A. A. Milne ~ The Competition Spirit

About six weeks ago a Canadian gentleman named Smith arrived in the Old Country (England). He knew a man who knew a man who knew a man … and so on for a bit … who knew a man who knew a man who knew me. Letters passed; negotiations ensued; and about a week after he had first set foot in the Mother City (London) Smith and I met at my Club for lunch.

I may confess now that I was nervous. I think I expected a man in a brown shirt and leggings, who would ask me to put it “right there,” and tell me I was “some Englishman.” However, he turned out to be exactly like anybody else in London. Whether he found me exactly like anybody else in Canada I don’t know. Anyway, we had a very pleasant lunch, and arranged to play golf together on the next day.

Whatever else is true of Canada there can be no doubt that it turns out delightful golfers. Smith proved to be just the best golfer I had ever met, being, when at the top of his form, almost exactly as good as I was. Hole after hole we halved in a mechanical eight. If by means of a raking drive and four perfect brassies at the sixth he managed to get one up for a moment, then at the short seventh a screaming iron and three consummate approaches would make me square again. Occasionally he would, by superhuman play, do a hole in bogey; but only to crack at the next, and leave me, at the edge of the green, to play “one off eleven.” It was, in fact, a ding-dong struggle all the way; and for his one-hole victory in the morning I had my revenge with a one-hole victory in the afternoon.

By the end of a month we must have played a dozen rounds of this nature. I always had a feeling that I was really a better golfer than he, and this made me friendly towards his game. I would concede him short putts which I should have had no difficulty in missing myself; if he lost his ball I would beg him to drop another and go on with the hole; if he got into a bad place in a bunker I would assure him it was ground under repair. He was just as friendly in refusing to take these advantages, just as pleasant in offering similar indulgences to me. I thought at first it was part of his sporting way, but it turned out that (absurdly enough) he also was convinced that he was really the better golfer of the two, and could afford these amenities.

One day he announced that he was going back to Canada.

“We must have a last game,” he said, “and this one must be decisive.”

“For the championship of the Empire,” I agreed. “Let’s buy a little cup and play for it. I’ve never won anything at golf yet, and I should love to see a little cup on the dinner-table every night.”

“You can’t come to dinner in Canada every night,” he pointed out. “It would be so expensive for you.”

Well, the cup was bought, engraved “The Empire Challenge Cup,” and played for last Monday.

“This,” said Smith, “is a serious game, and we must play all out. No giving away anything, no waiving the rules. The Empire is at stake. The effeteness of the Mother Country is about to be put to the proof. Proceed.”

It wasn’t the most pleasant of our games. The spirit of the cup hung over it and depressed us. At the third hole I had an eighteen-inch putt for a half. “That’s all right,” said Smith forgetfully; and then added, “Perhaps you’d better put it in, though.” Of course I missed. On the fifth green he was about to brush away a leaf. “That’s illegal,” I said sharply, “you must pick it up; you mayn’t brush it away,” and after a fierce argument on the point he putted hastily—and badly. At the eighteenth tee we were all square and hardly on speaking terms. The fate of the Mother Country depended upon the result of this hole.

I drove a long one, the longest of the day, slightly hooked.

“Good shot,” said Smith with an effort. He pressed and foozled badly. I tried not to look pleased.

We found his ball in a thick clump of heather. With a grim look on his face, he took out his niblick….

I stayed by him and helped him count up to eight.

“Where’s your ball?” he growled.

“A long way on,” I said reproachfully. “I wish you’d hurry up. The poor thing will be getting cold.”

He got to work again. We had another count together up to fifteen. Sometimes there would be a gleam of white at the top of the heather for a moment and then it would fade away.

“How many?” I asked some minutes later.

“About thirty. But I don’t care, I’m going to get the little beast into the hole if it takes me all night.” He went on hacking.

I had lost interest in the performance, for the cup was mine, but I did admire his Colonial grit.

“Got it,” he cried suddenly, and the ball sailed out on to the pretty.
Another shot put him level with me.

“Thirty-two?” I asked.

“About,” he said coldly.

I began to look for my ball. It had got tired of waiting and had hidden itself. Smith joined gloomily in the search.

“This is absurd,” I said, after three or four minutes.

“By jove!” said Smith, suddenly brightening up. “If your ball’s lost I win after all.”

“Nonsense; you’ve given the hole up,” I protested. “You don’t know how many you’ve played. According to the rules, if I ask you how many, and you give wrong information—”

“It’s thirty-five,” he said promptly.

“I don’t believe you counted.”

“Call it forty-five then. There’s nothing to prevent my calling it more than it really is. If it was really only forty, then I’m counting five occasions when the ball rolled over as I was addressing it. That’s very generous of me. Actually I’m doubtful if the ball did roll over five times, but I say it did in order to be on the safe side.” He looked at his watch. “And if you don’t find your ball in thirty seconds, you lose the hole.”

It was ingenious, but the Mother Country can be ingenious too.

“How many have you played exactly?” I asked. “Be careful.”

“Forty-five,” he said. “Exactly.”

“Right.” I took my niblick and swung at the heather. “Bother,” I said.
“Missed it. Two.”

“Hallo! Have you found it?”

“I have. It’s somewhere in this field. There’s no rule which insists that you shall hit the ball, or even that you shall hit near the ball, or even that you shall see the ball when you hit at it. Lots of old gentlemen shut their eyes and miss the sphere. I’ve missed. In five minutes I shall miss again.”

“But what’s the point?”

“The point, dear friend,” I smiled, “is that after each stroke one is allowed five minutes in which to find the ball. I have forty-three strokes in hand; that gives me three hours and thirty-five minutes in which to look for it. At regular intervals of five minutes I shall swing my club and probably miss. It’s four-thirty now; at eight o’clock, unless I find my ball before, I shall be playing the like. And if you are a sportsman,” I added, “you will bring me out some tea in half an hour.”

* * * * *

At six-thirty I was still looking—and swinging. Smith then came to terms and agreed to share the cup with me for the first year. He goes back to Canada to-morrow, and will spread the good news there that the Old Country can still hold its own in resource, determination and staying power. But next year we are going to play friendly golf again.

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