“Golf is an ideal diversion, but a ruinous disease.”
B.C.Forbes (founder of Forbes magazine, 1880-1954)
After the dramatic events in last week’s Ryder Cup I thought I’d share my views on golf. Golf is not a sport but a punishment. I spent a considerable part of my life failing entirely to master the game. It begins when you’re young and you are taken to putting greens in town parks or at seaside resorts. From here you graduate to Crazy golf, a version that is remarkably like the real thing and should represent a warning. Then you move on to Pitch and Putt, which firmly engrains appalling habits that you will never eradicate from your game. And finally, you feel ready to tackle the championship course.
At this point you must have taken leave of your senses, but the cunning in the game is that some of the time you seem to play quite well, and you think, if I could practise a bit more, but you never do. It is an illusion. Your true game is all that slicing and hooking, topping and sclaffing, yes, and airshots.
The handicapping system is designed to allow the ordinary club player to compete with a scratch golfer. But it does n’t. To get a handicap you submit a number of cards in medal play. Most club players don’t play this way. They usually play some variation that allows them to keep an interest. Medal play means that they will have been knocked out of the contest early on. I never played with an ordinary club member who played to his handicap. Usually they were scoring a lot more and you wondered how they had ever achieved a handicap. Occasionally they played below it. These were the cheats. All golfers tend to cheat but some are more systematic. Most improve their lie, or need to be reminded of the extra shot in the woods, but there are a few who do it in a calculated way so that they can win invitational events on strange courses. As PG Wodehouse, the greatest writer on golf, said, “Golf... is the infallible test. The man who can go into a patch of rough alone, with the knowledge that only God is watching him, and play his ball where it lies, is the man who will serve you faithfully and well.”
I never achieved a handicap and could not have sustained one. If asked what my handicap was I would always say, “My swing!” But I did play some of the great courses. I have played at more than 60 courses over 20 years. In Britain these included Ferndown in Dorset; St Pierre in Chepstow; St Andrews (The New Course); The Belfry; Woburn (The Duke’s Course); Foxhills, where I was a member; and the Royal Berkshire.
Abroad I have played in some spectacular places: Mijas on the Costa Del Sol within weeks of it opening; Mount Kenya safari park; the Reef Hotel, Seychelles, where a sign commands you to beware of falling coconuts; Hazeltine in Minnesota, site of the Ryder Cup in 2016 where Tony Jacklin won his US Open (Dave Hill who came second that year said the only thing Hazeltine was missing was "80 acres of corn and a few cows”); Club de Polo, Prince of Wales and Sport Frances, where I was a member (all in Santiago, Chile); Penina in the Algarve; Tropicana in Las Vegas; Belmont in Bermuda; Desert Dunes in Palm Springs; Le Saint Geran in Mauritius; Boca Raton in Florida; Kapalua in Maui; Glenoaks in Japan.
Glenoaks is a fantastic course where the Morita family has memberships. I was invited to play one Sunday while in Tokyo on a business trip with two Japanese and the MD of Sony Holland. The course had a track for an automatic caddy car operated by a single female caddy of indeterminate age. While we walked and played she would control the cart remotely and run to fetch our clubs. She had a few words of English and would dash after the ball onto the green instructing it to “Stoppo!” My game was particularly desperate but with great sympathy she came up to me and enquired, “Mr Pearson. Change club?”
The key to understanding golf is to accept that it is impossible. Unlike most ball games the ball is stationary when you address it. You play your own ball, not that of your opponent. There is no reason, therefore, why the ball will not do exactly what you ask it to. In this respect it most closely resembles snooker. But this is another impossible game. Only a few poor souls who do nothing else in life begin to approach mastery in snooker. You can always spot them from their sallow skin, as they never see the light of day. At least in golf you go outside and get some fresh air. But that is what you hit, most of the time, fresh air.
It helps, they say, if you have lessons, but this is not my experience. I studiously avoided lessons for years until we went to Corfu for a golfing holiday which was to include some time with a Pro. There was a mix-up and the Pro had different ideas but we persuaded him to give us one lesson. He asked me to hit a nine- iron. I hit a straight ball about 150 yards and admired my handiwork. He said, “I bet you have trouble with your woods!” In one minute he had destroyed any remaining idea that I could play this game.
In Chile where one at least had predictable weather and could plan a weekend golf game I took a course of lessons from a marvellous old teaching Pro from Florida called Ace Noonan. Ace had come to Chile with the ambition of teaching a teacher. He asked me to hit a nine iron (why do they all do that?) Again I hit it straight and he said that I was like the guy who goes to the doctor saying that he had a cold and the doctor would say, “Yes! And you have broken both of your legs!”
Ace set about rebuilding every part of my game. Stance, grip, and swing were all analysed and explained. At first I did well as I concentrated on these new techniques, but then the old habits returned and I was more confused than ever. I now vacillated between the two styles and my game was even worse than before. I think that this is what all teaching Pros are trying to do. They are like the drug dealer who innocently introduces you to some thing quite harmless and then takes you down a painful road of addiction. In golf you start with a few lessons, then a few more, then a new type of driver, then some new clothes and so it goes on.
On a return trip to Chile I arranged to play with my former golfing partner at my old club, Sport Frances. Unfortunately he cancelled so my wife kindly offered to walk round with me. The caddies insisted that she should play and with instruction from her caddie she did very well. I was having a terrible round until the long 17th where I hit a splendid shot off the tee right down the middle of the fairway. My adrenaline was pumping so hard I could n’t wait to hit my second shot and marched after the ball leaving the caddie in my wake. Finally he reached me and I grabbed at the iron. It shot up in the air and came down on my head. Not put off I hit the ball onto the green, a par five green in two with a chance of an eagle. My caddie said, “Señor should hit himself over the head more often!”
Mars gave me country club membership in Chile and Sony did the same later in my career when my first MD returned to Japan. His parting gift to me was to allocate one of the memberships at Foxhills. He had six, all of which were previously allocated to the Japanese expatriates. His one condition was that I use it to entertain. I tried but it was quite difficult to find customers as bad as me. Usually I preferred to play with staff members many of whom were glad of a round on a great course. I often used it to explain a new idea in a different environment.
Gradually the Japanese returned home and when the memberships came up for renewal I cancelled them. I switched mine to the RAC which had a course nearer to our home in Reigate. There was a waiting list and my membership came through, but I had failed to understand that there was a separate waiting list for golf membership and so I was without a place to play. The final indignity came when I became Managing Director of Sony United Kingdom. There was one remaining corporate membership which went with this job and that was at Wentworth. However, playing privileges were reserved for proper golfers and you had to play a round with the Captain to qualify. I could not face that so I was a non-playing member of Wentworth for my last years with Sony.
But I got the last laugh. By now I had just about hung up my clubs. I last played in 1995. I would never say that I had given it up but the longer I went without playing I knew that the harder it would be to return, and frankly, I did not really miss it. But I was still a member of the RAC, in my own name, and when the Club sold the Rescue Service I was one of the members who received the magnificent windfall of £32,500. I had finally won something at golf.
Copyright David C Pearson 2010 All rights reserved