Golf, me and Stunningdale. (Part two).

July 31, 2015

This is a blog post that I originally started to write almost a week ago but have only now had a chance to finish it. 

 

 

In part one, I wrote an extended blog on what golf means to me (personally) and in this part, part two, I’ll blog a bit more about yesterday’s trip down the road to the Senior Open at Sunningdale – which reminded me what I love about golf, but also what I hate about it.

 

 

Golf, unfortunately, suffers from a reputation of being an elitist, stuffy old mens’ game. Strict, strange dress codes. Members only (male members only still in some clubs). Exclusive. Drenched in money. Private. Snooty. Pompous.

 

Having played a little in Scotland as well as England, I used to think that this was mainly a problem for English golf clubs, but it seems Scotland isn’t immune to this sort of guff either. I think the most expensive golf club to join in the UK is the Loch Lomond club (used to hold the Scottish Open each year). You’ll need over £50,000 to join in your first year, then pay through the nose per annum – IF you can wait a year or ten in the alleged queue for membership and IF you impress the captain and committee when applying.

Then there’s the R&A at St.Andrews also of course. Only recently allowing female members – blimey.

 

But it’s probably fair to say that many English clubs suffer a lot more than Scottish clubs with all this. Lots of people in Scotland play golf and CAN (or are allowed to) play golf at good courses. The dress codes aren’t as strict and it’s often much cheaper than south of the border. The home of golf (Scotland) is just more inclusive (in terms of golf) than (exclusive) England is, generally.

 

This reputation puts a lot of people off playing golf. I completely understand why. I have thought during the past twenty or so years that at least two of my sisters would probably enjoy playing (for the same reasons as I do, rather than just to score well or beat your opponents) and my wife would probably enjoy it even more than them. I expect Anna will come (again) to the local driving range and course with me and try her hand at the game – I hope so.

 

I also understand why millions of TV viewers up and down the land would regard watching golf on TV as incredibly boring. I don’t blame them at all – even I do sometimes and I play! I feel the same way about snooker and (less so) cricket on TV but yes… I understand why golf always tops the polls of the most boring sport on TV.

 

In all my playing days (since I was about fourteen) I’ve come across a dinosaur attitude in golf clubs (as I say… mainly English golf clubs). Cliquey nonsense as far as I’m concerned – and I’ve rebelled against it as best I could, regularly.

As a junior golfer I was treated like dirt at Hazlemere golf club – not allowed to play at weekends, always had to let adults through etc so my stepbrother and I regularly used to hit drives over their startled red faces if we felt like they were being snobs (often).

I was asked to leave a golf club once (with a mate), as we both had black jeans on (and golf shoes mind) – I was told we couldn’t play until we were dressed more appropriately.

Luckily both of us were organising ‘70s discos at a seedy nightclub in Soho at the time and had already bought ourselves ridiculous checked, flared Farah slacks and winged-collar tight polo shirts in which to groove away our Saturday nights and impress those ‘70s chicks!

So yes… you guessed it… we each went home, dressed in our ‘70s gear, were then ACTUALLY LET ON the course and so spent the day hitting balls over the heads of the old duffers who had complained to the captain that our (smart black) jeans weren’t the correct attire for their precious golf club.

Now this wasn’t a posh club, like for example Stoke Park (just across the road from where we were and where bits of "Goldfinger" were filmed) but Wexham – in Slough!

 

I vividly remember the first time I went to see professional golfers play the Whyte and Mackay PGA Championship at Wentworth, in 1985.

It wasn’t just the players I remember, hitting balls for MILES with no effort at all (or so it seemed), it was the whole place.

It absolutely REEKED or money.

 

Not only did the people seem ridiculously rich – the entire place did too. The Wentworth estate in Virginia Water is very exclusive, that’s for sure. You’d need several million to splosh on a big house, if you could get hold of one – and you were “accepted”, by those already there.


Then there was the golf course (of course!).

