Swinging Through History

woody2Despite the split ruling by the Irish Supreme Court, when the Learned Judges decreed that gender discrimination is acceptable at Portmarnock Golf Club, if dressed in the guise of social fraternization, golf has come a long way since the days of plus fours, hickory shafts and tweed. The game, once played on wind-swept sheep mown grass by gentlemen accompanied by their hobnail- booted caddies and golf professionals eking a living, has now become a global sport.

Every time Golf Pros travel in their private jet and change their shoes in a wood panelled locker room, they should offer up a silent prayer to American golfer, Walter Hagen.  ‘The Haig’ worked hard to raise the status of professional golfers.  He once hired a limousine for the British Open and parked it outside the club house at Royal St. George’s in Kent. He used it as a changing room when he was refused entry to the locker room and how sweet must have been his victories when he won the Open in 1922/24/28/29. Thus do golf Professionals of today bestride the fairways, and occasionally the rough, like Colossus.

Women’s golf has also taken giant strides on both sides of the Atlantic since Mary Queen of Scots took up the game. Granddaughter of King Henry VII, she wed three husbands, bore a future King and reputedly swung her golf sticks on the tufty Scottish grass. One assumes she ate a hearty bowl of porridge and left her jewels and crown back at the castle, before venturing out onto the course with her ladies in waiting.  There are no records to show whether she sliced, shanked or hooked and she may well have kept her head down on the links but she was accused of treason and lost it in 1587. It was to be another two hundred years before other Scottish ladies took up the game.  Records show golf was played in Devon in 1868 and one of Britain’s most famous golfers, Joyce Wethered, was born the same year that Queen Victoria died in 1901. She learnt to play golf with her brother and despite wearing calf length skirts and restrictive jackets; she went on to win four British Amateur titles.

Now the long skirts, blouses and bonnets have been cast aside in favour of golf attire more suited to the sports field than the drawing room and the annals of golf are littered with the names of famous golfers such as Annika Sorenstam, Juli Inkster, Laura Davis and Lorena Ochoa. Korea has become a force to be reckoned with and features heavily in the Rolex Rankings and Order of Merit and now the little tiger cubs going to bed dreaming of winning majors, are as likely to have swinging pony tails and nail varnish.

Clubs have, with notable exceptions, opened wide their doors as they seek new members and long gone are the days of proof required to trace one’s lineage to a distant Duchess or membership of the Freemasons.  Admittedly, there are still clubs who place great stock by a regimental or public school tie and comments written in leather bound Suggestion Books from indignant members, about visitors not wearing long white socks with shorts, will make interesting documents for students of social change in years hence. But the page of history is turning and the cold winds of recession have seen incredible change in many golf clubs as they endeavour to become more competitive and attractive to golfers. Nowadays one can gym, swim and golf. Take the kids, participate in group lessons and eat Sunday lunch overlooking the eighteenth green.

Even as recently as twenty years ago, things were very different.

There came a time when my Pro decided I needed to turn my back on the three sided hut and the trusty seven iron. Seek new pastures and walk fairways.  Take on bunkers and lakes and learn about course management. My golfing buddy, who shared the lessons and the hut, decided that dimpled ball whacking was not her bag and went off to caress the ivory keys. It suited her nails and temperament better, but she never mastered scales and a career as a concert pianist never beckoned.

One sunny day, the Pro turned to me and said:

“It’s time for you to take the next step and join the golf club”. Much as a fledgling is nudged from the dizzy heights and comfort of the nest, he pushed me out of the hut and up the path towards the clubhouse. The Club Secretary gave me an Application Form and told me to come back when it was completed.  Black ink. Capital letters. I took it back when I had filled in all the easy bits. There was a marmalade mark on the corner and some grease from the buttered toast.

“It’s not completed” he said and handed it back across the dark oak desk. Portraits of Great Men looked down disapprovingly from panelled walls.

“Bring it back when you have your sponsors”.  I needed five sponsors. Sponsors need to have known the applicant for five years. It called for lateral thinking. We had moved three months previously into leafy suburbia from the wild wind lashed coast of childhood.  I knew life boat men and sunburnt sailors and how to navigate by the stars.  We were unknown to all but the Postman. ‘Postman’ would not cut the mustard on the Sponsorship front.

