Arthur Conan Doyle was keen on many things, but his keenness on sport is not as well remembered as much as his other keennesses. I believe he played cricket very well, though I don't think it figures in his stories much. The Holmes story called "The Missing Three Quarter" shows knowledge of rugby. Some of his boxing stories are wonderful, especially "The Croxley Master" and "The Bullio of Brocas Court". But the oddest outcrop of sporting knowledge comes in his letters, or at least the letter I once read by him in which he talks about going to stay with Rudyard Kipling.
Kipling lived in the depths of Vermont for one foreign period of his life, and while Conan Doyle was visiting him about a hundred years ago, they went out to play golf. People in the area had never seen anyone play golf before, according to Conan Doyle, and stood somewhat open-mouthed as he and Rudyard swung their clubs and hit the little white ball enormous distances.
This seemed extraordinary to me when I read it. Even if you accept that rural Americans a hundred years ago had never heard of golf, it doesn't make sense. If nobody played golf in Vermont (which is unlikely) where did the two Britons get their clubs and balls from? Even if Conan Doyle had brought clubs and balls on his tour, where did they get a golf course from? You really can't play golf without a golf course, unless you play a sort of cross-country golf, and I had never heard of anyone doing that.
Not then I hadn't.
Well, I have now.
Because I have been doing it myself for the past year.
It all came about when I discovered my father's golf clubs in my cellar. Dad was very keen on golf, and made me have golf lessons when I was about 12 or 13 so that he would have a ready-made opponent later on. I acquired quite a good swing and played a lot of golf with him, even on holiday, until, when I left home and moved to London, I was quite a passable player.
Notting Hill was a fine place to live, but there were no golf courses nearby, and I gave up playing golf.
Until much later I moved to the country and then inherited my late father's golf clubs, which brings us to the present day, except that you also have to know that we have recently acquired a springer spaniel of enormous energy, who needs two walks a day. My wife takes him on one, I take him on the other. Part of our normal walk takes us along a rough grass field about a mile long which, I thought one day, has the configuration of a golf course, so I delved into my father's golf clubs, sorted out a seven iron and some balls, and hit them down the meadow.
Two things have happened since then. One is that I have got my swing back. The other is that the dog has become adept at finding golf balls. This is quite necessary, because as Conan Doyle would have told you, when you are playing cross-country golf there is no fairway - it's all rough - and even a good shot can vanish utterly. I have regained the technique developed by all golfers of mentally marking where the ball has gone ( "three o'clock from the big tree...", "just short of the darker grass...", "right in the middle of the nettles..." and so on) so I can approximately locate it, and his nose does the rest. And his teeth too. Once he has found the ball he likes nothing better than to wait for me idly nibbling this strange white object. It doesn't do much for the aerodynamics of a ball, I'm afraid, but it does provide me with the makings of a good excuse if I ever get back to playing golf with people, probably new even in golf...
"Oh, bad luck - you sliced that into the rough..."
"No, it wasn't a slice actually. The ball was badly chewed on one side and it just flew that way..."
I have also discovered the secret of enjoying golf: the worse players have the better time, because they get more shots. Golf must be the only game where the better you are, the less you play. And, finally, I am resting easy in the knowledge that if ever a biographer gets to work on Conan Doyle not from the point of view of Sherlock Holmes, or crime, or even spiritualism, but sports and manly activities, I will be the ideal consultant. Cross-country golfing - that's the sport he played, and I may be the only living practitioner.