Bark like a dog.
I’m back into golf. Big style. After what’s effectively a seventeen year lay off. The torn muscles down the right-hand side of my abdomen will testify to it. The cramp in my left foot. The grumbling back ache. It’s like Malaria – I’ve never really shaken golf out of my system. One minute I’m happy never to go near a course, no regrets about abandoning my long, high flighted 3 irons, the half-forgotten feel of a Pringle sweater on my bare arms; the next I’m making air practice strokes and getting worked up over the gorgeous vision of a Japanese milled wedge, I’m buying Farah’s hopsacks and spending an obscene amount of money on a new (and very sexy) putter. I’ve even got a Pringle jumper. And a pink Lyle & Scott 70s style shirt. I know: shameful. I’m wearing the same clothes I did in 1987. The last occasion golf gripped me was 2002. But I shook the dose off. I got away with buying some shoes, a couple of rounds at Lupsett near Wakefield. I put it behind me. Boom boom. Before that it was back in 1997 – hitting range balls in the last lingering summer of Britpop to ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’. This time it feels to be biting deep. I am in its thrall.
It’s been happening gradually over the past couple of years. And getting worse. And on Monday I went up to Leeds with Bootneck and was measured up for some Ping G10s. This afternoon I picked up my first new set of irons since the summer of 1986.
But I have a problem with golf. And I don’t just mean my occasional aggressive fade. I have issue with the etiquette that mothballs the game in an era of petty, middle-class snobbery and incestuous clubmanship. It is a sport where ‘wearing clashing colours’ can incur a two stroke penalty. Local rules apply. No changing of shoes in the car park. Where many golf clubs are still dominated by sniffy old codgers who aren’t really any good at the game, with handicaps so high you’d need oxygen to play off them, and yet who stride the clubhouse like Stalin-era Politburo grandees, obsessed with privileged parking spaces and the manmade fabric mix in your pants. Shirt tucked in, sir, shirt tucked in! Don’t get me wrong, etiquette has its place. In the same way in the broader context of society so does respect. I don’t want to turn up to play, resplendent in my customized Myjoy shoes, Lacoste moleskins, One True Saxon polo shirt, ready for a civilized afternoon of pointless frustration, to see some scuffer, tracky bottoms tucked down his socks, thinning one through the car park as part of a ten ball. But there are limits. Rules should be inclusionary not exclusionary. To encourage not to dismay. An encounter with an ignorant old twat in musty Munsingwear at Woodhouse Golf Club in Leeds back in about 1987 still rankles. Tampax. I should have accused him of touching me up in the locker room, of exposing his wizened mashie niblick to my juvenile eyes. I should have run from the locker room, screaming. In tears. The shame of it, he’d have been ostracized. His handicap cancelled. His members badge ripped from his Slazenger Bobby Locke-endorsed pencil bag. Disgraced, he’d have hung himself in his garage. His suicide note written with a stumpy pencil on the back of a scorecard. Fuck him.
I remember when I first started playing golf. It was the era of Seve Ballesteros. The Spanish Houdini of the long rough. Speed-punching the air at St. Andrews and knocking the knickers off some glamorous back-combed, large breasted bird in his Blue Stratos adverts. Hacking away with my solitary 7 iron and the box of ultra-luminescent Pinnacles I’d bought from the Argos in Barnsley and my dream was fuelled. I spent hours out there under the South Yorkshire sky perfecting my swing at the raw seam of golfing ambition. Down on the reclaimed Pummer colliery off Spark Lane at Mapplewell. The Laithes Lane playing fields. Those Pinnacles were so soft I’m surprised that they didn’t stick to the club face. It was like hitting marzipan. But I followed Pete Townsend’s pre-Who dictate – if I practice hard enough, reach for perfection then they will want me. And so I slogged away. I didn’t want to play on the course. Ball striking was everything. I wanted to hit the little bugger right. Play my first 18 to par. Consequently I prepared myself. Hands bleeding on the ever smoother rubber grip. Weight distribution. Inside the line. Club to the horizontal. Follow through. Thinned. Fat. Topped. Shanked. Sliced. Hooked. And sometimes – sometimes – creamed beautifully across the park. And there it was – the Golden Mean held in the trajectory of a golf ball.
