The Meaning of Golf

 “The meaning of Golf” by Craig Morrison who is a well-connected, Scottish, golf writer in his late forties. First published as an eBook in 2017, it was updated and appeared in paperback in 2019 and is available from Amazon here.

How can I not like this book when the author starts in chapter one and two by describing his attitude to golf through Tom Watson saying he has never had so much fun as playing Royal Dornoch in 1981 and quoting Plato “Life must be lived as play”?

Alan Grant, the front-of-house intellectual and comic to the jet-set at Skibo Castle (who was three up after five on me in the final of the Carnegie Davidson in 1999 and inexplicably lost and has been a friend ever since) is Craig’s companion in explaining the intricacies of Royal Dornoch, such as the tricky and enigmatic fourteenth hole that is ‘Foxy’.

The book is broken up into eighteen chapters focused on different aspects that he has come across within golf, while there is a continuous theme of Craig talking philosophically about golf. His opinionated depth of comment is interesting, if at times, though seldom controversial to the post-modernist mind, can be somewhat repetitive.

Craig is clever enough to start by recognising that Dornoch, (around which my Scottish golf revolves!), is golf’s northerly outpost, at its edge but nevertheless central to the game, and as he says, it forever resonates with all who visit. Yet there is no mention of the great John Sutherland, the secretary here who effectively created the Club before Tom Watson and Ben Crenshaw made it famous in modern times.

Chapter three has Donald Ross (a former Dornoch man) taking us next to American, manicured courses and we are introduced to Eoghan O’Connell, an amateur champion from Killarney, now living in Florida.

Next, the book returns to GB&I with some history of the Open Championship and remembrance of many famous wins. His lack of understanding of the uniqueness of the fine grasses agronomy of an increasing number of The Open venues does not stop him recognising instinctively the advantageous issues inherent in the ‘running-game’ though that phrase, extraordinarily for an accomplished golfer, is not employed.

In chapter five we are at last in St Andrews with fascinating facts about Old Tom Morris. More philosophy: “Everything we know about golf is here: the need for a steady head both externally and internally, that one must let go of expectations” and how the most famous hole in golf mars his near perfect play across the Old course.

Chapter six is at Augusta where Clifford Roberts, farm-boy turned investment banker and Bob (Bobby) Jones invited Alister Mackenzie to plan a course. They apparently paid him only $2k of the $10k they had promised him and he died in straitened circumstances.

The description of the Club’s early misogyny and racism and how money talks, comes across powerfully and while being there as The Masters comes to town, he is not a mere spectator but is hosted by Gene and Chuck across a few parties. He remembers to note that the greens stimp is at 14, and every putt is an attempted lag but no mention is made of the bizarre influence the Masters television spectacular has in creating Augusta Syndrome Disease (ASD) among predominantly low handicap amateur golfers.

We then move to Ireland and its natural charm, introduced through a well-connected acquaintance called Loyal as his entree to Irish golf at the likes of Portmarnock, The Island, Royal Dublin, Baltray, Portrush, Ballybunion, Tralee, Doonbeg and then guided by course architect Pat Ruddy to Lahinch and Rosses Point and some others. These are all courses where the Irish Links Initiative, driven by greenkeepers and chaired by Fintan Brennan of Greenstester fame, has had in recent years a positive influence on their return to a fine grasses agronomy.

Ruddy’s own course appears next, The European, which I am yet to play but am told operates with annual meadow grass (Poa annua) wall to wall. This vital fact simply misses Craig by but he notes “Ruddy loves golf because it’s whimsical, a sheer joy. Golf here is about primitive instincts found deep in our nature, our drive to overcome obstacles, to survive and thrive.”

Onward we go to an impressive interview with John Jacobs, the pro who became the world’s leading golf teacher, originally from Brancaster with the fine amateur, Laddie Lucas and is quoted “When Laddie and I started the driving range, donkeys years ago, we did it to get people started on the game cheaply. It’s still too expensive. It takes a long time now to play and there are probably too many clubs in the bag. It’s a better game with fewer clubs because you have to make up more shots. Nine clubs would raise the standard and let the best players shine through.”

Tiger Woods comes next, signing a $40m Nike deal when hardly out of nappies, the author describing him as a person ‘first of consequence and then of ridicule’, with interesting background stuff, later to be out-sponsored by Rory McIlroy’s $155m deal.

