The Joy of Golf

There'll be no headbutts, no drugs scandals, no dodgy back-room deals. But then the Ryder Cup is not like other sporting showcases. This, after all, is golf. So how is it that a pursuit so pure, traditional and apparently sedate is such a turn-on? Brian Viner gets to grips with the irresistible attraction of swinging
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Anxiety; buttocks; discipline; birdsong in the morning; equipment; foursomes; posture; response to partner's needs; sixty-nine; swinging: these are all entries in the index of Dr Alex Comfort's classic 1972 text The Joy of Sex.

But had Dr Comfort written a companion volume called The Joy of Golf, the index would have looked remarkably similar. The anxiety before driving off the first tee in front of a gaggle of spectators; the lovely birdsong around a dew-covered first green; the need to stick out the buttocks when addressing the ball; the discipline required on a tight, tree-lined par-five; the importance of decent equipment; the pleasure of foursomes; the significance of posture; the encouragement one should always give one's partner; the final-round 69 that Phil Mickelson scored to win this year's US Masters; and, of course, the mechanics of the swing. Clearly, golf is the new sex.

There are other, more direct associations between these two popular leisure activities. Some years ago I played a round near Mâcon in France on a course inspired by the body of the course architect's lover, and owned by a businessman called Patrick de la Chesnais, himself the former husband of the sexy Hollywood actress Stefanie Powers. The adjacent 15th and 17th fairways were conspicuously shaped like a woman's legs, with the greens as gently-rounded buttocks, guarded - I'm not kidding - by a vaguely triangular water hazard full of wavy bullrushes.

"We have combined man's two great loves: le golf and la femme," M. de la Chesnais told me. "Understand one and you will understand the other. Like a woman, you must respect the course. You must woo her, you must show respect. No fast hands! She rewards straightness. If you are not straight with her you will end up with, how do you say it, some tricky lies."

The potential for analogies between golf and sex had never really occurred to me before I faced the challenge of, ahem, trying to par a woman's legs. But when I thought about it, I realised that not only does every course provide an awesome bit of rough, but that the very vocabulary of the game is full of references to the human body: fairways have necks, bunkers have shoulders, greens have fringes, holes have lips, clubs have faces, balls have dimples, and people who play in baggy plus-fours are, invariably, silly fat arses.

Moreover, Alex Comfort wrote The Joy of Sex as an antidote to the "misinformation" that he saw everywhere on the subject. Golf, too, is prey to misinformation. There are those for whom it is still, even in the age of Tiger Woods, synonymous with Pringle sweaters and Jimmy Tarbuck, not to mention casual sexism and racism. These people love to trumpet Mark Twain's old adage about golf being a good walk spoilt, and plenty of other clever men have been similarly disdainful. The dyspeptic American journalist HL Mencken once rudely said that if he had his way, "any man guilty of golf would be ineligible for any office of trust in the United States".

It is true that when you see footage of both George Bushes tootling round a golf course together you can see what Mencken was getting at, and it is also true that Richard Nixon was once seen picking up his ball from deep grass and throwing it back on to the fairway, when he thought nobody was looking. The writer Paul Gallico had a point when he said that "if there is any larceny in a man, golf will bring it out". As for the charge that golf represents a crime against fashion, it is a tough one to refute after watching the American and European Ryder Cup teams arriving in Dublin on Monday in their matching leisurewear.

But the Ryder Cup itself, which begins on Friday, is as good a stick as any with which to beat the golf-haters. The biennial contest founded in 1927 by a seed merchant from St Albans called Samuel Ryder has become, quite simply, the most engrossing event in the sporting calendar, not least because for three days it imbues the most individual of sports with a passionate team ethic.

This may be why Woods, by some distance the greatest golfer in the world and perhaps the greatest of all time, has, by his own heavenly standards, a distinctly mortal Ryder Cup record. Tiger grew up as an only child, raised by his late father to focus on his own game to the exclusion of practically everything else going on around him, and although those who know him say that he is a generous and sociable member of the US Ryder Cup team, he has never seemed comfortable with the notion of playing golf as part of a collective.

