One of Sir Henry Cotton’s friends was Charlie Pretzlik who was equally passionate about golf, champagne and living expansively. Charlie used to love to reminisce about their glory days when he played as an amateur coming second in the Open Golf Championship. By then Cotton was a venerable old man, a fading golfing great, still playing golf, with enviable power and accuracy, laughing in the sunshine and promising to return and report on the afterlife He died aged 80 in 1987.
Sometime after his death his friends began to have strange dreams. Henry’s face floating against a blotchy sky or a sand filled bunker, or drifting toward them across a green saying; “Come and join me lads! Here the greens are faster and the fairways wide and smooth” or something like that. Gradually his friends did and played the Fairways in the Skies.
One day sitting in the prosaic bar of Minehead and West Somerset Golf Club watching a dog hunting for rabbits in the dunes beyond the 18th green , remembering Henry and Charlie, I realised I wanted to experience the best golf courses before I too was in a better world.
Golf is very different now. When they were in their heyday, golf was a man’s preserve. Women were tolerated rather than encouraged to play. Dogs were welcome on many courses. Travelling around to play was often a jaunt in an open car down empty roads to fashionable courses like Wentworth, Sunningdale, Gleneagles and St Andrews. Some courses were attached to country clubs. Motorised trolleys were a long way in the future. Caddies queued by the pros shop waiting for a Johnny who wanted his clubs carried. Bar staff wore white jackets and black trousers bending stiff from the waist as they offered gin and tonic from a silver salver. The golfing holiday to Portugal, Spain or somewhere in America had yet to be created. Golf was a game enjoyed in the playgrounds of the rich and fashionable. How different and how much more available golf is now.
Why play golf?
People play for different reasons. It’s attraction is perhaps because it is a cerebral game masquerading as physical. It is mastering the ultimate art of the possible. In every other ball game you hit a moving ball. In golf the ball lies inert, still. It will fly, if the swing is right and the club connects sweetly. Or it may still lie winking at the player after a swing only slightly out of alignment. Each hit is a challenge psychologically. Having the right mental attitude, visualising where the ball will land, being unaffected by the emotions and comments of other players becomes as important as gauging the lie of the ball and choosing the right club. Playing golf turns a negative thought into an unaffordable luxury. Negative thinking, particularly about your own play, may propel a player into a black hole of inability. The addiction, the attraction of golf for many are those moments when it all comes together; an easy swing producing a massive drive or the ball dropping into the hole after a testing putt. Golf looks like people are playing against each other. In reality they are playing the course.
Excepting when bets are laid. Heavy bets. Like a £1000 a hole. That seems to focus brains even more on competitively mastering the possible.
There is another reason why people love being on golf courses. Most are artfully landscaped and some are breathtakingly beautiful. It’s hard to beat the early morning on a near empty links course with the sun beginning to warm the land, a gentle breeze drifting in from the sea and a skylark rising. Unless of course it’s watching the sun slipping below the horizon as you play your way back to the clubhouse beneath a canopy of shimmering leaves.
That day in Minehead, which is a nice but fairly ordinary links course, I decided to seek out the picturesque, the elegant, the fun courses and meet the people who play there. I wondered what it is that makes golf courses special; is it the course, the people, the clubhouse, the professional? Golf is about friendship, respect, relationships, business deals and in George Bush’s case politics “I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers. Thank you. Now watch this drive.”
I intend to find out by playing some of Ireland’s legendarycourses with Hooked by Kevin Markham as my guide. He played every course in Ireland in a period of two years. I intend to play 25 before 2016 is out.
“I know I am getting better at golf because I am hitting fewer spectators.” – Gerald R. Ford