G is for Golf

(This is the latest in a series of essays I’m writing about my life. A specific kind of autobiography, I guess. The rest of these essays are here.)

I feel as though web development and photography have been my passions for ever. But long before I sat down in front of the internet for the first time and even before I started learning how to use a camera, I learned how to play golf.

Golf was my main passion in my teens, when I would relish being out on the course and putting myself to the test in the midst of forested park land. Getting away from school and homework to walk the fairways and enjoy the peace and quiet.

The peace of the game is an aspect which I love. There are well-observed rules of etiquette which make players keep quiet and respect one another. (People who breach such etiquette can be quickly brought to task, in one of the rare instances that an Englishman can acceptably berate another in public.)

My earliest memories of learning to play golf are somewhat hazy, but I am relatively sure that Dad began teaching me when I was still at junior school. Memories come of being picked up from school and driven to Windlemere golf course, where I would stand on a driving range and try to hit golf balls well enough to get them out of the shed in which I was standing.

Once I could hit the ball more often than I missed it, Dad and I went out onto the course. It was a short, nine-hole place, winding in a golf course kind of way between small trees and beneath crackling overhead power lines. I suppose that we must’ve played in the autumn and winter often, as the enduring memories are of mud and luminous orange golf balls.

As we became better at playing, we searched further afield. Private courses were out of our skill range, but the south of England began booming with pay-and-play courses, which were good options.

Southwood was a nine-hole course in the 1980s, backing on to the RAE in Farnborough. Its comparative flatness presented a different configuration of mud on which we could practice. The course later opened up to become a much larger eighteen hole challenge. Once the staked saplings had grown and the green-keeper had learned how to drain the fairways, it became one of my favourites.

The course is affordable and not hugely challenging, but it’s sufficiently winding and rolling to ensure that a mis-hit ball ends up in the undergrowth at some point. Southwood offered an unusual benefit during the bi-annual air show at the neighbouring RAE: free rounds of golf to anyone who could withstand the sound of all manner of aircraft flying deafeningly low over the course.

Downshire Golf Complex was where it began getting serious when I was in my early teens. Dad and I joined the Easthampstead Golf Club there and started playing much more regularly on a much bigger and better-established course. There were few saplings here, but proper water hazards – deep, wide ditches and a small lake – and numerous sizeable oaks to avoid. Bunkers deep enough to bury yourself were also a feature, right from the first hole. An extendable pole with a small net on the end served as a diversion: fishing for long-since drowned golf balls, should the group in front play too slowly.

Starting your round early in the morning was a privilege so highly prized that it was essential to get to the course as early in the morning as possible. In the days before the internet, this meant driving to the course a week in advance and waiting in line to book your tee time. Players lazy enough to try and book by phone were deemed insufficiently serious about the early start, and went to the back of the queue.

Although I am mainly calm, some things do make me quite stressed. The first of the memorable ones turned out to be golf. Aside from learning how to control my frustration at my mistakes, sometimes even before it turned to anger, I found that striving to be a better player made me obsessive about the game. That would lead me, in time, to put golf to one side for quite a while.

The combination of enjoyment and obsession was enough to make me spend countless hours playing the game. I’d often play two rounds of eighteen holes on a Saturday and again on a Sunday, making a total of 24 kilometres, which would wear me out completely. (It still would today.) My exuberance drove my official handicap down to 16 at one point, whilst I still held a club membership card, and my best ever round was a couple of shots below 80 on a par 72 course.

The peak of my playing frequency came, I think, when I went on holiday to Wales with my family after I’d passed my driving test. I got to drive there and so I took myself off to the golf links at Tenby. Whether my memory is true when suggesting that I played most days during the two week trip, I can’t say. But it does sound plausible.

I loved Tenby’s course as it was such a complete contrast to the parkland I knew so well. The links course is built amongst the sand dunes backing onto the beach, so it is covered with large amounts of dune grasses and features plenty of hills to play over, with nothing but a striped pole to indicate the correct direction. One memorable hole is the fourth, where a blind shot over a sand dune to the green has to be precise: the target is completely surrounded by long grass and gorse.

During the final year or so I was at school, I had my own car and so I became much more mobile. A friend who lived nearby had become a caddy and suggested that we go to courses together, to earn money carrying peoples bags round the course for them.

I knew enough about the game to make a serious effort at being a caddy and while I never intended to make a living out of it, I made an effort to take it seriously. When I was young and immature, I used to think that I would make a better butler than toff, and this seeped into my golf life whilst caddying.

