He is not someone who would stand out at the bar of a golf club by virtue of height or the power of his voice, though it is inarguable that few men in their seventh decade have such a striking head of hair. Nor does he express his views with that sense of unquestionable certainty as do so many people who are untroubled by doubt. His manner is self-effacing. It would be difficult to get an opinion from him about, say, rangefinders, driver length or ball or club speed unless he was asked.
Why then is Tim Dickson of interest to us? Dickson, 66 – who was born in Dungannon, Northern Ireland, the son of a man who ran a linen business and was a member of Royal Portrush – is unusual for being a member of four royal golf clubs (and no others). They are the Royal & Ancient at St Andrews in Scotland, Royal Portrush, site of the 2019 Open, Royal Wimbledon, near the venue of the annual tennis tournament in south-west London, and Royal St George’s, Sandwich, Kent, where the Open Championship will be staged in July.
Not only that, he is one of very few men to have captained two royal golf clubs – Royal Wimbledon and Royal St George’s, and done so moreover within the past 10 years. As there are only 64 royal golf clubs in the world, the number of those elected captain is small and those who have captained two royal golf clubs is far smaller.
Yet perhaps the greatest claim to make on Dickson’s behalf, because he is certainly far too modest to make it himself, is his role in starting and continuing to edit a distinctive golf magazine, Golf Quarterly, that has withstood the worst economic recession in modern times and continues. Golf Quarterly is little bigger than a hip flask and as welcome as a nip of brandy on a bitter winter’s day, a magazine that circulates among aficionados as much by word of mouth as anything and has done for more than 10 years. Its 39th issue will appear next month [note: March 2021]. Many of the game’s prominent figures are subscribers – Martin Slumbers, chief executive of the R&A, for example; Donald Steel, the golf course architect; John Paramor, the recently retired rules expert at the European Tour; Sir Bob Charles, the New Zealander who won the Open in 1963; and Rodger Davis, the Australian professional notable for nearly always wearing plus fours.
“The human side of golf is what interests us. The social side. That sort of thing. Not the stuff that is served up in most golf magazines.” – Jolyon Connell
“I have been a reader and occasional contributor to Golf Quarterly from the beginning and what I love about Tim’s publication is its distinctly amateur ethos” David Normoyle, the golf historian, said. “In size, shape, design, the nature of the contributors and rather home-spun feel, it feels like a publication made by golfers for golfers, not made by a corporation for consumers, nor made by influencers for their followers. In that absence of guile and overt brand positioning, Golf Quarterly is refreshingly ‘authentic,’ ironically the very thing the other publications so desperately seek. Fortunately for us, Golf Quarterly is the real thing. Tim’s editorial gaze wanders to the obscure, the urbane, the quirky and the unusual corners and characters that make golf a game worth devoting one’s life to, rather than being a mere transactional prop for the ‘good life.’ It’s the story that’s the thing.”
GQ began with a conversation in a wine bar in central London between Dickson and Jolyon Connell, his longstanding friend, fellow journalist and keen golfer who shared a joint determination to publish a golf magazine. “We were not sure what we were going to fill it with,” Dickson said. “But we were sure we would focus primarily on amateur golf.”
“We feel that being quarterly is a good rhythm for golf,” said Connell, GQ’s publisher. “Once a week would be too often.”
Almost from the start it was an Arabian bazaar of unusual golf stories, nearly all about amateurs. The more offbeat the story the better. “Tim has an eye for good stories and good anecdotes and he has a good network of contacts,” Connell said. “The human side of golf is what interests us. The social side. That sort of thing. Not the stuff that is served up in most golf magazines.”
GQ is a haven for writers. Were he still alive, P.G. Wodehouse would be at ease among its pages. So would Patric Dickinson and Patrick Campbell and probably George Houghton as well as Peter Dobereiner and our own James Dodson.
Perhaps even more it is a godsend for golf nerds, the people who can remember the name, time and date when someone holed-in-one on the same hole on successive days or for people who like to read about colourful characters such as Archie Compston, once the pro at Coombe Hill on the south west rim of London, who finished second in the 1925 Open and held a one-stroke lead with one round remaining at the 1930 Open, eventually won by Bobby Jones as part of his Impregnable Quadrilateral. Among Compston’s achievements during an eventful career are beating Walter Hagen 18 & 17 over a 72-hole challenge match in 1928 for which the prize money was £750, 10 times the cheque of that year’s Open champion.
