Too much gin at the 19th hole; golf bag in the boot of the Jag; clubhouses where the women staff can get sacked for not wearing skirts; businessmen doing dodgy deals; mind-boggling finicketiness over what you wear on the course-English golf does not have a progressive image. The Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club, the Conservative Association and the Golf Club-all are part of the suffocating web of Home Counties Tory life. Ever since I became politically aware I have regarded a good golf swing as ideologically unsound.
Until now. Three years ago I revisited the game I had only ever played once in my life before-on a nine hole course behind my school where I failed to lift the ball in the air once. I never had that satisfying feeling of effortlessly clipping the ball and seeing it fly into the heavens before descending to nestle plumb in the middle of the fairway. Only public school boys and the inhabitants of the big houses in the suburb where I lived seemed to be able to hit a ball like that. This was a Tory game unplayable by lank, bookish grammar school boys. I gave up. I would never be able to hit a golf ball in the air; and never straight.
Today my record at hitting golf balls straight or in the air is still erratic, but I have come to love this absurd, obsessive and beautiful game. I owe my reacquainticeship with golf to my ten-year-old son (seven when he persuaded me to start playing) and an easy-going club in Kidlington, run by a friendly group of golf-loving Scots. It is true that over the past three years I have played mainly in the uncritical company of boys under 11 (great shot, Dad-as the ball carries 30 feet and then can’t be found in the saplings/swamp/high grass). But recently my confidence has been growing. I have begun playing with grown-ups, and I have twice gone round an 18 hole course and scored less than 100 (99)-a triumphant moment, as any golfer will tell you.
And I have come to see golf not as a Tory game, but rather one of the most democratic sports I have ever played. To play golf is to court regular humiliation-and the brilliant thing is, it’s the same for everyone on the course however good they are. Golfers share solidarity in their suffering. Remember the photographs of that Frenchman up to his knees in water at last year’s open trying to hit his ball out of a stream at the 18th to win the championship? That’s what it’s like at the top, and at the bottom it’s like that many times over. It’s a wonderful leveller. My ten-year-old and I (the 49-year-old) confront the same mystery. Why did that shot go so badly when the one before went so well?
We go through this because of the sense of grace when we do-occasionally and unpredictably-hit the ball well: hit a ball off the tee straight on to the green on a short hole (I did that twice a fortnight ago); drive a ball straight and high 250 yards with a wood; drive a ball straight and high with an iron; sink a long putt; chip your way out of difficulty. The satisfaction of these moments ranks with the best there is: skiing a black run well; watching one of your children succeed at something they’ve set their heart on; writing a bestseller; and other pleasures ascetic readers of Prospect may have read about and even experienced.
Democracy is embedded in the sport. The scoring system builds in each player’s strength and weakness via their handicap (how many shots more than a course’s designated difficulty rating you need to finish its 18 holes), so that you can play anybody on level terms. And it doesn’t matter whether you are playing with a star or a dunce; you all have to walk the course together taking more or less shots to get to the green. As my confidence has grown, I have come to dare to play with players much better than me-which never happens with tennis, say, or even skiing. I have even come to understand golf rules and etiquette; you need them to make sure everyone goes round the course as fast and as fairly as possible.
Golf courses vary, of course, but most boast at least one hole that is breathtakingly beautiful. There are two or three holes at a course in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, which are beyond belief. You round the track in your golf buggy (brilliant invention) and you find yourself gazing at a hole that crosses turbulent streams and wilderness, and ends at a green framed by the Rockies on all sides. Closer to home, even the public course at Uxbridge, beside the beginning of the M40, has a hole that leaves you gasping with surprise.
I played there a fortnight ago with two university friends. We don’t see much of each other these days, but we have each found our own way to golf-and are delighted that we have a new bond. Uxbridge is not Wentworth or Troon; it’s a course for the people, and as golf becomes more popular, there are many more like it-my club at Kidlington, for example, with its prefabricated hut for a clubhouse.
We had a wonderful afternoon. Each of us had our highs and our humiliations. And as the holes went by we rediscovered the banter that had made us so close 30 years ago, helped along by solidarity over the calamities that golf consistently deals you. Later, over a beer and a fat bacon sandwich, Nic leant forward with the same look he had at 18. “Lionel and I have been talking,” he said. “We’ve agreed. You’re bad enough to play with us again.” I had made it.