"Golf is to sport as dentistry is to medicine" - David Owen
Sunday morning. The 15th hole at Foxhills Golf Club in Ottershaw, Surrey, a 369-yard par four. I’ve just hit a tee shot that started dead-eye straight, that sounded like butter, kind of, and felt like sex. Pretty bad sex, true, and only if sex involved hitting balls with sticks.
Except, now the ball is turning left, dramatically, ignoring the line of tall pine trees that normally catch a wild drive, so far left even Karl Marx would have reservations about following its path, and having already picked up my tee peg from the ground, I can only watch the ball disappear not just out of view, but probably out of the boundaries of the entire 400-acre estate, to land, my guess, somewhere near where the local B-road joins the A3. “Reload,” suggests a playing partner.
OK, this isn’t a good day and it’s been clear for the last hour that nothing I try is going to change that. A golfer knows this. Except my response is not to mutter and swear and hurl my club away in disgust as used to be my stock response but to quietly restart a practice drill that the pro I’ve been using says will, in time, help combat my problem hook. Patience.
Shit. “A golfer knows this.” I do drills. I have a golf instructor. Well, a YouTube golf instructor anyway. (His name’s Shawn if you want to know and he’s very kind.)
At home I have magazines, piles of them, that promise to help me “Hit It Long and Straight”, “Make More Birdies” and “Break 80 by Saturday”. I wear trousers and polo shirts in colours normally only found in children’s felt-tip pen sets.
Why didn’t I see the signs? It’s happened.
I’m a golfer.
It must have crept up on me, this. For years, I’d managed to keep golf at a safe distance. I’d played it as a kid, chipping in the garden, hitting balls at targets with my half set, one more hole before it gets too dark to see: simple, subtle, deep, possibly the greatest game in the world.
Then the baggage around golf gets hold of you. The red-faced men with white hair at the club who tell you you’re not wearing the right shoes, which don’t have the right spikes, which are tucked under trousers that have been manufactured in the wrong weight of cotton twill.
Tell you not to stand outside the pro shop and not to sit when the club captain walks in to a room. The time it takes to play, the money it sucks, the frustration you can convey only through facial expressions. A game that takes and takes and takes.
My clubs went to the attic, and for years I tried to forget. But they lurked, a brooding presence, like an attractive but needy and occasionally violent girlfriend who lives overseas. With golf, you’re in or you’re out.
And you know you’re in when you’re stuck at a red light and start visualising an elevated green nestled among some trees in the distance, a decent hole that, and wonder whether you’d reach it with a six or a seven iron. Probably a six in this wind.
“Golf is the loneliest of all games, not excluding postal chess” — Peter Dobereiner
In the office, people who in some corners of Britain might be described politely as media types — well-kempt beards, Guardians, scarves indoors — might ask me what I did at the weekend. They’ll suppress a smirk when I tell them. That’s how it works when you live in London and play golf.
“Sad man,” they’ll think, “Tory boy”.
They’ll be thinking about the no-women clubrooms, the Lynch-Tarbuck pro-am circuit in the Eighties, the knitwear, the vague association with arthritis, infirmity and death. Yeah, I get it.
As some of them were getting kicked out of an east London warehouse party in the early hours of Sunday, maybe heading home to hit the ketamine, I was pulling into a scrunching drive in suburban Surrey, the car park filled with German saloons and SUVs, making sure not to park in the club secretary’s space, however tempting, or else I’d be in some pretty serious bother with the pro shop.
Those guys can be real sticklers. Let’s admit it, golf has traditionally attracted a whole bunch of people, its heartland, its regular Sunday-morning brethren, the folk who make the game what it is, who you’ve previously spent your entire life going out of your way to avoid.
You have to accept that yes, you are playing the same game as Tom O’Connor and far-right Americans with gun fetishes, and couples called Clive and Sue from Epsom who ask house guests to take their shoes off before letting anyone inside. These are just the facts.
So you don’t do it for the recognition or kudos. That’s a given. No amount of Nike branding, magazines with “Punk” in the title or pro players in orange trousers and dyed hair are going to make golf cool.
Some amateurs, with their Swedish-designed slim-fit polos and tapered trousers with ironic plaid check, think differently on this. But they’re still wearing visors. And you really can’t trust a man wearing over 70 per cent nylon.
No woman, at least none you’d want to have sex with, is going to be remotely impressed by the fact you have decided to make a long-term commitment to golf. And, slowly, that’s what I was starting to do.
“I’ve noticed that the man with the fastest cart usually wins” — Willie Nelson
What knockers don’t appreciate and non-golfers don’t know about is the kit. Jesus, the kit. There are no other sports to touch golf in the equipment stakes. Period. I believe that so strongly that, yes, I just used the word “period”.
Wedges with varying lofts and bounce soles, in copper, matt black or polished steel. Grooves you want to clean the night before you play. Bladed irons that are impossible to hit but impossible not to sit and look at, drivers you can actually adjust, which come with tools that let you experiment with where the club head sits on the shaft, like you actually know what you’re doing.
