Swinging London

A new generation of golfers is abandoning the club house to tee off in the street. Urban golf is on the rise - and there's even a world tournament planned. Josh Sims plays in the traffic

Jeremy Feakes, design consultant and keen amateur golfer, is in training for his first tournament. More casually dressed than most golfers, and using a bashed-up Titleist club, he lines up his drive for the first hole, a 238-yard par four. His swing looks like the product of many an hour in front of a Learn to Drive with Arnold Palmer video. As Budgie, his trusty caddie, smokes a roll-up, Feakes keeps his eye on the ball, controls his club through a perfect arc and, with a dull thwack, the ball flies gracefully over a wire fence, beyond a row of parked cars and along the road, rolling through some dog mess before coming to a stop in an overflowing gutter in east London. Welcome to the oddball world of urban golfing.

There was a time when golf could seriously damage your image. The game seemed more ridiculous than most - Mark Twain called it "a good walk spoiled" - but the fact of playing it seemed like an admission of defeat. Golf was for old and retired folk, the clubhouse conservatives who downed their single-malt doubles at the 19th hole and refined their rules barring the improperly dressed. Golf was the game of squares and corporate deal-makers. It was Bruce Forsyth and Jimmy Tarbuck in their pastel slacks and argyle sweaters. Golf could not have been less cool. It needed an image overhaul, a punk injection.

And this is it. Never mind that The Beastie Boys, Iggy Pop and Alice Cooper have come out as keen golfers, or that Tiger Woods has given the game some youthful style, or that recent years have seen the launch of modish golf magazines such as Bogey and Putt. And your everyday golf may indeed be the world's fastest-growing recreational sport, with 10 million people taking it up in the past 15 years in the United States alone. No: the real new breed of golfer - people such as Jeremy Feakes - is the urban golfer playing a game known as cross-golf (after "cross-country" golf).

The game is simple. It's golf as normal, but without the middle-class snobbery, stuffiness and club rules - and, indeed, without the club course. Forget manicured greens and sandy bunkers - here, tarmac is your fairway and gutters, drains, vehicles and buildings your obstacles. You must allow for police officers, who may not take too kindly to your antics, and pedestrians who can't hear you yell "Fore!" above the traffic. You play off a piece of carpet. The hole is any selected target - an oil drum, a skip, a car wreck or a manhole. Depending on the topography, a variety of balls can be used, from biodegradable to foam or stuffed leather ones. Even the standard ball might be used, although many of these will never be seen again.

"The ball used at the top end of urban golf - the leather kind - is very forgiving in that it pretty much goes in a straight line," Feakes says. "But there is some skill involved, especially if a leather ball gets wet. It can be like trying to hit an immovable object. And you need to know the course. If there's a side street you can play down [to cut a corner off the normal route], such as the 250-yard par five down Tabernacle Street, that's to your advantage. There are many more obstacles than on a normal course, although there's much less grass."

Urban golf isn't entirely without rules. The UK's first tournament, the Shoreditch Urban Open - slogan: "Go Play In The Traffic" - takes place over 18 holes around this hip quarter of east London in May. Feakes, its organiser, doesn't want a free-for-all. Any hedge, fence or wall denoting private property is out of bounds. Striking an overhead wire entails replay without penalty. Your ball can be dropped a club's length away from any object that interferes with your swing. Rather more in the spirit of the game, the rule book's note on "water hazards" says that "spiking other players' light refreshment will be overlooked", and that all divots should be referred to the local council.

Each of the 64 players must have his own properly-bagged clubs, though the organisers will supply playing mats and special balls, which for safety's sake are made from leather and jersey cotton, and which travel half the distance of a normal ball. For those who like to do the rounds in style, the organisers will lease roadworthy Piaggio Ape golf carts. Entry is open to everyone, with all fees going to charity.

Entrants must get used to the urban golf experience. In an introductory lesson, Feakes had me topping the leather ball to send it scudding through puddles, and hitting it high to see it ricochet off a warehouse window and land behind a bollard a few yards away. I also learnt how to deal with driving from the kerb, and with the somewhat quizzical looks from passers-by. Tiger Woods doesn't have these problems.

Torsten Schilling, another urban golfer, is a former TV-set designer who found himself playing a lot of "hotel golf" in corridors to pass the time. "Cross-golf is neither legal nor illegal," he says. "Sometimes the police show up and we've had to run, which is a good reason for playing with just two clubs. Full golf bags are heavy. But where are the 'No Golf' signs?" he asks.