Everything seemed absolutely immaculate. It was as if each bunker had a full time member of the green-keeping staff employed solely to tend that bunker. Each green fringe must have been clipped with nail scissors. Each fairway rolled in lines to perfection. Each tee box looked like a normal golf course green to me. Again, for someone who had just started to get into golf – the place was spectacular.

But it did seem completely exclusive.

Completely out of my league.

I’d never fit in there. I’d never be allowed!

I’ve been back many times since and whilst it doesn’t amaze me like it did the first few times, it still seems like a different world!

 

Fast forward a few years and a couple of mates and I walked round the Sunningdale Old course, to watch a qualification tournament for the Open.

If anything, that course seemed even better. Even more exclusive perhaps? It was like an oil painting of the perfect golf course to me – and it still seems that way.

 

Now I adore lowland heathland (a very unnatural type of environment very often, very “man-made”), whereas upland moorland tends to depress me.

I love the pine trees of lowland heath, the heather, the sandy soil and the really interesting wildlife at such places.

Wildlife (at the right time of year) such as nightjars, emperor moths, silver-studded blue butterflies, wasp spiders, gold-ringed dragonflies, lizards, adders, Dartford warblers  coconut-smelling yellow gorse, bright purple heather and hobbies.

We currently live a few short miles north of the Bagshot sand belt, in fact Anna my wife, works at a school right bang on top of it – and I always adore poddling around that type of place in the summer at least. I feel like I’m abroad when the sun’s burning down on a dry lowland heath in the summer – heaven!

Sunningdale is set in such an environment – an environment that genuinely excites me.

 

I returned to Sunningdale last weekend, with my wife Anna and our two-year-old boy, Ben.

 

Sunningdale village as a place is pretty uninspiring. Only about 10 miles from where we live, it’s a world away really.

Like Virginia Water, (Wentworth, next door), the place reeks in money. Virtually every man we saw in the village (as we made our way from/to the station) had cherry-coloured or lemon-yellow coloured or lime-green coloured chinos on. And a jumper draped over his shoulders. And greased-back hair. And orange skin. And designer sunglasses.

The women were no different really. Think mandatory pashmina and perfectly-bleached hair (and teeth) and you’ll get the idea.

 

But the Seniors Open was being held on the very famous (but hidden from the village by giant pines) golf course on top of the hill - and I’d timed our visit perfectly – on the only dry, sunny day of the four days golfers were hitting balls there.

The Seniors Open is a chance for nearly-seniors like me (just 6 more years to go!) to watch some of the legends of the game – the people we grew up idolising (if we were into golf).

People like Sandy Lyle, Ian Woosnam, Tom Watson, Fred Couples, Howard Clark, Jose Rivero, Eammon D’arcy, Ronan Rafferty, Mark McNulty, Mark James and if you were like many English golf fans, (far less so in Scotland), Nick Faldo and Colon (deliberate spelling mistake) Montgomerie.

We had a superb day in the sun – it was Ben’s first ever wide-eyed (but very short – just ten minutes) train journey and his first time on a golf course – Sunningdale lived up to its name at least for us on the Saturday.

 

At one point, in a break in play, as we were making our way into the tented village for a fish lunch and a cider, two golfers wandered up to me (separately) and gave me a couple of freebies. I have no idea why.

To be honest that was a bit strange. The open-air tented village was packed – these two golfers came up to ME (no-one else) separately (about 20 mins apart – at different spots), both said to me “I’ve missed the cut – here you go” and then placed the freebies in my hand.

One gave me two of his (new, unused) Titleist Pro Vi balls.

The other gave me £25 of Sunningdale Senior Open catering tickets.

Anna couldn’t believe it (neither could I to be honest – why me?!), at one point she looked at me and said – “Do these people KNOW you? Are you secretly famous?!”

I said I think they just catch sight of my weather beaten face, bags under my eyes and Tesco trousers and think “there’s the charity case I can offload these things onto!”

I wish I could tell you who these generous golfers were, but I’m afraid I didn’t recognise them. Even if they did me?!

