|"Try to remember that a person may be a most indifferent golfer and yet be a good Christian gentleman, and in some respects worthy of your esteem". --Hints on Golf published in 1888.|
A notice pinned in the office of the Westminster Gazette by order of Mr. J. A. Spender carried the words that failure "must not be imputed to cricketers as proof of moral obliquity". The phrase reminds me of an earlier remark by Horace Hutchinson in his Hints on Golf published in 1888: "Try to remember that a person may be a most indifferent golfer and yet be a good Christian gentleman, and in some respects worthy of your esteem." Such generous criticism is doubtless the right way to approach the subject of holiday golf, the light-hearted variety so popular during the Season. There is certainly no shortage of choice, for the list is more than 2,000 strong. If you are reluctant to go far afield nothing could be pleasanter than a day's golf at Sunningdale or Walton Heath or Moor Park or one of the many delightful courses within easy reach of London. Enthusiasm may persuade you to sample the genuine seaside variety, in which case that rich corner of Kent containing Royal St. George's, Princes, and Deal is the obvious place. Sandwich offers glorious natural golfing country with Nature as the architect. Here is solitude without loneliness. In the past Kent has been noted for its cherries, hops, cricket, apples, Dickens, and pretty girls. All these must be taken into consideration, but it is an omission to leave out golf in the ranking. The quality and variety is on a par with anything this country can offer.
Those historically-minded will find additional interest on the St. Augustine's links at Ebbsfleet. Close to the clubhouse stands a runic cross of stone which tradition declares marks the place where St. Augustine set foot on English soil and met King Ethelbert. Near to the fifth green is a little spring of clear water which is known as St. Augustine's Well, which legend holds appeared miraculously to slake the Saint's thirst. Every year this site is the scene of the pilgrimage headed by the Warden of St. Augustine's College, Canterbury, who, in his role of Bishop-Knight, kneels by the spring to drink the water.
It would be possible to make a lengthy list of the courses within reach of London, but there is much to be said for being more ambitious. The night train from King's Cross can carry your sleeping form across the length of England, over the invisible Border into a country where rivers become burns and rolls are baps. Once in Scotland and the range of choice becomes embarrassing, but none can compare with the tradition that belongs to St. Andrews. The Old Course has its critics, but without hesitation I would name it as the finest test of golf in these islands. It has everything that a golfer can want. What Lord's is to cricket, and the Jockey Club to racing, so the Royal and Ancient Golf Club stands as the supreme arbitrator of the fairways.
You will find St. Andrews as grey and speckled as a piece of homespun tweed, probably quite different to what you expect. Before you arrive the prospect of a town given over to golf and golfers may sound too specialized even for your taste.
There is something about female golfers that many people find terrifying. I admit that I have always cherished the assumption that women should act and appear like women. If a girl looks a cross between Ava Gardner and Jane Russell, the odds are that she has something better to do than tramp miles round a golf course. Sex equality in golf has a habit of trying to improve on nature, but the result is not always successful. The hotel at teatime will probably confirm our fears. Men talk golf and bulky women sports tweeds and stout shoes.
But St. Andrews is a town of many associations. The experience of exchanging St. Andrews the home of golf for St. Andrews the ecclesiastical capital of Scotland is like passing through gates into a rather thoughtful world, a world of charm that is still living spiritually in the eighteenth century. The candles are not burnt out. I went to the tower of St. Rule and climbed the damp, spiral steps in solid blackness infested by expostulating pigeons. From the lead roof I could just see the Lomond Hills of Fife by Loch Leven and the Sidlaw Hills beyond Dundee. In the distance the Old Course looked painfully narrow. Below sprawled the ruined cathedral, once a jewel of pointed Gothic, now a stone skeleton with shadowy aisles and broken columns, a memorial to the iconoclastic passion of John Knox, who destroyed the fabric, but left the memory of a ruined altar ... an altar before which James V. and Mary of Guise were married, a union that gave Mary Stuart to her people.
There below was the Haunted Tower on the Abbey Wall, the custodian of strange rumours: the Pends, originally the entrance to the Priory, now dignified in decay: the grey buildings of Scotland's oldest university: streets sprinkled with students in scarlet gowns, many heading for the rough-and-ready shop that serves such excellent coffee. I thought of the Castle. If stones can retain the impress of tragedy, here is ground more cursed than the Haunted Tower. The gloom of the Bottle Dungeon almost echoes to the groans of victims. In contrast, I thought of a tiny room overlooking a peaceful garden, furnished as it must have been when Mary, Queen of Scots, weary of Court intrigue, came for rest and peace. It does not require a sensitive imagination to conceive what sad thoughts must have been released in this tiny chamber with its recessed window and enclosed little bed surmounted with a simple crucifix. Mary Stuart is an enigma. Her portraits show that beauty of feature was not her charm, yet as a young woman she exercised a powerful attraction over men. It would be true to say that those to whom she yielded were unworthy of her, being either vicious or weak. One fact is indisputable. Mary Stuart, Queen Regnant of Scotland, was a lonely woman. Only in St. Andrews did she become like any other young girl. I found the atmosphere of phantasy still preserved, for this closet of Royal memories is now part of the library of a girls' school.
But to return to the real reason for our visit, the game of golf, I found, even in the cathedral kirkyard, golfing associations in the form of two unique monuments. One preserves the carved bewhiskered features of Allan Robertson with the emblems of his trade as ball-maker in the town a century ago, whilst John Rhind, the Edinburgh sculptor, created a life-like figure of Young Tom Morris showing the famous golfer addressing a ball with his favourite cleek.
If either Robertson or Morris could come back to life they would feel quite at home once the Old Course was reached. They would locate familiar landmarks like the Elysian Fields, the Valley of Sin, Granny Clark's Wynd, Hell Bunker, the Road Hole, the Principal's Nose, and the possibility of a glass of beer at the Ginger-beer Hole.
Another feature of the Old Course which the visitor finds unusual is the enormous size of the double greens. The reason can be traced back to the last century when the course was much narrower owing to an arrangement by which there was only one hole on each green, the same hole being used both outward and inward. The system worked on the understanding that the match first to reach the green should hole-out before the players from the opposite direction arrived. The method became impracticable when the number of players increased. Proposals were put forward to make a circular course by extending fairways round the other side of the links. The scheme was rejected. A second plan was adopted whereby two distinct greens were made parallel to one another, a move that increased the breadth of the course by two-thirds.
Tradition lingers long at St. Andrews. One custom known to generations of golfers necessitates getting up when the dew is still on the grass, but even at such an early hour a crowd jostles on the terrace of the Royal and Ancient Club. Suddenly conversation stops. There is activity on the first teeing-ground. A glistening white ball is teed-up. An elderly man steps forward and takes a practice swing. Long-handicap golfers suffer with him, for he is not necessarily a good golfer. He takes his stance. A swish of a club and the ball should sail down the fairways as a ceremonial cannon is fired. No sooner has the ball landed than it disappears under a heap of struggling figures. One detaches itself, trots back, golf ball in hand, to receive his reward a gold sovereign or its equivalent. The new captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club has played himself into office.
To my eyes, St. Andrews never alters. In the shadow of the Royal and Ancient clubhouse, the names and deeds of former champions seem as fresh as if they had just walked off the last green. The scene is so familiar, almost timeless, with the white rails . . . men smoking an evening pipe as they watch the players trickle in ... Old Tom Morris's low-ceilinged shop ... the terrace that has known so many exciting moments. Even for a visit of short duration, it is well worth the effort of an all-night journey to get to know the home of golf.