Former miner saw himself as class warrior: Rhys Williams reports on the case that was the talk of the 19th hole

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JOHN BUCKINGHAM'S contribution to the Sherwood Open in 1990 deserves to be forgotten.

The round started well enough, but ended disastrously with a nine on the 17th and allegations, a month later, that the the 57-year-old retired miner-cum-insurance broker had cheated.

So started the most unusual libel action that Nottingham has seen.

Members of Sherwood Forest Golf Club in Mansfield were united last week in their dismay at events unfolding 20 miles away in Nottingham County Court.

''It makes golf look stupid,' said one member, unhappy about the widespread publicity that the case has attracted. 'Diabolical,' said another. 'Pathetic,' added another. 'Disgraceful,' chipped in a fourth. Language customarily reserved for missed putts and duffed drives was being used to echo the national sense of incredulity that a local dispute over whether someone cheated in a minor club tournament (first prize pounds 15) should occupy a court's time for 10 days. 'It should never have even got into the clubhouse, let alone beyond. They should have settled it out on the course. Now it's got totally out of hand.' But then as the clerk of the court pointed out, golf is 'not just a game, it's a way of life'.

Mr Buckingham took up the sport at a municipal course 15 years ago, while still employed as a faceworker with the National Coal Board. Promoted to overseeing shifts, he quit to found a highly successful insurance company that he sold for about pounds 2m in 1988 - by which time he had moved onwards and upwards to Sherwood Forest Golf Club.

In Mr Buckingham's view, the club was content to accept his brass, but not his class. He claimed his accusers - one the managing director of an insurance company, the other a financial consultant - were attempting to hound him out.

Time and again, Patrick Milmo QC, Mr Buckingham's counsel, quizzed the chief accuser, Reginald Dove, on whether he considered Mr Buckingham 'part of the club's riff-raff'.

Mr Dove, who denied holding any such view, had described himself in his letter of complaint to the disciplinary committee as one of the 'respected members of the club'.

Suggestions of some form of class struggle have both bemused and amused members. Last week there was at least one mock search for the 'riff- raff element' under the tables in the Men's Bar.

The club, which celebrates its centenary next year, is a beautiful heathland course offering a privileged view of Mansfield. But it is without doubt one of the more approachable clubs at which a visitor could hope to fetch up. Its annual subscriptions of pounds 426 are fairly standard, and although it has a closed membership of 750, it is not in the same league of exclusivity as Nottinghamshire Golf Club at Hollinwell, where the judge, Mr Justice Thomas Heald, plays his golf.

The truth as to why Mr Buckingham found himself involved in such unpleasantness is probably a little simpler. It was not his background that marked him out, but his 'over-developed sense of competition'.

It was Mr Buckingham's counsel who said: 'Golf is a game based on honour and trust. Cheating is not only outlawed by the rules of the game, it is repugnant to the whole spirit and ethos of the game.' Although he still has friends at the club, there are no shortage of members happy to blackball Mr Buckingham should he contemplate the unthinkable and seek re-election after allowing his membership to lapse.

Mindful of the need to explain the game's finer points to the jury of seven women and one man, the barristers turned number three court in Nottingham into a locker room. In the dock, where the accused in a criminal case would normally sit, was a black golfbag full of clubs belonging to Mr Buckingham's solicitor no less. Casually propped against the juror's benches was a four-wood, while a handful of balls, tees and markers littered the clerk's desk.

The paraphernalia, which also included a trolley and course maps, may have brought jurors closer to understanding the mechanics of golf, but probably provided little insight as to why on earth they were being asked to arbitrate on a squabble between three men.

The case, thought to be the first of its kind, has tied up solicitors since proceedings began in 1991. It has passed through the Court of Appeal, before finally reaching county court a fortnight ago, since when it has exercised the minds of a judge, two QCs, their juniors and still more solicitors. As one Sherwood member said as he watched a three-ball holing out on the 18th green: 'It's not too hard to see who the real winners have been.'

(Photograph omitted)