I come from a short line of life-long amateur golfers.
My grandpa took up the sticks in his late thirties and passed his affection for the game onto his fiercely-competitive boys: Richard, my dad, and Keith, my uncle. While my grandpa 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 perfect 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: 20).
My dad’s golf obsession developed in his late teens, though I suspect it blossomed when he became a parent by 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 55 Elworth Street in Sandbach: 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 125 Middlewich Road, a property that backed on to Sandbach Golf Club, a nine-hole course of which my father was a member. 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 proper 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 just 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.
The same was true of Sandbach - only the greens were far inferior. To say it was a fusty place would be overly complimentary. It fairly stank of pipe smoke and pomade. The men's locker room had all the cobwebby ambience 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 reserved 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 – something I can cringingly recall playing in my bedroom and miming to in the mirror – but because of the sexual overtones of Sign o’ the Times she prudishly refused to play it for me. Hence I was never exposed to Prince’s greatest album. I often wonder how that would have affected me had I heard it at that age.)
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 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 the very thought of it makes my toes curl with acute embarrassment. 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. I can’t get anywhere near that score even now.
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 how many holes I had done this on.
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 grandpa and grandma when they phoned to ask how I’d played. My grandpa, 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”.
Playing golf was never really the same after that.
In my GCSE summer, I was made Junior Captain at Sandbach, the same year that my dad became Club Captain.
The Williamson era didn’t begin terribly well. As I was revising for my GCSE’s my commitment was fairly limited. My game had largely gone to pot during my teenage years, but by this point I was the oldest junior member and de facto successor to the captaincy. That there were better younger players at the club was moot, but not unnoticed. 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 Sandbach. One day he found his locker had been vandalised and graffitied with abuse. 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 comments were made when we slinked 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 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 ill fortune and youthful stupidity that that person 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 with 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, shrilly 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.