… a golf club again.
People are often surprised when I tell them I play golf (I fly-fish too but that’s for another blog).
After explaining that I grew up less than half-a-mile from the nearest course, occasionally caddied there for pocket money, had my first six lessons and bought my first set of clubs from the pro’ for my 16th birthday, and played the course regularly with my friend James, they understand.
But why is it odd that I play golf? I’m sure that if I said I cycled or ran regularly they wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. And why do I feel compelled to explain that I do?
Well, I suppose that golf, and what golf represents, is at odds with how these people see me. Through their eyes, the representations of golf as rule-bound, etiquette ridden, middle class, suburban, conservative, elitist, stuffy and formal (at least in the UK) is at odds with the values they know, or assume, I have.
And largely, they are correct.
But I also see golf differently. For me golf has always been a space in which I contested the politics of race.
I was conscious of it then – I felt it – but it’s only now that I can understand it. When I was caddying for the (white) lady members at my local club it was all very colonial. And I once played golf with a member, as his guest, at a course where he told me that I was probably the first non-white person to have ever played there, and to then have set foot in the bar. I believed him – he was the ex-captain of the club. And in my mind’s eye, I can still see myself, sat nervously, sipping my beer in their wood-paneled sanctuary. I can still feel startled men, staring at me, and then doing a double take as they see whom I’m with.
It was also a relative benign space; others spaces like school, pubs, youth-clubs, and even the neighbourhood streets, were more contested spaces, where often inconspicuousness was a more effective strategy.
Thankfully, times have changed. In the intervening years, someone from the same background as my parents, became the best golfer in the world, and won three major championships (Fiji and Vijay Singh). And, of course, there was Tiger.
But for me it will always be Seve. I was drawn to Seve because, like me, he was an outsider – or at least I cast him as one. But just like everyone else, it was the way he played golf that beguiled me. Remember this was the 70s. You were lucky if you had a colour telly. Luckily we did. And in those days, there was little if any programming during the daytime unless it was sport. During the summer holidays, when there wasn’t too much to do, at least I could while away the hours watching cricket and for 4 days in July watch the golf.
And in the year of my 16th birthday Seve won the British Open.
After a hiatus of twenty odd years (children) and thanks to a bunch of friends in Bristol who encouraged me, I’ve taken the game up again. Some are new to the game, while some have played for many years; some are retired and play regularly, while some of us fit golf around work and other commitments.
So: what’s changed?
Well the racial and gendered politics of golf have changed for sure. On my first trip to my friends club I encountered a 4-ball of ladies of south-east Asian origin. Golf is now a global sport and the South Koreans, in particular, dominate women’s golf. I still don’t see too many black faces on the golf course but certainly more people who look a bit like me.
And as for the all the rules, the stuffiness, the conservativeness, elitism etc. Well it’s still there albeit less elitist. But as my golfing chums will tell you, I’m a stickler for golfing etiquette, at least on the course.