To say GQ is eclectic is like saying a golf ball is round. The first story in the current issue is by a diplomat who was caught in an African warzone one weekend and had to shelter under his bed from mortar fire. Not having eaten for two days, he was saved by discovering that his nearby golf bag contained not only tees and balls but snacks. Another story argues the case against baseball caps and beanies on golf courses. An article entitled “A Golf Lesson for Boris?” explained how in 1920 a rather tired David Lloyd George, the British prime minister, was due to meet the prime minister of France and Marshal Foch, commander of the Allied forces during the closing months of the first world war, but sneaked off instead for a game of golf. On his return, an observer noted, there had been a transformation. “Instead of the tired, heavy-with-care, overworked looking man of an hour earlier the prime minister had changed completely into a bright and jovial personality equal to any task. Anyone around him who had regard for his health should encourage him to play golf once or twice or even three times a week.”
Random some of these articles may be; fascinating they certainly are.
Roughly 2,000 people pay £25 plus postage annually to read this characterful magazine, one that has an influence far in excess of its circulation. It exists only in hard copy form and makes little or no money. “It washes its face,” Connell said. “I put £2,000 in at the start and nothing since.” There is little or no advertising and Dickson pays nothing other than an occasional consignment of wine for contributions, though contributors are invited to parties at his house in southwest London. “Tim has a nice sense of humour and he doesn’t take himself too seriously,” Connell said. “People like him, and they want to write for him.”
Bryan Jenkins, a surgeon at the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff and a member and past captain at Royal Porthcawl, is one such. He first wrote for GQ in spring 2012 and has appeared in every issue, bar one, since – 29 in all. “I saw a flier for it and thought it looked interesting and so I subscribed,” Jenkins said. “I enjoyed it, the format, the stories and thought ‘maybe I’ll give it a punt.’ It gives me something to do. I write in longhand with a fountain pen and then I get it typed out. When one edition with a piece of mine in it has come out, I try and have something ready for the next issue within a few weeks of publication. I used to write medical stuff so it is another avenue for my writing. I get a kick out of seeing it in print and if it’s not showing off to say so, I quite like it when I meet people who say they have just read a piece of mine.”
GQ is never going to make Dickson and Connell any money. But it gives them a buzz to produce it and it gives a great deal of pleasure to its readers. For these two men that is reward enough. Long may they and it continue.
Dickson is also interesting and topical because he is the current captain of Royal St George’s golf club and, subject to confirmation by members at the annual general meeting, will serve another term of office starting this April. Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond books, was captain-elect at the time of his death in 1964. For Dickson, becoming captain again means that in five months, when the Open that should have been held there in July 2020 returns, he will have an important role as the figurehead of that famous and doughty Kent links where 13 previous Opens have been staged and past winners include J.H. Taylor, Harry Vardon, Walter Hagen, Henry Cotton, Bill Rogers, Sandy Lyle, Greg Norman and Darren Clarke.
“I wouldn’t say it (his time as captain) has been hectic because so much has been done sitting in armchairs in front of screens on Zoom, but I would say it has been very disappointing and at time disheartening with all the events and excitement that had been planned and are always planned in any annual cycle of a golf club,” said Dickson, a member of Royal St George’s for 41 years. “Seeing it progressively postponed and then cancelled and the level of activity reduced to a very small percentage of what it normally is. It wasn’t a crisis but it was a sharp interruption in business as usual.
“We’ve tried to get on with it and make the best of what has been possible,” Dickson continued. “There were weeks and even months when plenty of golf was possible but most of the matches, dinners and Society meetings that are normally the lifeblood of the club have had to be cancelled. Like many golf club captains around the country, I was not able to visit Royal St George’s for long periods due to travel and playing restrictions. Indeed, I’ve not been there since late October.
“I didn’t calculate how many dinners and outings there would have been but I would have thought I might have been on my feet 15 times, maybe as much as 20 including those times when you are asked ‘to say a few words.’ I reckon in the past year I will probably have been on my feet for 3½ minutes.
“There have been one or two lovely events – the golden anniversary celebration of the steward and his wife and the Open championship that we ran for members. That was stunning, three perfect days, poignant for what might have been had the real Open taken place and more than 200 members participating. It was a real festival of golf.
“I am sure that clubs over the country will have learned something from this (pandemic). There are probably some committees and some issues in future can be discussed at short notice and over Zoom. It has proved to be an invaluable tool for keeping everybody in touch with what’s going on. We are all heartily sick of it and desperately want to get back to meeting in person but I think Zoom will have its place in the future.
“The prospect of staging a great Open this year, of course, has kept everyone going and we, as much as the R&A, hope that this will lift spirits right across the golf world.”
Top photo: Tim Dickson with Tommy, Royal Wimbledon’s club piper (Courtesy Golf Quarterly)
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