Confessions of an Ageing Golf Player: the loneliness of the long distance putter

There’s no getting away from the fact that golf is one of the loneliest sports in the world. From the moment you tee off, through the journey down the fairway, to the final intense moments of alternating sturm und drang on the putting green, you are continually reminded of how alone you really are.

Even during my days of universal acclaim, when I could just turn up at a course with a caddy, a bag of sticks and a box of second hand Titleist and be the adored subject of the noisy hordes of fans, hangers-on and groupies, there was no getting away from the existential truth that in the end, it was just you, a stick, a ball and a hole. Nothing else mattered and everything else faded into the quiet oblivion of the universe when you stepped up to take that killer shot.

For those of you who find it difficult to put those distractions aside and who get easily tempted by the vicarious pleasures of signing autographs, wearing green blazers and being chased from chalet to chalet by this year’s next big thing in the fashion world, I have just one piece of advice for you. This advice will revolutionise your game and I guarantee that all your doubts, anxieties and screaming insecurities on the golf course will be laid to rest, allowing you to reach golfing heights hitherto undreamt of.

What I am about to tell you is something I found out very early in my golf career when I was constantly distracted by the possibilities that the GND (Girl Next Door) would hint at every time I walked past her parents 4x4s on their immaculate black asphalted drive way on my way to my weekly sojourn with my grandfather out on the municipal course.

In those days, I immersed myself deeply in the Wisdom of the Gary Player golf tips graphic text book aka cartoon in the august publication that was the Sunday Express. His tenth commandment (“Let’s Get Physical”) was something that Olivia Newton John also urged me to do as I meandered up and down that course looking for my lost balls. You see, once a lesson has buried itself in your head, you see it and hear it everywhere: it’s a useful cognitive tool to take with you onto the course, but that’s for another time.

The crucial thing I learnt then about golf was how to embrace and welcome the loneliness amidst the noise.

The first thing you need to do is to clear your mind of anything to do with golf. Don’t think of any thing to do with it.  Don’t think about your swing, your stance, your attitude, your balls, your caddy, your sticks, your plus fours, your slacks, your scorecard, your umbrella, your tees, towels or trolley accessories. Don’t think about any of it. Instead, think of something that nothing to do with golf. I found thinking about the GND an invaluable antidote to the internal pressures caused by thinking about the frustrations and distractions of the game.

Once I had got the game out of my mind, and focussed on how I was failing to make the opening gambit to the GND, I was able to generate an intense sense of lonliness and consequently found that my game improved immeasurably.

It may sound odd, it may feel counter-intuitive but believe me, welcoming the loneliness bought on by the missed moments, the forgotten bon mots de l’amour and the lost opportunities to say hello to your GND in a way which don’t leave you a squirming mess of embarrassment will have a huge impact on your golf career.

 

Confessions of an Ageing Golf Player: how a micron makes a mile of difference.

I heard early on that if you find you keep whacking the ball into the trees off the fairway on your first shot, all you need to do is just adjust your stance by a few microns and it will have the effect of bringing your shot in on target. It’s not a big shift you need, just a slight adjustment and you’ll get the result you want. That’s the theory at any rate.

The problem with the theory is that the word ‘just‘ (as in ‘just amend your stance‘) hides a myriad of difficulties and challenges. You may as well say, ‘just improve your golfing ability fifty million times’ for all the use of the instruction.

I thought I’d try this approach with the GND one day. Instead of talking to her with one foot wrapped behind my supporting knee, I thought I’d see if I could talk to her with both feet on the ground. It was pretty difficult as the moment I tried standing up I kept falling over. Obviously, I was trying to make too big a shift in too short a space of time: it needed to be in microns, not metres, so I went back to the golf drawing board and rethought the strategy.

My golf drawing board consisted of reading the Gary Player cartoon that was in the Sunday Express my dad used to buy every week. As well as picking up some very dubious politics at an early age, I learnt some invaluable golf tips from one of the masters which have seen me through some challenging games and personal situations in recent years. It’s amazing what you can learn from a strip cartoon in a red top newspaper: and if I think hard about it, I realise that my subsequent international golfing triumphs are all down to those early graphic golf lessons.

So, as part of the permanent attempt to ingratiate myself into the favours of the GND (never mind the favours, just a glance in my direction would have been a result) I went back to the weekly Gary Player cartoon to see what the master had to say.

And I was not disappointed. One of the most valuable tools that Gary has offered aspiring players over the years has been his 10 Commandments (all in comic book form too). And lo and behold, what does the 10th Commandment instruct? The one that inspired me both on the links, the municipals and matters relating to the GND? It’s the one that says:

There is no substitute for personal contact.

This was all I needed to know and I immediately dispensed with any pretence of micron size adjustments in my dealings with the GND. I decided to go for it at the very next opportunity.

Confessions of an Ageing Golf Player: how to pray for weathers.

They say that golf is a good walk spoiled but at the tender age of 14, the proposition that your time would be spent walking, let alone hitting balls with sticks, when you could be loitering around the drive way of the GND (Girl Next Door) was absurd.

One June Saturday my grandfather insisted that we head out to a newly opened municipal course just outside Slough and whilst I didn’t want to annoy him, the conundrum was how to balance his demands with my overwhelming yearning to catch a glimpse of the GND, particularly as it was unseasonably hot and she would doubtless be enjoying the benefits of the swimming pool her parents had recently thoughtfully installed.

The mind of a 14 year old boy is a thing of wonder given its ability to juggle several different competing and unlikely scenarios simultaneously.

