Simon Kelner: UK politicians could learn a lot from the game of golf


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There was an interesting sentence in the short story in yesterday's i accompanying the picture of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton playing golf. It read thus: "The game confirmed that golf has a vital function in oiling the wheels of power." We will come back to that proposition, but surely another function of this particular photo opportunity is to portray politicians having normal lives, enjoying normal pursuits, just being normal. This is to make us think that they are, in fact, normal people when we know they are anything but. The newspapers yesterday were replete with such images: as well as the two Prezzes, we saw David Cameron (with his son – extra normalcy points there) watching Queen's Park Rangers play Aston Villa, and Ed Balls, wearing a shirt that was a few sizes too small for him, playing football for Labour against the media. Sport has been used many times as a tool to present a more rounded picture of our political leaders. For instance, John Major's passion for cricket was very much in keeping with his self-image as the guardian of traditional, Middle England values, while Tony Blair, presenting himself as a man of the people (a touch more difficult after last night's Dispatches programme) made play of his support for Newcastle United FC. I doubt, however, whether any modern British politician would profess a love for golf, such is that sport's aura of elitism and the popular perception (cf. yesterday's i) that it's where businessmen go to conduct shady deals. The inconvenient truth is that golf is a more democratic game than people imagine. Sure, there are still places where inclusivity has not yet reached, but at my club in the English shires, the only business that's conducted is in the car park, where there seems to be an industrial amount of Golden Virginia on sale at knockdown prices. There is, of course, a tradition of American politicians having a keen interest in golf that goes back to John F Kennedy (a player of almost professional standard) and probably beyond. Barack Obama has had more than 60 rounds of golf since entering the White House, and famously tried to resolve an impasse concerning tax legislation over 18 holes with House leader John Boehner. Can you imagine if a British Prime Minister did such a thing? The hue, the cry, the public scandal. It was bad enough when one of our senior politicians (oh, all right, John Prescott) was caught having a crafty game of croquet. I'd like, however, to enter a plea for golf. It's a game that teaches politeness, honesty and discipline. And which of our politicians wouldn't benefit from a bit of that?