The dispenser of golf's gospel

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The Independent Online
If There is a golfing Valhalla in more hallowed surroundings than the one hosting the USPGA action in Louisville, Kentucky, this weekend, Peter Dobereiner is more than likely placing his redesign plans before the greens committee even now. It is hard to imagine that golf's most lively and creative mind is not at work somewhere.

Since his death 10 days ago, the number and stature of those who have testified to his contribution to the game over the past 30 or more years has reached a level unprecedented for one whose name is not among the winners of major championships.

He joins Bernard Darwin and Henry Longhurst in a great triumvirate of essayists whose triumphs lay in capturing the game's spirit in words and spreading appreciation of its finer points to a wider congregation. When Dobereiner became golf correspondent of the Observer in the early Sixties, he was brought into direct rivalry with Longhurst, whose legendary column was a mainstay of the sports pages of the Sunday.

"I didn't feel I could compete with Henry in golfing eloquence," he said. "So I set out to be better informed. I learned the rules and history of the game by heart. I studied the mechanics of the golf swing and talked to every course architect and greenkeeper I could find."

Thus, Dobereiner was able to bring more than rich words to the scene, and eventually there were few who would take him on in an argument over the game. One of his many books, Golf Rules Explained, was a masterpiece of simplifying the most complicated regulations. In the days before there was a personal coach behind every tree, professionals would ask him to look at their swings. He was able to put most of them straight. The trouble was, he complained, that in return they would give him tips that ruined his game.

He earned his spurs as a newspaperman before he became a golf correspondent. Born in New York in 1925, he was a Fleet Air Arm pilot in the latter years of the war and the reading of law at Oxford and tea-planting in India featured among his experiences before a Fleet Street career that embraced caption-writing for the Daily Express and becoming deputy features editor of the Daily Mail. He was also a scriptwriter for That Was The Week That Was.

He became golf correspondent of both the Observer and the Guardian, and when he suddenly retired after 25 years at the Observer in 1988 he stunned his colleagues by announcing that he was off to create golf courses. He did so with distinction, and his pride was the Alto course in Portugal's Algarve, which was based on a rough sketch made by his friend, the late Sir Henry Cotton, on a table napkin. His farming background provided a knowledge of irrigation and drainage that is more important to a course designer than an eye for a flashy contour. When rains flooded the Algarve last year, the Alto was the only course dry enough for play.

Readers of this newspaper had a flavour of the man from a feature a month ago on the nine-hole course Dobereiner built on a three-quarter acre plot at the bottom of his garden in Kent. It was his last project, proving that the wherewithal for a game of golf can be built almost anywhere. He was a resolute advocate of providing opportunities for as many as possible to play golf at a reasonable price.

Not that he didn't appreciate life at the other end of the scale. One of his prized possessions was honorary membership of his favourite course, Pine Valley in New Jersey, USA. Before illness confined him to his bed, from where he wrote the last of the syndicated columns for Golf World and America's Golf Digest that had made him the most widely read golf writer in the world, Dobereiner mustered enough strength to attend the US Open in June and to pay a final visit to Pine Valley.

He described how he drove up to be greeted by name by an attendant who parked his car, deposited his clubs with the caddie-master, took his luggage to his room and hung up his clothes. Dobereiner, meanwhile, walked through reception acknowledging the greetings of the staff as he made for the bar. As the seat of his trousers met the leather of his favourite armchair his drink, whisky and water, no ice, was placed before him. "They have the knack of making you feel the club is being run just for you," he said.

As for the course: "Horrendously difficult but I just change the pars to suit my game. The terrain is perfect; water, sand, heather, pine and bracken. It's the best I know, like a natural Augusta." Had he suggested any changes? "Wouldn't dream of it," he said. "But I did persuade them to put a wine cellar in."

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