We mounted the first tee and squinted out over the countryside. Over the hills we had low, purple clouds driving down at us from the north. A nasty wind was ripping the top off the Oxfordshire cornfields, squalling at 30 knots. Stinging rain was hitting us at an angle of 40 degrees. "Look at that!" my companion said, surveying the desolate fairways, "We've got the course to ourselves!" We did have that, we were alone out there. "We're like millionaires!"
There is something in the sport of golf that brings out the best in men. It's probably the humiliation. This is constant and permanent. Unlike tennis players or footballers, we never get above ourselves. We don't exult in victory because we know disaster is always at our shoulder.
The God of Golf may not be cruel – that question is beyond my theological station – but he does clearly demand constant sacrifice. We know that the greatest shot, the finest hole, the most perfect nine holes – these things have a mayfly life. The next shot, hole or nine will produce a six-inch divot, an eight, a card that you won't put in because it makes you look ridiculous.
We don't so much play each other, you see, we play the course. But the course wins. It's the only game where we all lose. When we play well, we only beat our previous best. Then our handicap goes up and we lose the next time.
So we go round like fellow prisoners. The course is the enemy, and we stick together. Good shot from there. There was nothing else you could do. Great score for three off the tee.
In what other sport are competitors so co-operative?
Stand here on the eighth and look down the welcoming fairway; the stone markers sit out there beyond the bunkers at the brow of the hill. If you can get over onto the downslope you can roll down to within a gap wedge of the green so you really are obliged to give it a wallop. You open your shoulders and swing. You feel the pleasure going up the club, through your wrists, along your arms and into your heart.
The ball soars into the sky taking an important part of yourself with it. "You really got through that!" your companion says, but just as the ball starts turning right (it's always right).
It's inexorable. It's unbearable. Halfway through its flight, your ball is going directly east and disappears from sight. It lands somewhere down on the fairway coming back the other way, behind a stand of trees, out of sight of your green. It might never be seen again. Your partner exclaims: "It's not a bad way in from there."
And you're grateful! It takes the edge of that instant slump you feel because you've sworn before you'd never do that again on this hole. And after the long walk of shame, your ball's there, in plain view.
Someone coming towards you says, "Well, you made the fairway!" You are restored. You can play again.
You take an eight iron and again the ball soars up but this time it's been pulled. It's gone left. It reaches the height of its flight and plunges straight down into a bunker where it buries itself.
"It was the right club," your companion says. "That's actually pin high."
I found myself saying it watching a long putt come to a halt four feet from the side of the hole. "That would have gone in if you'd hit it straight." More experienced players say, "Beautiful weight." Or if it goes past the hole, "The line was right."
You duff your tee shot on a par three. It gets half way down the fairway. "A chip and a putt," they say. And if by any chance you manage it, they say, "Good up and down, that," and with such fellow feeling they might be providing for themselves when the time comes.
And then, after the most wretched day, you say, "Well it's been a lovely day for it."
Or if the weather has been "links" weather, you can say, "Well, I've still got the ball I started out with." There's always something. And when there isn't, there's the bar. We can't give up. We all need the moral exercise.