Donald Steel’s autobiography

 

Review of Donald Steel’s autobiography. The thin end of the wedge – a life in golf

 

How does one review the autobiography of a friend who has been one of the ‘Good Eggs’ of golf since before one can remember?

Donald Steel connects the era of the great golf writing personalities of Bernard Darwin (the doyen of all such writers, of course), Leonard Crawley (Donald’s hero, along with Dennis Compton) and Henry Longhurst (whom he calls ‘a rebel with dignity’) to the present day.

Donald Steel

He came on to the scene as golf boomed and the early television coverage with Peter Alliss et al took over as the foremost communication medium for delivering golf entertainment.

He never seems to have quite fitted into this more ‘in-your-face’ medium, while in his own modest style he quietly conquered one part of the golf market after another, all during a period when The Open Championship winner’s cheque advanced from £1,000 to £1,000,000

As with many English amateur golfers, his first love was cricket, playing at Lord’s and for minor county Buckinghamshire.

He became a champion golfer, qualifying for The Open Championship and was a contemporary of (though not quite with the outstanding success that will never be matched) of Sir Michael Bonallack, who has written the foreword to the autobiography where he says “Donald is not only an exceptional writer, he is also a highly regarded golf course architect, a fine player and a highly entertaining and articulate after dinner speaker. His prowess in all these areas owes much to his powers of observation, his ability to learn and, above all, his respect for others and his absolute honesty and integrity”. And so say all of us!

Donald admits to being lucky many times in his life, though we all know a good man makes his own luck.

donald steel, brian morgan

Classic Golf Links by Donald Steel

He happened to be around the right people in 1961 as the Sunday Telegraph was launched and became its first golf correspondent despite having no writing experience but if anybody who knows his 1992 book on the 75 finest GB&I running links courses (in my opinion the best course review book ever written and with wonderful photography by Brian Morgan) will be aware of the beauty of his writing.

Perhaps in my early ‘left-wing’ days around the ‘flower-power’ era, I may have missed many of his Telegraph articles but anybody who chooses the fourth hole (‘Achinchanter’) at Royal Dornoch to be in his 18 best holes must know a thing or two.

Donald had the sense to jump at the opportunity to become involved with Ken Cotton in Britain’s leading course architect practice (with Charles Lawrie and Frank Pennink) and went on to leave his indelible mark on more than 500 courses around the world. Victoria in Sri Lanka is one of my favourites and one suspects Primland, high in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia, cool enough for bent grass fairways and greens, is one of Donald’s own.

He was I suppose less lucky in reaching the top of his design prowess at the time when the fashion for bulldozer-ed target golf courses was all the rage, often built on lush, badly draining ground, near conurbations and no doubt his clients expected the monotonous moundings that typify some of his designs.

But at least Donald understood the difference between ‘running’ and ‘target’ courses and though The Bracken at Woodhall Spa will always be looked down on by lovers of the adjacent Hotchkin, it is still a feather in his cap to be able to design a parkland course on clay with the quality of firm bent/fescue greens.

John Sheridan cememorating 50 years of service at Denham

The two most influential people in his golf life were firstly John Sheridan, the pro at Denham from 1946 to 1998 (son of Jimmy, caddie master at Sunningdale for 57 years) and secondly Leonard Crawley.

He attended Fettes school in Edinburgh (though at an earlier date than the politician with the velvet tongue) which gave him the opportunity to play running links golf on courses such as Luffness New. Luffness was one of Jim Arthur’s favourite links and indeed favourite clubs, which he did not consider to be always the same thing. One of Scotland’s very finest greenkeepers, the famous James King, was at Luffness New and maintained the stern view that “you can please yourself, Gentlemen, but there will be no Green Committee on my course!” As they say, if you can’t walk-off Luffness New’s eighteen greens without an improved putting technique you might as well give up the game! (Another under-the-radar course with similar quality greens is Littlestone).

Christ’s College, Cambridge, reading agriculture came next, offering the enormous fortune to play Royal Worlington & Newmarket regularly and being involved with the ever enquiring Ted Dexter.

Donald talks about writers Herbert Warren Wind (who named Amen Corner at Augusta), Peter Ryde who wrote “trying to find the origin of golf is as pointless as trying to discover who invented bread. Moreover, there is a danger that in making such research we might overlook the delights of both of them”, Peter Dobereiner, Pat Ward Thomas ‘the elegant essayist’, Norman Mair and many more. Not surprisingly after being ‘The Association of Golf Writers’ treasurer for many years, Donald became its President 1993-98.

Ken Cotton

Ken Cotton

Donald has page after page of anecdotes about golf’s characters, including how Roberto de Vicenzo lost The Masters due to score-card error. Donald remarks “The Rules of golf are principally aimed at legislating against cheating, intentional rather than through ignorance” but he ducks commenting on whether the latest 2019 rule changes, designed to simplify and make the game more attractive to newcomers, while both speeding up pace of play and putting more reliance on the integrity of the individual, will be successful.

There can be nobody fairer and better placed than Donald to pick out honorees for a golf administrators’ Hall of Fame, nominating such as Gerald Micklem, Sandy Tatum, Raymond Oppenheimer etc and Liz Boatman of Curtis Cup fame, of whom I had the honour of meeting recently at her home club of Royal Worlington over the most scrumptious lunch of home-cooked ham and Alison Mathieson’s bread and butter pudding that can only be described as to die for.

It was pleasing to see J. J. Warr heralded among the most generous, great after-dinner speakers. My daughter was lucky to have JJ’s support for her MCC membership candidature.