 

Onto the golf course and I managed to follow my (British) golfing hero (Sam Torrance) for a hole or two & point out his impossibly-glamorous wife to my even more impossibly-glamorous wife. We had the very good fortune of watching Tom Watson too, as he was playing alongside Sam – I don’t think I’ll ever have that chance again.

Unfortunately we couldn’t get as close as we would have liked (and used to) as Ben might have shouted “FART!”  (or something worse?!) at any given moment, as old Tom started his putt, The marshals wouldn’t have liked that really.


Actually, the marshals were superb. I got chatting to one about how/why he became one – and he said he only did it so he could play a free round on the course after the tournament! (£200 odd saved there, straight away!)

Another marshal was clearly stoned. I wandered up to him to ask him which hole he was on (to get my bearings) and he said, drawing on a very funny-smelling roll up and with big wet, bloodshot eyes: “I’m buggered if I know son!” and then proceeded to lie on his back in the heather and take another draw on his smoke! Never seen that before at a golf tournament!

 

I was reminded again of how exclusive the whole Sunningdale and Wentworth thing is though. Of course, it’s not just those two clubs around that particular area that are famous for exclusivity. Swinley Forest and the Berkshire also lie on the Berkshire/Surrey/Bagshot sand belt and they’re probably no different really – drenched in money and stuffy old men.

 

Actually, on that subject I hear the members of Sunningdale are up in arms about the fact that celebrities are “queue-jumping” their way onto the membership – recent memberships being given to Tim Henman and Bryn Terfel have especially upset the old duffers.

Strange. I was always of the opinion (thanks mainly to the inane, irrelevant, tedious TV golf commentary from the grandfather of all the old duffers – Peter Alliss (when will he retire please)) that Sunningdale was FULL of “celebrity golfers”.

People like Sean Connery, Jimmy Tarbuck, Bruce Forsyth. Kenny Lynch (You heard me… Kenny Lynch) and these days people like “H Hu… Hugh…. Oh Crikey…. Hu… Hugh Grant”.

 

I hate all that.

Absolutely hate it.

Only the exceedingly rich or well connected get to play the most beautiful courses in Britain. The “It’s not what you do – it’s who you know” thing.

And that certainly seems to be the case with Wentworth – you can’t ever just pay a green fee at Wentworth – you MUST be an invited guest of a member.

At least at Sunningdale you CAN pay (a lot!) and play the most beautiful inland course in Britain. Or at least I (and many others agree) think it’s the most beautiful inland golf course in Britain.

 

I’ve never seen greens like they are at Sunningdale. They make Wentworth greens look like a mess. They’re like polished green glass.

The fairways and tee boxes are as good as the greens I play on at public courses.

Bright purple (just about at this time of year) heather surrounds many of the immaculate bunkers and straight as you like, giant pines queue up on each side of many fairways. Then there are the views from the top of the course (you can see to the centre of London 20 miles away very easily on a clear day).

The fact that the ground itself (barren wasteland before Willie Park Jr (the designer) got his mitts on it) is almost like a links golf course (but without the constant gales, and the distraction of the sea which are replaced by beautiful evergreen trees instead), makes my golfing heart jump for joy.

The place is fantastic

Undulating.

“Duney”.

Beautiful.

Stunning in fact.

 

Now members of private golf courses like Wentworth and Sunningdale will say that the only reason their courses look like that is that they DON’T let anyone on.
The members look after the place, they’ll say.

Well… I suppose they could be right, although it's more likely that the members' money looks after the vast number of green keepers at places like this.

 

I now have started to play at what used to be a private members’ club about 12 miles or so from Sunningdale, a place sandwiched between Warfield and Maidenhead called Bird Hills Golf Club.

In fact I played 9 holes (+1, I played well) there last night (the two photos below show my approach to the par 3 15th and the stunning par 4 17th (although neither photo does justice to the quality of this particular course).

Up until this spring, members had it to themselves really, but the new Japanese Owners thought they were losing money that way and so stopped membership (membership with no green fees to pay that is) and invited the great unwashed public like me onto the course – effectively making it a pay and play course.

