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Libel case golfer 'not part of club's riff-raff element': Members shunned 'undesirable' player, court told

AN AMATEUR golfer accused of cheating so blatantly that it insulted his playing partner's intelligence did not belong to the club's 'riff-raff' element, a court was told yesterday.

John Buckingham, 57, is suing two fellow members of Sherwood Forest Golf Club in Nottinghamshire over allegations that during a competition he twice secretly dropped new balls to replace lost ones, while on another hole he kicked his ball to a more favourable lie.

At Nottingham County Court, Reginald Dove, 50, one of the accusers, accepted that he had described himself in a letter of complaint to a disciplinary committee as 'one of the most respected members of the club', but rejected suggestions that he considered Mr Buckingham 'part of the riff-raff'.

Mr Dove, managing director of an insurance company, told the jury that he had ignored invitations to play with Mr Buckingham after the incident in August 1990.

'Having witnessed what I had, he unfortunately was the last person I would have wanted to play with ever again,' Mr Dove said.

But he later added: ''I don't bear grudges and I do not take the view that cheats should be social outcasts forever.'

Under cross-examination by Patrick Milmo QC, for Mr Buckingham, Mr Dove said that he did not confront Mr Buckingham immediately because there were no other witnesses.

'I had never seen that action by any other player I had been with - it totally shocked and embarrassed me,' he said. Instead he 'agonised for some four or five weeks' before confiding in the club captain, who advised him to lodge a formal complaint.

The case has astounded many observers, not least because it is thought to be the first of its kind in legal history. Mr Buckingham initiated proceedings three years ago after a disciplinary hearing at Sherwood Golf Club ruled there was insufficient evidence to support all the allegations. He had demanded an apology and a contribution to the costs of defending himself, but both accusers declined - a potentially expensive refusal.

Before reaching Nottingham County Court last Wednesday, the parties had already been in front of the High Court to lodge a late defence. The hearing proper is expected to run through to next Tuesday. It will have tied up two QCs, their juniors, a judge and a raft of solicitors for a total of nine days. The judge yesterday informed the court that proceedings were costing about pounds 5,000 for each half hour.

If Mr Buckingham did cheat, it would have barely served his cause in the Sherwood Open. A disastrous score of nine on one of the closing holes knocked him out of contention. Meanwhile, Mr Dove went on to take second prize.

But Mr Dove claimed that cheating in a tournament was 'tantamount to fraud'. Instead of mentioning the matter to Mr Buckingham over a drink in the clubhouse after the round, Mr Dove wrote to the club's committee a month later detailing his accusations.

At about the same time, the committee also received a letter from Graham Rusk, 33, claiming that during a separate round on the same course, Mr Buckingham had followed his ball into a bunker on the seventh hole and then moved it.

Despite being cleared by the disciplinary committee, at which he was represented by a barrister, Mr Buckingham claimed he was shunned by other members of the club. 'The membership looked on me as a very undesirable person to play golf with,' he told the court.

'In general the attitude at Sherwood was, 'Keep away from him, don't play with him'.' He played at the club only handful of times after the hearing and finally let his membership lapse last year.

The retired insurance broker had earlier told the jury of seven women and one man that he had played golf for 15 years, starting at a municipal course while he worked for British Coal before moving to the pounds 426 a year Sherwood Forest club, which has a closed membership of 750.

'I enjoy my golf very much. It is a very important part of my social life. My life revolves around it,' he had said.

Mr Dove and Mr Rusk both deny libel, claiming that the accusations were true and that letters of complaint to the club were protected by legal privilege.

The case continues today.

(Photographs omitted)