Some people despise golf. For them, it represents everything that is wrong with civilised society.
Intractable conservatism. Acute snobbery. Rank misogyny. Casual racism. Environmental degradation. Land misappropriation. Terrible leisurewear.
Bourgeois. Contemptible. The pursuit of corrupt politicians and boring insurance salesmen. Wealthy, arrogant, powerful white men. Twats in Pringle v-neck sweaters and Titlest caps.
It must be destroyed. At all costs. For the sake of humanity.
And I’m inclined to disagree. The more time that wealthy, arrogant, powerful white men spend on the golf course means the less time they have for fucking things up for everyone else.
Actually, scratch that, I think that everyone should play golf. For what the rules of the game teach us about respect and consideration and good manners. For the satisfying sensation of spanking a little white ball into the near distance, while imagining that its the shrunken head of a wealthy, arrogant, powerful white man. For the fact that it is the only sport you can physically play from childhood to old age.
Basically, if more people played golf, there’d be a lot less shit in the world. Golf courses should be nationalised and golf prescribed on the NHS.
It was my grandfather who took up the sticks in his late thirties and passed his interest in the game onto his fiercely-competitive boys: Richard, my father, and Keith, my uncle. While my grandfather was a less consistent golfer (lowest handicap: 15), for a substantial period both my dad and my uncle played to single figures (lowest handicap: 8 and 7 respectively).
Of the two sons, my father had the more appropriate temperament for golf: a steadfast swing, a true eye for lining up putts, psychological strength to avoid mid-course meltdowns. My uncle Keith, by contrast, was more mercurial: while his handicap was lower than my father’s, he had been known to throw his clubs into water hazards in disgust when playing badly.
As it happens, my game leans more towards that of my uncle, with countless no-returns carded, acres of deep rough stalked over or hacked at, hundreds of balls abandoned, not to mention the excessive swearing, occasional tearfulness and clubs thrown in fits of pique (my lowest handicap achieved: 20).
My father’s golf obsession developed in his late teens, though I suspect it blossomed when he became a parent, offering him an excellent excuse to absolve himself of the responsibilities of parenthood. There are, admittedly, photographs of the two of us playing golf in the back garden of our house at Elworth Street in Sandbach, the first house I have any memory of. A conscious attempt on his part to pass on the love of the game. In those photos I must have been about two years old, but even then I gripped and held the club like a natural (so I’m told).
In the mid-1980s my parents moved to a property that backed on to Sandbach Golf Club, a nine-hole course which my father and grandfather were long-serving members of. As our garden gate opened onto the first tee, I have little doubt that for my father it was the most perfect house in the town. That it was also on the busiest main road in the town, and therefore completely inappropriate for a family with two toddlers and an ageing dog, seemed to escape his attention. Ditto that the house wasn’t fit for human habitation. For the first three months our family lived in a caravan on the driveway while it was renovated: a story for another time.
I would have been five years old when we moved. Two years later, I got my first full sized golf club: a ladies five iron with a reduced shaft. A birthday gift from my grandpa. I remember going to get it quite clearly – for it was the first and last time I touched my grandma’s tit: a deliberate act to attract her attention. It worked, but not in the way I’d hoped. (There are some disconcertingly Freudian overtones to the trip, now that I think about it.) For a period, that was the only club I played with – mainly in my back garden, smacking balls against the garden fence and placing the neighbours’ windows in peril. Later I acquired one of my grandma’s old putters and played a few tentative rounds with my father at Sandbach. I became a junior member when I was eight years old.
Ask the all-women-excluding masters of the Royal and Ancient at St Andrews and they will tell you that healthy competition between men is what golf is all about. The use of the epithet 'member' to denote the male genitalia originates from the billiard table greens of the RSA. Probably.
The same was true of Sandbach, only the greens were far inferior. To say it was a fusty place would be overly complimentary. The clubhouse stank of pipe smoke and pomade. The men's locker room had all the cobwebbed sprightliness of its users sex-lives. Full members had the roam of the course at all times, strutting over the fairways like a legion of engorged - or flaccid, if of a certain age - phalluses. The obese treasurer even 'walked' his dog on it. Women were only allowed to play unaccompanied on Tuesdays. Juniors were forbidden from playing unaccompanied altogether, excepting medal comps which were usually limited to school holidays.
Sandbach had a very small contingent of junior members. When I joined, I was the youngest by six years. The majority were teenage boys, but there was one female junior member: Elaine Ratcliffe. She must have been 15 or 16 years old when we met for the first time (it was 1989 so I would have been nine or ten). She became my first major crush, though at the time I didn’t really see it that way. I suppose for her I became a project of sorts: she could see some potential in me and my golf, so gamely tolerated me popping my head over our garden gate for a chat.
