taylor around. Taylor improved tremendously, shooting a 78, which left him five strokes behind Sandy Herd of Huddersfield. In the lounge bar afterward, Taylor was again in an expansive mood, speculating happily on his renewed chances of winning when Holmes walked in. He offered no explanations for his disappearance, no report on the progress of the case. He just sat down.
At that moment a waiter tapped Mr. Taylor on the shoulder and
handed him a slip of paper. Holmes's eyes burned brightly as he
watched Taylor unfold the paper.
Who suffers deep longing?
He who knows Hell.
"I've got it," exclaimed Taylor, leaping to his feet. "If there is anything that makes this course special, it's the bunkers. Some are so famous they have been given proper names. Without a doubt, the most famous of all is Hell Bunker, on the 14th hole. It's a monster. You could hide a family of elephants in it."
"And is not the 14th known as Long?" said Holmes. "So the deepest part of Long is Hell, eh? This man is mocking us. Mr. Taylor, you no doubt need some sleep. Watson and I will visit Hell Bunker and see what's there."
I will never forget our walk that night out across the moonlit links toward what danger we knew not. Holmes had always been a vigorous walker, and it was now a challenge just to keep pace with him. The barren stretch of land, pocked by curious craters, resembled the lunar landscapes in one of Mr. Verne's fantasies.
There was no mistaking Hell Bunker: It would easily have held not just Mr. Taylor's elephants, but all of our Baker Street lodgings. As we peered over the brink, I could make out a small figure, a doll dressed in fawn tweed very much like the outfit in which Mr. Taylor had played that day.
Holmes climbed slowly down into the bunker, retrieved the doll and then scrambled back up its side. He showed me the doll and the pin someone had driven through its heart. "Not a word of this to Taylor," he said, "or he'll have no chance of playing well tomorrow."
That evening, as I was drifting off to sleep, I again thought I heard bagpipes and made a note to inquire about this curious phenomenon.
On the morning of the second day of play, Holmes was once more absent when I awoke. Miffed at finding myself excluded from his counsel, I decided to postpone breakfast until I had found him. Crossing the fairway of the notorious 17th, the Road Hole, I rounded the railway sheds and had begun to walk out on the wide meadows along the Eden River, where the golfers often practiced, when I beheld a sight that I had thought I would never see.
There was no mistaking the tall, gaunt figure standing on the practice tee. Holmes's swing was quite the opposite of Taylor's. Whereas our friend's traced a short, controlled arc, Holmes's had a loopy elegance to it. He used every inch of his height to generate power, and his follow-through lifted him clear off his feet.
I watched in amazement for 10 minutes until Holmes, apparently sensing my presence, turned and saw me. He seemed slightly irked at being discovered. "Just a bit of research," he said, lofting a shot high into the air, where the wind caught it and deposited it neatly on the green, some 10 feet from the flag.
"Shouldn't we find Mr. Taylor?" I asked.
"In a minute," he said, knocking out a high shot almost identical to the last. "You know, Watson, I suspect a skilled golfer might reduce this game to a set of scientific principles. Watch. I turn my hand in the other direction and...." The ball jumped off the club, traveled 150 yards and then turned the other way.
"You're right, Watson. I suppose we should find Taylor." He hit one last towering shot, spun on his heel and started off in the direction of the hotel.
We were just making our way up the front steps when Mr. Taylor burst through the front door and thrust a slip of paper into Holmes's hands. Peering over his shoulder, I could see in an instant that it was written by the same hand as the other notes:
Fancy a Beer?
Come to my Cottage.
By now we knew how to interpret our adversary's clues. "The fourth hole is Ginger Beer," said Holmes, consulting his map of the course, "and yes, there's a bunker on it called Cottage."
Holmes saw me raise my eyebrows as I watched him check the revolver in the pocket of his coat. "Our friend has already demonstrated his fondness for word play," he explained grimly. "So far he has been content merely to mock us. But as this championship draws to a close, so does our adventure. I fear that the bier he is inviting us to is not social, but funereal."
With that grim thought, Holmes began to stride out across the course. As we approached the 4th hole, we could see a lone figure hunched over a ball on the green, putting, as it seemed to me. As we drew nearer I saw he was a tall, pale man, aristocratic in bearing. He dropped the putter and walked forward to meet us.
"Watson," said Holmes, "let me introduce you to Mr. Horace Hutchinson, Taylor's greatest benefactor now turned his worst enemy."
"Really, Mr. Holmes," replied Hutchinson, "that seems a bit melodramatic, don't you think?"
From the first word I heard Hutchinson speak, the man's unctuous manner turned my stomach. "Why have you done this to poor Taylor?" I blurted out. "He's sick with worry. He describes you in far more generous terms than you deserve. Why have you done this?"
Hutchinson rolled his eyes across the sky, as if following the progress of one of Holmes's shots. "If Taylor wins here," he said, "he'll have a far loftier platform from which to publicize his awful populist views. When I encouraged him all those years ago, I had no idea the silly little bugger would get in his head to make golf a people's game like darts, football or cross-country running."
"Enough," said Holmes. "Where is the trophy?"
"And why should I tell you?"
"Because you have achieved your aim. Taylor stands little chance of winning now. He has lost whatever platform a win here might have given him. Shall we putt for it?"
