The great amateur golfer Bobby Jones once said that he could take everything out of his life except his experiences at St Andrews and still have had a rich, full life. To paraphrase somewhat, I could take everything out of my life except my conversations with taxi drivers, and I too would have had a rich, full life.
Admittedly, it can sometimes be disagreeable receiving a blast of opinion from one of those London cabbies who make Jean-Marie Le Pen sound like Vanessa Redgrave. But even those situations can be made more fun, if you casually tell them that you're a civil rights lawyer representing 200 Albanian asylum-seekers.
Anyway, I want to tell you about my conversation with the chap who took me to and from Glasgow Airport the other week, on my fleeting visit to one of the practice days before the Scottish Open at Loch Lomond.
He wasn't actually a taxi driver, but a security guard earning a few extra quid driving courtesy cars, which he also sometimes does during the Dunhill Cup at St Andrews. Fortunately, my plane arrived at around the same time as that of the golfer Andrew Coltart, so I was able to grab a lift. And my return flight left at roughly the same time as a couple of other players were due to arrive in Glasgow, so the same guy took me back to the airport in the afternoon.
He was a friendly fellow and we got along well. I asked him how much the players were tipping him after the 45-minute drive to Loch Lomond. He looked surprised. "They don't tip," he said. What, never? "Well, Phil Mickelson does. And Padraig Harrington did once, but only because his wife told him to."
The Dunhill gig, by contrast, is considerably more lucrative, because it involves celebrities as well as professional golfers. My friend once drove Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones from St Andrews to Carnoustie, and was handsomely rewarded. "But the best tipper is JP McManus," he added. "He carries a huge bundle of £50 notes, and anyone who does anything for him gets £50. If you drive him three times in a day, even a wee distance, you get £150."
It was as heartening to hear this as it was disheartening to hear that the members of the European Tour, some of them extremely well-heeled, take the perks of their profession so much for granted that they do not see fit to slip even a fiver to the man who has driven for an hour and a half to deliver them to a golf tournament, to say nothing of the hour or more he has perhaps had to wait at the airport. The courtesy-car drivers do get a wage, but that's hardly the point.
The point is that professional golfers are outrageously spoilt. You might say that it ill becomes a journalist, a breed not unfamiliar with the freebie, to criticise the pampering of others, but here goes anyway...
At any decent-sized event, the pros are treated like visiting potentates. Cars and drivers are put at their disposal. A physiotherapy unit is on hand should they require it. Massages are theirs for the asking. Drinks and sometimes fancy fruit baskets are provided on every tee. Balls, putters, snazzy new woods, are foisted upon them. If they were to ask for a nubile young woman and a vat of baby oil, the tournament organisers would probably ask how young, and big a vat.
Most of that is as it should be. Some of them have slogged for years for the chance to sup at the top table. For some it is still a slog. But there is no excuse for taking it entirely as their due, for losing touch with common courtesies.
A friend of mine once played in a pro-am tournament with a well-known English golfer, several times a Ryder Cup player. The player was not merely aloof but downright rude towards his playing companions, behaving as if he would rather be anywhere else but there, with anyone else but them. After nine holes my friend had had enough. "We have paid a lot of money for the supposed privilege of playing golf with you," he said, evenly. "If you don't want to be here, then we would prefer you to walk in. We will protect your reputation, although God knows why, by saying that you had a migraine."
Thereafter, the player behaved in a marginally less anti-social way. But it was only marginal. And I thought of him last Tuesday when I played at Turnberry, in the pro-am before the Senior British Open, with the American former Ryder Cup captain Tom Kite.
With my two amateur partners and myself, Kite could not have been more charming, solicitous or helpful. A disciple of the late golfing guru Harvey Penick, he spent five minutes showing me the Penick method for getting out of a greenside bunker. He improved my grip. He told us a funny story. And he shot a 67.
So what's the difference between him and the Englishman my friend had the misfortune to play with? Well, apart from being an innately nicer person, Kite has done it all - won a major, become the first player to reach career earnings of $6m, then $7m, then $8m. He has nothing left to prove, no inferiority complex gnawing away at him, and no delusions of superiority either. I bet he tips the guy who takes him to the airport.Reuse content