A driving passion

No, golf is not just for oldies. Get a number five iron in your hand, and you will find out why.
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The Independent Culture
"GOLF, LIKE measles, should be caught young, for, if postponed to riper years, the results may be serious" - PG Wodehouse.

It's official. Golf is not the new rock'n'roll. I have it on no less an authority than Chris Evans himself. "Rock'n'roll is the new rock'n'roll; it's never gone away," says the Virgin Radio boss loyally when I ring to ask him about taking up the game.

"Yes, but, you know what I mean ... All these trendy pop folk suddenly have a bag of clubs under the stairs: Robbie Williams, Keith from Prodigy, Nicky from the Manics, Iggy Pop. What's going on?"

"Pop stars have always played," retorts the ginger one. "It's just that they never admitted to it before in case they got labelled the new Tarbie or Brucie."

So golf is out of the closet and out on to the municipal course. Swinging a seven iron and a pitching wedge need no longer earn the pitying looks usually reserved for those who admit to listening to Phil Collins or drinking Malibu. And, anyway, football is the new rock'n'roll - and all footballers play golf. Just the other week, we saw the England team relaxing at La Manga golf resort in southern Spain.

I suggest another theory to Chris Evans: that men are genetically programmed to play golf at a certain age. But he's having none of it. "Young people have always played," says a man who was playing in the Junior PGA when he was 14.

However, according to Mike Round at the Golf Foundation, fewer and fewer young people are taking up golf. The growth area is in the over-55s. "The game is growing old," he says, which is why the Golf Foundation has opened 223 "starter centres", where under-18s can be encouraged to learn the game. British golf's new young hope, Lee Westward, is a product of the scheme.

But let's suppose that you are over 18 but certainly under 55. You've dealt with the image problem. So how do you get started? "Just buy one club - a five, six or seven iron - go into a field and start swinging it," suggests Chris Evans, whose TV programme about the game, Tee Time, has been underwhelming viewers recently. "Don't go straight out and buy 15 brand-new clubs and a load of brand-new balls," advises Evans. "You'll just get depressed as hell and never play again, and that's a load of money down the drain."

Which is just exactly what I did. I bought 15 brand-new clubs and a load of new balls and got depressed as hell. But I did play again. And again, and again. Now, I'm afraid to say, a Sunday is a very sad Sunday if I'm not propelling chunks of Richmond Park into the air and swearing blue murder at a dimpled white plastic sphere.

In fact, I am probably a text book case of how not to learn golf. I hacked my way round the courses of suburban London with a pair of equally smitten friends before I admitted that I needed help.

Golf lessons are expensive - they cost about 50p a minute - but worth every penny. The admirably laid-back Nick at the Duke's Meadows club in Chiswick (which has the advantage - in winter - of having a floodlit driving range) took apart my grip, stance and follow-through and then put them back together in a form that wouldn't have disgraced St Andrews.

There was the added frisson that two of Nick's other pupils were the Chelsea stars Gianluca Vialli and Gianfranco Zola. Just to think that the hand that corrected the position of my right foot, also corrected the position of the right foot which scored the winning goal in this year's European Cup Winner's Cup Final ...

But back to dull reality - and driving-range practice is a must. A bucket of 50 balls costs about pounds 2.50 and you don't have to worry about losing them - which is one of the main expenses of the novice golfer trying to get round 18 holes.

And if you do feel ready to venture out into life's great fairways, a spot of insurance while you're still flailing about in the undergrowth won't go amiss. If your drive lands on the head of a passing merchant banker, who won't be able to work for the following six months as a result, you're likely to be even severely out of pocket. If your usual insurance broker won't cover you, there are specialist golf insurance agencies, Golf Plan being a popular one.

And worry of any kind is the enemy of golf. Or as Walter Hagen, who was the Tiger Woods of his day, put it. "Never hurry, never worry, and always remember to smell the flowers along the way."

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