Perhaps GND would be interested in learning about golf? Perhaps grandfather would be interested in teaching her next to the swimming pool? Perhaps I could persuade her to travel to Slough due to the tornado that was approaching her house? Perhaps I could practice looking for balls in the safety of my own bushes? Perhaps perhaps perhaps. Perhaps the heat was addling my brain.

20 minutes later I was in the back seat of his car, wistfully staring back at the receding drive way where several teenage boys were making their way towards the GND and her swimming pool. It was very, very, very hot. Clothes would be removed. Bodies would be getting wet but I would be practising my golf swing not half a mile from the Mars factory in Slough, the taste of Maltesers in the air as I swung hopelessly at the microscopic white pill on the ground in front of me.

This wasn’t so much a case of golf spoiling a good walk as completely disrupting a good ogle and potential for a fumble. I got down on my knees, kissed the turf and prayed to the Gods of Bizarre Sporting Weather to get me back to her swimming pool as fast as my grandfather’s Morris Minor Estate car could carry me.

‘Fore!’ Shouted my grand father as he tee’d off. I looked up, praying for rain.

Confessions of an Ageing Golf Player: I know nothing.

I’ve never really played golf properly. My earliest memory of my unsatisfactory relationship with the game is the first occasion when my grandfather took me up to the local common for the first time with his bag of six sticks, box of six golf balls and his pet mongrel Bonzo and tried giving me some kind of instructions into what the game was all about. It was a bit like an early sex education lesson that parents deem necessary to give their offspring when they feel that they won’t get too embarrassed about the mention of wobbly bits and bodily fluids but without the diagrams.

That you had to hit the ball with one of the sticks was clear enough. The target – a little flag which fluttered somewhere in the distance on a grassy knoll – was also relatively obvious. But the purpose of the game? That eluded me from the first few minutes after I stepped up to the tee, looked at it, the stick, the ball and my grandfather all in equal disbelief. I had to hit that? Off that? To that over there? With this? And the reason is…?

The sheer impossibility of the whole proposition instilled a deep sense of ennui in me and a feeling that whatever I would be in the future, a professional golfer would not be one of those things. I realised that if I were to keep attempting this most unbelievable of sports, that I would end up getting tired and frustrated, along side everyone who presumably would accompany me on those long winding walks around the municipal golf courses. There would be tears before bed time and most of them would be mine. I vowed to make sure that there would be minimal tear spilling from me on account of a game of golf and that if anyone was going to get tearful and frustrated with my playing ability, it wasn’t going to be me.

The silence of that first game – or match, or set, or stroll, or round, or whatever it was they called it – was ominous and symbolic of the ongoing silence that would descend every time my grandfather tried to initiate a conversation with me about this most perplexing of activities. He tried encouraging my interest in the different types of golf bat, his heroes who were dominating the game at that time: he even tried interesting me in the gossip and intrigue of the international golf set but I was having none of it. All I could see was interminable slow wanderings around the local common in the pretence that we were engaged in some kind of inane activity that others might refer to as Sport.

So golf has always had an air of elusive mystery about it. After that first foray onto the pitch, he managed to persuade me to go out again on several occasions. He must have convinced himself that the more practice I had, the more likely I was to appreciate its finer points and be able to master the handling of the golf club (one of the human being’s most puzzling inventions, to be sure: but more of that later).

Those early games were mostly played in silence although the notion that we ‘played’ was really a piece of wishful thinking. I soon came to the conclusion that it was most bearable, and bordered on the fun when you played by yourself and had no obvious competitors to deal with. You could take yourself off with nothing more than yourself and your little green book in which you wrote down your score, and just when you thought you weren’t looking, you could always rub it out and write in a different number to fool yourself that you were a better golfer than either you or yourself would give yourself credit for.

To top it all there was the spectre of the golf club down the road in which everyone drove large silver jags and drank gin and tonic for breakfast. The promise was that if you did well enough at belting the little white pill up the fairway and into the invisible hole in the green with the minimum of fuss, then you would get The Visit from a golf club representative to enquire politely about your interest in joining their august institution on a more permanent basis.

Whilst this would have been seen as a badge of honour for many of my peers, the idea filled me with horror. Not only would I have had to endure hours wandering around coppices fruitlessly looking for lost balls, I would then have had to retire to the Club House at the end of the afternoon to be regaled with countless interminable tales of conquest: the hole in one out on the first; the superb drive up the old dirt road that constituted the nineth and the rousing shouts, whoops and groans of pleasure from the clubhouse on the eighteenth as Mr and Mrs Fortescue battled it out for dominance in their mixed rubbers with the Partridges.

My grandfather to his credit always spotted these attempts to ingratiate the lowly committee members with us and would invariably see them off by suggesting to Bonzo that these visitors were about to steal the family jewels. Bonzo would consequently bounce up and down on the forecourt next to the house gate, bark as if his life depended on it and scare away the committee intruder in the matter of minutes and they would not be seen again, ever.

So, my early experiences of that human activity referred to as golf were not the most exciting of encounters and before long I was inventing excuse after excuse about why I couldn’t join my grandfather on his weekly stroll through the bushes that constituted Chorleywood Golf Course. He was of course disappointed in the way that parents are when they think their invaluable tuition has gone to waste on their gormless offspring but I was soon able to provide the perfect alibi for why I could no longer accompany him on those wet autumnal afternoons: the girl next door. He understood perfectly and my golf education stopped as abruptly as it had started.