Rochester has a long and distinguished relationship with golf. It is the city in upstate New York where the Oak Hill Country Club is located. The course has hosted the US Open three times, the USPGA Championship also three times (and for a fourth in 2023) and in 1995 it staged the Ryder Cup, memorably claimed by Europe by a single point after they won seven and halved one of the final day’s singles even if the most extraordinary story that day was the way that Seve Ballesteros, his game utterly forlorn, kept on conjuring up miraculous recovery shots to keep his match against Tom Lehman alive for far longer than he had any right to.
This is about another Rochester, one rather closer to home – in Kent. Amid some controversy, a 9-hole crazy golf course has been laid out in the central aisle of the medieval cathedral at Rochester. (Elsewhere, Norwich Cathedral has had a full-size helter-skelter installed in its nave – as aficionados will know, small-size helter-skelters are, like clown’s mouths and windmills, a staple of crazy-golf architecture.)
The layout was paid for and developed by the Rochester Bridge Trust, bridges featuring conspicuously in the design. (Rochester is on the River Medway.) Canon Matthew Rushton said: “Cathedrals are very confident to innovate and have events like this to tell people about our faith in Jesus, which is what we are all about.”
Crazy golf is also an established institution. The World Championships have been held at the Adventure Golf Complex on Hastings seafront (clearly the mini-golf equivalent of the Old Course at St Andrews) every year since 2003. The current champion is Marc Chapman, whose score of 235 (don’t ask) enabled him to prevail over a field of 110 entrants in June.
The ecclesiastical Rochester golf facility will be open until September 1. I’m sure Canon Rushton now intones during every service: ”Let us play.”
I mentioned controversy. In a column in The Times, Libby Purves expressed her disapproval of the project, and letters to the newspaper were pretty evenly divided as to whether the idea was heavenly or hellish. One noted that compared to the antics surrounding the pilgrimage of the Camino de Santiago, which celebrates a Spanish 11th century miracle as opposed to Seve’s 20th century stuff, “crazy golf in Rochester Cathedral appears to be an exemplar of restraint, sobriety and dignity”. Alternatively, “incredible, shocking and sad” was the view of another correspondent. There’s just no pleasing everybody. But who among us has not invoked the Lord’s name, doubtless in vain, while playing golf?
Bernard Darwin, golf correspondent of that same paper a century ago, once played in a major medal competition at Woking and began by missing birdie putts from five feet, eight feet and six feet. On the 4th hole he played an exquisite pitch-and-run to three feet and missed that as well. Reportedly, he sank to his knees, took a bite of turf from the green, looked to the sky and said in a trembling voice: “Oh God, are you satisfied now?” During a round at Pine Valley, he picked up on the 8th after he’d take nine shots and still failed to complete the hole. “It is all very well to punish a bad stroke,” he wrote, “but the right of eternal punishment should be reserved for a higher tribunal than a green committee.”
Crazy stuff indeed, although is it any more bonkers than Bryson DeChambeau taking two minutes and 20 seconds to hit an eight-foot putt in a tournament the other week? For sure, though, the cathedral layout will not have seen any shots as wild as some of those Seve played against Lehman at the other Rochester all those years ago.
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