LEXINGTON — A contender for contemporary bard of golf poetry, with two published books and a website (Golfpoet.com) on his scorecard, Leon White nevertheless realizes that most people see a literary mismatch here, like pairing the epic novel with candlepin bowling.
“It’s an oxymoron — or looks like one, anyway,” White acknowledged as he stood on the first tee of Lexington’s Pine Meadows Golf Club one recent afternoon. A retired professor and health care executive, White, 78, had agreed to play nine holes with a reporter — scorekeeping optional — while discussing two great passions of his, golf and golf poetry. His latest collection, “If Only I Could Play That Hole Again and Other Golf Poems,” came out in e-book form last year.
“If you say ‘baseball poetry,’ people think of ‘Casey at the Bat,’ ” White continued, lining up his opening drive, which he soon smacked 180 yards down the left side of the fairway. “There’s some immediate recognition. Golf poetry, though? Nobody knows it exists.”
If White has his way, that will change faster than the odds that Tiger Woods will break Jack Nicklaus’s major-titles record are shrinking.
White’s enthusiasm for golf poems and the men (mostly) who’ve written them over the centuries knows no bounds. Climbing into a golf cart (he normally walks the course), he eagerly offered up a condensed history of the sport and its relationship to golf’s poetic champions, famous and obscure, nearly 50 of whom are represented in White’s first book, “Golf Course of Rhymes: Links Between Golf and Poetry Through the Ages.” (2011)
Consider that the first golf poem appeared in 1638, he said, and that such well-known writers as Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, Ring Lardner, and poet laureates John Betjeman (Britain) and Billy Collins (United States) have written golf-themed verse, and people get interested. Who knew?, they’ll shrug. With that, the topic is teed up for White.
“Talking to an audience, you win them over in 15 minutes,” said White, who is built like a golfer: lean and lanky, with a smooth, unhurried swing that many younger weekend players might envy. For his third shot on the par-5 first hole, he pulled out an 8-iron, lofted his ball high in the air, and landed it just short of the green, avoiding a nearby sand trap.
“Reading golf poetry aloud helps my crusade, too,” he went on, preparing to pull out the flagstick. “Poetry forces you to slow down, which is part of its fun. You cannot read it fast, or it doesn’t work.”
He grinned and added, “If you took that [idea] to the golf course, it would probably help.”
Measuring a 4-foot putt, he stroked it deliberately and solidly, dropping it into the cup for a more-than-respectable bogey.
“I’m a competitive guy,” said White, making his way to the next tee. “When I took up golf again, I made the mistake of taking it too seriously. You have to pretend to take golf seriously, or you’ll never be any good. Take it too seriously, though, and you’re dead. Finished.”
If golf is a “good walk spoiled,” as Mark Twain is said to have once observed, then White’s becoming a golf poetry aficionado in his 70s constitutes one man’s joyful stroll down life’s back nine, rhyming dictionary in one hand and putter in the other.
A Stanford University graduate with a PhD in engineering from Columbia University, White, a longtime Lexington resident, taught at MIT’s Sloan School of Management for a dozen years, beginning in 1964. In 1973, Boston Mayor Kevin White (no relation) appointed him city commissioner of health and hospitals. White also held management positions at Harvard’s school of public health and Blue Cross Blue Shield before retiring in 1994 to part-time work as a health care consultant.
Thirty years ago, when his two teenage sons took up the game, White and his wife, Barbara Erlich White, an art historian and author, began playing with them. The four traveled together on golf vacations, and White fell in love all over again with a game he’d abandoned decades before, a victim of his busy professional and family life.
In 2005, White took a poetry class at Harvard’s Institute for Learning in Retirement. While he’d composed rhymes for birthdays, anniversaries, and other special occasions, he had never read any “serious” poetry, never mind tried to write any.
“I didn’t want to write confessional poetry, or any crap like that,” he recalled. “I asked myself, ‘What do I know something about? Golf.’ ’’
And thus did he find his muse.
