Golf: Oxford the masters of high society: Robert Green reports from Rye on a reunion for the President's men

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IT WAS a raw afternoon at Rye for the quarter-finals of the President's Putter, the annual reunion of the Oxford and Cambridge Golfing Society. It was also a good afternoon for Oxford. Three members of their university team have reached this morning's semi- finals - Richard Sanders, the Oxford captain and beaten finalist last year, Stephen Seman and Phil Hill.

In the past 19 years, only one Oxford man (Guy Wuollet, who did it twice) has won the Putter. Aiming to maintain Cambridge's recent record of excellence today will be Alan Holmes, who will be attempting to win for the fourth time in as many different decades.

In the most intriguing of the quarter-finals, Sanders beat his team-mate Mark Benka at the first extra hole, where the latter hooked his second shot out of bounds. Sanders won despite three-putting five times and having been two down with four to play.

Scheduling the President's Putter for a part of the season when the weather is almost guaranteed to be inclement seems to be an extravagant example of legendary British eccentricity. But there is a logic to this apparent perversity.

Early January is a time when both undergraduates and post-graduates are free and, in common with many links, Rye is generally at both its most demanding and rewarding in winter: the course plays its longest, and irregular bounces are at their fewest.

If you are going to play golf in winter, a links course is the place to do it. Bernard Darwin was golf correspondent of the Times for many years, including 1924, when he won the Putter. (This year, the man from the Times has occupied the lesser role of Ted Dexter's caddie.) Darwin extolled the virtues of Rye in particular and of winter golf when he wrote of 'quiet and lovely winter days, with a blue heaven and just a freshening touch of wet upon the turf, days sent from beyond the skies, when golf is a far better game than it can ever be in a baking summer'.

Most of us play our golf on non-links courses. There, a different set of circumstances frequently prevail at this time of year. Temporary tees and greens, placing on the fairways, and mud in your eye every other time you hit the ball. Some clubs lessen these burdens by granting practical local rules, such as permitting placing in the rough or making the holes bigger than standard.

As Darwin's tribute suggested, Rye is seldom in need of offering golfers such prosaic consolations, even during a period such as this, when other parts of East Sussex have resembled Venice. Mind you, the society had to accept Littlestone's hospitality in order to stage some matches last Wednesday because of flooding. Such inconveniences are not new. In 1963, the whole thing had to be switched to Littlestone. In 1979, for the only time since its inception in 1920, the weather was too grim for even the devotees of the Putter, and the event was cancelled.

Occasionally, bad weather on the weekend has caused the conclusion to be delayed until after the Varsity match in March, and last year the final was abandoned after five holes - another Oxbridge first - with the wind up to force 11 and golfing detritus, from trolleys to brollies, all over the place. 'We must be lunatics,' said Cliff Weight, who went on to win the rematch. The episode was in keeping with the idiosyncratic translation traditionally applied to the inscription on the winner's medal. Strictly, Primus Inter Pares means 'First Among Equals'. The society prefers 'He was rather lucky to win'.

Dexter has won the Putter twice and five times been runner-up. He is one of four England cricket captains to have graced this event - AER Gilligan, 'Gubby' Allen and Freddie Brown being the others. Those names from the old days represent a connection with the golden age of the President's Putter between the wars, when its champions were giants of the amateur game - Roger Wethered, Cyril Tolley and Ernest Holderness.

The lustre may have faded from the roll of honour these days, but just as the lure of the Putter is eternal for the members of the society, so the call of the links remains of enduring appeal for us all.

(Photograph omitted)