Even Wodehouse, not given to a grim view of human nature, finds golf an excuse to darken his humour. In the preface to The Clicking of Cuthbert (1922), his first collection of golf stories, Wodehouse claims to be writing as ‘a very nearly desperate man, an eighteen-handicap man who has got to look extremely slippy if he doesn’t want to find himself in the twenties again’. The chief source of jokes in Clicking, and in its sequel The Heart of a Goof, is a vision of golf as an obsession, something between a religious cult and a mental illness. When Wodehouse’s golfers are bad, it destroys their confidence. When they’re good, it makes them intolerable.
Either way, they play golf all the time. You can hear their work lives falling apart in the distance: we are told, in wonder, of a golfer who would often ‘go to the trouble and expense of ringing up the office’ to say he wouldn’t be in.
And since they’re often caught up in Darwin’s one available plot – competing for the love of a woman – they have few scruples. They ferry one another’s balls by car to the other end of town, they bribe caddies and then hire private detectives to catch each other bribing caddies.
Wodehouse has golf provoke rage, despair, marriage breakdown and the severing of long friendships, as well as the formation of innumerable romances. His golfers swear by golfing heroes and dream of naming children after them: ‘Abe Mitchell Ribbed-face Mashie Banks’ or ‘Harry Vardon Sturgis’ (also JH Taylor Sturgis, George Duncan Sturgis, Edward Ray Sturgis, Horace Hutchinson Sturgis and little James Braid Sturgis).
The game’s effect on his narrator, meanwhile, is to turn him into a lethal bore. When other denizens of the Marvis Bay golf club see the Oldest Member coming, they leap up ‘with a whirr like a rocketing partridge’. It’s all good, funny, light, mock-heroic stuff. But it doesn’t leave you with a high estimation of the sanity of golfers.