Top idea in Pratts Bottom

Peter Corrigan hears a legend air his thoughts on a game for the masses
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The Independent Online
Whatever golfing dramas the Open provides this week, the tournament will inevitably infect a countless number with a sudden urge to play the game. They may not realise, however, that there are more ways to satisfy a lust for golf than to submit it to the mercy of a classically sculptured course of 7,000 yards' length, hemmed in by wicked rough and strewn with merciless hazards.

The sado-manicurists may have the top end of the game in a stranglehold but golf abounds with a variety of opportunities to sample its delights and one of the more rare has recently been created by Peter Dobereiner at the bottom of his garden - nine holes cleverly and mischieviously routed through less than an acre of sloping land reclaimed from the nearest thing to a jungle to be found in Kent.

Dobereiner's standing in the game is such that when he held an inaugural tournament on his handiwork recently the titled heads of the European Tour flocked to his home in Pratts Bottom, a name that delights him as much as his home. Neither the title of the Pratts Bottom Inaugural nor the explicit insignia deterred the tour's executive director, Ken Schofield, from performing the opening ceremony in front of an invited entry that included three former Ryder Cup players, John Jacobs, Michael King and John O'Leary.

None of them found it easy. From the longest hole, 54 yards, to the shortest, a teasing 21-yarder, the course is riddled with problems to which the most accomplished golfers would not be accustomed and even Dobereiner is astonished and delighted at how much of a challenge and a leveller it is.

Far from being a whim, his mission was based on a desire to prove that the game can flourish in the most unlikely places and real golf can be played on the shortest of courses. Throughout his career, he has been given to advancing the cause in directions most others would ignore and at Royal Lytham this week he would have been found expounding his evangelical views but he is confined to his bed by illness.

Even recumbent, he finds no rest from his golfing obsessions. Visitors can't fail to notice that his bed clothes seem untidily arranged. Then, with the walking stick he keeps beside him, he gives the surrounding blankets and pillows a whack and then a few deft prods while explaining that he is reconstructing two holes at Turnberry that would greatly improve that course.

The legendary Bernard Darwin engaged himself in similar therapy many years ago and wrote an essay about it called "The Links of Eiderdown". Dobereiner's reflections on the thesis provide the basis of his latest column in the leading American magazine, Golf Digest, in which he is a long established favourite and will also feature in his monthly offering in Britain's Golf World. These are the last links with a journalistic career during which he served over 25 years as the golf correspondent of the Observer and the Guardian before shocking his colleagues seven years ago by announcing his retirement from newspapers to concentrate on designing golf courses.

Still regarded as the doyen of world golf writing - his latest book, Well, I'll be Deemed, a hilarious but informative skit on the rules of golf is due out this autumn - he has added to his reputation as sage, philosopher, purveyor of discreet tips to the stars, and a leading authority on all golfing matters by proving that when it comes to expressing oneself about golf, the sward can be mightier than the pen. He has received the Donald Ross Award from the American Society of Golf Architects but, perhaps, his biggest triumph was to build the Alto course near Alvor in the Algarve area of Portugal.

Dobereiner was dining with Sir Henry Cotton at Penina when the great man outlined a course on the back of a table napkin. After Cotton's death, Dobereiner brought that scribble to life over 100 acres of Portuguese scrubland; supervising every aspect and personally raking the greens into the difficult slopes he felt his friend would have approved. He took no fee for what he regarded as an act of homage.

It has long been Dobereiner's contention that England's need is for simple starter courses where people can play for under pounds 10 a round. "Golf hasn't been taken to the masses in England as it has in Scotland and Ireland," he says. "Too many courses have been aimed at the top of the market but now that the get- rich-quick boys have had their fingers burned, a little common sense might creep in."

For a man who can't see any vista without judging its potential as a golf course, it was a while before he put a serious eye on his own backyard. The three-quarters of an acre plot he'd bought for pounds 800 several years earlier was so thick with trees not even the sun could penetrate it. So, three years ago, he launched an assault with a small hand-saw. There were between 400 and 500 trees and he cut a few a day until he had 400-500 waist-high stumps.

Friends with power-saws and root-grinders arrived to help clear the area while he sited the greens and tees for which 800 tons of sand were imported. Rotivators and tractors were borrowed and advice sought from, among others, Willie Parker of the Pitch and Putt Union of Ireland - a thriving organisation of which there is no equivalent in England although Dobereiner might well start one with an advisory service for those with a small lump of land they don't know what to do with.

When ill-health forced him to slow down, he took to the supervisor's chair and bottle and reminded his family that the age of slave labour has not yet past. His wife, Betty, and daughter Ruth took the brunt and Betty marked the effort with some lines on behalf of their four children and eight grandchildren part of which reads:

Three years, in jungle dense

Defying all, he hewed and hacked

To us, it made no sense

But then his vision we all lacked . . . and when at last

His strength had gone

He'd down the red and urge us on.

If golf ever does reach the masses it will be only if we can find more who can practise what they preach.