Brian Viner: Snobbish, elitist and mindless? Not the golf world that I know

Many middle-managers play the game, but so do plenty of kids from council estates
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The Independent Online

Terence Blacker, let me say right off, is a man I greatly admire. He writes top-notch books for older children and his columns in the comment pages of this newspaper are generally laden with wit and perception. He's a nice fellow, too. And when I saw him at a dinner last Thursday and asked him if the tie he was wearing was his golf club tie, he had the decency to chortle.

Right. That's the Order of the Brown Nose secured. Now let me stick the FootJoys into the column he wrote last week, in which he lambasted Peter Alliss for his 18th hole cock-up at the Masters, before ridiculing golf for being élitist and conservative in a social sense, and in a sporting sense devoid of strategy and mind games.

With respect, balls. Attacking golf for its snobbery and élitism is like taking a shotgun to a barrel-load of fish. The target is too big, too obvious, too easy.

Of course the accusation contains a retired, monocle-wearing kernel (Black Watch, 1943-1977) of truth. I have written myself of a preposterous episode at Aldeburgh Golf Club one Thursday lunchtime a few summers back, when some friends and I wandered into an otherwise empty clubhouse before playing 18 holes. We were all dressed casually but fairly smartly, yet were told by the secretary that to eat a sandwich in the bar we needed jackets and ties. He had some which he dished out, but the jackets were too short in the arms, the ties too wide, the shades all wrong. We could not have looked more like clowns had we taken to the course on monocycles.

But nonsense like that is becoming the exception rather than the rule. Many golf clubs still operate a no jeans-no trainers rule, but that's fair enough; a gentle dress code encourages conformity in more important areas, like treating the course with respect, and alerting fellow-golfers that the ball you have just belted in completely the wrong direction might be about to hit them smack between the eyes.

Yes, there is snobbery in golf. But there is snobbery, too, in Terence's assertion that golf is "the true sport of middle-management". Plenty of middle-managers play golf, but so do plenty of kids from council estates, especially in Scotland and Ireland where golf is thoroughly democratised.

As for the suggestion that it is a sport without strategy, without mind games, the Masters alone mocks the notion. Playing Augusta is all about strategy - when to hit left to right, when right to left; whether to go for the par-fives in two; whether to confront the bunkers on the 18th. And Greg Norman's collapse in 1996 was entirely in the mind, as was the twitched putt by Scott Hoch in 1989, both of which handed victory to Nick Faldo. On which subject, Faldo and Norman, not to mention Tiger Woods, rather challenge Terence's line about "the slack muscle tone and incipient beer bellies of the top golfers".

I could go on. Golf is the only high-profile sport in which the rank amateur can play in the world's most famous, most venerable arena. Keen tennis players cannot play on Centre Court; all golfers can play the Old Course at St Andrews. And all golfers have the satisfaction of knowing, when they embark on a medal round, that at least 18 times they will hit shots upon which even the world's greatest players could not improve. Moreover, golf has a brilliant handicapping system which allows two people of vastly different ability to enjoy a level contest. It is a sport which children can play with their grandparents, even their great-grandparents. Terence might think that a deficiency; I think it's marvellous.

There are dozens more reasons why golf is one of the finest of sports, but enough of that, let me instead make Terence truly indignant by mounting a defence of his particular bête noire, Peter Alliss. There are plenty of golf fans, too, who don't care for Alliss, who must have howled derision when he goofed by not initially realising that Phil Mickelson had won.

But miscalculations have always loomed large in golf. Again, to cite only the Masters, Roberto de Vicenzo failed to tie in 1968 simply because he got his sums wrong, signing for a 66 when he'd scored a 65. "What a stupid I am," he famously remarked. Alliss was a stupid, too, but in the excitement it was a forgivable mistake.

The "self-consciously droll" patter that Terence loathes, I enjoy. The reminiscing that Terence derides, I value. It was at the Masters in the 1960s, on the 11th green, that Alliss developed the yips. He took four to get down from a couple of feet, prompting his astonished playing partner Gene Littler to say: "What the hell are you doing?"

I'd have liked to hear that story again last weekend. Indeed, my only gripe with Alliss is not that he talks too much about the old days, but that he doesn't do it more. And he has one priceless asset too often disregarded these days: a great broadcasting voice. I hope the old boy goes on for years.