I returned to the hut with the marmalade stained Application Form and the Pro pulled a few strings.  I had tea with a committee member.  Bone china cups with little silver tongs for the sugar lumps. Shortbread biscuits or fruit cake. I ate both.  It went well. She asked whether my Grandfather served in a particular regiment and which school I had applied to for the ankle biters.

“Nine weeks. The little one is nine weeks.  Bit early maybe?”  I said.

Golf was never mentioned and I drove home with another idea.  There would be someone at church who played golf.  It was rumoured the Vicar played, but very badly and always had more pressing engagements on the Sabbath.  I put my name down for the weekly cleaning rota.  Nothing could have shocked the Golf Police more.

“Clean the Church?” he said.  “You should try practising at home”.

I put my name down and soon got the call.

God’s set were rather cliquey but quite a few of them were members of the golf club.  The little marmalade stained form would soon be overflowing with Sponsors. As a newcomer, I did not feature much on their radar.  The Vicar saw me once or twice with the duster, but usually he was tied up with someone from the Roofing Fund Committee or the Choir Master.  I kept my head down, polished and prayed.

It transpired the Golf Police was right.  I was not really cut out for the cleaning bit.  I did my best with the brass but my heart was not in dusting the aisles.  I longed for the skies, the clouds and the fairways.  The sound of birdsong and a well struck seven iron, not the sound of the organ and creaky polished pew. I made a few mistakes when I was day dreaming about the sweet spot of the seven iron.  I caught the altar cloth in the hoover.

“Oh Christ, I can’t believe I’ve done that” I muttered and managed to blaspheme in God’s house.  Right in front of the altar.  I waited to be struck down.  The moment passed.  I turned the cloth round so the torn bit did not face out to the congregation. And I apologised for the blasphemy.

Things did not improve.  I put too much polish on the pews and used the wrong cleaning stuff on the stained glass windows. I cleaned the silver with Brasso and left finger prints on the golden chalice.  In the end I was relegated to the church porch to tidy the posters and mop the step.  My hands froze in the water and I was one step away from the churchyard.  On wintry days I could hear strains of the aria Che Gelida Manina (Your Tiny Hand is Frozen) echoing round the lichen covered headstones.  I was Mimi with the mop and both my hands were frozen.

After months of freezing in the porch and trying to stitch a kneeler, it was time to approach the potential Sponsor who attended the little church.  His family could be traced back to the Doomsday Book and the generations whose names appeared on the brass plaques, having served King and Country and made the ultimate sacrifice in the Great Wars.  They had a family tomb in the churchyard.  Prime real estate.  It is an unwritten rule that seats may not be reserved in the House of God, but no one sat in their pew. Ever.

After a Sunday Service with the porch step swept and buffed, I made my move and asked if he would sponsor me for the golf club. His reply is etched on my hard drive.

“Come back in five year’s time” he said and slowly left the church on the arm of his less elderly sister.

I knew then that I was not cut out to be a Christian.

“You bastard” I thought quietly. In the house of God.   I had polished his pew, hoovered his bit of carpet buffed up the brass plaques. I had frozen for this man. He was ninety six years’ old.  I would need a hotline to the Man Upstairs in five years’ time. I could envisage the call.

“Dear Lord, You may remember me… I am sorry I blasphemed in your House and made a mess of the stained glass windows…….

Word spread on the wind and soon reached the Golf Club. Rules had been broken.   One did not approach Sponsors, and certainly not on the Sabbath.

I received a letter the following week.  It was sent in a brown franked envelope. I opened it between burning the toast and feeding the infant.   It was brief and to the point.  There had been a committee meeting.  Behind closed doors.  I had been black balled. My little marmalade stained application form had been pinned to the notice board beneath the chandeliers and portraits of Great Men and someone on committee had slipped a black ball into the bag.

I thought back to the day I had taken tea with the committee member.  I had definitely used the sugar tongs. She didn’t know much about tight head props or rolling mauls but we had found common ground with the weather. And her geraniums.  Somewhere between the hut and the chandeliers, I had crossed an unseen line and the golf club door was firmly closed.

I took revenge in the church.  Love thy neighbour went out of the stained glass window.  I sinned in thought and deed, praying for the potential sponsor to shuffle off his mortal coil. I put extra polish on his pew and a kink the carpet. I told the Golf Police I was no longer required for church cleaning and then I quietly crossed my name off the cleaning rota and returned to the hut with my trusty seven iron.

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