Two years ago, his discomfort was plain for all to see when he was paired, by the guileless American captain Hal Sutton, with the world No 2, Mickelson. It was an open secret that they couldn't stand each other, but for Sutton what mattered was the statement it made. "We've got the best two golfers on the planet and we're going to intimidate the bejesus out of you by sending them out together," was the message. In fact the ploy backfired horribly, and the look on Woods's face, when Mickelson hoiked one shot miles off-target, was a riot.

It is subplots such as this that make the Ryder Cup so fascinating. And the contest that begins on Friday morning at Ireland's exclusive K-Club promises to be more fascinating than most. There is even tragedy in the mix, with the popular Ulsterman Darren Clarke participating just a few weeks after the death of his wife, Heather, from breast cancer. Clarke is one of the European captain Ian Woosnam's two wild-card picks; the remaining 10 members of the team are determined by their earnings and world rankings. Naturally, Woosnam asked Clarke whether he felt up to playing, and Clarke, urged on by his two young sons, said he did. Yet the wives of players have in recent years had a notable supporting role at the Ryder Cup, and nobody knows how Heather's absence will affect Clarke, least of all the man himself. The only certainty is that the Irish crowd will cheer him to the skies.

Nobody - not even the bookmakers - has any clear idea which team will win. The Americans have the world's three best players on current form, in Woods, Mickelson and Jim Furyk, whereas the highest-ranked European player is eighth-ranked Sergio Garcia, of Spain. On the other hand, the Europeans have won four Ryder Cups out of the last five, and in the 43-year-old Scot Colin Montgomerie they have a man with more experience of the event than the two most experienced Americans combined.

Yet the man they call Monty, for all his talismanic qualities, is also the source of some reported friction within his team. He recently criticised the Spaniard José Maria Olazabal for choosing to take a week off to shoot quail instead of playing in a tournament which could have sealed his qualification for the team. Olazabal qualified anyway, and was said to be furious with Monty's comments.

More seriously, the Scot was himself criticised by several players, most volubly Clarke, when, at a tournament in the Far East last year, he replaced his ball, after play had been suddenly suspended following a storm, in a more advantageous spot than it had occupied before.

In a sporting universe tainted by cheating and corruption, golf remains one of the most honourable of sports, which is another of its joys and the reason why Monty ruffled so many feathers by appearing to break the rules.

Golf's status as a paradigm of sporting virtue is sometimes exaggerated, however. The veteran South African champion Gary Player likes nothing more than to pontificate on how the world's ills might be sorted if only leaders in conflict with each other would get together for the odd fourball, then play according to the rulebook off the course as well as on. It's a daft yet irresistible image: "Mr Bush, it's you and Mr Benedict XVI against Mr Ahmadinejad and Mr Abbas."

PG Wodehouse was certainly on to something when he wrote in his wonderful 1922 short story "The Clicking of Cuthbert" that "the man who can go into a patch of rough alone, with the knowledge that only God is watching him, and play his ball where it lies, is the man who will serve you faithfully and well". At any rate, it was perhaps after reading "The Clicking of Cuthbert" that the great American amateur Bobby Jones, on being complimented for calling a penalty on himself after accidentally moving his ball when unobserved deep in the rough, replied: "You might as well praise a man for not robbing a bank." I often think of this humble sentence when footballers win lavish admiration for staying on their feet, instead of diving to secure a penalty.

Wodehouse also wrote that "golf, like the measles, should be caught young, for, if postponed to riper years, the results may be serious". The old boy would have approved of Tiger Woods, one of the reasons why more and more youngsters are taking up a game that was once airily dismissed as for fuddy-duddies only. They will soon appreciate the intoxicating fact that in any round of golf, even the complete duffer will hit at least 18 shots that could not be improved upon by Woods, Mickelson, Clarke, Montgomerie, or any of the 24 players competing in this weekend's Ryder Cup. A shot that goes into the hole, whether from one inch or 200 yards, is unimprovable.

Golf's other joy for the rank amateur is that it offers him or her the chance to play in exactly the same arena as the world's greatest players. Amateur tennis players cannot play on Centre Court at Wimbledon. Amateur footballers do not get to play at Old Trafford, and very few amateur cricketers are able to play at Lord's, but any old weekend golfer, albeit with £100 or so to spare, can play the Old Course at St Andrews.

