Wednesday July 19, 2006
Me and golf? We got off to a bad start. It was the pre-decimal, hippie end of the '60s and I was seven years old. Dad ran a clothes shop with his brother - at least he did till Margaret Thatcher suffocated small businesses. Pony-tailed, Afghan-coated, love-peace-and-understanding spliffers they were not. Bald, bespectacled and besuited they were.
What they did share with the late Sixties was an air of newly-won prosperity. For a few years they even drove a Daimler. I loved going into the shop - unravelling cotton reels for the tailor Mr Helig, counting the cash with Renee, getting typing lessons off the secretary who I had a thing about, and not just because of her state-of-the-art Olivetti electric typewriter.
One day Uncle Cyril introduced me to a room I didn't know existed. "Shut your eyes," he said. "One step forward, two steps, and another. Right, you can open them." I couldn't believe it. This wasn't so much a room as golfing heaven. It had clubs and balls and tees and pretend holes, and incredible curtains that swung from the ceiling like gigantic white fishnet stockings, allowing him to whack the ball as hard as stress demanded.
Uncle Cyril handed me a golf club. "Right, hold it like this, Si." He leaned over me, shadowing my hands as I pretended to swing. I liked it. It came easy and natural. "Right, Si, have a go yourself." And I did. I pulled my arm back as far as possible, swung the club in a glorious arc and smacked him bang in the eye. All I remember is him chasing me round the shop screaming, with a club in his hand. The one thing it should have taught me is that golf is a game for crazies.
But it didn't. I just decided I was better off with football and that golf was a game for dullsters, pullovers, poshos, Scotsmen with weird wardrobes, and Uncle Cyril.
Then something happened a couple of years ago. I was channel surfing when I came across the dullsters, pullovers, poshos etc trying to win some bizarre jacket. I was transfixed - those Lilliputian holes and Brobdingnagian greens, the great existential walks, the loneliness of the long-distance golfer. My lady friend walked in to the room, keen to tell me about the shocking number of teenage, pregnant, destitute asylum seekers from the DRC. She stopped dead in her tracks.
"Simon? You all right?"
"Why are you watching the golf?"
"Erm, just flicking, really," I said, embarrassed. "Ronnie plays it, you know." What I really meant to say was "I'm hooked".
Perhaps it was Ronnie O'Sullivan who turned me. His secret ambition was to become a professional golfer. "Golf is not, on the whole, a game for realists. By its exactitude of measurement it invites the attention of perfectionists," he once told me. Or was it "I'm in bits with me golf, but I lurve it, lurve it, lurve it, lurve it, lurve it"?
Whatever, despite the fact that he had been banned from the club at the end of his manor (wrong background), he loved golf because it was even more demanding than snooker. In snooker you don't have to play the elements as well as the opposition. And think of another ball game where you can build up a substantial lead and then squander it all on one hole or its equivalent. Imagine missing a pot so badly in the final of the Worlds that you don't simply lose the frame or the match, but regress to the semi-finals, the quarter-finals, the last 16. Inconceivable. But that's golf.
No wonder so many of the great sporting chokers are found on the golf course - Colin Montgomerie, Phil Mickelson, even the legendary Tom Watson. And no wonder there are so many memories of golfing madness - despairing Jean van der Velde, knee-deep in water, throwing away the Open with a last-hole triple-bogey at Carnoustie. It's not only defeat that brings madness - there's David Duval, so shocked at winning the Open in 2001 that he has barely made a cut since. Crazy, as Gnarls and Patsy would have it.
Underneath those calm-to-soporific exteriors, furnaces rage. Even the supremely poised Tiger Woods is starring in his own psycho-drama, failing to make the cut in a major for the first time as a professional in last month's US Open at Winged Foot, just after his father died.
Can he overcome the loss of his dad? Can Monty hold it together for once? Can Duval put that traumatic victory aside? Only a day to go to the Open, and I'm salivating. Who knows, I might even pick up a club for the first time in 36 years.