Golf: Like Chasing a Quinine Pill Around a Cow Pasture

Winston Churchill? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Winston Churchill played golf for a period of time, but he switched his avocation to painting. The following description of golf is sometimes attributed to him:

Like chasing a quinine pill around a cow pasture.

Did Churchill use this expression and did he coin it?

Quote investigator: There is good evidence that Churchill did employ this simile. It is listed in the important reference “Irrepressible Churchill: A Treasury of Winston Churchill’s Wit” by Kay Halle with a date of 1915. 1 The author labeled the quotation “Ear-witness” which meant that a friend shared by Halle and Churchill ascribed the witticism to Churchill. However, sayings of this type have a long history, and a close match for the above statement was in circulation by 1895. Hence, QI thinks it is unlikely that Churchill crafted the expression.

A jocular portrayal of a golf outing was presented in “The Harvard Lampoon” of Harvard University in 1892. The drinking of beer was accentuated in this account. Future comical accounts often mentioned multi-acre lots: 2

THE WAY TO PLAY GOLF.

Get a foot-ball, two croquet mallets or old umbrella handles, and six cases of beer; carry the same to a ten-acre lot, then get out in the sun and swat the leather till you get a thirst. Every thirst counts ten, and the man with the biggest score to his credit when the beer gives out wins.

In December 1894 a profile of a Chicago golfer named Charles B. MacDonald was printed in multiple U.S. newspapers. The story included a saying that equated a golf ball and a quinine pill, and the attribution was anonymous. Boldface has been added to excerpts below: 3 4

Four or five alleged matches for the championship of the United States and of America were held at different times this year, and the sport of knocking a quinine pill around a 40 acre lot, as some humorist describes the game, is now the rage from Maine to Texas.

In May 1895 “Scribner’s Magazine” printed an article about golf that included a humorous depiction of the game placed between quotation marks without an attribution. This statement was similar to the one ascribed to Churchill: 5

The scoffer who speaks with a contempt not born of familiarity, or views it with assumed indifference, may assert that the game, with its system of strokes and score, will restore the unhealthy atmosphere of the croquet ground; that it will try the souls of the clergy and become the undoing of parishioners. “It is simply driving a quinine pill over a cow pasture.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In September 1895 the Chicago Tribune discussed the positive character traits that were enhanced by engaging in golf. The newspaper also presented an instance of the humorous saying: 6

Add to this the cultivation of patience under discouragement, fortitude under misfortune, coolness in adversity, and moderation in victory, and golf means something more than merely walking three miles to knock a quinine pill into an empty tomato can.

In November 1895 “The Critic: A Weekly Review of Literature and the Arts” printed a book review that contained an instance of the saying: 7

Mr. James Parrish Lee, the Harvard athlete, is the editor of a little book on “Golf in America,” for which all cis-Atlantic practitioners of the ancient and royal game will thank him. That the game has now its American literature is another evidence that it has come to us to stay, and is no longer to be contemptuously discussed as the “chasing of a quinine pill around a ten-acre lot.”

In March 1897 a newspaper in Lewiston, Maine printed a joke with an exact match for the phrase ascribed to Winston Churchill: 8

Little Man (golf enthusiast)—”Why don’t you play golf?” Big Man (blase)—”Why, because I object to chasing a quinine pill around a cow pasture.”—Tit-Bits.

In 1899 another variant was printed in a magazine for Sunday schools: 9

The would-be funny man described it as “a game in which a lot of fools were engaged in trying to hit a quinine pill with a club.” The “fools” have increased in number until to-day they have organized over six hundred American golf clubs, with a membership of over one hundred and twenty thousand.

In 1966 the reference “Irrepressible Churchill: A Treasury of Winston Churchill’s Wit” was published, and the author stated that a mutual friend told her that Churchill used the following expression in 1915 as noted previously in this article: 10

W.S.C.: Like chasing a quinine pill around a cow pasture.

In 1920 an instance of the comical description used the phrase “little white pill” instead of “quinine pill”: 11

People talk a great deal about the philosophy of golf.
The layman who describes the ancient and venerable game as “chasing a little white pill all over the country with a crooked stick” uses the above item in an endeavor partially to explain the amazing fascination which the game exercises over his acquaintances.

The saying continued to circulate in 2011 and was linked to Churchill in the “Mississippi Business Journal”: 12

The late Sir Winston Churchill, England’s cigar-chomping prime minister, once compared playing golf to chasing a quinine pill around a cow pasture.

In conclusion, this humorous depiction of golf probably was employed by Winston Churchill circa 1915. However the expression was already in circulation at that time. Many variants effloresced in the 1890s and the dissemination has continued to the present day.

Notes:

  1. 1966, Irrepressible Churchill: A Treasury of Winston Churchill’s Wit by Kay Halle, Year: 1915, Quote Page 77, World Publishing Company, Cleveland and New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1892, The Harvard Lampoon. Laughs for the Lampoon, (The Best Things that have appeared in the Harvard Lampoon during the College Year from October 1891 to June 1892), Quote Page 13, Column 2, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1894 December 16, Idaho Statesman,”King of the Links: McDonald, the Chicago Golfer, Learned the Royal Sport at St. Andrews”, Quote Page 7, Column 3, Boise, Idaho. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1894 December 21, Little Falls Weekly Transcript, King of the Links, Page 3, Column 6, Little Falls, Minnesota. (Chronicling America)
  5. 1895 May, Scribner’s Magazine, Volume 17, Number 5, Golf by Henry E. Howland, Start Page 531, Quote Page 536, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  6. 1895 September 21, Chicago Daily Tribune, Manners at the Golf Links: It Is Considered Bad Form to Talk While Playing, Quote Page 21, Column 4, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  7. 1895 November 16, The Critic: A Weekly Review of Literature and the Arts, Volume 24, New Books and New Editions, Start Page 321, Quote Page 321, The Critic Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  8. 1897 March 24, Lewiston Evening Journal, Newspaper Waifs, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Lewiston, Maine. (Google News Archive)
  9. 1899 March 12, Every Other Sunday: A Paper for the Sunday School and the Home, Volume 14, Number 14, (Untitled short item) from S. F. Argonaut, Quote Page 111, Column 3, Unitarian Sunday-School Society, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books full view) link
  10. 1966, Irrepressible Churchill: A Treasury of Winston Churchill’s Wit by Kay Halle, Year: 1915, Quote Page 77, World Publishing Company, Cleveland and New York. (Verified on paper)
  11. 1920 April 7, Denver Post, Golf Purely Mental Game Says Denver Pro by Rae Groesbeck, Quote Page 20, Column 3, Denver, Colorado. (GenealogyBank)
  12. 2011 April 3, Mississippi Business Journal, “Commentary: Beautifully maddening” by Nash Nunnery, (No page number specified), Record Number: 688619, Jackson, Mississippi. (NewsBank Access World News)