new golf ... where dennis hopper meets ronnie corbett

Kevin Costner does it. So do the Beastie Boys and Patti Smith. Once the preserve of the middle-aged and style-free, golf has become the last word in sporting chic. Eleanor Bailey on the how the greens turned trendy
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Indy Lifestyle Online
If you thought golf was about fat old men in Rupert Bear trousers then you probably think Goldie is a Blue Peter dog. In 1996 golf is huge and it's cool. Dennis Hopper is now a fan, so is Kevin Costner. Keith Allen plays. The Beastie Boys play and make golf clothes. Jeremy Guscott, Will Carling and many of the England football squad have all come out. Bob Dylan and even, unbelievably, Patti Smith - the list of big names not afraid to wave their four-iron in public just goes on and on. And of course where there's a trend there's a movie. Happy Gilmore, which is just out in the United States, stars hip comedian Adam Sandler, who plays an ice hockey player who swaps his shoulder pads for a Pringle jumper. Outrageously, he forgets that golf is a gentlemanly pursuit and starts playing golf by ice hockey rules. Mayhem ensues, with lots of side-splitting club swinging and ungentlemanly language...

Suffice it to indicate that the mood has shifted. With 500 clubs set up in the last six years, golf is dropping its fusty image. Once a bastion of middle-aged males it's now such a mixed sport that a dating agency has sprung up this year catering exclusively for golfers looking for a lifelong partner with whom to share their balls (a schoolboy sense of humour is endemic to the game). Called Golfing Partners, it was created by businessman and golfer David Woolmer, who noted that while there were a lot of attractive females playing golf these days, there were still a disproportionate number of unattached men (a ratio of 4-1). "I've already got members whose ages range from the mid-twenties to 73. Golf brings people together because players and spectators alike are pleasant and courteous. But I do say to people when they are meeting for the first time: 'For God's sake don't just talk about golf, you need something else in your life'."

Golf is less a hobby now than a way of life. Where ever you go you are never far from that familiar carved green. ''When we look back at the themes of the 1990s,'' says Richard Benson, editor of The Face, ''golf will be a large one. Go into any town planning department you like and you will find that whole areas of the countryside are being reshaped.''

Golf clothing is fashionable. In the last year Armani, Ralph Lauren, Escada and Hugo Boss have all introduced specific golf ranges. Karl Templer, the fashion editor of Arena, says: ''The street has started a lot of golf influenced trends. Skatewear company Pervert originated the golf visor that everyone was wearing last year, Stussy and Extra Large, the company that the Beastie Boys have a share in, have been making golf styles. Nike and Adidas have both recently started producing specific golf shoes." The scorned Ronnie Corbett Pringle look may have been by-passed with the broadening popularity and hipifying of the game but, of course, with double irony, the very fact that the old look is despised makes it appealing to some. ''There will probably be a Pringle revival soon,'' says Karl Templer.

What has made golf more accessible is that the new clubs in this country are predominantly pay- and-play venues where you don't have to pay pounds 6,000 a year and be the Laird of Glenfreemason to be accepted. Dress codes are more relaxed and the profit-conscious new club owners put on funkier events for their younger clientele. Everything from barbecues to karaoke nights take place at golf clubs these days. Steve Muncey, assistant editor of Golf Monthly, says: 'The vast majority of new clubs have a much more egalitarian attitude. Juniors have a better standing and women have equal rights. There are even family golf centres with creches.'

Golf doesn't have to be a for-life decision. And, you don't have to be good at it. Belinda Platt. aged 27, is a new golfer and works in PR. She first went to a pay-and-play in Surrey with some friends. Social climbing couldn't have been further from her mind. ''It was Sunday morning and I had been out clubbing the night before. It was a gorgeous day and my friends just said they were going to do a round of golf. I thought it might be a laugh. And it was because I was so bad. It was hysterical. I go about once a month now. It's very therapeutic after a heavy night out.''

To avoid the dreaded ''first tee nerves'' (making a complete ass of yourself where everyone else can see) most people take lessons beforehand. The Regent's Park Golf and Tennis school next to London Zoo is a prime spot for the office worker converts who have started practising their golf swings where once they went to aerobics or the gym. Michael, aged 31, was surprised to find himself playing what he thought was an old person's sport so early in life, but now he's hooked. ''It's like any drug, you have to play. I didn't think I'd like it. I only started because my girlfriend played but now I love it. It's so exciting.''