"I didn't know you played, Mr. Holmes."
"I'm new to the game, but I'll take my chances."
To me, this seemed a foolhardy gamble, another example of my friend's confidence in himself, which at times seemed excessive. Not only did Hutchinson have years of experience, but he had been practicing on this very green as we approached. And this would be no easy putt: The hole was on the far side of a tricky ridge, perhaps 50 feet from where we were standing.
Hutchinson went first. He stood over the ball for a moment and then stroked it. It rolled up the ridge, then down its far side, gathering speed. It slipped past the hole on the right side by perhaps six inches and wound up another 18 inches beyond.
It was now Holmes's turn. Lighting his pipe, he walked all the way to the hole and back, examining the turf along the way. He then squatted, holding the putter vertically aloft and sighting along its shaft. Hutchinson seemed unnerved by Holmes's preparations, and he began to pace briskly back and forth just behind us.
"Hutchinson, would you please stop moving?" said Holmes.
At last Holmes was ready. Standing over the ball with his pipe still in his mouth, he hit his putt with the same force Hutchinson had, but along a slightly different line. It traveled up the ridge, rolled along a swell neither I nor Hutchinson had noticed, caromed around the back of the hole and came to rest a foot away. Turning slowly, Holmes cocked an eyebrow at Hutchinson. "The cup?"
"Oh, blast!" said Hutchinson. "All right, all right. You're very
nearly standing on it. This hole used to be known as the Hole of
Cunnin Links -- cunnin being old Scots for "rabbit." Under us is
a vast rabbit warren. I stashed the cup down one of the holes to
the right of the green. You'll find it there."
Sure enough, we found the cup in the third burrow we looked in. Holmes had to reach his arm all the way down into the hole to retrieve it. As we marched back to the hotel with our great prize in hand, we passed some of the early twosomes on their way out for the final round of the Open. We knocked on Taylor's door, and when he opened it, there, nestled in Holmes's arms, was the cup. Again I thought Holmes had overdone his penchant for surprise, as poor Taylor staggered backwards in shock.
"Great god!" he finally said. "Thank you, Holmes. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Wherever did you find it?"
"I will tell you later," said Holmes. "For now, you must concern yourself with other matters. To quote Robert the Bruce, 'I have brought you to the ring. Now you must dance.'"
With the cup now safely in his possession once again, Taylor was able to concentrate fully on his game in the round, and a magnificent demonstration he gave. Indeed, he could not have asked for a better day on which to demonstrate the effectiveness of flat-footed golf. The wind, risen up off the North Sea, came roaring across the course like a train. It played havoc with everyone's game but our friend's. Hole after hole, he planted himself firmly and then used his trusty mashie to punch his ball straight through the gale. Herd, who led by three shots as they started the round, suffered all the torments of the Scottish wind. He blew up to an 85, while Taylor finished magnificently, with a 78.
There on the 18th green -- which in the first round had seemed
destined to be the scene of his greatest humiliation -- Taylor
made an eloquent speech extolling the beauty of Scottish golf
and of the Scots' generous desire to share it with all the
world. He received a tremendous ovation and was toasted that
night, I'm sure, in every pub in St. Andrews.
As we strolled home at midnight from a splendid celebratory dinner, I heard once again the music of my mysterious piper. Though Holmes did not seem especially interested in solving my mystery, I was determined to track down the midnight musician. I set off, with Taylor and Holmes jogging along behind me, using my ears to guide me through the dark, walled streets. Rounding a corner near the cathedral, I finally spotted him in the mist, a lone figure dressed in a kilt. "Good god," exclaimed Taylor. "It's Freddie Tait."
Tait, it turned out, was quite a golfer. In fact, in each of the next two years he would finish third in the Open. He also was quite a popular character among his townsmen, who found fault only with his fondness for midnight piping.
Holmes and I continued to follow Mr. Taylor's remarkable career. He did not achieve the dominance predicted for him after his triumph at St. Andrews. The following year another giant of the game appeared, Harry Vardon. The final round of the next year's Open was a corker, with Vardon making up three strokes on our friend, and then beating him in a 36-hole playoff.
The two of them, along with James Braid of Scotland, soon came to be known as the Great Triumvirate, which dominated British golf for 20 years. They would win 16 of the 21 Opens contested from 1894 through 1914. Our friend won his fifth and final championship in 1913 by the amazing margin of eight strokes!
Holmes and I, however, knew that he must have been equally satisfied by watching the game grow and spread through all the ranks of British society, thanks to the Artisan Golfers' Association and the National Association of Public Golf Courses, both of which he championed.
And Holmes? His mania -- I know of no other word to describe it
-- for golf would last a lifetime. He tells people he has
retired to the South Downs of Sussex to raise bees, but I know
better. I visit him regularly and know the use he makes of the
broad meadow behind his cottage, the true meaning of the tiny
scallops cut from the turf. Holmes would never admit it, but I
strongly suspect that the "James Sherlock" who finished sixth at
the 1904 Open at Sandwich was none other than my estimable
Editor's note: Had he lived to see it, Watson would have been proud in 1924, when, at the age of 53, Taylor finished fifth in the Open behind the great U.S. golfer Walter Hagen.