In chapter eleven Craig puts his own game under pressure with eight rounds in one day on Burnham & Berrow’s quite excellent ‘Channel’ nine-hole course. He omits to mention that this was built on ground where the sea has naturally receded from since World War Two, in fact in the very opposite direction to that which climate alarmists would predict.

The twelfth chapter takes in Donald Trump and his desire to win. Describing him with the usual cynical scorn, Craig sums up golf as ‘a game of endless, eternal struggles, where humility brings success. Therefore, it’s a good sport for the President to practise’. Trump apparently played six times in his first month in office at The White House.

Craig then shows a fuller understanding of the traditional values of golf by including a chapter dedicated to hickory play. He describes this form of the sport as a little like The St Moritz Tobogganing Club, all tweed and speed, because most players dress traditionally and none of them indulge in slow play.

He says there is little backspin with hickories so swing-alignment partially gives way to invention and imagination. He thinks that somehow it takes less time to thread a running shot between bunkers than to measure the carry distance over them. Both admirable sentiments but how much based on fact is arguable.

He thinks the hickory game certainly takes us back to whatever it was people first found so enthralling in it, the essence of golf perhaps, noting that Sandy Lyle sees it like that. “It’s great fun. Golf simply cannot be mastered. You have it for a while. Then it leaves you and hopefully you get it back. Hickory golf is harder still to master and that’s what makes it a joy. Tiger has expressed an interest in it, you know”.

The next two chapters cover the author’s annual weekend away with the boys and an introduction to the late Archie Baird’s Museum of Golf at Gullane.

He considers that: “Golf like writing, is OK when it’s strangers watching, strangers reading the words. But I’m more inclined to choke when its friends. I can’t write if I think about friends and family reading the output”. I am just an amateur at this journalism game but when I think about friends reading my stuff it just makes me work even harder to try to get it right (‘cough, cough’ says the proof reader, smiling…)!

Chapter sixteen is all about when golfers are playing “in the moment” that glorious state of mind that visits you but then departs, alas.

Craig Morrison at Brora

He also visits Royal North Devon (RND) where sheep and horses make their way across the common land. His alarm bells ring, however, suggesting to him that this sort of place is only for history buffs but not for the wider contemporary golf world. Nevertheless, having also made this assumption about Lahinch and Prestwick, he found himself to be way off the mark. One might include BroraPerranporth and Pennard also in this category.

He thinks almost all the RND holes can be played in various ways depending on skill and luck and the natural elements. The majority of modern strategic courses demand such and such a strategy. Here – and elsewhere in the world of 19th century golf – things are often a little more ambiguous.

Again he misses a key aspect of the contemporary situation, where at RND, there is a very real threat coming from The Environment Agency’s quangos. Following Baronness Worthington promoting the EU 2005 re-wilding directive, Natural England and Natural Resources Wales have not allowed historic clubs like RND (and the oldest course in Wales, Borth & Ynylas) to defend land that they have managed well for everybody for over 130 years.

At RND, four hectares of sand dunes have been lost since 2014 to high-tide storm-surge erosion, with the seventh hole being swamped in 2018. Today there is further flooding across the early holes, resulting from sea defences being allowed to be breached further down the estuary. With the law as it is the golf clubs are forced to kowtow to these politically motivated quangos who follow dogmas than common sense.

If Craig thinks these courses are important to golf, he should join in the fight to move environmental decision-making back to the locals who have the right knowledge and the best interests of both the wildlife and the tourist economy at heart.

It is worth noting that since Owen Paterson MP, when in charge of DEFRA in 2014, moved control of the Somerset Levels, after the wildlife and houses were decimated by flooding, away from the Environment Agency and back to a local water board, dredging has commenced, with pumps renewed and no flooding was reported during this recent wet winter.

The R&A now has an ideal opportunity to use its new initiative ‘Golf Course 2030’ to headline where the real threat to seaside courses comes from and start lobbying George Eustace, the DEFRA Secretary, to change the law.

In the penultimate chapter Craig visits Seve’s home course in Pedrena, Spain and then the book rather fizzles out in the eighteenth with a trip to Les Bordes in France, where he describes the greens as soft, receptive and ferociously fast, concluding that, here, any golfer will be inspired.

This sort of thinking certainly does not come from the R&A golf establishment who published this article in 2015 and have calculated that every foot of putting speed over nine foot adds fifteen minutes to a round of golf so slowing pace of play.

Nevertheless, this book is interesting, amusing and written as a lively page turner. Whether it answers the ‘meaning of golf ‘ question you will have to decide. With time on your hands in isolation it may at least allow you to dream about playing golf.

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