Perhaps golf in this country is also popular because it's one sport that we are not unremittingly bad at. We have world class players and there is actually a well funded, successful system for encouraging young players says Michael Bonallack, the secretary of the Royal and Ancient golf club of St Andrews, which represents the amateur game. ''Golf has a unique set up where every club has a PGA trained coach. More and more youngsters are taking up the game and a lot of money has been put into the golf foundation. All the profits from the open championship go back into the game. The average age of tournament winners has gone from mid-thirties some years ago to 21 or 22 today, which has probably given it more appeal to sponsors.''

The number of new clubs has been growing faster than the new players of the game. ''The key trend of the last few years,'' says Keith Storey, associate director of Sports Marketing Surveys, ''is a slightly increasing golfing population, roughly five per cent a year and an increasing facility base. So there are fewer rounds played per course. But we have noticed more new golfers coming into the market this year, so there is perhaps some evidence of an upturn.'' Keeping apace with today's vogue for multi- experience where every new village hall has a 10-screen cinema and virtual reality cyberbar attached, some golf clubs too are moving towards the multi-theme. ''People are building a range of facilities on the nine-hole course to make golf more modern,'' says Keith Storey. ''But they have to be careful. When players are really enthusiastic all they want to do is play golf all day. Quiet Waters in Essex was a spectacular disaster because it didn't get its sums right. The club cost pounds 32 million and has indoor tennis and badminton and all kinds of things. It has just been sold for pounds 5 million.'

Exotic golf clubs, enhanced with the pungent whiff of celebrity presence, are very big overseas. There's Jack Nicholson's haunt at the five-star Turnberry Isle, Florida, and Sean Connery and the king of Spain hit it off at the Marbella Club, where so many oil sheikhs play they have built their own mosque. But nowhere in the world is more fashionable than South Africa. Ian Erasmus, the manager of Comet Travel, which specialises in golf holidays says: ''South Africa is the flavour of the month. It's seen as less of an old folks' place than America, all the celebrities are moving there and courses are fantastic. It's where everyone wants to be seen.''

If you should still be in any doubt that golf is cool then take note. Even the BBC, now undergoing a cross-sport image modernisation programme, opens its golf coverage with a little musical number called ''Chase Side Shoot Up''. Pure Irvine Welsh, surely.

YOU AIN'T GOT A THING IF YOU AIN'T GOT THAT SWING

WHERE TO BE SEEN

Stoke Poges, Bucks

This is the revamped club which was the backdrop for 'Goldfinger', where OddJob crushed a ball to dust with his bare hands. Don't worry, it hasn't happened since.

Leopard Rock, Zimbabwe

Luxury in the mountains. Fantastically fashionable, built to look like an 18th-century chateau; also features a casino, gym, croquet green and trout fishing.

Killarney, Co Kerry, Ireland

Dangerous Oliver Reed-spotting opportunities apart, it's all peace, tranquillity and Londoners escaping the smog.

Turnberry Isle, Florida

Five star accommodation and the stamp of approval of Jack Nicholson; features fully-equipped health spa for strange experiences with seaweed.

Wentworth, Surrey

You pay for the name - up to a pounds 100 a round for the West course, but you are following the footsteps of the greats - Seve, Arnold, Gary, etc.

Durban Country Club, South Africa

Ten days golfing for around the pounds 1,200 mark, but you'll need to make sure you have the right kind of friends who know how fashionable you really are.

Gleneagles, Scotland

Great name, great celeb potential, tricky.

GOLFING GODS:

Any spectator sport worth its sunburn needs to do well on the Agassi swoon scale to bump up the crowds of attractive girl spectators.

1. Phil Mickleson, British, 24, good-looking and a left-hander to boot.

2. Reitice Goosen, 26, South African. Blond.

3. Michael Campbell, 24, dark and brooding New Zealander.

HOW TO BEHAVE

While things have relaxed since the old days, there are still 101 ways to expose yourself as an ignorant plebeian. Such as:

1. Cheating. Golf isn't cricket, so ball tampering is a no-no - one club in Solihull set up closed circuit television to catch cheats.

2. Coughing or sneezing when the opponent is lining up (see cheating).

3. Attempting to skimp on a cheap set of clubs. Everyone will laugh at you, especially when you swipe the ball and part of the club goes with it.

4. Showing emotion. A slight smile is permissible for those of a naturally gregarious temperament, otherwise just pass a nod to your defeated opponent while calmly saying 'you can write me a cheque'.

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