Golf: Hit a Very Small Ball into an Even Smaller Hole, with Weapons Singularly Ill-Designed for the Purpose

Winston Churchill? Woodrow Wilson? George Curzon? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Friends know I am an avid golfer and recently a book of quotations about the sport was given to me as a present. This quote from Winston Churchill captures the exasperation I feel when attempting to chip my ball near to the pin [GBGQ]:

Golf is a game whose aim is to hit a very small ball into an even smaller hole, with weapons singularly ill-designed for the purpose.

When I tried to determine when Churchill uttered this assessment I discovered that some people think former President Woodrow Wilson was really responsible for the saying. Maybe you can resolve this question?

Quote Investigator: Variants of this saying have been attributed to both Churchill and Wilson for decades, but the earliest example located by QI occurred in 1892 in the famed London humor magazine Punch. The article “Confessions of a Duffer” by an unnamed contributor included a version of the quotation that used somewhat different phrasing [PLDG]:

Almost everybody now knows that Golf is not Hockey. Nobody runs after the ball except young ladies at W-m-n! The object is to put a very small ball into a very tiny and remotely distant hole, with engines singularly ill adapted for the purpose.

The term with deleted letters: “W-m-n” may have referred to Wimbledon, London. In May 1891 a membership group of 145 women opened their own nine-hole golf course on Wimbledon Common land [RWGC]. The term “engines” referred to the golf clubs used to propel the ball around the course as shown in the following:

There are many engines. First there is the Driver, a long club, wherewith the ball is supposed to be propelled from the tee, a little patch of sand.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1917 the second major variant of the saying was published in a magazine called “Outing”. The words were credited to an anonymous “someone” [IBOH]:

Someone has said that golf is a game the object of which is to put an illusive ball into an obscure hole with imperfect implements. The task of improving the implements has engaged the attention of many men and in the course of time a perfection in clubs may be attained which will rob the game of many of its charms.

Instead of describing the ball as “small” it is characterized as “illusive” (the common spelling of this word is “elusive”). Also, instead of referring to the hole as “tiny” it is labeled “obscure”.

In 1922 a version of this second variant was printed approvingly in the Christian Science Monitor where the words were ascribed to a “non-player” [CSFF]:

Golfers will be among the first to applaud the description of golf by a non-player, who said that it was “an ineffective attempt to put an elusive ball into an obscure hole with an imperfect implement,” just because the adjectives used give a very good idea of the skill required to play the game well, and of the corresponding interest which the difficult task is bound to arouse. All golfers know how “elusive” is a golf ball, how “obscure” the 4 1/2-inch hole can be even when a ball is but two feet distant, and how “imperfect” the brassie or the mashie may be unless the hands that guide it do just the correct thing.

In 1926 Edward C. Elliot who was then President of Purdue University addressed a conference of the American Association of Junior Colleges. Elliot attributed a version of the golf quotation to Woodrow Wilson and claimed that he articulated it when he was a state Governor between 1911 and 1913. This is the first connection to Wilson that QI has discovered [WWEE]:

When he was Governor of New Jersey, President Wilson described the game of golf, that it was an ineffectual effort to place an elusive ball into an obscure hole with uncontrollable instruments.

In 1930 a journal for coaches printed a version of the saying and credited it to Wilson, But the author admitted uncertainty concerning the precise phrasing [WWAJ]:

President Wilson once suggested that “golf consisted of an attempt to drive an illusive ball into an obscure hole with weapons unsuited to the purpose,” or words to that effect.

In 1935 an article from the Associated Press profiled Dr. Cary T. Grayson who was the White House physician for three Presidents. After suggesting that Woodrow Wilson should play golf for his health Grayson became his partner in the sport [WWHC]:

Grayson took up golf largely because he had recommended it to Wilson and the President needed a partner.

“He used to say I was the victim of my own orders,” Grayson said. “I had told him to forget business while he played, but everyone he played with persisted in talking shop so finally he discarded them and I was rung into service.” …

Grayson recalled the definition of golf used by Wilson: “An ineffectual attempt to put an elusive ball into an obscure hole with implements ill adapted for the purpose.”

When Dr. Grayson died in 1938 a notice in the New York Times repeated the golf definition and credited it to Wilson [WWNY]:

He struggled perseveringly to induce President Wilson to exercise, and finally made an indifferent golfer of him.  The Wilsonian definition of golf was: an attempt to put an elusive ball into an obscure hole with implements quite unsuited to the task.

A letter printed in Life magazine presented another version of the words attributed to Wilson [WWLM]:

Quoting the late President Woodrow Wilson, a self-confessed duffer: “Playing golf is an ineffectual attempt to put an elusive ball into an obscure hole with implements ill adapted to the purpose.”

In 1947 a philosophical treatise included a version of the expression without specifying an attribution. This version was closer to the original variant in 1892 than the 1917 (and later Wilsonian) variant [DVSP]:

Someone has defined golf as a game in which one places a very small ball in a very small hole with an instrument totally unsuited for the purpose. Yet, under these extraordinary conditions, the best golf player is the one who gets the ball in the hole with the least number of strokes.

Alistair Cooke was a British journalist who resided in the United States and broadcast a radio series for the BBC called “Letter from America” for many years. During a radio program in 1974 Cooke ascribed a version of the quotation to Winston Churchill. This is the earliest connection to Churchill that QI has located [WCAC]:

“Golf,” said Winston Churchill, “is a game whose aim is to hit a very small ball into an even smaller hole, with weapons singularly ill-designed for the purpose.”

