One night late last year the telephone rang at a house in Scotland. “Aberlady 305,” said the lady answering in the manner of someone who used telephones in the days when three-figure numbers were preceded by the name of the local exchange. The vowels were firm and crisp and English.
“Barbara?” I enquired diffidently. “Is that Barbara Dixon?” At that there was a very hesitant “yes.” She sounded puzzled, bemused even, that someone whose voice she did not recognise could call her by her first name and her maiden name.
Fifty years ago, quite a few people in golf knew her name. Barbara Dixon was the English Ladies’ golf champion, at 23 one of the youngest ever, and she was in trouble with the Ladies’ Golf Union. Her sin was that, having reached the last stages of a contest searching for Miss Golf 1970 she had just been told she would lose her amateur status if she accepted a prize. In phraseology redolent of those days, the six contestants who were judged on one photograph of them fully clothed and on their answers to a number of questions were referred to as “curvy birdies.”
Sensing a story in the tranquil world of golf, I sped to her house in Bournemouth to interview her for The Sunday Times. It would be my first piece in the sports pages of that paper, one that appeared on 4 January 1970 beneath the striking headline “Crumbs, it’s only a giggle.” My opening sentence of just four words was authoritative and accurate if not exactly attention grabbing: “Barbara Dixon is 23,” I wrote.
Dixon, not wanting to jeopardise her amateur status, withdrew from the competition and later in 1970 moved to Scotland, was a triallist for the Curtis Cup that autumn but did not make the team, married and brought up three children. In mid-summer last year she became one of 12 women elected members of Muirfield. For my part, I spent the intervening years writing about rugby, playing golf and, since the autumn of 1980, writing about it as the golf correspondent of first The Sunday Times and then The Times, and later for Global Golf Post and GGP+.
“I’ve had a wonderful life,” Dixon, now McIntosh, said on the telephone that night last year. “Golf has changed but on the whole I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”
And so have I. Undoubtedly the game has changed since 1970 but for better or worse? Many might have me down as a curmudgeon. In fact, I feel the opposite. I find many more good things than bad to say about the old game.
Last summer I attended my 43rd Open. Royal Portrush was the best of the lot, a right royal success, from the redesigned golf course, to the smiling embrace visitors to that speck of a place in Northern Ireland received, to the uninhibited scenes accorded to Shane Lowry and his win – and, for that matter, Lowry’s own lengthy celebrations, which by golfing standards were a very long par-5 indeed.
Golf, an individual sport, continues to provide good examples of competitive team play in a pretty well-behaved environment. Yes, there is some booing at a Ryder Cup. Yes, there is some cheering of a bad shot. And one worries what might happen when on-course betting arrives in the US, as it soon will. But has any sporting event improved its popularity so quickly as has the Ryder Cup in the past 30 years?
In 1991, the television rights for the match at Kiawah Island went for $50,000. I am not privy to what the equivalent figure for the last contest in Paris was but I would be surprised if it weren’t 200 times as much.
In The Times, 20 years ago, I claimed that the Ryder Cup was the fifth most-watched sports event in the world. Having been closely cross-examined as to the provenance of this claim, I said: “I stand by it. Let’s see if anyone writes in to dismiss it.” Since then guess what? No one has and I see it regularly being referred to as the fifth-biggest and most-watched sports event in the world.
Or take the Solheim Cup, which didn’t exist 30, never mind 50 years ago. Could any team event be more thrilling than the way the balance and ultimately victory swung from the US to Europe in minutes near the end of that biennial competition in September? Even the Walker Cup, a very one-sided event 50 years ago (the US won the 1961 match, 11-1) has assumed a new lease of life since the end of the 20th century.
Tiger Woods has been little short of astonishing for golf, as a player, a personality, and most recently as a playing captain. Few people in sport and no one in golf move the needle of general interest as he does, and anticipation is building already to see whether he can win the Masters again, which would be his 16th major championship, or any other major championship for that matter. That would take him almost to within touching distance of Jack Nicklaus’s record of victories in 18 professional major championships. Woods is part of the reason why there is so much more depth in the professional game today.