Each night after school that summer she took a hundred balls down to the small practice area at the foot of our garden, chipping them with a wedge onto the small practice green while listening to Prince on her portable CD player, the first I’d ever laid eyes on. (I’d like to be able to say I also developed a love of Prince’s funk-rock during this period, but that wouldn’t be true. I became mildly obsessed by the Batman soundtrack, for the obvious superhero-worship reasons – I still have an excruciating memory of miming to it in my bedroom mirror – but because of the sexual overtones of Sign o’ the Times she declined to play it for me. I often wonder how that would have affected me had I heard it at that age. Maybe I’d have thought it was shit.)
During these practice sessions I would join her and because we were playing almost every night it my game got so good that I started to play pretty well, even during medal comps where the tiny amount of pressure normally sent my game into a tailspin. Around the same time, my grandpa bought me a Junior Wilson half set (included: 3-wood, 5-iron, 7-iron, 9-iron, wedge and putter). To this day, they’re the best clubs I’ve ever played with. Every ball was struck with an effortless precision.
Unfortunately around this time I fell in with a slightly older boy called Richard. Because she was so good (basically a scratch player), Elaine didn’t play in the junior comps anymore. So I played with him instead. He was a bit of an oddball all told, but an acceptable playing partner (because I was so young, the other juniors were reluctant to play with me).
I’m not sure who first started it, or when, but at some point Richard and I began cheating during the junior medals. There was one particular medal comp that became my bête noir. Even now, remembering it makes my toes curl.
That day, Richard and I were playing really pretty well – I was striking the ball sweetly, and while he wasn’t as good as I was he could knock it about a bit. But every time we hit a bunker we’d throw the ball out. Every time one of us hit the ruff we’d knock it back onto the fairway with our toe. We retook shots that went out of bounds and didn’t count the penalty stroke. Ditto water hazards. By the end of the 18 holes I’d hit a round of 87 gross. With a handicap of 36, my final net score was 51 strokes.
51 strokes. I was 10 years old. Seve Ballesteros wasn’t that good.
So I went home, full of glee and reported this field-crushing score to my mother – thinking it certain to win – who promptly told me she’d seen me throwing my ball out of the bunker on the 9th hole and asked me if that was the only hole I’d done it on.
I fessed up, and when my dad came home I was made to admit my crime. Even after I downplayed the extent of my cheating he was furious, but then he usually was in those days. I also had to tell my grandparents when they phoned to ask how I’d played. My grandfather, at least, was rather more sanguine about it.
“Don’t cheat” he said, “you only cheat yourself”.
I didn’t go to the award ceremony, but the score stood until my dad told the Junior Secretary and I was disqualified.
My most vivid memory from this time was trying to preserve the lie the next time I saw Elaine. After telling her with a straight face my score, she said to my father, “Aren’t you proud of Alex – wasn’t that a great round?” The reply came: “No – he cheated”.
It was John Updike, in his essay ‘Television Golf’dating from 1988, who first extolled the virtues of watching golf from one’s armchair.
The players and the occasions he lists took place in the US: golf, for Updike, has an unmistakably American vernacular. In the UK, for decades the vernacular of golf has largely been parlayed in the husky Home Counties tones of Peter Allis, a chunky, avuncular former pro, and linchpin of the BBC's live coverage.
That announcement that golf’s oldest tournament, The Open, would no longer be screened live by the BBC marked a sad day for television golf. Sky Sports’ successful bid highlighted just how transatlantic the vernacular of golf had become - and how money-orientated. True, golfers have always been wealthy (1999 US Open champion Payne Stewart died when his private jet crashed), but the ultra-bling lifestyle of Lear Jets and diamond-encrusted wristwatches has been taken to unprecedented heights by the new generation. That any of these young players need more subscription money is highly debatable.
The move to Sky set a new precedent: live golf is now all but absent from terrestrial television. Doubtless up and down the country the anti-golf brigade will rejoice – more time in the BBC schedules for Cash in the Attic and East Enders reruns – but the loss of another major sporting event would be keenly felt by amateur golfers and armchair enthusiasts.
It's a shame because - Gary Lineker debacle aside - the BBC hadn't really put a foot wrong where golf is concerned, and so many moments of individual sporting brilliance had been documented by the BBC down the years. When Guardian writer Richard Williams described Sky's superiority in terms of its technical expertise and sheer broadcasting capacity, he missed the point: there is a tradition, a sensibility surrounding golf, that Sky fails to capture. Sky’s golf coverage is bombastic and macho in the extreme, like it was re-staging HBO's Band of Brothers in polo shirts and check slacks. That Sky had already sexed up a pensioner-friendly sport for the iGeneration was irrelevant.