Admittedly, it's a sight more expensive than it used to be. When I first played at St Andrews, as a wide-eyed 15-year-old in 1977, it set me back £7. But at least it's no longer guarded by the ferocious starter who in those days watched over the first tee like Cerberus. He had to announce each player over a loudspeaker and once tried to stop a Frenchman playing on the basis that he was called Fouquet, which in the starter's broad Fife accent rhymed disconcertingly with bucket. When the Frenchman offered to come back every day until he could play the hallowed links, the starter reluctantly gave him a time of 6.55 the following morning. "But just one thing, Mr Fuckit," he barked. "When ye come back tomorrow, ye'll answer to the name Patterson."

A decade or so after I played golf at St Andrews for the first time, and having subsequently been to university there and played hundreds more times, I went back with three friends and played the Old Course again. On the eighth, a 166-yard par 3, I had a hole-in-one. That is something not even Tiger Woods has managed, not there, where it all began, and I can unequivocally say, since I had yet to meet the woman who became my wife, that the feeling was better than sex.

All of which takes me back to La Salle, the course in France shaped like the architect's lover. I went round in an 81 that day, 10 over par and a long way adrift of the course record. I asked the pro what the record was and there was a kind of inevitability about his answer. "Soixante-neuf," he said. "In English, 69. It was nearly 68, but 'e three-putted on ze last 'ole."

The quotable golfer

"Columbus went around the world in 1492. That isn't a lot of strokes when you consider the course." Lee Trevino

"GOLF: The art of driving hard, avoiding the rough, surmounting traps and hazards, aiming straight and arriving on the green at last, only to end up in a hole in the ground before your companions. The favoured pastime of businessmen and their cronies, probably without a full appreciation of its metaphorical implications." Rick Bayan

"Golf is like chasing a quinine pill around a cow pasture." Winston Churchill

"Golf appeals to the idiot in us and the child. Just how childlike golf players become is proven by their frequent inability to count past five." John Updike

"Golf, like the measles, should be caught young, for, if postponed to riper years, the results may be serious." PG Wodehouse

"Golf is so popular simply because it is the best game in the world at which to be bad." AA Milne

"How straight it flew, how long it flew,
It clear'd the rutty track
And soaring, disappeared
from view
Beyond the bunker's back -
A glorious, sailing, bounding drive
That made me glad I was alive." John Betjeman, from 'Seaside Golf'

"Golf is like a love affair. If you don't take it seriously, it's no fun; if you do take it seriously, it breaks your heart." Arthur Daley

"Golf is like an 18-year-old girl with big boobs. You know it's wrong but you can't keep away from her." Val Doonican

"If profanity had an influence on the flight of the ball, the game of golf would be played far better than it is." Horace G Hutchinson

"Golf is a game where white men can dress up as black pimps and get away with it." Robin Williams

Dressed to the nine-irons: fashions on the fairways

By Ed Caesar

1. THE PLUS-FOUR

Before Payne Stewart's death in an air accident in 1999, the triple major winner was the world's most famous wearer of plus-fours. American plus-four golfers seemed to think the look was the apogee of old-school elegance. They were wrong. The crime lies not so much in the trousers as in the items one tends to wear with them: tam-o'-shanter hats, Argyle socks. Even the Sealed Knot might blush at this "ye olde" tweeness.

2. THE DIAMOND SWEATER

Championed by Nick Faldo in his 1980s heyday, the diamond sweater was all over the links for a decade. Consisting of criss-cross, patterned diamonds and bold, angular lines that emphasised the flesh around the wearer's middle, nothing said "petit bourgeois" quite like this fashion nightmare. The diamond sweater had a brief, ironic re-airing in the early Noughties.

3. THE PATTERNED STRIDE

In golf's style massacre, it's hard to single out individual miscreants. England's Ian Poulter deserves special mention, however. His trademark strides, patterned either on the Union Jack or Stars and Stripes, have had galleries cooing around the world. The look betrays all the compensatory wackiness one might expect from a man born in Hitchin.

4. THE VISOR

If Colin Montgomerie, 43, were anything other than a professional golfer, he would have been laughed out of Surrey for wearing, as he did at Wentworth's World Matchplay event last week, a hollowed-out peaked cap. But golf is a fashion vortex, and the visor is right at the swirling heart of that black hole, so Montgomerie's aberration was deemed acceptable. The visor is the ultimate confirmation of golf's triumph of function over style.

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