Schilling progressed from hotel golf to driving down quiet streets and off rooftops and barges, and playing at night using glow-in-the-dark balls. He now runs the urban golf fan club Natural Born Golfers (NBG) in Hamburg, organisingevents through industrial parks and building sites around Germany. A national tour starts in May. "As long as we don't break things or hit people, of course - which we never have - there's nothing the authorities can do," Schilling says. "They just think it's a bit crazy."

Urban golf's sanity is certainly open to question. Given the covert and at times anarchic nature of the game, it is hard to gauge its popularity, although about 220 entries have been received for the Shoreditch event. NBG's Hamburg branch has about 50 members, and its website (www.naturalborngolfers.com) has 150,000 registered visitors who speak enthusiastically of their home teams and Sunday morning rounds - the quieter streets of the day of rest are ideal for the game. Urban golf is now regularly played in Switzerland and Austria (where the Hotel Toni in Galtur has urban golf as a guest activity), and it's making inroads in Asia. Next month NBG is holding 50-player tournaments in Budapest and Shanghai, with another planned for London. The group is also launching the first urban golf magazine.

Greg Stogdon, the editor of Putt magazine, likens urban golf to the American development of "speed golf" - jogging between tees. "There's an acknowledgement that golf is changing. Young people are even starting to admit that they play, and urban golf is part of that change," he says. "It's not really golf, because nothing beats a walk across a beautiful golf course, perfecting your swing. But it is great to watch, even if I suspect that there's more beer than skill involved."

Schilling adds: "Traditional golf is still very snobby and expensive, and learning to play can be intimidating. We're not anti-golf. It's just that our way is more fun. We wear what we want. We don't even count the strokes. The people who play - and in recent years numbers have boomed - are open-minded. That keeps it fresh, and may even help all golf to become more relaxed."

Schilling and Feakes might even be considered part of a new rebel alliance working to liberate golf from its stuffiness, to take it through the same process that dragged tennis out of its uptight, monied ghetto in the 1970s. The Shoreditch dress code, for instance, is more a mockery of the old-fashioned exclusivity of real golf; the players must wear tucked-in tailored shirts and smart trousers (no denim), but also sunglasses, trucker caps and trainers customised to look like golf shoes.

Recent years have also seen the launch of niche companies providing more fashion-friendly golf clothing. There are new brands such as Subpar, Sweetspot, Backspin and Tattoo ("aggressive golf apparel to beat the horror of golf attire"). There's also Refugees, a Milton Keynes-based company (www.golf-refugees.com), which makes golf clothes with more urban appeal, although players may still have to change into the kit behind the bushes on the second hole. Think combat-style trousers with pockets designed to hold tees and that mid-round can of lager, and polo shirts bearing what seems to be a clubhouse crest (the heraldic fist has its middle finger defiantly aloft). Refugees also makes disposable golf bags and black balls for the fashion-conscious, and is even developing a radical new club.

"Golf is slowly changing," says Refugees' designer and occasional urban golfer, Peter Gorse. "Its rules are in a mess, so that there's equipment which is 'unauthorised' in Europe but not in the US; club members have to wear collars while more professionals are wearing T-shirts; some courses still don't allow women members... The attitude of many clubs makes it difficult for people to get into the game. They put a lot of people off. But there are a lot of pressures, such as urban golf, now chipping away at golf's traditional foundations. What we do is fun for a sport that takes itself very seriously."

Indeed, while urban golf may be a new phenomenon in the UK, perhaps its foothold on the pavement fairways is already secured abroad. Such has been the success of the Natural Born Golfers tours that the underground has gone overground. NBG already has close commercial ties with the corporate-giant likes of IBM and American Express - exactly the kind of organisations that do deals on the green and necessitate a working knowledge of traditional golf to climb the career ladder.

Last year Microsoft and Volkswagen hired NBG to organise urban golf events for their customers. The VW tournament was played around a Berlin course that teed off from the roof of the Hotel Intercontinental, crossed the river, went into the Reichstag and, as is the tradition in urban golf, played its last hole into a bar. NBG is even in talks with sponsors to create a world tournament.

"I stopped playing proper golf because of the attitude I faced," Jeremy Feakes says. "This way, golf is all about playfulness again. It's taking what is considered a genteel sport and putting it in a different context. Even the local council is keen, though I'm not so sure about their seeing it as a great way to get young children into sport. Possibly the last thing you want is kids running around the city with golf clubs. It could get destructive. But serious golf types have said that you just can't play golf in the streets. I say, 'Of course you can.' Why not?"

The Shoreditch Urban Open takes place on 30 May (www.unit20.com/golf.html)