That’s before you start on the accessories. Gloves so clean and smooth it’d be a privilege to be strangled by hands that wore them, velvety smooth towels that hang just so from your bag, and balls so white and pure and innocent the night before you play, untarnished by tomorrow’s tank into the halfway hut or your hurling one into the lake after a poor run of scoring.
Tiny things that cost over £3 a pop. Hit three in the trees and you’ve done a tenner. Ball markers, pitch-mark repairers, wooden tees of various lengths, umbrellas, soft spikes, hard spikes, hats, windproofs and waterproofs.
And that’s just the minimum. The absolute basics before you feel safe and ready to get out on the course. Zip it all up in the pockets the evening before, with the plasters, the sunscreen, the water, the socks, the pencil, the course planner, the hip flask. And the wallet. You’re definitely going to need that.
“I hate this game and I can’t wait to play again tomorrow” — Jeff Sluman
Don’t fall for the networking or business cliché, though. No deals get done on the golf course. This isn’t Howards’ Way.
And if you’re engaged in the sensitive stage of a business negotiation, do you really want to let your most difficult client see you this vulnerable, stripped bare emotionally, muttering to yourself, alone in the woods, in these trousers?
Some talk about the scenery. But you’ll only notice it if you’re playing well, and odds are you won’t be, in which case you could be playing on the moon and you wouldn’t even give planet Earth a glance, only noticing the little patch of rock your ball had come to rest on. Fucking moon dust. Fucking absence of gravity.
You kind of have to admire the sheer scale and ambition of this game, though. To water the course and tend it and trim it in a way that doesn’t cause members to complain about an unsightly patch of untended turf takes teams of ground staff, reservoirs full of water, buckets of money.
To play just a few holes on a good course is as decadent as a Nero-hosted New Year’s party back in ancient Rome.
Play it in countries where water and food are scarce, where the sun turns earth to dust, but the course you’re playing on is so green it makes your eyes hurt as you trundle around for miles in your golf cart and your caddie earns a wage that wouldn’t cover your new putter grip: that can bring on a fairly advanced case of Western middle-class guilt.
Before you hook one into the trees. Then you have other things to worry about.
There are other reasons to play. A secret all golfers know is that it’s one of the greatest, neatest, no-questions-asked ways you can have a legitimate weekend away from your wife or girlfriend for an entire 48 hours or longer.
“I’m just going away with three mates to spend the weekend walking and drinking” is never going to cut it. Throw a golf bag into the boot of the car, however, and it’s like a powerful mind trick, a blind spot, that can be taken advantage of at surprisingly regular intervals.
And fresh air. At least you can pretty much bank on that.
“Golf’s three ugliest words: still your shot” — Dave Marr
Golf, in essence, is a simple game. Keep your head down, bend your knees, left arm straight, spine upright but tilted, grip the club right but grip it light, rotate your arms not your hands, keep your backswing short, remember “low and slow”, stay together, swing not hit, throw your hips, accelerate into the hitting zone, shake hands with the target, know your circles, stay on plane, follow through to a photo finish. Shout, “Fore!” Louder.
You watch professionals play. You stiff a few on the driving range. You start to feel that a real breakthrough is one swing-through away. It isn’t.
This is why you keep playing, because you can’t understand why a game that appears so simple can also be so complicated. It’s basically bemusement that keeps you coming back.
Because to be consistent is not just hard, it’s malevolent. The kind of dead-eyed, impassive malevolence that is always a worse sign in movie serial killers than the ones that make a lot of noise.
It’s as punishing to bad golfers as it is to good ones, too. More so in fact, because the striving and mental strain required to get halfway decent brings with it expectations and golf takes expectations and uses them up like an old J Cloth.
The greatest lie we tell ourselves is that if one day we made time to practise, you know, really made the time to really practise, we might actually get good.
Except we also know full well that we will never be able to make the time, so we can never be good, either. This second bit we try to ignore.
“Please, God. All I want to do is hit the ball. What is it You want? Good deeds? Give me a swing and I’ll give You good deeds up the wazoo. I’ll help sick kids, the homeless… well, sick kids” — Larry David
The best moments in golf aren’t always the obvious monster putts or unlikely chip-ins. These are more lucky and we know it. The best moments are when you’ve just rolled in a five-footer to save par, or the excited walk down the fairway after a flushed drive that left you a perfect line in to the pin, buying you time to look at the course planner to work out yardage and toss a bit of grass in the air to check the wind.
It’s the walk from the car on a clear morning with an early tee time and an entire round ahead of you. At this point, it’s still possible today will be one of the good ones.
It’s the moment on the driving range when the tweak you’ve been working on has just seen you cream eight consecutive five irons with identical ball flights and you’re caught between not wanting to stop in case you disrupt anything or forget how you’re doing this, and the desire to pause for a second and take in the moment, because this kind of sporting nirvana doesn’t happen very often.
Too late, you’re thinking about it.
Perhaps this is the best way to look at golf, as a phenomenally expensive form of Zen practice, a platform to understand and accept failure and disappointment, to disassociate from your overthinking ego, to realise the folly of striving and emotional attachment, to be fully present in the moment. Maybe.
Bottom line is that the only reason we’re all here is to hit the ball. And sometimes, just one shot is enough.