Vikings and the Mysterious Affair of Mel Marks’ Ashes

A headline which I am certain has never been written before.  The unique title brought about by recent events linking back to the most bizarre / moving / extraordinary time I have ever spent on a golf course.

The last few weeks had been disappointing for golf and writing.  My ankle injury stopped me playing and other pressures impinged on my time – work and Motherwell FC (losing our manager and dealing with approaches for the club meant a huge commitment from the board – a separate blog when it settles down!!)  But I did play in the November medal at Gailes – keen to get my new handicap lower!  It went well at the start but carrying my bag and playing so soon after the injury turned out to be about as clever as Motherwell’s recent form.  I was under my handicap when my ankle gave out on the 16th so a retired hurt replaced a reasonable round in which I putted much better.  Only 8 over after parring 15 but but…..


I was feeling sorry for myself and listening to radio 4 on the way home when Derek McLennan, the father of Ellie’s best friend, was introduced as the next guest.  He was on to discuss the Viking hoard he had uncovered a week or so before.  Ellie had mentioned it but I hadn’t seen Derek so didn’t understand the true significance of the find – the most spectacular discovery of the last hundred years.  Derek was probably the most successful detectionist in the UK even before this find but this cemented his position.  This is the largest hoard found in Scotland since 1858 and the centre piece was a large lidded Carolingian vessel.

I met Derek on the school run the next day and got an abridged version of the most exciting day of his life.  He also showed me a couple of pictures of the pot.  Incredible.  Back to the Future Part V!!!  I was catapulted back 15 years to Muirfield with a similarly shaped urn – an urn which contained the ashes of one of my best friends!  My kids turned up during the time transfer.  I couldn’t drive right away so I settled down and told them the story.

I joined Deloitte Haskins and Sells in 1984 and became a partner in the firm in 1987.  So many great times and happy memories but the largest seam was from the partners’ annual golf meeting.  I was lucky to be invited for the first time in September 1987 by John Berry, one of my best pals in the firm.  A keen and competitive golfer with a Doug Sanders swing.  It was held at Royal Birkdale on the Friday and Formby on the Saturday.  The first day was the match North v South.  Foursomes in the morning and four balls in the afternoon.  Then a Stableford event the next day with prizes for the best nett and gross scores.

That was the start of fantastic times with my fellow partners – the dinner after the match the highlight for brilliant speeches and even more incisive points of order and interruptions.  Run in those days by Nick Butterworth an urbane audit partner from London who retired a few years later.  No election for his role – for whatever reason I was chosen.  The white smoke rose and I assumed absolute power in what was then a combined firm with Coopers and Lybrand.

The full story of those years would fill a series of books.  This episode is about Mel.  By the time I took over we had extended the event to Thursday Friday and Saturday morning and every second year went back to Muirfield (the huge joy /privilege of playing that course so often was amazing).  In odd years we played other championship courses – County Down- Portrush – St George’s – Dornach.   32 partners who would never miss the meeting.  Drawn by ballot!!  A ballot with a slight bias.   Actually not so slight.  Not the best golfers necessarily.  The best companions.  I am still proud of the fact that the ballot chose such great guys – one of whom was Mel Marks.  Mel like me and my other close friend Rick Helsby had joined the firm from the Inland Revenue (another story).  Mel was a very keen golfer but his abilities were in inverse proportions to his enthusiasm.  If they had hung him for being a good golfer, they would have hung an innocent man!!  One particularly horrendous round stands out.  In bucketing rain at Royal Portrush after drinking to 5am.  Playing with Mel.  St. Andrews foresomes.  (Both partners drive then choose one of the drives and play foresomes from that point.  Gave both players the chance to drive on some of the best holes in the UK).  Mel not exactly on top form.  Never hit one fairway from the tee.  Every time into long, saturated rough.  So my ball every time from the tee.  Mel lined up.  Shank into long, saturated rough.  Search.  Find it.  I hack out.  Mel lined up.  Shank into……!!

