I have walked with the gods at St Andrews, embraced the ground at Augusta National and touched the hem of a Tiger Woods garment.
I know my Vardon grip from a baseball grip. I know that grain on greens usually grows towards the sea, that weather conditions change when a flowing tide begins to ebb. I know that to hit a golf ball up you must first hit down on it, that to hit it farther it helps to swing more slowly, and that the bigger the golf bag generally means the worse the player. I know that match-play golf reveals the character of a person more clearly than a DNA test and that golf on a links is the form of golf, the one that takes us closer to the way our ancestors played.
I have trifled with the game for nearly the biblical three score years and ten, on five of the seven continents and in daylight and in darkness. I have devoured Herbert Warren Wind’s writing, admired Charlie Price’s, revered Bernard Darwin’s and been dazzled by the simple elegance of Peter Dobereiner’s and the elegiac and lyrical essays of Pat Ward-Thomas. Dead now, all of them, more’s the pity.
I accord T. Waverley Root, an occasional correspondent about the game for the long-gone International Herald Tribune, the privilege of having the best moniker in golf. I reserve true reverence for Robert Tyre Jones for what he stood for in golf as much as what he achieved. When Tiger Woods won last year’s Masters, I said I admired him a little more and disliked him a little less. In my view, the best quote ever given by a player was Thomas Bjørn’s on the eve of the 1997 Ryder Cup: “There is no going home to mummy now.”
I won a signed Isle of Man £5 from Nigel Mansell when he was world racing driver champion, out-dressed Ian Poulter when we played together at Sunningdale, featured on the leaderboard (briefly) at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship.
What I didn’t know was that to get a tee time at my golf club as soon as it opened for play in these COVID-19 days, I needed an honours degree in computer science.
This was a powerful reminder of how COVID-19 has suddenly and loudly crashed into the living room of my life.
No ringing the pro’s shop and having one of the assistants pencil in my name. I had to go to the club’s website (I think) and tangle with technology. In matters such as these it is clear that technology and I do not get on. And it is not my fault.
This was a powerful reminder of how COVID-19 has suddenly and loudly crashed into the living room of my life. My golf course is traditionally where I go for relaxation, for companionship. Usually playing golf clears my mind from the frustrations that I face at home – computers that buffer, Wi-Fi that comes and goes and Zoom, Themes, URL, FaceTime, Houseparty, all of which are technical and therefore designed to trip me up. Yet here I was, breaking away from my desk and my house where my computer troubles are often present and what do I find when I try to book a tee time? Technology with a capital T.
My allotted time was 9.36 am. Actually, what the e-mail had said was, “you are now booked into a tee time at 9.36.” Funny wording.
I will admit to frissons of excitement as I thought of what was about to happen. I laid out my clothes the night before and set the alarm for a half-hour earlier than usual. I worked out a departure time that had to be adhered to and not, as it usually is, the time I start to think about climbing into my car and driving off. Knowing I would be carrying my bag, I took as much out of it as I could. Rescue club? Gone. Winter gloves? Gone. I knew that my dreary tendency to spray the ball would probably be present after such a long layoff but even I don’t need to carry 24 white pellets.
As I drove to my club, I realised that it’s the voyage not the destination. I thought of how pleasurable it was to travel the last few miles to Royal West Norfolk and drive along the dyke to the clubhouse; of how after an overnight sleeper from London to Leuchars, I would steer my rented car along the road to St Andrews, my spirits rising at the sight of each of the white milestones.
Now, turning towards Rest Bay, I saw a somnolent Bristol Channel topped by the slightest of sea frets and knew that in a moment the clubhouse would come into view and beyond it would be Swansea Bay, a smudge curving along the horizon.
The last time I had hit a golf ball was PL (pre-lockdown), POR (pre-overdraft reduction, because being confined to the house meant spending less money), PTP (pre-The Players), PCT (pre-captain Tom, now known as Sir captain Tom for his heroics in raising nearly £30m at the age of 100). In fact, it was so pre-everything, it was almost prehistoric. It might even have been PtBoH (pre-the Battle of Hastings and that was in 1066).
And when I got to my golf club and started playing, alone, I realised I had forgotten how the sun can glint off the head of an iron when you address the ball. I had also forgotten the pleasurable tingle that surges through the body upon hearing the sharp crack when iron meets ball followed by the delight of seeing the ball rise against an azure sky and then fall like a ripened plum to the ground.
The greatest pleasure of all was simply to be playing. It didn’t matter that the clubhouse was locked and therefore so were the lavatories (though that became of rather more importance a little later) or that there was one route to the first tee and another one from the 18th green. It was no inconvenience that I couldn’t touch a flagstick or that the tee markers were not in position. Nothing really mattered, not even my bad shots.
The course was blessed with glorious sunshine and the few of us who were on it might at times have had the feeling that it was all ours, our private playground. It was a privilege.
My God, I thought. How lucky we were. It was nice to be back.
A greenkeeper at Llanymynech Golf Club, which has 15 holes in Wales and three in England, puts down a tee marker as the club prepared to reopen. Photo: Matthew Ashton, AMA via Getty Images
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