It was sad enough to learn that one of my heroes Paul Newman died recently. This morning I was reading that Seve Ballesteros is in hospital following a dizzy spell and partial epileptic fit, which looks certain to be caused by a brain tumour. The biopsy is tomorrow and I wish him a speedy recovery but it doesn’t sound hopeful does it? I admired him enormously, not just because he was a superbly gifted and brilliant golfer but also because he played (well at least before his back problems developed) with a huge smile on his face and because he dared to believe that some poor kid from Spain could become a Grand Slam Champion and, subsequently, that Europe’s players could beat the seemingly invincible Americans at the Ryder Cup. He taught his peers that anything was possible. And he was right.
I wrote at length about my admiration for him in my posting of 17 July 2007 following the announcement of his retirement from pro golf. There was a third thing however that made him my golfing hero – it’s because he played shots from all the places that I played my golf – out of the car park, deep in the rough, up a tree etc. The difference is that typically he went and played the next shot into the heart of the green for an outrageous birdie opportunity, whereas mine went into the lake or up against the face of the course’s deepest bunker or onto the fairway of the next hole but one.
That was usually the only time I hit a fairway – inadvertently and the wrong one. I never played golf on nicely trimmed grass; it was always from long stuff, tough stuff, gravelly stuff, watery stuff, sandy stuff. Good golfers don’t know how hard a round of golf can be played from only these conditions. Before I threw the golf bag away in disgust at my ineptitude I was seriously tempted to start a tour for really bad golfers like myself who never scored beneath 100 shots on a round, whose typical progress along a hole was to zig-zag from one side of the fairway to the other and who, as a consequence, walked more than twice the distance of any other golfer on the course. I was going to christen it the PAG Tour, for Pretty Awful Golfers.
I had a hook more fearful than Peter Pan’s nemesis. I once hit a pony up the arse in a field 100 yards or more to the left of the fairway (thus adding a new term to golfing vocabulary – a ‘pony’ – for a truly dreadful drive). To compensate I would attempt to hit a shot (I ended up only using a 7 iron) way off to the right in the hope that the resulting hook would bring the ball back to somewhere close to the centre of the fairway. I can tell you it was bloody hard to get this shot right. Needless to say I rarely achieved it.
Once we were playing some charity tournament up near Southport on one of the classic links courses there. I’d been zig-zagging between the sand dunes and the railway line that defined the boundaries of the course along most of the holes. A lot of my golf was of the Out Of Bounds variety. On this one hole the rail line had headed off way to the right and between it and the course’s right hand boundary was this large Victorian cemetery. I lined up my T-shot aiming way to the right as usual. Our celebrity playing partner, the ex-Liverpool footballer Alan Kennedy, was rapidly becoming exasperated with my performance and to be honest I was close to giving him a clout just to shut his mouth and staunch the flow of his incessant words of advice. He was about to come up and tell me for the umpteenth time to aim the shot straight down the middle of the fairway but I ignored him knowing that that would result in my shot ending up lost in the dunes to the left. I hit the ball as cleanly as I’ve ever hit a ball in my life. It shot off straight as a die – but of course it was heading in a direction way to the right. I’m pleading for the hook to kick in but oh no, it just went straight as an arrow landing up some 250 yds away right bang in the middle of the cemetery pinging off all the angels and monumental stoneware like an open topped pinball machine. It must have ricocheted at least 7 or 8 times before finally coming to rest, appropriately, against the chapel of rest, and of course way OOB.
Strangely Kennedy never asked to be in my team again. Indeed nobody ever enjoyed partnering me in a foursome/fourball, not even my good friends. I felt bad for them. Just once I played with a guy who was as bad if not a little worse than I was on the course. He was Richard Field, Head of Commercial Affairs at the RFU at the time and I think it was the RFU’s annual golf day. My old friend Geoff was a team member and one of Richard’s guests was the 4th player. Those two went off and played their own virtual two-ball whilst Richard and I had a sublime round of 120 shots+ lasting almost 6 hours. We laughed and chatted and encouraged each other by heartily applauding the very few shots which sort of went more than 30 yards in more or less the right direction. Never have I enjoyed a golf round so much – two PAGs equally matched. It was a Titanic struggle between the hackers’ equivalent of Seve v the Golden Bear. I was Seve, of course, and just won by a single shot. We lost nearly 20 golf balls between us that day but they were all Cellnet or RFU-provided so we didn’t care too much. That’s how to play the game; never touching a fairway in the spirit of Seve and sod the scores.
Come on Seve you can beat this.