What other people may find in poetry or art museums, I find in the flight of a good drive – Arnold Palmer
It is that moment which drives me to golf. That feeling. Not the low scores, not the competition. It’s the primeval sensation of leathering the ball well. It’s that amazing sensation when the club goes through the ball perfectly and you watch it’s beautiful, arcing flight path. It’s like the violence in a Sergio Leone film. Compelling and hugely, enormously satisfying. So when I finally got my hands on a full set of Slazenger Seve Ballesteros signature endorsed clubs in the summer of 1986, bought – like my pink Argyle check Pringle jumper – from Low Laithes Golf Club outside Wakefield; a present from my Grandma and Granddad, I felt that I was ready to take on the golfing world.
I never did achieve the perfection I dreamed of. Never made the PGA and the sponsored Datsun Sunny. Never steered Europe to a ass-kicking of the USA in the Ryder Cup. Never saw my name on a 10.5 inch tour bag with some caddy developing sciatica as he heaved my clubs across the windy back nine at Troon on my way to yet another Open triumph. My looper prematurely crippled by the weight of my Taylor Made Burners. Swapping stories with Peter Aliss on A round with Alliss. ‘Well, Peter, in principle I agree with you about Fascism, but…’ Passing on bunker tips to big Sean and Tarby on some sun-drenched course on the Algarve, half cut on ice cold San Miguel, before nipping across the Atlantic on concorde and leathering the balata coating from a Titelist at the Augusta National as I marched on to a third back to back green jacket. There were moments. Holes. The sweet, beautifully drawn drive on the dogleg 13th at Sandhill that on pitching almost took out the buggy 300 yards in front. My near hole in one on the 6th at Staincross in the long hot summer of 1987 – when my day consisted of sunshine, six cans of full fat coke and 36 holes a day. And that’s what makes golf for most of us. To club players all over the world. Moments. Shots. Small runs of perfection. Instances of vicious beauty with a 5 iron in your hands. And then, just when you think you’ve bloody cracked it, you’ve parred the last couple of holes like Faldo on a run, driven like big John Daly with a KFC family bucket inside you, you shank one straight into the club repairer’s hut.
But that’s the nature of the beast. Golf inherently lacks consistency. Which is why it’s so addictive. Golf is a tease. Golf inspires lust. Golf is like an 18 year old girl with the big boobs. You know it’s wrong but you can’t keep away from her*. And it’s this mercurial spirit of the game that lends itself to gimmicks. Tee pegs with bristles like a toothbrush, weighted practice clubs, moulded rubber grips that force your hands and fingers into the perfect position like a Chinese footbinder. Different shafts. Stiff, steel, graphite. Devices for lining up your putts. Square heads on drivers. Metal woods replacing persimmon. Belly putters. And that’s just the equipment. Then there’s the physical ticks and quirks guaranteed to send the ball down the fairway like a spanked arse. Turn your back on the target, a flat back swing, an upright back swing, elbow tucked in. Loose grip. Stamp down with your left heel like the plunger for detonating the big bomb. All searching for that moment of beautiful, controlled viciousness. And if I get that feeling just once, where my club face beats through the ball effortlessly, my backswing held with deep satisfaction, in an appalling round where I’ve been trying to find my Titliest Pro-v in the jungles of Burma, or dig a pebbly Topflite XL from the Gobi desert that borders the fifth hole, then I can easily salvage something from four hours of frustration as I sit over my pint of Guinness in the obligatory and stereotypical 19th hole. I love it.
This crowd has gone deadly silent, a Cinderella story outta nowhere. Former greenskeeper and now about to become the Masters Champion.