Ever since I was seven or eight I’ve played golf. There was a club near where we lived and going along there with school friends seemed a natural thing to do.
It wasn’t especially snobbish; my parents were not members. As juniors we had the run of the place, spending school holidays and summer evenings out on the course. I’ve stuck with the game ever since, not playing much at university, having the occasional round once I moved to London, then joining a club and trying to fit golf in while working during the week. Now, with two small children, I play only sporadically – it’s hard enough fitting in an hour’s tennis at the weekend, let alone five hours (because that’s how long it can take) for golf.
If all that sounds a tad defensive, that’s because it’s meant to be. Because if truth be known, while I adore the game, its complexities and subtleties, and being out in the open air, I can’t abide the stuffiness.
Partly, it’s the slowness. I’d like to rewrite the rules so that players can carry no more than five clubs in a small sack, they wear trainers not golf shoes, and they run round, incurring time penalties if they’re slow. That way, rounds would take two hours and golfers would be fit not fat.
Mostly, though, it’s those rules. Once, on a stifling day of the sort we’re having at present, I was walking up the first fairway. A buggy came hurtling towards me. The driver had crossed two adjoining fairways to tell me that my shirt was not tucked in. Another occasion and a friend was wearing black shoes, white socks and beige shorts. We were on the second tee when a man appeared waving wildly and pointing. My pal’s socks had to match either his shoes or his shorts – he had to return to the clubhouse and change.
No matter if he’d gone back and returned wearing the most garish, hideous diamond-patterned jumper imaginable. That would have been entirely acceptable. Madness, but pardon the pun, par for the course where golf is concerned. It’s also the sexism I can’t stand. With the Open under way at Muirfield, the game’s governing body, the R & A, is embroiled in its regular row about men-only clubs.
Muirfield is such a place, as are two other Open venues, Royal St George’s and Troon. The Royal & Ancient Golf Club itself, which hosts the Open when it’s at St Andrews, is also exclusively male.
Peter Dawson, the R&A chief executive, tried to defend this: “For some people, it’s a way of life they rather like. If, on a Saturday morning, a guy gets out of the marital bed and plays golf with his chums, that is not on any kind of par with racial discrimination, anti-Semitism or any of these things. It’s just what people do.”
Er, only the people who can play at that club, Peter. If the guy stays in bed and his wife wants to play with her chums, she can’t. As for its not being on a “par with racial discrimination, anti-Semitism or any of these things”, Peter, it is.
I met Dawson recently, with his wife. We were at Wimbledon, at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. There’s nowhere more bound up with tradition than the AELTC. Yet, for all its obsession with appearance and etiquette, it’s completely modern where gender is concerned. Women are members of equal status, women play for the same prize money as the men.
Golf just cannot bring itself to join the real world. What’s not said is that the single-sex clubs are only part of it. Underneath, golf is resolutely sexist.
I’d been a member of a club near London for a while until I noticed a line painted across the floor of the main bar. I inquired what it was for. “Women. They can’t cross it.”
There are lots of clubs I’ve been to where the male members have their own bar. Plenty where the men’s captain is referred to as the “Captain” and the ladies’ captain is called the “Ladies Captain.”
Most clubs have more male members than women. This means that the main committees, the ones that run the club, are dominated by men. On many courses, women have their own tee-off times which invariably are not as favourable as those for the men.
You get the picture. Alas, Dawson, who is an intelligent man and good company, refuses to do so. It was suggested to him that all-male clubs are similar to apartheid and whites-only. He said it was a “ridiculous” comparison. “There are sectors of society that are downtrodden and treated very badly indeed, and to compare this with a men’s golf club is frankly absurd. There is no comparison whatsoever.”
He’s right. There is no comparison between the treatment of the downtrodden and a men’s golf club. But best not to go there. For now, let’s just stick to equal treatment for women.
Alas, where golf is concerned, even that’s a step too far.
An education in the joy of graduation
At my son’s graduation in Manchester, families had been queuing since 7am, for a ceremony beginning at 10am. These were people who were enormously proud of their offspring, for whom having a graduate son or daughter meant a great deal. They came festooned with balloons and cards and gifts.
It was touching to see – and in sharp contrast to those who, while still proud of their child, did not display anything like the same excitement. Watching this scene brought home just how right it was for the number of university places to be increased and access to state pupils widened.
In my view, there are still too many universities teaching courses that should not be taught at university. There are too many students who should not be students.
But, for a while at least, on Tuesday morning, I was able to put such thoughts to one side.
My night spent breathing fire
I’ve always wondered what it’s like to be a Dragon on Dragons’ Den. On Wednesday I had my chance as, along with Richard Reed, co-founder of Innocent Drinks, and Jeff Turnas, regional president of Whole Foods Market, I determined which social enterprise scheme in Richmond, south-west London, was deserving of a £10,000 prize.
It wasn’t our money but the sponsors’. That probably meant we took it all the more seriously. Also, we were acutely aware that £10,000 meant an awful lot to the contestants. Local MP Zac Goldsmith, was our host for “Richmond’s Den”, organised by Richmond council. I realised how easy it is to pick holes in business plans and projections. I found myself sounding like Theo Paphitis, Duncan Bannatyne and Peter Jones as I sneeringly questioned a youth community centre on its attendance figures. They’d inserted a booking for a private event into their totals. A bit naughty, I said, because if that date was excluded they would have fallen short of their forecast.
Likewise, a “healthy cooking club” for new mothers also got a hard time. It declared itself to be aimed at “middle-class, degree-level educated, former high-earning full-time mothers on paid maternity leave”. Surely, I said, it’s the working-class mums without a good education who need advice on nutrition? Richard and Jeff agreed. Even the unanimous winner, BeSpoke BeHeard, a venture to train young people with special educational needs as cyclists and cycle mechanics, did not escape entirely. Richard, in particular, questioned their decision to diversify into other areas. In his experience at Innocent, he declared, focus was key.
“God, you were ruthless,” Zac said to me afterwards. On the way home, I pondered whether he was right and I’d been too tough.
What would Theo, Duncan or Peter have done? They wouldn’t have doubted themselves for a second. That’s why, I realised sadly, I can only ever be a journalist and not a Dragon, red in tooth and claw.