PsychoGeography #46: Tee is for tantrum

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The Independent Online

My godfather was a sociologist with a filthy temper.

My godfather was a sociologist with a filthy temper. My parents said that he had manic-depression, words which - being devout Freudians - were whispered by them with the hushed awe they reserved only for the more severe mental pathologies. Whereas "neurotic" was a pejorative term and "anxiety" one of mild endearment, "schizophrenia", "psychosis" and "manic-depression" were their Tetragrammaton.

Whatever it was that ailed my godfather, the sight of me building a sandcastle in a bunker on the rather dreary Hendon golf course, on a distinctly dreary day, sent him into a complete frenzy. He came at me whirling his club round his head so fast that the steel shaft created a blur like that of a helicopter's rotor. "You little fucker!" he bellowed as he bore down, intent on braining me. For full seconds I was petrified. Yes, yes, I knew about the sanctity of sand traps - hadn't I been more or less raised on a golf course - but death seemed a harsh penalty. Then I scrambled to my feet and ran.

I knew better than to mention this incident to my father, as it would only be excused by godfatherly bipolarity (what did he do on his up days? Build golf courses?). And besides, Dad would've wanted to know what I was doing in the bunker, when I was supposed to be caddying for him. The truth was that I was subverting the golf course. By building the sandcastle I was deconstructing this peculiar landscape of fairway and rough. I was laying waste to the grassy ziggurats of the tees, and ploughing up the kidney-shaped greens, their turf as smooth as synthetic fur. Because, aged 11, I loathed golf with a fierce and revolutionary fervour, while my most severe contempt was reserved for the courses themselves.

Golf courses, how vile they are. They resemble distant planets, inadequately terra-formed by ignorant but powerful alien beings. I once lived in the countryside outside Oxford, and a Japanese consortium were building a golf course nearby. When the landscaping had been completed - but the turf was yet to be laid - the artificial mounds, hillocks, humps and dips resembled nothing so much as a scale model of Arcadia moulded out of shit.

Worse still, this foetal golf course was impassable. The public right of way across it had, naturally, been devastated; and even if I did manage to find its course, my boots succumbed to an elephantiasis of muddy encrustation by the time I'd ventured a few yards. In my travels as a solitary walker I've been lost on golf courses more times than I care to relate. Just recently, on the edge of the Ashdown Forest, I found that I had walked in an entire circle, three miles in circumference, while trying to escape the hideous trompe l'oeil of silver birch copses and artificial streams. Sometimes I think that, given that there are so many golf courses already in Britain and agriculture is so unprofitable (you never heard of a subsidised golf course), we might as well give up and set aside the entire land mass to this asinine pursuit.

I say asinine, but the truth is that my hatred has another side to it. Like Graham Greene with Communism, or Oscar Wilde with Catholicism, I have a hidden affection for all things golf. This was awakened a few years ago by my father-in-law, who took me out to his club at Shotts in Lanarkshire. Here, as we slogged our way through the boggy hollows created by collapsed mine workings, he revealed to me the true zen of golf. "Bad golfers play against each other," he explained, "but good golfers play against the course itself. Your score is the number of strokes you and you alone take to get round in; bettering this is the aim of the entire game."

So, was my hatred for golf a mistake, inculcated in me by my father's terrible competitiveness? As for my antipathy to the courses themselves, was this because I recognised them intuitively as my true opponents? The only way forward was - I realised with a kind of nauseous enlightenment - for me to actually play the game. Why not? I had Dad's old clubs propped up in the corner of my study and, shorn of my carefully cultivated prejudices, surely golf was the sport most suited to me, with its ambulatory pace, elegant parabolas and tweedy kit?

And yet ... and yet ... every time I actually contemplated the reality of striding out onto the first tee, the same nightmare vision impinged. I saw the whirling club, its rotor blur, I heard the savage expletives; but this time it was I who was the tormented aggressor.