How Tom Cox raised hell on the fairway

He was a teenage golf sensation, with a brilliant future at the very top of the sport he loved. But then, disillusioned by petty rules and sexist attitudes, he hung up his clubs and walked off the fairway for good...until now, that is. Could Tom Cox rediscover the passion and talent of his youth – and become the professional he'd always yearned to be?
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I never set out to be a golfer. When the sport arrived in my life, at the tender age of 13, it was as disorientating as the rest of puberty, but I hadn't been sat down and warned about it beforehand. One day I was a normal, football-playing kid with unsporty, arty parents. The next, I was a surly streak of Pringle who suddenly found himself spending a disturbing amount of time with 58-year-old garden-equipment manufacturers who liked to be referred to as "Mr Captain". My love affair with golf was sudden, intense, unexpected. Between the summers of 1988 and 1992, I played it all day, almost every day.

The late Eighties and early Nineties was a dark era for golf. The popular line of thinking is that it was an elitist game, played by sexist, bourgeois bigots and the creakiest breed of celebrity has-been. Its most famous venues discriminated against minorities (Augusta, the topographically sumptuous venue for the US Masters, didn't admit its first black member until 1990) and women (Royal St Georges, a regular British Open venue, once sported a sign in its clubhouse that read "No Dogs, No Women").

My obsession with this archaic culture immediately alienated those closest to me. My schoolfriends didn't react quite as supportively as I'd hoped to my references to "stiff shafts and balls" in my oral presentation for English GCSE. My love-life bombed before it had really launched (though I did find myself getting a strange amount of attention from middle-aged, handbag-skinned women who played bridge and drank Bacardi and Cokes). My family were baffled and hurt, not least when I received a school report informing them that "Tom is not bothered about this subject 'because he wants to be a golfer'."

It had never been easy to find my rebellious streak, since my parents were rebels themselves. They were keen to get me into bands like The Rolling Stones, and encouraged me to watch difficult French cinema. But golf served as an inverted forum for adolescent insurrection. As a bonus, I got very good at it, very quickly, becoming the youngest ever club champion at my home club in Nottingham, winning numerous junior tournaments and gaining a place in the county boys' team.

Golf didn't just take over my life, it actually worked quite well as a substitute for life. It even had its own set of diseases ("the shanks", "the yips"). But eventually, even I got tired of its preposterous dress codes, its "Men-Only" bars and tin-pot Hitlers. At the age of 17, after four years of following and finally violently flouting golf's intricate social bylaws, I walked off a golf course as a wannabe Seve Ballesteros for what I believed, with all my broken heart, would be the last time.

That night I attended a rock concert – not a cool rock concert, or even a great one, but one loud and energetic enough to suggest that there might be a different life out there for me that didn't involve blazer badges and men called Ron and Roy who might threaten to disqualify me for wearing the wrong socks. Shortly afterwards, my clubs went into the loft, where they stayed while life resumed what seemed to be its preordained route.

For a long time, I viewed my half decade as a swinger as little more than a brief schizoid episode – nothing to do with the "real" me who had grown his hair long, who loved loud, lascivious Seventies rock music, who didn't own any pleated slacks. Things only began to change in 2001, when I wrote a book about my teenage golf years called Nice Jumper. In a gesture that I told myself was "research", I began to visit driving ranges and the odd course.

What I saw was a louder, slightly more working-class sport than the one I had left. Friends no longer thought I was weird for playing it. In the decade or so I had been away, golf had undergone a mini-revolution. When Tiger Woods had won the US Masters in 1997, golf had found its first black megastar and the social ripples from his arrival started to make some big waves.

It wasn't just the sporty kids who'd previously written golf off as an "old man's game" who suddenly wanted to play. By the early years of this decade, golf had its first alternative publication (Golf Punk), a selection of "street" clothing brands (such as Bunker Mentality, Golf Refugees and Golf Pimp), and a queue of bad-boy film stars and rock stars either taking it up or suddenly claiming they'd been into it since it released its first album.

Golf, we were told endlessly, was "shaking off its fusty image". It was "cool". I was slightly sceptical, but it was hard to suppress my old addiction to the game once described by PG Wodehouse as "the only way to find a man's true character".

With all this in mind I took the decision, at the end of 2005, to spend a year playing on the lower reaches of the pro tour. The decision can be put down to a number of coalescing factors: a belated first hole in one; a slight life crisis relating to turning 30 and looking back on unfulfilled childhood dreams; self-delusion.

