An advantage the Annual Golfer has over the more frequent player is that for 364 days of the year he can completely empty his mind of any thoughts about golf. Not only is this excellent preparation for the annual round itself (it has been proven that practising golf doesn’t make you any better at it, while thinking about it in a serious way makes you worse), but the mental and physical health benefits of not thinking about golf for a year are rich and multifarious.
All sports are ridiculous when viewed in a certain cold light or summarised in a reductive quip: tennis is two grown men batting a ball over a net; football is twenty-two grown men chasing an inflated pig’s bladder around a patch of grass, etc etc. But no other sport shoves its ridiculousness and futility in your face quite so rudely as the sport of hitting a little ball into a faraway hole with a variety of sticks. And whereas other sports mask their fundamental silliness with mano-a-mano competitiveness, athleticism or team camaraderie, only golf affords the player so much time and space – vast, manicured acres of space – in which to contemplate the full extent to which he is frittering away his life.
Snooker comes quite close, at least at the professional level, but again golf trumps with its two extra dimensions of absurdity: merchandise and clubbiness. The golf shop, with its special trousers and thousand-pound drivers and tinted binoculars for finding balls in the rough; shelves of stocking-filler gadgetry to solve ever more infinitesimal golfing problems. And milling around in the shop, the golf men. Men who talk very loudly and stand with their elbows angled behind their backs, hands clasped on love-handles. Tone-deaf men. Men who hate each other’s small successes and take barbecues very seriously. Men who play because it makes them unhappy in a specific way. There are golfclubby women too but their motivations are unfathomable to me.
Such are the people who patronise the Thornbury Golf Club on a roasting hot Saturday, along with, once a year, me and four of my old school friends.
The Annual Golfer’s day begins with a trip to the garage to dig out his clubs. Yes, there they are, exactly where he left them a year ago, but buried under three more cardboard boxes and many cobwebs. My half-set is a mixed one – one might say bespoke – comprised of irons of many different brands bought or possibly accidentally stolen over the years, a 3-wood which I can’t use, an umbrella, and the same bargain-basement putter I’ve had since the sixth-form. Of my fellow players, Ben and Martin have no clubs at all, Al has some sort of Argos set, while the sole proper golfer in our group, Andrew, turns up with a new, shockingly expensive set every year, which he doesn’t need because we only play the Low Course, a glorified pitch-and-putt with no dress code.
We begin with lunch and a pint, before heading out to the first tee. There is a very big queue because some sort of children’s tournament is taking place. The eight year-olds teeing off are noticeably better than us. So we head off to the putting green where a golf man, rightly aware of the importance of sucking all joy out of the game from an early age, is berating his tiny grandson’s technique. Don’t you dare hit the ball with your feet pointing that way! he growls at one point. We go for another pint and then try for the first tee again. It’s clear, and so the horrorshow begins.
How Andrew, who has a single figure handicap, tolerates playing with us I do not know. He has the patience of a Gove. We Annuals play in two teams to speed things up – best ball, then alternate putts when on the green. Putting is especially painful, and can consist of the team-mates standing on either side of the hole batting back and forth in a long sequence of to-you-to-me overhits.
Our iron shots, strangely, often start quite well (we aspire to a level just below mediocrity, and achieving it is generally sufficient to win the hole), but fatigue and frustration soon set in, and by the tenth we’re amusing ourselves by coming up with new verbs to describe our mishits. Established terms like ‘hooking’, ‘slicing’ and ‘topping’ don’t really capture the full range and originality of our incompetence, so we resort to coinage: grubbing, baffing, squelching, doffing, flubbing, guffing. There are subtle shades too, ‘That one was a guffer with a hint of late squelch.’ Compounding the farce is the ritual of debating and painstakingly selecting the ‘right’ club at each tee. Hmmm…given the distance, the wind and the gradient of the fairway, should one use a six or a seven iron to boff the ball fifteen yards along the ground and into the bushes?
