The Hacker: It's autumn, and time for pairing off

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The Independent Online

The onset of autumn is the time of year when male members of golf clubs start eyeing up each other instead of the ladies. We are not talking about a mass realignment of sexual orientation, even though it does involve seeking a partner.

The onset of autumn is the time of year when male members of golf clubs start eyeing up each other instead of the ladies. We are not talking about a mass realignment of sexual orientation, even though it does involve seeking a partner.

This is a mating game with a difference, one in which even the ugliest hackers find themselves being courted by handsome big- hitters from the lower end of the handicap scale. The reason is the winter league, feared by some and loved by others, which almost all clubs traditionally stage; partly to keep members active through the long, cold months and partly to ensure that the beer pumps don't go rusty.

Sensible golfers, especially those with refined swings and delicate abilities, put away their clubs as soon as they feel the first chill wind bite through their trousers. The majority are made of sterner stuff and gird themselves to face what is not only a gruelling examination of a man's capacity to withstand the cruellest elements but a merciless test of mind, muscle and meanness, because the first casualties of winter golf are the game's niceties.

The leagues are called different names from club to club – for some unfathomable reason, Cock O' The North is a popular one – but they take roughly the same format, involving pairs, and generally take place on a Sunday morning.

Since it is a long and difficult haul, the selection of partners is much trickier than for a one-off match. Playing with the same man for many weeks can be worse than being married, hence the care with which the choice is made. An extra complication is that most clubs insist on the pairs having a minimum combined handicap. At our club the minimum is 20, so a scratch playerhas to pick a partner with a handicap of 20 or higher. Thus do hackers come into their own;those who can be relied upon to play close to their handicap regularly, and who are house-trained, are in great demand.

Once they have been snapped up, the ones remaining are not an attractive bunch, and have no alternative but to play together; such partnerships not only receive plenty of shots, they can be mean and glowering opponents capable of gaining shock wins.

As they used to say in the third round of the FA Cup, mud is a great leveller. So it is in golf. Our league glories in the name of the Snakes and Ladders, so called because every week the winners move up the board and the losers move down. It is a foursomes competition, with the first part played in the 10 weeks leading up to Christmas, whereupon you have to pick a new partner for the second half, played in the 10 weeks up to Easter.

Foursomes, of course, means playing alternate shots – every time you play a shot your partner has to play the next one from wherever you put him. This leads to more strained relationships than any other form of golf.

The 2001-02 Snakes begins next Sunday. I shudder at the very thought.

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