I was also interested in playing at golf's most crucial level, and finding out if it was quite the new enlightened game I'd heard about. The rise of quality public courses meant that the once-snooty superior private club game was in financial trouble and finding it hard to maintain its age-old elitist values.

From what I could see, though, having tentatively joined a club near my home in East Anglia, it was putting up a decent fight. Just like in the old days, I still got told off for not changing my shoes in the locker room, and people still looked at my small car, sideburns and non-golf brand clothing as if frantically searching their internal rule book for a restrictive bylaw. They tended not to have heard of Golf Punk or Alice Cooper and, if they had, they were nowhere near as interested in them as they were in the badger problem on the seventh fairway.

And what of the pro equivalent? Certainly, there was the odd flamboyant player on the PGA Tour – Sergio Garcia (a particular favourite of mine) and John Daly, who'd been around since the dark days anyway – but pro golfers still, for the most part, seemed like sober, sartorially challenged folk who thought about little aside from, well, golf.

Grabbing my trusty 1980s putter, I headed to the lowly battle fields of the pro game to find out if a revolution had really taken place.

The first tee

Turning professional at golf is surprisingly easy. I'd thought that I'd at least have to reduce my handicap from five to scratch to be permitted to forfeit my amateur status. Not so. It's very much a case of: "I say I am a pro, therefore I am a pro." Merely by turning up for the EuroPro Tour Qualifying School at Stoke-by-Nayland in Suffolk and signing a form stating that, in the unlikely event I won any prize money, I would gladly accept it, the deal was done.

"On the tee, representing England: Tom Cox!" the starter announced into the microphone on the first hole. All sorts of quite respectable players were still being prevented from playing the amateur game by car-park keypads, nepotism and waiting lists, yet here I was: a bloke desperately in need of a haircut with non-golf brand clothes and a putter two decades out of date, representing England!

The glow lasted until the third hole, where I got disqualified for playing the wrong ball.

I wrote to the people at the Guinness Book of Records, who told me that there was no officially recognised category for Shortest Ever Pro Golf Tournament Debut. (I couldn't see what made it any less of a record than, say, the sanctioned Shortest Ever Computer Instruction Manual category.) Nevertheless, I pressed on, undaunted by a bad back and a swing increasingly reminiscent of a panicked squid.

The EuroPro Tour is three rungs down from the PGA Tour: the circuit where players like Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson make their millions. Even if I'd finished in the top five of its end-of-year money list, I would have been several victories away from an invite to play with my heroes. Nonetheless, even as the last placed player in the qualifying school, I received invites to other EuroPro events. More amazingly still, merely by dint of being a pro, I got the chance to enter the greatest tournament of all: The Open.

Conduct unbecoming

New Enlightened Golf has left its residue on the average pro. He no longer tends to favour billowing trousers badly coordinated with diamond-patterned sweaters. Now he prefers slightly tighter trousers badly coordinated with heavy-buckled belts and Lycra tops. His hairstyle is an over-gelled facsimile of the one sported by David Beckham about seven years ago: half ironic mullet, half recently saturated hedgehog. He sports this slightly uncomfortably, like a dog with a saddle.

All this seems very confusing to the old guard likes of Peter Alliss, the legendary BBC golf commentator, who until about 2001 was still making disapproving noises on air about any player whose barnet strayed half an inch down his neck.

In recent years, the BBC, Sky and Setanta have tried to "jazz up" their coverage of tournaments by playing a selection of Seventies funk classics and whining indie hits over the top of the leaderboard, and by getting Padraig Harrington to lark about in a bunker.

This is somewhat contradicted by the old-school pundits, many of whom, having spotted a player experimenting with an unusual outfit, will make gritted-teeth comments like, "It's not to everyone's taste," and, "A lot of people don't agree with it."

Those surrounding the pro game are still essentially leery of outsiders. "We look after our own," the former Ryder Cup captain Sam Torrance told me. "You come out here and you're a complete arsehole, you'll get told, you'll get ignored, and you'll come around."

In an environment like this, it doesn't take much to be viewed as a "maverick". For the last few years, the premier "maverick" in British golf has been a man called Ian Poulter, but all he seems to have done to justify this is wear some very loud trousers and chew with his mouth open.

In my late teens, when I started to fall out with golf, I got told off for wearing a "Never Mind the Bollocks" T-shirt, playing in jeans, and hiding a variety of objects in the golf bags of authority figures. I'm over that kind of silliness now, and I was on my best behaviour during my year as a pro. I didn't once shout, "GET IN THE HOLE!" or, "YOU DA MAN!", and I stuck to sensible clothing.

