Mark Twain? William Gladstone? The Allens? Harry Leon Wilson?
Dear Quote Investigator: I love to play golf, but sometimes when I am playing poorly I am tempted to simply walk the course and get some exercise. When I mentioned this to a friend he told me that Mark Twain said: “Golf is a good walk spoiled.” This sounds like Twain to me, but did he really say it?
Quote Investigator: No, Mark Twain was probably not responsible for this barb. The earliest attribution to Twain located by QI was published in “The Saturday Evening Post” of August 1948 [MTSP]. But Twain died in 1910, so this is a suspiciously late citation with minimal credibility.
The earliest appearance of the quip that QI has discovered was in a 1903 book about lawn tennis. The players of this sport are the traditional adversaries of golfers in the field of recreation. Individual chapters of this book were written by different authors. The author of the second chapter, H. S. Scrivener, attributed the saying to a couple of fellow players named the Allens [LTH]:
… my good friends the Allens … one of the best of their many excellent dicta is that “to play golf is to spoil an otherwise enjoyable walk.”
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1904 the saying was attributed to a popular novelist named Harry Leon Wilson who used a cleverly expanded version of the jape. Wilson employed a rhetorical device called reversibility to augment the humor [HW1]:
Some of his friends have been trying to induce him to play golf, but he refused. He makes the following unique definition of golf: “Golf has too much walking to be a good game, and just enough game to spoil a good walk.”
In 1905 Wilson used the expression directly in a novel he wrote titled “The Boss of Little Arcady” [HW2]:
This new game of golf that the summer folks play seems to have too much walking for a good game and just enough game to spoil a good walk.
Wilson’s fame grew a decade later when he wrote the bestseller “Ruggles of Red Gap” which was made into a popular movie.
In 1906 another tennis player disparaged golf with the critical saying, but he adroitly deflected responsibility by placing the words in the mouth of a “well-known jockey” [FWP]:
Although I do not endorse the view of the well-known jockey who said that golf “merely spoilt a good walk,” it appears to me that (excellent game though it be) the attention it receives is just a little in excess of its merits as a game and not merely as an agreeable provider of exercise.
Over the years the adage has been assigned to several prominent individuals. For example, in 1924 the words were ascribed to the famed statesman William Gladstone by the Earl of Birkenhead [WGEB]:
The late Mr. Gladstone was once, much against his wishes, compelled to play golf. He is reported to have commented upon the experiment that it was a good walk spoiled. Such would undoubtedly have been the verdict thirty years ago of any ninety-five per cent of the whole male population of the United States of America.
In August 1948 The Saturday Evening Post published an article about the genesis of golf in Scotland. The first paragraph dubiously assigned the joke to the famous humorist from Hannibal, Missouri [MTSP]:
If Mark Twain, who once crustily called a game of golf a good walk spoiled, had ever ventured to the venerable gray-stone city of St. Andrews on the bleak east coast of Scotland, the outraged citizens would have given him the Scottish equivalent of the bum’s rush.
In December 1948 the mass-circulation periodical “The Reader’s Digest” printed the maxim and echoed the attribution above [MTRD] [QVG] [YQG]:
Mark Twain: Golf is a good walk spoiled. —The Saturday Evening Post
In conclusion, the earliest instance of this general saying was credited to an unknown couple named “the Allens” in 1903, but this couple might not be the originators. It might be appropriate to label the saying anonymous. Also, there is no substantive evidence that Mark Twain ever used this adage.
Update history: On June 2, 2012 the 1948 citation for The Saturday Evening Post was added and the article was partially rewritten.
[MTSP] 1948 August 28, Saturday Evening Post, Volume 221, Issue 9, Golf’s Own Home Town by Allan A. Michie, Start Page 32, Quote Page 32, Saturday Evening Post Society, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Ebsco)
[LTH] 1903, Lawn Tennis at Home and Abroad edited by Arthur Wallis Myers (second chapter by H. S. Scrivener), Page 47, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Google Books full view) link
[HW1] 1904 December 3, The Pittsburgh Press, Literary Notes, Page 20, Col. 4, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Google News archive full view) link
[HW2] 1905, The Boss of Little Arcady by Harry Leon Wilson, Page 367, Lothrop Pub. Co., Boston. (Google Books full view) link
[FWP] 1906, The Secrets of Lawn Tennis by F. W. Payn, Page 164, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Internet Archive and Google Books full view) link
[WGEB] 1924, America Revisited by The Earl of Birkenhead, [Frederick Edwin Smith, 1st Earl of Birkenhead], Page 7, Little, Brown, and Company, Boston (Verified on paper)
[MTRD] 1948 December, The Reader’s Digest, Quotable Quotes, Page 122, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper)
[QVG] 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 82, St Martin’s Griffin, New York.
[YQG] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Page 782, Yale University Press, New Haven.