It is not as easy as holing a 2-foot uphill putt to get the measure of Donald Steel, whose book, Par Excellence, The Biography of Sir Michael Bonallack, OBE has just won the USGA’s Herbert Warren Wind Book Award. Not easy because Steel is a man of many parts: Author, first golf writer of The Sunday Telegraph newspaper, a good schoolboy cricketer, an ex-England international golfer who played in the 1970 Open, renowned after-dinner speaker, stalwart of the Oxford and Cambridge Golfing Society, and a well-regarded golf course architect who designed, modified or advised more than 500 golf clubs or courses. For a while he was involved in the running of the game as president of the English Golf Union, even though he modestly dismisses this as honorary rather than administrative.
Where to tee off on the subject of Steel? We should start, perhaps, with his book and the USGA award, a hefty accolade not presented every year, which is intended to broaden public interest in, and knowledge of, golf. “Donald Steel’s biography … is yet another noteworthy accomplishment in his remarkable career in golf” said Rand Jerris, the USGA’s senior managing director of public services, and himself a golf historian. “… Steel exemplifies the world Herbert Warren Wind profiled so affectionately – a place where dedicated amateurs give completely of themselves to the game we all love.”
Steel’s modus operandi for this book was not one most biographers would recognise; one of hours spent interviewing his subject and his subject’s friends and acquaintances, trawling his notes before settling down to produce the required number of words. Instead it was an intensive four months delving into the scrapbooks he kept chronicling his and Bonallack’s careers, which ran in tandem. Bonallack, born on December 31, 1934, is three years older than Steel.
“We share the great good fortune that our hobby and our work have combined to give us both a wonderful life, during which we have met many unforgettable people who have influenced our careers and from whom we have learned so much,” Bonallack wrote in the foreword to Steel’s previous book, Thin End of the Wedge – a life in golf, published in 2017. “However, Donald has a special skill that is beyond me. He has the ability to record his experiences in writing in a manner that provides an entertaining and enthralling account of people, places and events as a reminder of the colourful characters who have made our lives so enjoyable.”
Steel wrote 60,000 or so words about the man who, among many other achievements, won five Amateurs (not British Amateurs) and five English Amateurs and played on nine Walker Cup teams, then became secretary of the R&A. After his retirement from that role, Bonallack was elected captain of the club. Steel wrote quickly with an enviable facility. Then came the checking of information with Bonallack and Lady Angela, Bonallack’s wife. “It’s as much about Angela as it is Michael,” Steel said, which is not strictly true but emphasizes how highly he regarded her contribution to his book and her husband’s life. “She wrote 15 or 20 foolscap pages in longhand for me.”
“Angela,” Steel writes in the book, “was rarely stuck for a word, with something of a natural leaning towards exaggeration in her story-telling. She also had an engaging way of twisting the meaning of words, such as when she referred to (son) Robert’s spell in the ‘stimulator’ as an airline pilot as opposed to ‘simulator.’ She even claimed after a medical check-up to be recovering from her ‘autopsy’ and once referred to an incubator as an ‘incinerator.’ On a more serious medical front, Angela was the first woman in Scotland to have both hips replaced during the same operation. It was performed on the NHS in Perth in 1992.”
There is a pleasing symmetry in Steel receiving the award named after Herb Wind because they were good friends, forming a transatlantic alliance in the way that was reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s and Margaret Thatcher’s. In a golf book to which Steel had supplied an afterword, Wind described his younger colleague as “the very sturdy bridge between two generations of British golf writers.” Wind was referring to Steel’s build, which is indeed sturdy, as well as to the Pat Ward-Thomas, Peter Ryde, Leonard Crawley, Henry Longhurst generation, one Herb nicknamed The Crazy Gang, and Steel’s own.
Wind and Steel both attended Cambridge University, though at different times. Both shared a love for Royal Worlington, the nine-hole course near the university that is the home of Cambridge golfers. More unusually, they shared a love of cricket. “Herb got to know cricket when he was at Cambridge” Steel said. “He understood it.”
“I never set out to be either writer or architect.” – Donald Steel
Wind and Steel were often seen on the golf course at amateur and professional golf tournaments. Wind, in a tweed jacket and flat cap, would be sitting on a shooting stick. There might be a notebook peeping out of one jacket pocket and a pencil from another and he could have had a pair of binoculars pressed to his eyes, an image immortalised on the cover of one of his anthologies. Steel would be alongside, a taller, burly man in stout golf shoes, no visible method of jotting anything down, who had no need of ocular assistance. “Herb always said I had the best eyes in golf because I could see a ball landing on a green 200 yards way,” Steel said.
Steel had a lot in common with Wind but he might have had more in common with Bernard Darwin, the golf correspondent of The Times who was the game’s pre-eminent writer before Wind. Darwin and Steel played university golf at Cambridge, both represented England; both were or are members of the R&A; both eminent golf writers. Dick Verinder, the Darwin expert, points out that in his book The English Spirit, Darwin concluded an essay entitled One Man’s Life as follows: “Looking back, I’ve spent much of my time in green and pleasant places, and with pleasant people, doing the thing I liked. It’s been good fun. I am unrepentant and very, very far from ungrateful.”