Never aiming to be a pro player, I settled in well to the subservient role as a caddy. I had a little notebook with hand-drawn notes and measurements of each hole and its hazards, and I kept it up-to-date whilst pacing the distances in order to advise “my player” which club to use for the next shot.

The posh courses near west London remain hallowed ground to me. I find them particularly beautiful: neatly ordered holes formed on slightly sandy ground amongst the pine forests, where rich members, professionals and celebrities play on pristine fairways and greens. It was on these courses that I most enjoyed the game without the pressure of having to play well. Getting to walk some of the best holes in the country is a privilege I like to look back on.

I caddied most regularly on the Old Course in Sunningdale, although I have fond memories of The Berkshire too. The Old Course dates back to the end of the nineteenth century and its heritage is embedded into every tree and every corner of the grounds.

The beautiful and traditional clubhouse was totally out-of-bounds to the lowly caddy, but we got to enjoy the caddy hut next door instead. Arriving at six in the morning to warm up with bacon sandwiches, before being deputized by the stern caddy master to join the first groups out onto the course. Starting early in the morning meant that caddies could get a second – or even third – round in later in the day, thereby increasing their tips considerably.

It was a rare, annual treat for regular caddies to get to play the course – once per year late in the afternoon, if memory serves – and I seem to recall playing relatively well on the only time I got to play there.

It was a different story at the world-famous Wentworth course. It’s the most famous of all the Berkshire and Surrey courses, because it’s located within a private estate containing some of the most expensive houses in the country. Jo and I sneaked in a couple of years ago to gape at the houses: I’d forgotten quite how ostentatious and simply enormous some of them are.

Wentworth plays host to a stage of the European PGA Championship in early summer, to (what I knew as) the Suntory World Matchplay Championship in autumn, and to a range of other prominent competitions. It’s the most snobby course of all and there was something indescribable in the air there, which made me, as a late-teenage caddy, feel out of my depth. I did caddy there a few times, but never enjoyed it as much as in Sunningdale.

My happy memories of Wentworth are from walking round the course as a fan, following legends like Ian Woosnam and Nick Faldo as they laid waste to the competition. I used to enjoy watching golf too, as an alternative to playing, and spent hours in front of the t.v. In particular, when the U.S. Masters or British Open championships were on.

It was at Wentworth that I got to photograph my first and only golf tournament – the Senior Open Championship – with press accreditation. I managed to get the press pass on my own merit, without working for a press agency, but never did anything with the photos. I rented a massive 600mm lens and monopod to lug around for the weekend, but made the expedition (and cost) worthwhile by photographing legendary players Tony Jacklin and Gary Player in action. (This reminds me that I must dig out the negatives and digitize them, to see whether they’re any good.)

Later, friends became a little interested in the game and so I forewent my habitual solitary rounds to go with them. We played on several courses; the best of them on the British Army’s own course at Aldershot and in the beautiful seclusion of the Hampshire countryside near Farnham. In researching for this essay, I find that Oak Park’s green fees haven’t changed since 2000, when I used to play there. The course is wonderful. If you get the chance to play it, do.

When I moved to Switzerland, golf fell by the wayside. I had delved deeply into photography as a hobby and almost as deeply into debt as an obstacle, which stopped me from being able to afford the higher prices of Swiss courses. Where golf is an everyman sport in the U.K., it’s still a prized and expensive pursuit here. It was only several years later that I learned of the Migros-sponsored Golf Parks, which are more within my range. But by this time, my passion for the sport was well in the past.

I still hanker for the game, and visits to British driving ranges with Dad and my father-in-law about five years ago nudged me to dust off my golf bag. That’s as far as it got until a couple of years ago, when I made the effort to check out three of the nearest courses to home: at Interlaken, Kiesen and Allmendingen.

The course at Interlaken is a monstrously expensive private affair. Whilst it looks exceptionally well-kept and well-established in a large silver birch wood, the land on which it sits is flat. The course at Kiesen, whilst affordable, is equally uninteresting; backing onto the main A6 motorway and containing little but hillocked ground and plenty of the aforementioned saplings.

The course at Allmendingen seems to be the best of the bunch for my level, and whilst only a nine-hole course, features an attractive and tree-lined landscape. I haven’t yet taken the step of going on the course, as a fifteen-year sabbatical means that I am a little more than out-of-practice. But a few visits to the driving range over the past couple of years have reassured me that I still know how to hit a six-iron straight.

With so many mountains around and so many places to visit, golf is still on the wayside for me and there seem to be plenty of excuses to do something else instead. But give me the forethought of putting my clubs in the car before leaving for work and a sunny evening, and you’ll find me on the range, warming up for my long-awaited return to the fairways and greens.