Nonetheless, when I turned up for a practise round before a EuroPro tournament in (impractically long) shorts on the hottest day of the year, I was told that if I ventured on to the course so attired I would be subject to a hefty fine and disqualified from the tournament. Why? "It's thought that it's not appropriate for a gentleman."

I later found out that, though that may be the case, it was obviously perfectly acceptable for gentlemen to use phrases like "luckier than a queer with two arseholes" when pitching in straight from a bunker, and make misogynistic comments about the latest WPGA wunderkind Michelle Wie "stealing slots in our tournaments".

Champion... of Shoreditch

By the time I'd played in the Open qualifying tournament at Hollinwell in Nottinghamshire, and shot the worst score in any stage of the championship (losing four balls in gorse during the first round), it had become clear that, with my over-talkative fairway manner and laissez-faire attitude to practise, I was probably not going to be realising my dream of teeing it up with Sergio Garcia.

Nonetheless, I didn't finish last in everything, and felt like I'd at least made some kind of mark in my pro life – even if it wasn't quite the kind I'd expected.

In late summer, I played in the Shoreditch Urban Open, a casual tournament where golf's new urban rabble hit (specially designed, soft) balls around the closed-off streets of east London using fire-hydrant covers for holes. After taking a little while to perfect my in-off-the-BMW ricochet, I surprised myself by notching up four birdies on the back nine and claiming the title. I didn't win any cash, but walked off with the winner's trophy: a Timothy Everest jacket.

Rebel without a course

Back on the EuroPro tour, I overheard my name mentioned on the practise ground. I couldn't quite catch the full context, but it definitely included the phrase "he's a character". I ransacked my brain to work out what I'd done to achieve such an honour. All I could come up with was my retro swing, and my slightly smelly, budget golf bag – an item that had received so much attention from passing pros by now that, if it were a person, it would have been frantically running its hand along its back, searching for an "I do it with sheep!" Post-it note.

When I played in an event in Devon, dressed in sober navy-blue linen trousers (£10, Gap sale), an REO Speedwagon trucker cap, and a red-and-blue striped Polo shirt (£20, French Connection seconds) with a milk stain on it, I was bafflingly featured in a segment on Sky Sports' EuroPro tour coverage on the new breed of "jazzy dressers" in golf.

Did I enjoy this kind of attention? In truth, I was a little too wrapped up in getting rid of an evil brain worm that kept telling me to hit all my shots into nearby lakes. But there's no doubt that golf's almost infinite capacity for rebellion is one of its most appealing factors.

This is almost certainly why so many former hellraisers take it up in later life, when the drugs have taken their toll and the market for the on-stage decapitation of live animals has become overcrowded. For instance, Bill Murray getting breathalysed while driving a car? Not so funny. Bill Murray getting breathalysed while driving a golf buggy in Stockholm the other week? Very funny.

Look at famous weekend golfers like Terry Wogan and Peter Alliss, and what do you see? You see tartan and plus fours, after-dinner speeches and personalised registration plates. Look a bit more closely, and you see clandestine loose cannons who long ago found their niche (can you imagine, say, John Motson, saying "Bollocks!" live on air, as Alliss did during the BBC's World Matchplay coverage in 2005?).

Golf can taunt even its most hopeless exponent with a glimpse of greatness. It can also present a world where insurgence has yet to be commodified, and you only have to untuck your shirt to find yourself halfway to becoming Robert Downey Jr.

After a year on the tour, I packed in golf again, this time for good. Having paid my way round eight "proper" tournaments, in which my best finish had been seventh from last, and won exactly no prize money, I had to count the experiment a personal failure, even if it had answered questions about my unfulfilled teenage golfing dreams.

As to what I learned about modern golf, reports of revolution have been greatly exaggerated. The sport's intrinsic nature – that it's a game that can only be played to the highest standard with a minimum of outside influences, a game that takes at least three times as long as almost all the more sensible ones – means that it will probably always attract a certain amount of social tunnel vision, whether or not DJ Spoony and Iggy Pop play it.

The walls have come down a bit but after all the talk about "cool", the dust has settled, and it turns out that we are still probably several years away from the first openly bisexual Ryder Cup player. Much as those who watched me lose four balls in gorse bushes in the qualifying round for the Open would probably disagree, this isn't abstract art or am-dram: it's a sport. But it's a beautifully confused one. For all my disasters and embarrassments, my front-row seat at its identity crisis is not something I'd want to go back and forsake.

Tom Cox's book Bring Me the Head of Sergio Garcia (£11.99) is published today by Vintage. To order a copy for the special price of £10.99 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 0870 079 8897, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.