President’s Putter An Exorcise Of Golf Sanity

RYE, ENGLAND l An annual golfing event of huge importance but little significance took place in the bottom right hand corner of England last week. In a five-club wind and rain squalls, men from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland and a brave sextet from North America competed in the President’s Putter at Rye.
Started in 1920, the Putter is played each January by male and female members of the Oxford and Cambridge Golfing Society, which was founded in 1898. It is an annual demonstration of extreme eccentricity by polymaths of varying golfing standards played over a doughty links course in the worst weather of any event in the world. With any luck it takes place in conditions when many would think twice about putting the dog out. In fact, the worse the weather the better it is. That has always been the spirit of the event and one hopes it will always remain so. It would be as daft to play the Putter in July as it would the Open in January.
In Britain these past months it has been impossible not to know that the Olympics will take place in London in the summer when thousands will run, swim or throw, among other feats, faster (citius), higher (altius) and stronger (fortius) than ever. One other Olympic ideal has already been achieved this year. Those who competed in the 2012 Putter demonstrated it is not the winning that matters but the taking part.
Forty mph winds? Difficult but playable. Fourteen putts were recorded on one green. Rock-hard fairways and greens? Tricky but you just have to land the ball well short of where you want it to end up. Biting wind and below freezing temperatures? Wrap up well and get on with it. One competitor once wore three pairs of socks, underwear, pajamas, trousers, rain trousers, a heavy shirt, six sweaters, two scarves, two pairs of gloves, and a woolen bobble hat topped by a balaclava. Rainsqualls? Keep playing and get into the clubhouse for a few restorative glasses of Kummel, known as the putting mixture, as quickly as possible.
To win the right to have the golf ball you used hung on an old hickory-shafted putter used by Hugh Kirkcaldy when he won the 1891 Open, the winner will probably have played eight rounds of matchplay golf in four days. Any aches and pains resulting from these exertions will be massaged into oblivion by the warm feeling the winner acquires as he realises that he has won one of the game’s most eccentric events and thus joined a list of champions that reads like a Who’s Who of British golf in the past century. The 1926 Great Britain and Ireland Walker Cup team contained five members of the Oxford and Cambridge Golfing Society – Cyril Tolley, Roger Wethered, Ernest Holderness, Eustace Story and Brian Low. The last member of the Society to compete in a Walker Cup was Dr David Marsh in 1971.
Competed for by male (and a few female) golfers who have represented one or other university, it is a competition that spans the ages. Michael Grint, 77, who played in the winning Oxford team of 1957, was the oldest competitor this year, and Martin Yates, 69, the oldest man to reach the fourth round. It is a competition of short putters and long memories, of fast play and slow meals, of low shots and high winds, of Labrador dogs and Barbour jackets, of birdies and bogeys and plus-twos and plus-fours.
Bernard Darwin was a President of the Society, a winner of the event, as well as twice captain of Rye. He wrote about the Putter in the days before The Times bylined its writers. When he won it in 1924 he referred to himself in the paper the next morning as follows: “I do not think Mr Darwin will be hurt in his feelings by any remarks I make about him and so I will say that he is one of the most enigmatical golfers of my acquaintance. You never can tell to what depths of futility he may fall.”
Thus The Times has had more than a passing interest in the event and just after I had become golf correspondent, I caddied for Peter Gracey, 72, who was making his 46th appearance. “Before every shot a ritual as serious as the taking of communion was enacted,” I wrote. “Gracey would arrive at the ball, take off his brown leather gloves and hand them over taking care not to drop the handwarmers. In return he would be given the club of his choice. There was no discussion, no practice swing, no wasted time.
“Thank you,” he said as he handed over his gloves. “Thank you,” he said as he received his club. “Thank you,” he said as he returned his club to his caddie. “Oh bugger,” he said when he hit a bad shot.
Andrew Stracey, 58, won this year’s Putter, the oldest winner ever. In the gloaming of a benign January afternoon when the lights of Rye were twinkling in the distance he put his cold hands around a medal inscribed with the words “primus inter pares,” which means first among equals. Another Putter had ended. An event that demonstrated the importance of amateur golf had gone for another year.


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