In 1983 a book in the two-volume biography “The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill” printed the remark about golf and credited it to the statesman [WCWM]:

He liked games he could win. He described golf, one of his failures, as “a curious sport whose object is to put a very small ball in a very small hole with implements ill-designed for the purpose.”

Yet, Churchill quotation specialist Richard Langworth cannot find support for this attachment in his extensive records and remains unconvinced as noted later in this post.

In 1987 the English actor Maurice Evans published a memoir and credited another figure with an entertaining variant of the quip [LCME]:

I think it was best described by Lord Curzon when he said, “Golf is a game in which one is required to push a very small white ball around a very large quantity of very green grass with instruments entirely unsuited to the purpose!”

The variant of the saying attributed to Woodrow Wilson has remained popular. In 2005 a sports writer for USA Today invoked the remark [WWUT]:

One of my all-time favorite sports quotes, nearly a century old but remarkably relevant, comes from a rather unlikely source — unless you realize Woodrow Wilson painted golf balls so he could play in the snow.

“Golf,” said the president, “is an ineffectual attempt to put an elusive ball into an obscure hole with implements ill-adapted to the purpose.”

In 2007 “The Gigantic Book of Golf Quotations” included a version of the joke and assigned the words to Churchill. This is the statement that appeared in the query at the beginning of this post [GBGQ].

In 2008 “Churchill by Himself: The Definitive Collection of Quotations” by Richard Langworth was published, and it included a comment that disagreed with the attribution of the golf quote to Churchill in the biography by Manchester [CHRL]:

Manchester carries this quotation, but the footnote is not illuminating. It does not, contrary to the footnote, appear in the Official Biography’s Companion Volumes, nor in a work by General Sir Hubert Gough. Verdict: Likely to have been uttered by almost any golfer at one time or another.

In conclusion, QI believes that the 1892 variant should be credited to the author of the Punch article. Also, based on the currently known chronological sequence the 1917 variant was likely derived from the 1892 variant directly or indirectly. The testimony of the physician Dr. Cary T. Grayson makes it probable that Woodrow Wilson did deliver a version of the quip, but it is not clear if he was the creator. He may have heard it or read it first. If he spoke it while he was Governor from 1911 to 1913 then that would have preceded the 1917 publication.

The evidence for Churchill speaking or writing the remark is very weak because the earliest cite (known to QI) is dated 1974. Conceivably Alistair Cooke had some persuasive attestation, but it remains unknown to others for now.

Thanks for your question and have a wonderful time on the links with your brassie and mashie – modernized and made out of titanium.

(Many thanks to Kevin for inspiring this investigation.)

Update history: On August 2, 2011 a sentence about the women’s nine-hole course on Wimbledon Common land was added. Many thanks to Dan Goncharoff who noted that golf had been played at Wimbledon Common for many years prior to the 1892 citation.

[GBGQ] 2007, The Gigantic Book of Golf Quotations edited and introduced by Jim Apfelbaum, Page 5 and on the back cover, Skyhorse Publishing Inc., New York. (Google Books preview) link

[PLDG] 1892 January 16, Punch, Confessions of a Duffer, Page 35, Column 1, Punch Publications Ltd., London. (Google Books full view) list

[RWGC] Website of the Royal Wimbledon Golf Club, “A Short History of the Royal Wimbledon Golf Club”, Wimbledon, London, UK. (Accessed on 2011 August 2) link

[IBOH] 1917 May, Outing, A Substitute for Wooden Clubs, Page 278, Outing Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link

[CSFF] 1922 October 12, Christian Science Monitor, Fairway Fables, Page 11, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)

[WWEE] 1926, American Association of Junior Colleges: Seventh Annual Meeting, November 29-30, 1926, Held in Jackson, Mississippi, “Some Problems in Education” by Edward C. Elliot, President Purdue University, Start Page 70, Quote Page 71, Government Printing Office, Washington, D. C. (Google Books full view) link

[WWAJ] 1930 September, Athletic Journal, The Constantly Changing Technique of Coaching, Page 19, Column 1, Volume 11, Number 1, Athletic Journal Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified on microfilm)

[WWHC] 1935 March 18, Hartford Courant, Presidents Made Play By Doctor, [Associated Press], Page 12, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest)

[WWNY] 1938 February 15, New York Times, Admiral Grayson Dies in Capital, [Associated Press], Page 1, New York. (ProQuest)

[WWLM] 1938 August 8, Life, Letters to the Editors, Page 2, Time Inc., New York. (Google Books full view) link

[DVSP] 1947, A Digest of Purposive Values by Stephen C. Pepper, Page 60, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California. (Verified on paper)

[WCAC] 1979, The Americans: Fifty Talks on Our Life and Times by Alistair Cooke. [Transcript of radio program dated December 27, 1974], “Workers, Arise!, Shout ‘Fore!'”, Start Page 143, Quote Page 145, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified on paper)

[WCWM] 1983, The Last Lion, Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932 by William Manchester, Page 213, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper)

[LCME] 1987, All This … and Evans Too!: A Memoir by Maurice Evans, Page 47, University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, South Carolina. (Verified on paper)

[WWUT] 2005 May 15, USA Today, Appreciation of Tiger’s record misses cut by Jon Saraceno, Gannett Co. Inc. (Accessed on 2011 August 1) link

[CHRL] 2008, Churchill by Himself: The Definitive Collection of Quotations edited by Richard Langworth, Appendix I: Red Herrings, Page 575, Column 1, PublicAffairs, New York. (Amazon Look Inside)