Steel would say much the same thing. “I never set out to be either writer or architect,” he said in a recent note to me. “(Becoming the first golf correspondent of The Sunday Telegraph) … came about by knowing Leonard (Crawley) because he lived at Worlington … There were four or five other applicants, all experienced journalists. I was the lucky one, never having written a word. The architecture was the result of accepting a writing assignment in my second year following an invitation from Ken Cotton to see his new courses at St Pierre and Ross-on-Wye. It was the beginning of the mini (golf) boom. Ken was then well over 70, we kept in touch and he co-opted me to help out. One double I had was to meet both Darwin and Bobby Jones.”
Steel’s writing style is age appropriate and not does not eschew the passive voice. It is crisp, dry and with a tendency to use dangling participles. Quotes are used sparingly, as was the way at that time. His writing is more stylish than Leonard Crawley’s, less elegant than Pat Ward-Thomas’s but then everybody’s was. Ward-Thomas wrote like an angel.
The opening paragraphs of Steel’s tribute to Crawley at the latter’s memorial service are memorable as much for the writing as for the mental images that were summoned to the mind’s eye. “Even in a ten-gallon hat, Leonard Crawley was unmistakably English. It wasn’t a form of apparel he chose very often but there was a period at golf tournaments in America when he treated suitably startled press rooms to a combination of a ten-gallon hat, holster and twin water pistols, which he fired freely.
“Nobody else would have thought of such a thing and certainly nobody else would have got away with it. To a large degree, it was a signal of acknowledgement that he had learned that a tweed suit was overdoing things in the heat of Augusta and that the wearing of colourful cricketing ties was less appreciated in the environment of the American country club than it had been in the traditional circles in which he had been brought up.
“But all his life, Leonard could never pass as one of a crowd. Everywhere he went, heads turned and admiring eyes blinked. In Britain, too, particularly in the last 20 years, he was viewed with a nice note of curiosity even at golf events where there were other clues to his identity. The plus fours; the shooting jacket and whistle; a selection of headgear – which he invariably mislaid; the dogs – Bracken, Silk and Torrie, whom he adored; and, most probably, a few forward defensive shots with his umbrella or a pass at an imaginary pheasant with his walking stick. All were his trademarks.”
As to Steel’s course design work, Martin Ebert, a former associate of Steel’s, had this to say: “Tom Mackenzie and I could not have had a better start in our careers as golf course designers. Donald Steel’s practice had grown significantly with the boom of new courses in the late 1980s, leading to a need for me and Tom to join the company.
“Donald’s name in the golf world helped present us with incredible opportunities to design and redesign courses all over the world. He was so well respected through his playing of the game, his writing, his after-dinner speaking and his common sense and traditional approach to golf course design. Those traditional values rubbed off on the two of us and we have continued to practise what Donald taught us. We could have had no better teacher in those core values at a time when a ridiculous amount of earth was being moved and enormous costs were being accrued on new course projects. Donald’s values were those of the traditional ‘Golden Age’ architects such as Harry Colt, Alister MacKenzie and Tom Simpson – architects who he respected so much.
“I am not sure anyone has, before or since, eaten a Big Mac on fine china with a knife and fork washed down with a bottle of claret.” – fellow course designer Martin Ebert, on sharing an impromptu fast-food meal with Steel
“Donald was very proud of Vila Sol through the pine trees in the Algarve, Château des Vigiers near Bordeaux, and his work at Barsebäck in Sweden, and he, of course, masterminded the project at St Andrews to produce the existing driving range (previously there wasn’t one) requiring changes to Harry Colt’s Eden Course and he also upgraded the Jubilee Course.
“Plan drawing is where we came in as I think it would not offend Donald to say that he would not profess to be a draughtsman. Donald would roughly pen layout sketches. The two wealthy clients at Redtail, a very private course which Donald laid out in Ontario, were delighted with the very rudimentary sketch which Donald produced for the layout of their course after his first sight of the land. They were so delighted that they had it framed and it has pride of place in the clubhouse.
“The travelling demands were significant, as you can imagine and the schedule generally had to fit around a good dinner with wine at 7:30 followed by a Monte Cristo cigar. On one other trip, we were late back one night and his wife Rachel was away, so no dinner was awaiting at home. My suggestion to get a takeaway from McDonald’s was surprisingly met with approval but I am not sure anyone has, before or since, eaten a Big Mac on fine china with a knife and fork washed down with a bottle of claret.”
Steel has got the Bonallacks bang to rights in this book, which is why it has won the award. Michael is the centrepiece, quiet, and somewhat shy, Angela provides the vivacity. It may not be true to say, as the author does in the book’s closing words, that, “… there will never be another tale remotely comparable,” but this is certainly one tale well told and worth telling.
Top photo: Donald Steel addressing the Gloucestershire Golf Union. (Photo courtesy of Donald Steel)
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