In an emotional sense, too, it was disappointment. My father and I bonded over our enjoyment of watching golf. Playing golf together was always a fraught affair, with dad trying to coach/encourage while I duffed ball after ball and subjected myself to lacerating self-criticism. But I like to think watching golf together was and remains an intrinsic part of our relationship. Last summer I visited my parents over The Open weekend just so we could watch the golf together, this time with my own son.
And there’s the rub. As Updike recorded, watching golf and playing golf go hand in hand: the two operate in a kind of dialectic. Watching golf helps you understand the game and makes you want to play better golf. Or, more simply, watching golf makes you want to play golf. No golf on the TV = no desire to play. Those of us who would prefer not to set up an annual donation to the Murdoch empire end up losing out.
Perhaps we'd be better off hitting the fairways, but that misses the point. Television golf memories are cherished. It's a slow sport, but it's also highly visual and contains a mannered serenity. Like Updike, every golf lover can remember specific instances of incredible or diabolical golf by our most esteemed practitioners.
I remember Constantino Rocca’s impossible putt from off the green through the ‘valley of sin’ at the 18th at St Andrews in 1995, which would force clubhouse leader John Daly into a play-off. When he set it in motion I was willing it to go in – when it dropped it was as if I had made it happen through telekinesis. Rocca lost, but somehow it no longer mattered.
Witnessing the collapse of Jean Van de Velde’s final round at Carnoustie in 1999, by contrast, left one feeling completely powerless. Van de Velde stood on the edge of history, the first Frenchman to win in 92 years. He had led the field since the third day. He only needed six shots to win and ended up taking seven, losing the play off to Paul Lawrie.
With the world’s media looking on, up to his shins in the icy water of the Barry Burn, he looked like he was sinking in the plasma of a self-made disaster. Which he was. Here was the isolation of the golfer, the vagaries of the game, the vacillations of sporting fate, the frailties of the human mind embodied and encompassed in this lone golfer thrashing about under overcast Scottish skies. He was every golfer who’d flubbed a crucial drive into the water. He was one of us.
Van de Velde’s self-immolation is undoubtedly a defining moment in the history of golf, and in subsequent years Lee Westwood and Adam Scott both challenged for the mantle of ‘Golf’s Biggest Choker’. But would any of those rounds have had the same impact if screened on Sky? I sincerely doubt it. Their very visibility enhanced their cultural and historical significance.
The Van de Velde incident was completely of its moment, broadcast in inimitable Auntie style, with Peter Allis’ faintly unsympathetic commentary enhancing the pathos (“Would somebody please stop him. Give him a large brandy and mop him down”). Not only did it showcase why golf is such a brilliant, mercurial game – one which can move from majesty to tragedy and high farce in a matter of minutes – but also why the BBC was perfectly placed to broadcast it.
Now that golf has gone from the BBC, another link to my former life as a golfer disappeared. Expense has prevented me from playing the game; now expense will stop me watching it too. The golfing community continues to shrink: some 200,000 club members lost in the UK in the past decade, prompting several course closures. Privately owned, these old courses are then sold and redeveloped for private housing. Criticising golf for public housing shortages is like blaming skiers for global warming. Reducing golf's visibility in the UK will be more catastrophic for the future of the game than keeping major winners in private jets.
In my GCSE summer, I was made Junior Captain at Sandbach, the same year that my dad became Club Captain.
The Williamson Captaincy didn’t begin terribly well. As I was doggedly revising for my GCSEs, my commitment was negligible, and my game had largely gone to pot during my teenage years. However, by this point in time I was the oldest junior member and de facto successor to the captaincy. That there were younger players at the club who were better suited to the position was moot, but did not go overlooked. Resentment festered.
By this stage in the club’s reluctant modernisation the juniors had been granted a small shed as their locker room and (tiny) social space. This also coincided with the entry into Sandbach of a less affluent contingent among the male members, and their progeny also joined as juniors. A couple of them verbally abused a senior member. Then my father, as club captain, found himself embroiled with protracted contract negotiations with the club steward, whose son also played. My younger brother – who at this time had, it’s safe to say, a not inconsiderable aversion to exercise, the strength of which was matched by his love of eating a bag of Cadbury’s Chocolate Eclairs just before bedtime – had started playing at the club. One day he found his locker had been vandalised and graffiti scratched into the door. The investigation into the damage implicated the steward’s son. Relations soured further.
