The President’s Putter, which ended at Rye Golf Club in East Sussex, in the bottom right-hand corner of England, last Sunday, is a golf event of low importance but high significance. Its importance in life’s grand scheme is low is because it is a match-play competition only for members of the Oxford and Cambridge Golfing Society who, while being very august and decidedly brainy, compose a fraction of Britain’s amateur golfers. And many of whom went to Britain’s public schools which, Britain being Britain where you mustn’t say what you mean though you must mean what you say, means the public schools were actually private.
But its significance? Now that is another matter altogether. It is as high as the sky. It is significant because it is fun. “It’s a wonderful competition – for those who play in it,” said Peter Dawson, the past chief executive of the R&A. “Golf would be better if there were more competitions that shared its characteristics.”
It is eccentric, taking place just after New Year, often when Britain’s weather is just turning really cold and frankly, the colder the better. One year a competitor wore three pairs of socks, underwear, pyjamas, trousers, rain trousers, a heavy shirt, six sweaters, two scarves, two pairs of gloves and a balaclava. Right on cue last week, the barometer plummeted.
The Society was formed in 1898, which makes it younger than the Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge first held in 1829, the rugby match between the two universities, begun in 1872, and the Harvard v. Yale football game, begun in 1875. The golf match between Oxford and Cambridge was first played in 1878 and that match and the Society together are soaked in history as some fairways at Walton Heath and Royal Dornoch are hemmed in by heather.
Many of the great and good in golf have been members of the Society. Indeed, had a bomb dropped on Rye’s sturdy clubhouse snuggled down in the dunes last Friday it would have eliminated several labradors, numerous past captains as well as a former chief executive of the R&A, a handful of R&A rules officials and members of important R&A committees, the past and present captains of many golf clubs in Britain, a man named Pentecost and last but not least the Dean of Ely Cathedral.
Though British in its eccentricity, it should not be thought that the Society is solely British. Francis Ouimet was a lover of the Society, concluding a letter to a Society friend in London in 1948: “My many visits to your land have made me feel very close to you and I will cheer the day when the people running this country of mine will recognise the fact that the two great English-speaking nations must be inseparable … ”
Starting in 2010 after he had spent three years at Cambridge, David Normoyle, the American-born golf historian, began to work up a fixture list for North American members of the Society. “We are trying to keep the flame of the Society alive in America,” Normoyle said. “Some 10 percent of the total of Society members reside in the US and Canada.”
Is the Putter riddled by class and thus unworthy of our attention, Normoyle was asked.
He considered the question. “I learned from something that Herbert Warren Wind wrote in Sports Illustrated years ago, namely that golf at its best comprises three aspects: There’s the losing, which is mercifully brief, the winning and then all other good stuff. But unless you risk finding out about winning or losing, you’ll miss out on all the other stuff. Our stuff is the same as everybody else’s stuff: life, family, friendship.”
As a country Britain and Britons delight in being thought of and known as barmy. It is regarded as a term of endearment. There is even a voluble and passionate group of British sports enthusiasts, primarily but not solely cricket supporters, who are known as the Barmy Army.
It should not be forgotten that Britain has no constitution so we can’t possibly agree on what is right or wrong, which is why Britons are said to have a highly developed sense of fair play. Britain is the nation that drives on the left, the better for its inhabitants to be able to pull a sword out from its scabbard on the left hip. Britain is where, until she died last November aged 96, the redoubtable Baroness Trumpington sat in the House of Lords, clad in her ermine robes, occasionally flicking a V sign at fellow Lords who said things that offended her. When not doing that, she would pass judgement on certain comments made by other peers and peeresses with one stentorian word: “Balls.”
As if this is not enough to explain the dottiness of our nation, then remember that every so often a silver-haired nonagenarian takes a three-foot long, jewel encrusted sword and taps first the left shoulder and then the right of a subject kneeling on a velvet stool in front of her, head bowed. That done, that person retreats, remembering always to face the nonagenarian (and hoping not to fall over and look a complete prat nor to trip over a Corgi, little dogs much loved by the queen, and is hereinafter known as a Knight or Peer of the Realm.
Not exactly run of the mill, eh? The President’s Putter, a competition involving long drinks played on short days, and short putts with (occasionally) long drives, fits nicely into this tableau. It is the antithesis of The Match, the Mickelson-Woods recent showdown. The Society’s centenary book is subtitled 100 Years of Serious Fun. We could do with a bit of serious fun these days when ordinariness is all around and the worst six-letter word in the language is Brexit. The Putter, another six-letter word, is a seam of gold in an otherwise drab and dreary landscape. And long may it remain so.
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