At the showcase twelfth, a plunging downhill par three with magnificent views over South Gloucestershire, we switch Martin’s ball for a novelty exploding one that Ben has brought back from Canada (exploding golf balls being a major Canadian export, as is well known). Ben raises his phone’s video camera as Martin, unsuspecting, addresses the tee. We hold our breath, he swings hard, swings true. A fresh air shot. Assuming that our stifled hysteria is caused by his missing the ball, Martin good-naturedly joins in, then composes himself, and swings again. Another fresh air shot. It is a purest torture of anticipation. But the third time is lucky, he catches the ball with a mighty crack and it instantly bursts in a shower of white powder. As we are picking ourselves up from the floor, a course official appears in his wee little buggy. Apparently there have been complaints from behind about slow play and he wants us to split into a pair and a three. Instantly Andrew takes over and, with calm authority and patience explains that we’re fully conversant with golfing etiquette, always let faster groups through and that the hold up was caused by children in front. “I am A Golfer,” he says, as the last specks of exploding ball powder settle innocently around us, thus providing the catchphrase for the evening’s pub crawl.
I heartily recommend the documentary film Searching for Sugar Man. In case you haven’t seen it, it tells the story of Detroit musician Rodriguez, who made two albums of startlingly direct, Dylanesque songs in 1970 and 1971, both of which flopped with sales of, effectively, zero. However, some copies of his records found their way to South Africa, where via word-of-mouth and bootlegging they became immensely popular with young whites, particularly in the anti-Apartheid movement. ‘Popular’ is an understatement – Rodriguez was bigger than Elvis and the Beatles, and his records became a cornerstone of music culture in South Africa . He was assumed dead, with legends abounding of gruesome on-stage suicide. In the mid-90s a couple of South Africans who’d grown up with Rodriguez’s music independently decided to try and find out the truth about his death. But, after various twists and turns and coincidences, one of them came across his original producer who told him that in fact Sixto Rodriguez was alive and well in Detroit where he’d been working as a construction labourer for the previous quarter of a century. Astonishingly, no hint whatsoever of his South African music god status had ever filtered across to him in America, and nor had any of the proceeds of the estimated half a million records he’d sold there.
The footage of the aged but still lithe Rodriguez walking out onto the stage for his first gig in South Africa in 1996 will stay with you. Until that moment, neither he nor his public can really believe the other is real. His daughter says that she’d expected maybe 20 people to turn up. He walks out in front of ten thousand disbelieving, near-hysterical South Africans of all ages for whom this is like Elvis, John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix turning up for a gig at Glastonbury. The band try to start playing but give up and for the first ten minutes he just stands there and waves as the fans scream. Then he walks up to the microphone and utters the perfect, perhaps the only possible, five word sentence.
Here’s to Chris Froome, who would right now be a national superstar after winning the Tour de France if it wasn’t for (a) Bradley Wiggins winning it last year, (b) Andy Murray winning Wimbledon, (c) England thrashing Australia in the Ashes, and (d) him being only British by convenience. (d) wouldn’t really matter were it not for the other factors.
Via Unbound, the crowdsourcing site, comes this email:
Hooray! You made a book happen
Well hooray and hurrah – you backed a winner! Thanks to your help, my project Pidgin Snaps – A Boxette has reached its target. As soon as the manuscript is finished the Unbounders will get to work and before you know it your book will be in your hands.
You can check out the project page and my shed here for progress updates and upgrade your pledge for more wonderful goodies. ..
Thank you for helping to turn my idea into a beautiful book; it couldn’t have happened without you.
So, who thinks Jonathan Meades wrote a single word of this email? “Hooray and hurrah”?. “check out”?.. “Wonderful goodies”? …“Thank you”? Do these really sound like the writings of the man behind Abroad in Britain?
The ‘Unbounders’ could at least have attempted to Meades-up their template a bit. For example, his imaginary ‘shed’ should surely be an imaginary bungalow faced in ginger-nut pebble-dash in an unnamed non-place near Swindon, where bales of rusting barbed wire have shreds of polythene flying from them like grimy bunting in the tepid wind.
“Thanks for keeping me alive,” says Rodriguez to his fans. The odd thing is, he doesn’t move to South Africa to live as a star but opts instead for a bizarrely dualistic life in which he works as a manual labourer in Detroit most of the time, living in the same humble house, interspersed with the occasional massive gig in South Africa, the proceeds of which he doles out to family and friends. This behaviour surely places him among the great secular saints, along with the Doge Leonardo Loredan, Ayrton Senna, Jonathan Meades, Nige and, which is the greatest of them all, St Michael de Gove.
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