Golf's broad fairway of political belief

Our combinations of polo shirts and smart trousers were sullied by kipper ties
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The Independent Online
I WAS devastated to read, in Friday's Independent, that newly released MI5 files reveal PG Wodehouse to be a man of extreme right-wing beliefs. PG enthusiasts have always ascribed his infamous wartime broadcasts to his naivety and ego, but now it appears that he truly considered Hitler to be a jolly good egg. Which leaves me absolutely gutted, as I say, because the book I would take to my desert island, without any hesitation whatever, is his Golf Omnibus. I could take or leave those lesser tomes The Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare. But PG Wodehouse's Golf Omnibus, which I have been reading and re-reading since I was a 13-year-old fighting a disastrous slice, would brighten up my lonely sojourn considerably.

It was first published in 1973, a couple of years before he died, and he dedicated it "To the immortal memory of John Henry and Pat Rogie who at Edinburgh in the year 1593 AD were imprisoned for `playing of the gowff on the links of Leith every Sabbath the time of the sermonses,' also of Robert Robertson who got it in the neck in 1604 AD for the same reason."

In the preface, written when he was 91, Wodehouse regretted that he had spent so much time "fooling around writing stories and things" when he might have been striving to get his handicap down below 18. This realisation, he wrote, "is what has always made my writing so sombre, its whole aroma like that of muddy shoes in a Russian locker-room." He liked the notion of Russians playing golf, indeed the first and funniest of his golfing stories, The Clicking of Cuthbert, concerns a great Russian novelist, an 18-handicapper at Nijni-Novgorod, who is fed up with being lionised at English literary soirees and longs to meet "Arreevadon and Arbmishel" (six-times Open champion Harry Vardon and Abe Mitchell, the first artisan to play for England).

The Clicking of Cuthbert was written in 1916 - before the Russian Revolution, for heaven's sake - and Wodehouse was still writing captivatingly about golf 50 years later. If his stories were in any way uplifting, he added in the preface, it was due to the fact that "while I was writing them I won my first and only trophy, a striped umbrella, in a hotel tournament at Aiken, South Carolina, where, hitting them squarely on the meat for once, I went through a field of some of the fattest retired businessmen in America like a devouring flame."

Wonderful stuff. And I haven't even reached page one yet. So some of you will understand why I find it upsetting that the mind capable of creating such sparkling prose was also generously disposed towards Nazism. Others, however, might wonder why I am getting my knickers in a twist. For a love of golf and right-wing convictions are not exactly mutually exclusive.

Take another Anglo-American nonagenarian, the distinguished broadcaster Alistair Cooke. In the 1950s he was a committed Democrat, a devotee of Adlai Stevenson, yet he has drifted further and further to the political right. The journalist Anthony Howard is convinced that this dates from the time Cooke took up golf, and began spending four hours a day with rich Republicans. Meanwhile, at the other end of the intellectual scale, I know a golf club in Derbyshire where several members wrote to the secretary to protest about a cardboard cut-out of Tiger Woods in the pro's shop. They weren't kidding, either.

My own golf club, I am happy to say, is a bastion of enlightened liberalism, with members of all colours and creeds. So much so that a celebrated leftie, Paul Foot, plays there too, treacherously disregarding the famous Marxist principle that one wouldn't want to join a club that would have one as a member. But enlightened golf clubs, I fear, are still a rare and exotic species.

Aldeburgh Golf Club in Suffolk is fairly typical of the majority. In August I played there with some friends. We arrived in time for a beer and a sandwich before our round. It was a hot day. Yet we were told in no uncertain terms that we would not be welcome in the clubhouse unless we were wearing jackets and ties, which the club would be able to provide if necessary. We finally sat down to our sarnies with the secretary's approval, yet looking like clowns on a day trip to the seaside, our tasteful combinations of polo shirts and smart trousers sullied by ill-fitting checked jackets and kipper ties.

This stuffy conservatism does golf no favours. Besides, there is no golfing tradition more venerable than upsetting the establishment, as the 400- year-old ghosts of John Henry and Pat Rogie, who knocked it around on the Sabbath at the time of the sermonses, would doubtless confirm.