But he never gave up and when he got the chance to play Muirfield (handicap certificate not needed – we were the UK leading accountancy firm after all) he loved it.  Proudest moment of his life after marriage and birth of his kids.

And then – Royal St George and Mel was late on the night before the match.  Very unusual.  Apparently had been called back after his annual medical because of a possible abnormality.  He brushed it off.  Told the doc he had much more important things to do – partners’ annual golf.

But unfortunately it was a problem and a few months later he was terminally ill.  Unbelievable.  No-one could accept it.  So quick.  We would pop in to see him weekly.  Tell him he was looking better which always got him laughing and swearing!  Then one Sunday night he phoned me at home.  Said he had a last request.  I tried to bluster but he cut through all that and said he only had a few days left.  Wanted me to promise we would scatter his ashes on Muirfield.  I started to cry.  I am again as I write this.  But he told me to man up.  Made me promise.  I did and visited him the next day.  His lovely wife Jane was there.  I didn’t want to intrude but she insisted I stay until Mel told me again how much it meant to a hacker like him to be allowed to play at Muirfield and how grateful he was.  Then the promise again.  I gave him my word and he seemed to rally.  I left and phoned Rick – said Mel looked much better.  He died an hour later.  Just as well I didn’t do medicine at Uni!

The funeral was held on a beautiful summer’s day. A humanist celebration of Mel’s life. Both his sons played and sang and John Berry and I spoke at the meal afterwards at Mel’s golf club. Laughter and tears – I told the worst golfer in the world playing at Muirfield joke – could have been constructed for Mel – and continued the planning to scatter his ashes at Muirfield at the end of September when we played there.

A direct approach was unlikely to work. We tried a variation by writing to the club and explaining that one of our members who loved the course had died suddenly and his widow would like to walk the course with us to pay her respects.  To be met with the response that as she was not playing she couldn’t walk round!!

Another plan was painstakingly evolved.  Jane came up and stayed at the Marine Hotel the night before the match with her two boys.  Mel’s urn took pride of place on the bar that night after the meal as we all told stories of his triumphs and disasters over the years with us.  The following morning the urn was secreted in Gordon Ireland’s bag (the largest in the group if not the golfing world at that time) and the caddies sworn (bribed) to secrecy.  We always started at the 10th and we were first off.  The plan was for us to play 10/11 and then walk over to the far side of the par 5 fifth hole and wait for the rest of the squad there.  The course was empty as always.  Jane and her boys would be walked up from the beach at Gullane and join us on the 5th.

Gordon was playing with Richard Murphy – old friends and old adversaries in the match.  I was playing with Len Falke.  I could tell Gordon was nervous about being the bag / urn man and it showed on the 10th.  With a shot they messed about and when the smoke cleared I had trundled it in for a far from impressive 5.  Gordon had an 18 inch put for a 6 nett 5 for the half and looked across at me for the give.  Which was not forthcoming.  The dawning and spread of disgruntlement on his face was perfect and of course he stabbed it past the hole.  “You count” I think he said as he rushed off the green. His mood was not improved when I holed a 30 yd downhill two way break for a birdie three to win the next but as we meandered over to the fifth I told him Mel would have loved the comedy start and at that he started to laugh.  And when Gordon laughed you knew he was laughing. As did the rest of the course.

Humour restored we waited until we were all gathered and Jane and the boys joined us. A dull morning had brightened and a light wind was blowing across the hole. We had organised for Gordon to release the ashes and I would then say a final farewell.  When  he opened the urn and shook it, the ashes took an unusual route. They lifted, went right, almost at 90 degrees, then turned left and drifted up the exact centre of the fairway.  The whole company looked at them, then at me. I am proud to say I found the words.

‘For fuck sake Mel!  First time in your life you’ve been on this fairway, and you’re dead.’

PS  The ashes did dive into the right hand rough after 50 yds – confirming beyond doubt it was Mel we were saluting!