For those that know me well they know I am sports addicted. I watch all that I can but now from the safety of the sofa and Christmas has been wonderful for the sport’s fan. The Premier League has increased the number of matches over the already crowded festive season to cope with an early finish to the season so that we can settle down to watch the summer World Cup in Russia. Brilliant. I have watched a match nearly every evening for the last two weeks.
Now, my nights are being disrupted by the Ashes cricket from Australia. Even though we are losing I am still drawn in by the spell of first class sport. Golf is one of the sports where the pressure comes from personal expectations and performing in front of the gaze of television cameras. I always assumed that without the crowds and cameras and walking out with friends they would all shoot sub-par.
I am in awe of the wide range of skills displayed by professional sportsmen in what ever sport. Not only do they do pass the ball 50 metres with pinpoint accuracy, show skills beyond comprehension, they do them in the rough or tumble of an unfolding fast paced game or under the extreme pressure of a million eyes of television. Often both.
Until my late twenties and a ruptured ACL I played rugby. I needed a new sport. I looked towards golf.
The early days were good. As a teenager I dated the daughter of the steward of the Dulwich and Sydenham Golf Club who lived with her parents in rooms in the club house. I had better not tell all the stories of what happened in the kitchens when we arrived back late on a Saturday evening to a dark and empty Club. Suffice to say it was not just raiding the fridges for a late-night supper.
As schoolboys we played the course a few times and watched in awe as Peter Oosterhuis (obviously playing in a different four ball. He was a Walker Cup player while still at Dulwich College) a school contemporary, struck the ball huge distances and miles in the air.
My first regular foray into golf was in Malawi. There weren’t any 18-hole courses but many 9-hole courses and the two I used were in Blantyre and Lilongwe although, mainly I would run around the Blantyre course on a weekday lunchtime and then spend the afternoon, even after a cold shower, trying to get cool.
It was on Saturday mornings that I played golf.
Many of the courses in Africa don’t have ‘greens’. Instead they have ‘browns’ made of sand, but not Lilongwe. We would meet in the car park and be surrounded by young locals all wanting to be our caddy. Soon I had a regular boy. This was not colonialism but self-preservation. When I hit into the bush, a not infrequent event, he would go in and collect the ball from among the snakes and other animals. I was never that brave.
We would go around twice giving us the 18-hole fix and unlike anywhere else I know we would stop halfway for a drink before we started the second half. There was a little hut selling beverages. It wasn’t always a Coke or cup of tea but more often a beer before setting out again. We would finish at the shack, have another couple of beers and I would go. It was golf and it was just like rugby. It was the game and a beer.
In this relaxed atmosphere my golf improved, and I worked my way down to a 14 handicap so why not carry on when I got back to England? It seemed like a good idea and all I needed was a golf club.
I thought I knew about sports clubs. I had played rugby for one for over a decade. It was a team game and we were united by our love of the release of a game on the Saturday afternoon. We won and lost together, we ached, shared cuts and bruises together. Cricket clubs were the same.
Not just expensive but golf clubs were different. I was being asked to join the club first and golf was an excuse. It was the wrong way around. I just wanted to play golf. I had no need for a club.
Maybe it was an ageist thing. The membership was invariably older, and I have never managed to be my age. Probably it was that golf was not the purpose of the membership and it was always meant to be a social grouping.
But what really got up my nose was that golf clubs were set up for a certain ‘class’ of people and invariably that was an aspirational middle class.
If you think you have the flow of this piece, feel free to stop now because I am about to go into rant mode.
I walked into golf clubs to be met by a mass of regulations, committees, and rules. If golf isn’t already complicated enough to find that there were more rules in the club house was intimidating.
I was invited as a guest to a meal at the Golf Club in Dubai. I was, by my rules, properly dressed but even then, as a dozen or so of us sat to eat I was politely asked to leave or wear a different shirt. I was forced to go to the pro shop and buy a vastly overpriced shirt before I could continue with dinner. It was embarrassing for both me and my host.
I have been interviewed by committees and faced a host of puerile questions before deciding I didn’t want to join their cosy little group.
Sports clubs should have a purpose and the purpose is sport. I don’t want to join a small cabal. The argument is that it a place for like minded men (it usually is in golf clubs) to get together in a safe environment. I don’t need a safe place. I need an exciting, exhilarating, challenging place.
Aspiration is fantastic, and I encourage everyone to aspire to be better than they are now. Aspiration has fuelled all the social and technological advances, but a golf club is not aspirational. It is safe.
I gave up golf.