Since 1980 I have made an average of five transatlantic trips to cover golf events in the U.S. each year, and in that time I have established two rituals, one on arriving in the U.S.; the other on leaving. On arrival I have made a bee-line for a shoeshine stand and delight in watching my shoes being transformed from scuffed to polished. Shining one’s shoes, which has died out in Britain, remains an art form in the U.S. I once read a 3,000-word article in Esquire about how best to do it. It involved water, damp and dry cloths, a cigarette lighter or match to burn off loose threads, at least three buffing brushes and a toothbrush, several types of polish and lots of elbow grease.
On departure I have found a coffee shop, bought myself an Americano with milk on the side and a packet of ginger biscuits covered in dark chocolate and sat in a quiet corner with a copy of the latest New Yorker or Sports Illustrated or Vanity Fair to while away the time until departure. Inevitably, I start wondering why I have enjoyed my time in the U.S. so much and why, even as I am leaving the country, I am looking forward to returning to it.
I am sad, therefore, that I shall not be crossing the Atlantic quite so often from now on. The reason is that I am 65, the age of retirement in Britain, and as a result have had to give up my job as golf correspondent of The Times.
Henry Longhurst, who was a golf correspondent of The Sunday Times long before he found fame as a television commentator in the U.S., used to talk about how lucky he was to have the job he had. He was doing what he had dreamed of doing as a child and he was paid to do it. How many people can say that, he would ask?
I can, Henry. For 30 years, I have had a ringside seat at most of the best events, men’s and women’s, amateur and pro, in the world of golf, many in the U.S. I have been paid to get there, paid to write from there, paid to come home again. How good is that?
It means that I saw Jack Nicklaus’ famous charge to victory at Augusta in 1986. When Eamonn Darcy holed that slippery downhill putt to defeat Ben Crenshaw in the 1987 Ryder Cup, I had seen the first victory by a Europe side in a Ryder Cup in the U.S.
Ken Schofield, then the executive director of the European Tour, cried that day. For him, it was the realisation of a dream. Europe had five world-class players – Severiano Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam – and fast approaching that status was a dark-eyed and soulful Spaniard who brought his mother along for the ride and danced a samba on the 18th green by way of celebration. Jose Maria Olazabal could play a bit.
I was at The Country Club in 1988 when Nick Faldo lost a playoff for the U.S. Open to Curtis Strange, a faint echo of the 1913 U.S. Open when Francis Ouimet, the American amateur who would later become captain of the R&A, sensationally defeated Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, the British pros. I stood behind the 18th green when Faldo got down in two from 90 yards to defeat Curtis Strange in the Ryder Cup at Oak Hill six years later, just as I was there to see him win successive Masters titles and record the domninance of Europeans in the Masters in the 1980s and 1990s.
One of golf’s most appealing aspects is that because it is an individual sport it has dozens of moments of individual brilliance. Thus seared into my memory are: Corey Pavin’s 4-wood to the 72nd green of the 1995 U.S. Open at Shinnecock; Sandy Lyle’s 7-iron from a fairway bunker on the 18th to win the 1988 Masters; Woods’ improbable holed chip in the 2005 Masters; Larry Mize’s 120-foot chip-in to win the same event in 1987; and, Phil Mickelson’s 6-iron from amidst the pines on the 13th in the final round this year.
Yet the greatest shot I have ever seen played, the one that makes even all the foregoing pale into insignificance, was Ballesteros’ 3-wood from a bunker in the 1983 Ryder Cup at Palm Beach Gardens. I was 15 yards behind Ballesteros when he selected his club and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up as I realised what it was he was attempting – and I felt as though a huge electrical current had just passed through my entire body when I saw that he had achieved it.
As the balance of power in the game has changed, there has been one constant. In 2010, golf remains a game of honour as it did at the first Open in 1860. I have been lucky to have covered a sport that still has high standards and imposes them on its players.
Now then, where is the nearest shoeshine stand and a cup of coffee?