I mainly kept out of it, but from time to time the junior captain was expected to lead the charge in small tournaments against the junior members of other clubs. To my memory, I only managed to slot in one of those during a summer of constant, grinding GCSE revision. (For ‘constant, grinding GCSE revision’ read teaching myself to juggle while listening to ska in my bedroom. And constant, grinding masturbation.) All incidental recollection from that tournament has largely been wiped from my memory. I can’t even remember where we played: was it Leek, or Keele, or Congleton?
After brief preliminary introductions to the home team, our group set out in atrocious weather and were beaten back by the rain somewhere around the seventh hole, while the rest of the Sandbachians struggled on in their straggling fourballs. This was hardly the spirit of the Ryder Cup on display. Hardly the steel-eyed qualities of a junior leader. A number of caustic comments were made when we slithered in, wet as eels.
Worse was to come at the dinner and prize giving. All the juniors sat down to eat at one long table in the clubhouse. The usual bland fare: oven chips and chicken burgers. Finding myself seated at a place with no plate – and noticing that there weren’t any on the table – I asked someone, whom I presumed to be a waitress, if I could have a plate. Her response: “Get it yourself. Who do you think I am?” The table was silenced. It turned out she was the Lady Captain.
Furious attempts to dig myself out of the social bunker only resulted in further calamity. When I (mistakenly) opted for the humorous approach to delivering my thank you speech – by saying “what she said” and pretending to sit down after the home captain had eulogised everyone within eyesight – I was jeered by a number of the adults in the room.
I spent the rest of the evening pacing around the clubhouse in ignominy, utterly isolated and bereft, waiting for my parents to rescue me. I didn't attend another tournament as Junior Captain.
Playing golf was never really the same after that.
The Plassey is a large campsite just outside of Wrexham, in north Wales. It is not for the discerning traveller. Croissant-eaters are crucified at the entrance as a warning to other campers. Rotting animal carcasses and blood-soaked bandages litter the site. Packs of wild dogs prowl it at night, hunting down abandoned children. The postage-stamp-sized swimming pool has the temperature and consistency of co-mingled spit and spunk, and is rumoured to contain a small shark. Everywhere you look you’re confronted with the breasts and bullshit of the Daily Sport.
It also has a thoroughly charmless nine hole pitch n’ putt – recently rebranded as a 'par three course'. This was where I spent August bank holiday weekend in 1992, seeking refuge from the sub-Ballardian neo-apocalyptic holidaymaking. My playing partners were the teenage Gibbons brothers, Robert and Neil – then aspiring actors, now co-writers of the Alan Partridge franchise.
We were on the course for hours on end, traipsing its grassy dips and crests like the penitents in the seventh circle of hell. After a time scoring became irrelevant. The condition of the course was so abysmal that we spent more time hacking lumps out of it than we did striking the ball. During this time a new phrase entered the lexicon: “divotation”. It was a physical and verbal expression of everything that was awful about The Plassey: poor course management, abysmal customer service, visceral human savagery.
This period marks another chapter in my personal history of hero worship. The Gibbonses were popular, talented and funny. Plus they were non-identical twins, which virtually made them local celebrities in those pre-IVF days.
All went well until we were joined at The Plassey on the Sunday by the daytripping Boyd family, and our three ball became a four ball as the eldest son – Alex – joined our fraternity. It’s fair to say that Alex wasn’t much of a player. He played like a pensioner trying to flick dogshit off his lawn with a twig.
With my namesake on the course, it was only a matter of time before someone got hurt. It is testament to my perpetual ill fortune, and youthful stupidity, that that someone was me.
By the time we reached the seventh hole, Alex’s playing was sufficiently improved that I felt no compunction about sitting square to the tee while he drove off. In other words, I was seated at a ninety degree angle to the ball’s expected direction of travel, and at a distance of about two metres. This, in hindsight, was a grave error. Golf etiquette dictates that playing partners should always stand behind the player who has the honour to strike the ball. But this was the Plassey: the normal rules of golf did not apply. And nor did the laws of physics.
Alex’s driven ball left the club head and struck me just above the ear. An impossible shot: impossible to replicate, and horrible accurate. At the moment of impact, it felt like I had been hit by a bullet train, a bullet train that was trying to puncture my cranium. In spite of this, I was actually lucky. Were my head at a different angle, it would have struck me on the temple. I could easily have been killed.
After a brief period of writhing on the grass, swearing and desperately trying not to cry, I walked unsteadily off the course and spent the rest of the afternoon with a raw sirloin steak applied to the side of my head.
The three-ball carried on without me. I’d like to think that they didn’t laugh about it. But I imagine they did.
Playing golf was never really the same after that.