Rolling back the years

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Many golf fans have become disillusioned with the modern game and its obsession with power. Golf Today's Richard Pennell is certainly one of them
Posted on
March 24, 2023
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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be” Peter De Vries

Peering wistfully at the past is an affliction of the old, I suppose. Rose-tinted spectacles and all that. The rough edges of our recollections are worn away over time, leaving some romantic longing for the way things used to be, often tied up with a sense of lost simplicity. But perhaps there is also, sometimes, valuable material back there in the dark recesses of our memories.

All the talk recently is of the golf ball, that wicked mistress, and of some marginal adjustment being considered at the highest levels of the alien pursuit known as the professional game. This tweak will do little to protect the dignity of the golf courses on whose majesty the modern tour game pours scorn, nor reverse any of the environmental costs of building 8,000-yard monsters.

To watch Riviera, and Pebble Beach, and - crime above all others - The Old Course stretched and bludgeoned the way they are now feels sacrilegious to me. It’s the equivalent of the recent smearing of cake on the Mona Lisa, only not the act of an individual activist, but the sponsored vandalism of the multi-national equipment companies, whose puppets sit in press conferences criticising the game’s governing bodies without any sense of the irony of wearing a Titleist hat under the cameras.

So I don’t watch any more. For the golf I know and love – the maddening game in which, at my level, the ball is more like an enemy than an ally, albeit with the occasional kind bounce – has nothing to do with the elite, commercial sport that exists between the adverts on some awful cable channel. I can’t bear to call it golf, for the game that I play is still all about honesty, and decency, and courtesy. And if any of that still exists in the upper echelons of the PGA Tour, it’s pretty well hidden. For those on the LIV bandwagon, such values are precluded on day one.

Golf seems to still be in some strange post-Covid bubble, but we mustn’t overlook that the restrictions of the pandemic gave millions of people very few options over their leisure and travel time. There was literally nothing better to do, and the fact that the game was until that moment, at least in the UK, haemorrhaging customers to the lycra-clad pain of road cycling provides a concern that we shouldn’t forget simply because of a particularly inconvenient virus strain.

What bothers me most, with those rose-tinted specs on again, is that nowhere in this age of 'bomb and gouge' do I see the unworldly skill of the masters of that lost era. I have grown to love and understand golf in a very personal way, as the private, cerebral, almost spiritual lens of the 99% of us who aren’t paid to play it, but growing up with this bug, it was the glory of the great champions that inspired me.

I hadn’t yet found the pearls at the centre of golf, but without the spell-binding drama of the big events, I’d never have hung around long enough to see what lies beneath, waiting for us mere mortals. It was the dream of walking in the footsteps of the likes of Woosie and Sandy that ensnared me. Playing golf with persimmon woods and balata balls was a tricky business, not least as the slightest whiff of a thin would slice open such precious spheres, leaving a gaping wound through which you might watch the whole thing unravel.

But so it was for the great champions, too. I could “play the same ball as the pros play”– a tagline for the multi-nationals today – but we would all suffer alike in those days. If Davis Love III caught one off the screws – actual screws, for the newcomer to all this – it would fly further than anyone could even see, but the slightest mis-timing would result in great suffering even at that level. Bernhard shinning up a tree; Seve staring at a flag from a windswept car park.

It was as if we were from the same species, occasionally. And in the character-building nature of golf with such equipment, characters were built. The heroes of my childhood were not all blessed with six-packs or surrounded by psychologists. They seemed to play the game the way I played it, in spirit at least. They hoped for the best, and suffered the worst with, mostly, dignity. But how much more drama seemed to flow from their swings and the telecast in those halcyon days.

And how often the ball played a starring rather than a damaging role. Freddie’s Maxfli somehow clung on above the gentle trickle of Rae’s Creek on 12; on 16, Tiger’s swoosh gave one last wink to Nike’s marketing department before succumbing to that same gravitational force that Couples’ ball defied. It was brilliant to watch; gladiators in the ring, playing a game we might at least dream of, rather than, to quote Bobby Jones or Jack all those years ago, “a game of which I’m not familiar”. I’m not at all familiar with professional golf, but I no longer want to be, for the equipment has made the game and its leading lights dull. Boring. Predictable.

So I shall continue to ignore the pampered, sponsored, inflated egos of the folk wearing caps full of badges. I will continue to watch little or no golf on the box, apart from, of course, the nostalgic splendour of “Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf”, and I will vote with my feet by playing more golf instead, and by refusing to put a single penny on the balance sheet of any of the companies who put short-term profit above the long-term health of the game. You’ll not find me bitching about the last 15 yards of some obscene, technologically stimulated drive, but rather smiling at the version of the game that has made my life better, day after day, for as long as this nostalgic old fool can remember.

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About Richard Pennell

Richard Pennell has been a greenkeeper and club manager, who started writing during lockdown as he could no longer bear not to. He can be found either dreaming of Green Jackets or looking for a small, white ball in the heather.

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