Only 80 strokes off perfection

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THE FIRST wafts of spring see many a fair-weather sportsman emerge from hibernation, and the imminent televising of the US Masters will no doubt persuade us, once and for all, that summer is finally here. No matter that, in Britain, anyone foolish enough to wear shorts risks frostbite of the knees. It's that first glint of glorious Florida sunshine that does it. The stunning lushness of the Augusta course . . . the mellow, well-lunched look of all those old lags in green jackets . . . well, who can resist? Not me, certainly.

Nonetheless, there's no-one who seems to get more fired up at this time of year than the Very Bad Golfer Indeed. Although I myself am a dedicated non-golfer of many years' standing, one of my oldest and closest friends is a VBGI, and so it was with some trepidation - and a survival kit for emergencies - that I accompanied him last week on his first round of the year. It was an illuminating experience.

Very Bad Golf is, of course, an all- day game, starting early in the morning and ending when owls can be spotted and ghostly sounds emerge from the darkened woodland near the 15th. Normal golfers complete their 18 holes, have a quick drink and then wonder what to do for the rest of the day. Very Bad Golfers don't have this problem. Their aim is not to finish the round with the lowest possible score. It's just to finish the round. At all.

Such at least was the intention when my friend strode towards the first tee, oozing confidence and optimism. This, I think, is why I never made it as a VBGI. Whenever I stood at the tee, it was in expectation of total failure and humiliation. The whole universe went silent. Birds ceased to tweet. Passing jumbo jets appeared to stop in mid-air, waiting for me to cock it up. I'd swipe mightily, and the ball would dribble 30 feet, straight into a nearby bush.

The successful VBGI, by contrast, never allows notions of failure even to enter his mind. Despite innumerable reverses, he always assumes that things will work out fine in the end. After all, in 1983 he got a birdie three at the tricky seventh. He can do it again. As delusions go, it's a powerful one. Compared to VBGIs, even born-again Christians are wracked with doubt.

And so my chum swaggered to the first tee. His cruel sneer showed that he was not someone to be trifled with. Only the fact that he took out the wrong club for the shot, stood in totally the wrong position and missed the ball the first couple of times alerted anyone to the truth. After much fevered hacking in the rough, he finally went down in 14.

On to the second, which turned out to be one of my friend's more productive holes. A topped drive of startling ferocity dribbled along the ground for some miles ('It's called skill, Berkmann, you wouldn't know anything about it'), and by using his latest technique - aiming directly at the bunker - he actually managed to miss it.

At the fifth, we let through a couple of players who were beginning to murmur about sawn-off shotguns, and despite a 15 at the tricky seventh, things were going relatively smoothly until we reached the water hole. I shan't go into details. Let's just say that scuba equipment would not have been entirely out of place.

In the end, he did manage to break 150, although, in the circumstances, 149 could not be considered an unequivocal triumph. Still, as Peter Alliss would say, it was a great day for golf. The Very Bad Golf season starts here.