Golf is a Good Walk Spoiled

Mark Twain? William Gladstone? A Northern Gael? F. W. Payn? Sam Loates? The Allens? Harry Leon Wilson? Anonymous?

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: Mark Twain was probably not responsible for this barb. The earliest attribution to Twain located by QI appeared in “The Saturday Evening Post” of August 1948.1 But Twain died in 1910, so this is a suspiciously late citation with minimal credibility.

The earliest appearance of the quip located by QI occurred in “The Morning Leader” newspaper of London, England in 1897. The article mentioned a specific golfer, but the phrasing and quotation marks signaled that the saying was already in circulation, and the creator remains anonymous. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:2

Mr. Littler, Q.C., is a golf enthusiast. What is more, he believes that golf can be played at as late a period of a man’s life as football or cricket. He does not, in other words, assume that the game is a game of old men. He believes, in fact, that golf is a game which requires in the word of a well-known golfer, “activity, suppleness, and strength.” He does not assume that a game of golf is a “good walk spoiled.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1899 the saying appeared in a sporting journal called “The Referee” in Sydney, Australia. The saying was attributed to Sam Loates who was a prominent British Thoroughbred horse racing jockey:3

Sam Loates, for instance, on being asked what he thought of the glorious game of golf, smartly said: “Well, I think it is a good walk spoilt,” which it certainly is—unless you have a good flask of “whisky” tucked under one arm, and a good style of a girl tucked under the other, while the “caddie” potters behind, and does the golfing.

Another appearance of the quip occurred in a newspaper in Enniscorthy, Ireland in April 1901. The author of the article was only identified as “a northern Gael”:4

I am not a lover of the snobbish game of cricket, neither would I care to see our Irish boys disporting themselves at the aristocratic game of lawn tennis, not to mention golf, which is a good walk spoiled.

Another appearance occurred in the U.S. periodical “Golf and Lawn Tennis” in November 1901 within an article by tennis player F. W. Payn who attributed the remark to an unnamed “well-known jockey” which might be a reference to Sam Loates:5

Although we do not endorse the view of the well-known jockey who said that golf “merely spoilt a good walk,” we must be permitted to suggest that if anyone desires to see the depths of stolidity to which mankind can attain we advise him to visit a suburban golf link on a Sunday.

In 1903 the joke appeared in a book chapter by H. S. Scrivener who attributed the saying to tennis players named “the Allens”:6

… 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.”

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:7

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 his novel titled “The Boss of Little Arcady”:8

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 F. W. Payn published “The Secrets of Lawn Tennis”, and he repeated the critical saying:9

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.

In 1913 a South Dakota newspaper printed the following description:10

Golf, of course, has been defined as a good walk spoiled, and a low comedian once described the game thusly: “You hit a ball as far as you can, and if you find it the same day you have won.”

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:11

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.

Gladstone died in 1898; hence, the citation above from 1924 does not provide compelling evidence.

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:12

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:13

Mark Twain: Golf is a good walk spoiled.    —The Saturday Evening Post

In conclusion, the earliest citation in 1897 indicated an anonymous attribution, and the quotation marks signaled that the quip was already in circulation. Later citations credited “Sam Loates” who was a well-known jockey, “a northern Gael”, and “the Allens”. The ascriptions to Mark Twain and William Gladstone are currently unsupported.

Image Notes: Public domain illustration of golf clubs from volume 3 of “The American Educator” in 1921.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Pete Morris who located the valuable citation dated November 30, 1901. Morris also told QI that Sam Loates was a jockey. In addition, thanks to Matt Seybold at for feedback. Special thanks to Fred Shapiro who located the important citation dated  July 12, 1899.

Update history: On June 2, 2012 the 1948 citation for The Saturday Evening Post was added and the article was partially rewritten. On January 31, 2016 boldface was added to excerpts and the bibliographic notes were switched to numeric tags. On August 27, 2017 the entry was updated to more clearly indicate that the 1924 Gladstone citation was unconvincing. Also, the 1913 citation was added. On July 26, 2022 the citations dated April 20, 1901 and November 30, 1901 were added to the article. On March 20, 2024 the citations dated December 29, 1897 and July 12, 1899 were added to the article. Also, the format of the bibliographical notes was updated, and the conclusion was partially rewritten. On March 24, 2024 the fact that Sam Loates was a jockey was added to the article.

  1. 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) ↩︎
  2. 1897 December 29, The Morning Leader, A Golf Causerie, A Judge Who Lauds The Game by “Bunker”, Quote Page 10, Column 1, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩︎
  3. 1899 July 12, The Referee: A Journal of Sport, Pastime, and the Stage, Boondi’s Budget for the Smokeroom (For The “Referee”), Quote Page 1, Column 7, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  4. 1901 April 20, Enniscorthy Guardian, Sporting – Gaelic (From a northern Gael), Quote Page 4, Column 6, Enniscorthy, Wexford County, Republic of Ireland. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩︎
  5. 1901 November 30, Golf and Lawn Tennis, Volume 4, Number 19, Section: Lawn Tennis Department, Section Date: November 16, 1901, Article: The American Twist Service – Golf As a Rival to Tennis, Author: F. W. Payn, (Reprinted from “Lawn Tennis” of London), Start Page 587, Quote Page 588, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  6. 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 ↩︎
  7. 1904 December 3, The Pittsburgh Press, Literary Notes, Page 20, Col. 4, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Google News archive full view) link ↩︎
  8. 1905, The Boss of Little Arcady by Harry Leon Wilson, Page 367, Lothrop Pub. Co., Boston. (Google Books full view) link ↩︎
  9. 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 ↩︎
  10. 1913 December 10, The Daily Deadwood Pioneer-Times, The Game of Golf, Quote Page 4, Column 4,Deadwood, South Dakota. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  11. 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) ↩︎
  12. 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) ↩︎
  13. 1948 December, The Reader’s Digest, Quotable Quotes, Page 122, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper) ↩︎

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