Equipment changes have affected golf more than many sports and I believe for the better. How can I, in my eighth decade, occasionally hit the ball as far as I could when I was in my third? How is it that the ball veers left or right in flight less than it used to? It is true that the distance the game’s best players hit the ball is a source of worry because it is making some wonderful courses appear outdated. But for amateurs – and let’s not forget there are many more of those than there are professionals – equipment advances have made the ravages of age less obvious in golf than in many sports.
Many might have me down as a curmudgeon. In fact, I feel the opposite. I find many more good things than bad to say about the old game.
Other good things: sensible rule alterations such as those introduced earlier last year when the number was cut from 34 to 24. They still remain a tangled web and to some in the professional game a source of frustration (e.g. the height when dropping a ball and prohibiting caddies from standing behind and thus lining up their golfer as he or she putts). But for most golfers, being able to leave the flagstick in the hole when putting has speeded up the game as has the reduction in the time allowed to look for a golf ball.
It is a shame that recession forced some golf clubs into receivership, which may well be what they deserved because they didn’t manage their books very well. It has caused many more to be more inventive and realistic about annual membership. No longer do annual fees always have to be paid in full on Jan. 1. Direct debit, quarterly sums, reduced fees for reduced playing rights are all good new subscription systems.
There is a coarseness about golf these days, though that isn’t the fault of the game so much as social mores because there is a coarseness about life that there wasn’t in 1970. Witness the South Korean pro who gave the finger to a heckler and was suspended for three years (a penalty that subsequently was reduced). The American professional Patrick Reed is no saint but the treatment he received in the recent Presidents Cup in Melbourne was unfair.
One spectator, close to Reed, shouted at him, “you f—— suck,” which prompted Reed’s caddie to push the shouter, for which the caddie was suspended for the next day’s play.
At every Ryder Cup there are accusations of excessive xenophobia and undoubtedly the amount of noise generated has increased as has the number of spectators. The atmosphere around the first tee on the opening morning of a Ryder Cup is something to see and hear, even to those used to much larger crowds in other sports. But the lack of respect for one another as demonstrated in last year’s general election in Britain is a manifestation that manners in public, not just in golf, have changed.
Bad things: golf clubs have not become as fully integrated as they should have. There is still too much rivalry and ill feeling between men and women members at golf clubs. When was the last time you saw a significant number of people of colour at a golf club or on a course? Not enough clubs have thriving junior sections. Though playing six, nine or even 12 holes is more common than years ago, golf is still regarded as a time-consuming activity by many.
I am 100 percent with Brooks Koepka on the speed-of-play issue. “I mean, I take 15 seconds and go and I’ve done all right,” Koepka said. “So I don’t understand why they’re taking a minute and a half.” Neither do I, Brooks.
Slow play bedevils the game these days. Sixty years ago my father and I would take 2½ hours to play a round. If we took any longer my mother would say to us when we got home: “What took you so long?” Now pros take nearly twice as long and at the recent Solheim Cup even longer. I am 100 percent with Brooks Koepka on the speed-of-play issue. “I mean, I take 15 seconds and go and I’ve done all right,” Koepka said. “So I don’t understand why they’re taking a minute and a half.” Neither do I, Brooks.
When he burst upon the golf scene 25 years ago, Woods said he hoped to make golf cool and thus widen its appeal. He hasn’t. Encircled by rules and practices that many see as pettifogging and outdated, golf is still perceived not to be a game for people younger than the age of, say, 40, perhaps 50. If it was an old man’s game in 1970, it still has vestiges of that about it in 2020.
A younger friend, a man in his mid-40s, recently put it into perspective. “I love golf,” he said. “It’s the greatest game to watch and to play. But it’s not easy to enter. It takes a long time and it has a lot of rules. My sons are 10 and 12 and sporty. They love going to the driving range for a hit. But they don’t want to give up four hours at a weekend. They have become friendly with a school friend whose father has a skateboard park. They love that. It’s quick, easy and cheap.”
All that said, there is little better than a foursome on a brisk winter’s morning. One player hits from the tee, the other waits to play the second shot from down the fairway and as they walk they talk, putting the world to rights, catching up on the gossip. Time taken to get round? Three hours. Enjoyment factor? Eighty percent, perhaps 90 percent.
A half century on, Barbara McIntosh still says “crumbs” though perhaps not “it’s a giggle” and I say that for all its faults the old game is still grand.
A shorter version of this article first appeared in The Times on Jan. 6, 2020.
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