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 At the 19th

If only they could see the bigger picture

My green credentials are almost as impeccable as my backswing. In the early 1970s, when pollution was fashionable and recycling was considered subversive, I began my career in journalism on an environmental magazine. For 17 years I wrote about Natterjack toads, alternative energy sources and how to build a garden shed out of old cereal packets.

Reluctant though I am to brag, a double-page spread I produced on compost is still regarded as a classic of its kind. However, my undoubted highlight was an exclusive interview with Prime Minister James Callaghan on the importance of planting trees. Perhaps conscious of reaching a natural climax in his career and uncertain where to go next, he resigned three weeks later.

Although I switched to sport in 1989, I remain a genuine and passionate environmentalist. That’s one of the reasons I hate buggies; they’re noisy, pollute the atmosphere and the paths they run on are ugly scars on the earth’s surface. Another worry is the damage wrought by lost golf balls. To remove any risk of pollution, I developed an alternative that is totally biodegradable. Called the Ecoball, it’s made of crushed walnut shells, acorns and the sap from lime trees. Apart from a tendency to take root if left for too long on a damp fairway, the principal problem is that it doesn’t travel more than about 140 yards. But I think golfers would willingly sacrifice a little distance in return for the reassuring knowledge that lost balls won’t harm the environment, don’t you?

For me, there is a natural symbiosis between golf and the environment. Especially for those of us for whom the game is becoming ever more fiendishly difficult, the consolation of breathing fresh air, enjoying beautiful scenery, spotting wildlife and, yes, smelling the roses, is enormous. So why do non-golfing environmentalists seemingly hate us and throw any spanner or obscure species of wood louse into the works in a desperate attempt to scupper the construction of new courses? Much as I love newts, snails and rare grasshoppers, I fervently believe they have as much of an obligation to adapt to living on a golf course as we have to try and accommodate them. So just as we should reduce to an absolute minimum – or, better still, eliminate altogether – the amount of fungicide, herbicide and pesticide we spray on to the greens and fairways, they should close whatever they have in the way of ears to our deafening shouts of ‘fore’ and simply go about their normal business.

If Darwin (that’s Charles not Bernard) was right about survival of the fittest then, for example, we might see a new and interesting species of fish develop in a pond guarding a green somewhere that only eats golf balls. Reluctant though I am to play God, I would happily swap a dull invertebrate for a colourful, ball-eating fish anytime; and don’t even mind waiting a few hundred-thousand years for it to come to pass.

What equipment changes will have taken place by then and how golf courses will have adapted to accommodate them is a subject I might return to in the not quite so distant future. Far from responsible for damaging the environment, golf courses deserve credit for protecting it. Take, for example, Royal St George’s. Surrounded by dull, flat farmland, the course stands out like a veritable beacon of conservation. If it wasn’t for the vision of a few pioneers 120-odd years ago, those majestic dunes would doubtless have been flattened by a farmer and then where would the orchids, butterflies, beetles and birdies have gone? And the Natterjack toads!

It was in Northern Ireland recently that I was reminded of the frequent and acrimonious clashes that can occur between misguided environmentalists and thoroughly decent golfers. The rugged coastline in this stunningly beautiful part of the world is perfect golfing territory and home to such glorious links as Royal County Down, Royal Portrush, Portstewart, Castlerock, Ardglass and others who haven’t yet invited me or – more excusably – are not yet open.

Into the latter category falls Bushmills Dunes. I could have played it towards the end of the last century had the National Trust, amongst others, not objected to it being built. Among their concerns was that it would impact negatively on the nearby Giants Causeway. Had the developers proposed incorporating the Causeway into the course by, say, flattening a section of the famous hexagonal rocks to build a tee-box or, which would actually be quite fun, knocking balls over the Causeway from the cliffs above to a man-made island green, I would have a great deal more sympathy. But the course is over a mile away and so even the giant Finn McCool would struggle to reach it in regulation.

Sadly, too many perceive golf as an elitist activity, golfers as rich and privileged. This warped perception creates envy and fuels anger. Championing the cause of a downtrodden earwig against the powerful and greedy appeals to the underdog in us all but makes less sense than would have, say, halting the D-Day landings for fear of disturbing breeding jellyfish.

July 2013

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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