When I was investigating the local courses at the start of June this year I talked to a lot of people on a lot of courses to find out what they thought of the club they were at.

Without exception, (I obviously chose the wrong people), the golfers at Bird Hills were horrified “their club” had been turned into a pay and play. In fact I hear a lot of the past members had deserted the club and the ones that remained were not happy.

Even the starter moaned at me that “members used to look after the place (the bunkers etc), but now it’s going to the dogs”.

Nonsense, I’d suggest, after playing it a few times now.

No-one lost their job at Bird Hills when the new owners turned it into a pay and play.

The place has more money coming in these days (so say the staff).

The green keepers still look after the bunkers – the old members certainly don’t (and still don’t – I’ve watched a few totter round with their electric trolleys – it would be all they could do to climb out of a bunker, let alone tend to it).

I had the (mis)fortune of finding myself playing with a bona fide Wentworth member at the course the other day (he was practicing near to his house rather than driving to his big exclusive, expensive club to play).

He had all the kit and all the talk for sure. Constantly letting me know he thought the course that we were playing on was “crap”.

But he couldn’t hit the ball for toffee. And when he did make a divot (not that often – he tended to thin everything) he didn’t replace it. Nor did he rake any bunker he ended up in. I doubt that he would have repaired any pitch marks he left on the greens either, but as he didn’t make any at all (he really wasn’t great) he didn’t have to I guess.

 

So members look after golf courses do they?

Or just their own golf courses?

Or not at all really.

(The answer is obvious I’m afraid).

 

The course isn’t bad at all – the greens are superb, the bunkers even better and whilst I’m certainly still a fair-weather golfer, it sets up beautifully in the sun.

My only issue with it is that it’s quite open and always windy – situated as it is on top of a hill. It’s 25 years old I hear and still (strangely) looks quite new – the saplings planted nearly three decades ago don’t look that old to me – and compared to my VERY local course (about a 3 Wood from my house), it’s relatively straightforward and quite boring in terms of things to look at (lakes, wooded areas to hit over), types of shot needed to score well.

 

I’m VERY glad the new owners of Bird Hills have turned the course into a pay and play. Shortly (within a year now) my very local course will be turned into loads of houses and a school and I hope to play more and more at Bird Hills.

Bird Hills becoming a public course means I will still have somewhere really quite nice, within a 10 minute drive (in a car!) to play a game.

 

What I’m trying to say with this blog (in a painfully long, tortured way) is that golf should be for everyone.

Absolutely everyone.

There should be NO dress codes at any golf courses.

Trainers or golf shoes – that’s all that’s required.

Tailored shorts?! Knee length socks?! Collared shirts? Come off it!

Every pro-shop or starter should tell anyone with a tenner or twenty-pound note in their pocket and just wants a round with a few friends to “just look after the course please” – try to repair any damage you may do it – replace divots, repair pitch marks, rake bunkers etc) and if your slow play is holding up the group behind, please let them through, no matter who you THINK they are or how undeserving they may appear to you”.  (These days it’s pretty-well only the old boys (and girls) that have the time for a 5 hour round of golf – and they’re very invariably the people who play badly, slowly and stubbornly-refuse to let people through).

But that’s about it really.

I think golf may be going that way. I hope so. I really do.

Blackwater golf course (pay and play) near Yateley is a good example. I played the course with a few friends t’other day.

Very informal.

Very cheap.

No dress code.

No stuffy members.

But a very nice wee course with superb quality greens – much better than most clubs, private or not.

 

Golf is a healthy hobby to have I think.

Lots of fresh air.

Lots of walking.

Some beautiful things to look at whilst you’re strolling about.

Lots of wildlife (contrary to many conservationists’ concerns).

Most people on the courses are very nice, very friendly and helpful.

You just need to (still, unfortunately) ignore the harrumphing of the stuffy old members of a few clubs and courses.

 

As for Stunningdale – Yes, I adore (and hate) the place.  But I think I may try to be a marshal at their next big tournament – as I would LOVE to play it for free one day.

We’ll see eh?

 

TBR.