Countless nuggets of sensible comment are scattered across the pages of fifteen chapters. Chief among them I choose:

“I must have listened attentively to 50 after dinner speeches where rallying cries on slow play have been launched by eminent people and their sentiments received warmly. And, for what? The game is grinding to a halt – slow play is its greatest enemy”.

donald steel,

Replying for the guests, PGA dinner 1971

Donald developed a rich technique for after-dinner speeches: “One thing you learn is that larger audiences are easier than small ones”.

Bill Deedes cautioned “long windedness is as prevalent in the written word as it is in the spoken. Whereas the Lord’s Prayer is confined to 97 words, the Ten Commandments to 297 and the American Declaration of Independence to 310, the European Commission’s directive for exporting duck eggs runs to 28,911”.

In speaking of Francis Ouimet’s famous 1913 US Open victory over the pride of Britain, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, there is so much anti-Americanism around these days that it is useful to remember the sentiment in Donald’s quote from Herb Wind:

‘Had a pleasant young man from a good Fifth Avenue family, or some stiff and staid professional, defeated Vardon and Ray, it is really very doubtful if his victory would have been the wholesale therapeutic for American golf that was Ouimet’s. Here was a person all of America, not just golfing America, could understand – the boy from the ‘wrong side’ of the street, the ex-caddie, the kid who worked during the summer vacations from high school – America’s idea of the American hero.’

Donald also says: “The reason for more top players leaving their driver under wraps is because they can manage just as well without it. Former generations had to drive to survive. Driving is no longer, it seems, a passport to success. Whichever way you look at it, that is sad. Not so long ago, a number of professionals carried three or four woods and one wedge. Now it is more like four wedges and one wood.” He continues:

“Every new development in the manufacture of clubs and balls has made the game easier but, for a century or more, there has been scope and space for courses to adjust. Now, the train has hit the buffers. Some classic courses have lost championship status.  Is that necessary, fair or desirable?”

A prescient 1911 cartoon, often distributed by Donald

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Several other of Donald’s observations are worth noting:

“Architectural teaching has always been based on the principle that strategic architecture is more worthy than the Penal school of thought.”

“The strategic belief is providing alternatives, highlighting positional play, recognising the ability to flight the ball, encouraging guile and ingenuity, and rewarding risk. The punishment must fit the crime. Good architects tempt and tease not torment. Subtlety and sympathy are the substance of strategy.”

“The Penal style builds barriers, decrees there is only one way to attempt any shot inflicting penalties out of all proportion to the degree of error. One other consideration is that, on soft, watered fairways, problems end when the ball bounces. On firm and fast fairways, problems begin when the ball bounces.”

“It is time for all tournament organisers to wield the big stick. Slow play is a discourtesy, a breach of etiquette but it won’t be achieved without a purge on the transgressors. The future may depend on it.”

“It was only when I convinced myself I could stand up to most that greater success came, progress being as much mental as technical.”

These next words neatly sum up Donald well when he writes against himself; in the second round of The Open Championship at St Andrews in 1970. He drove at the sixteenth on to the third fairway to avoid the danger of The Principal’s Nose and the out-of-bounds railway, to where Arnold Palmer was playing in the opposite direction and politely enquired what he was doing. “Tarnishing the image of The Open you came to save” was his spur of the moment reply. “Wonderful, wonderful” exclaimed Arnold with a beaming smile.

The following view of Donald’s will be unsurprising; “How dull and misguided the world of golf can be in failing to embrace more tournaments structured around matchplay and foursomes.”

Charles Lawrie was his Fettes partner in the Halford Hewitt tournament, they being victorious in 35 of 37 matches, while Charles was the most successful Halford Hewitt player ever. He won 57 of 64 matches; an 89% success rate.

Donald says that it is claimed the longest putt ever holed took place on the deck of Concorde. It was calculated that, in the length of time the putt took to travel down the aisle into a makeshift hole, the plane had travelled fifteen miles.

Mention is made of Cameron Sinclair and of the initiative of Tom Mackenzie and Martin Ebert who joined Donald in his business. These later two, after the best apprenticeship they could ever have wished for, have gone on to become highly respected practitioners of the ‘running-game’ design and followed in Donald’s footprints, in being engaged by many of The Open Championship venues.

Donald has repaid golf many times for the wonderful life it gave him, becoming President of the English Golf Union, Chairman of the Greenkeepers Training Committee and in rather smaller regard, in FineGolf’s first year joining our Advisory Panel, supplying always good advice. His speech at the inaugural FineGolf ‘Running-Golf Day’ was captured on YouTube.

In my researches into golf course architecture, I seldom come across modern designers that have a more than peripheral knowledge of agronomy or greenkeeping. This is even truer of golf magazine writers. They wax lyrical about design in their course reviews, while ignoring the crucial issue of the type of grass that defines how the course will play and whether it will come alive or just be a soggy affair.  Perhaps a part of the reason is social status, such as when the pros were once not allowed in the clubhouse, today’s greenkeepers are only now being seen for the vital professionals they are.

Donald is quite clear: “What is needed is a freer acceptance of greenkeepers’ capability and status, and, as happens far more in America, due deference paid to head greenkeepers for performing the job on which every golfer in the world relies.”

This book is such a delight, allowing the reader to be in the company of one of nicest, hardest working, most knowledgeable and well connected men in golf, passing his observations on all of the finest running-golf courses, on the most interesting people and the challenges confronting the game.

 

The notes and appendices at the end of the book are a mine of his own golden articles, and include Roger Wethered’s eulogy at Bobby Jones’ memorial service in 1972 and the “Green is not great” article by Alexander Radko, National Director of the USGA Green Section, November 1977. The book concludes with Donald’s own chapter in Jim Arthur’s Practical Greenkeeping, the bible of greenkeeping, whose third edition was published by the R&A in 2014.

The thin end of the wedge – a life in golf –‘ by Donald Steel can be obtained for £30 online at: www.rhodmcewangolf.com