So he began, week after week, overcoming his instructor’s initial skepticism that poems about golf could be anything but frivolous. Leading the workshop was Frances Downing Vaughan, a published poet whose most recent work, “Ninety at Ninety: Collected Poems,” appeared in 2012, when she turned 90.
“I could see that Leon was so bright; I didn’t want to lose the guy, even though he wasn’t filtering [his writing] into sonnet form or something more polished,” recalls Vaughan, who is no longer teaching. “I told him, ‘Just go with it. Do your own thing.’ ”
White’s approach to studying and writing poetry may not have risen to the highest intellectual standard, Vaughan adds. “But it did bring him great joy, and what he wrote was quite fun to read.”
The more he wrote, the more he wondered whether a substantial body of golf poetry existed, given the game’s long history.
Through an interlibrary website, White turned up a surprisingly large number of examples. More were found in old golf magazines preserved by the US Golfing Association and in books White acquired at auction. Some are parodies, some epic in length. Many address the game’s joys and frustrations, which can humble even the Tigers, Bubbas, and Annikas of the golf world.
As the idea for publishing his first collection took shape, White launched a related website and blog in December 2008. He organized his anthology along the lines of a golf-course layout, dividing it into 20 chapters (18 holes plus a Practice Tee and 19th Hole Clubhouse) covering golf history, weather, advice, dreams, mysteries, and other appropriate themes.
When he showed his manuscript to agents, though, not one embraced the project. Most advised White that it would never sell enough. Too niche-y, they said. Deciding to self-publish, White incorporated as Golfiana Press and hired a photographer to shoot the book cover. Renowned golf course architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. agreed to write a forward, calling White’s collection “the best round of golf you will ever play without swinging a club.”
Two dozen poems were White’s own. In one, titled “Growing Aulder,” he muses upon the aging process and its effect on his game. Two sample stanzas:
In truth playing won’t save you
From aging and all that entails
As I keep walking golf’s fairways
The scourge of time prevails . . .
With the coming of each New Year
My hope in turning the page
keep playing for long enough
To someday shoot my age.
While not cracking anyone’s bestseller list, White’s 190-page book found a small but receptive audience. It got a nice boost when Golf Digest named it one of the year’s best books and when The Wall Street Journal published a piece about golf poems, mentioning White’s website. Since then, Golfpoet.com has gotten more than 110,000 Web views from readers in 120 countries, according to White, whose work got feature coverage in The New York Times a few weeks ago. Other readers have discovered it through a column White writes for the American Golf Collectors Society.
“I’m not a poetry fan, but his book really grabbed me,” says Gayle Moss, a Vancouver-based consultant and avid golfer who runs a website called Golfgal.ca. “It’s the essence of why people are passionate about golf, including its humor and frustrations, the good, the bad, and the ugly.”
White’s blog “is about the purest golf blog out there,” Moss adds. “Leon doesn’t sponsor anyone, or look for advertising. He’s just true to the sport and to himself and what he does.”
If that weren’t enough clubs in his bag, White was an early Twitter adopter, too, inventing what he calls the “twine,” a two-line golf poem tailor made for tweeting. Example: “A thousand tips from Jan. to December/But when you need one, will you remember?”
“I’ve done more with no PR than most people do paying lots of money for it,” he noted with a laugh.
Making money off the books and website was never his goal, he added. “The real bottom line is: If I’ve gotten a few people interested in poetry and golf poetry, that’s great.”
White finished the round with a nifty par on the 9th hole, lofting an 8-iron over a water hazard in front of the green and landing his ball 25 feet from the pin. Two putts, and he was in with an eight-over-par score of 43.
“In a way,” he smiled, reflecting on his new back-nine vocation, “the fun is never ending. On the other hand, I’m running a little short of material now, other than what I write myself.”
The only people he knows who refuse to take golf poetry seriously, he said, are other poets, adding, “Except, of course, for the ones who play golf.”
Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an incorrect web address for golfgal.ca was provided in an earlier version of this article.