St Andrews -The Old Course – The one true test or Ringo Starr?

I have been fortunate enough to play The Old Course many times. It runs, like a the logo on a stick of rock, through my golfing life. Not with the same importance or emotional attachment as some other courses – Carluke -North Berwick -Fulford Heath – Muirfield but still an important marker.

First time was as a cocky teenager, well into single figures, and the last time was August last year. The most special occasion was in July 2005 on the Monday after that year’s championship finished there. Tigers second open and tenth major. We were allowed to play from the same tees and with the same pin positions as the last round. Extraordinary. Lucky to be invited and a fantastic treat. But, and it sounds ungrateful somehow, I have never been totally sure how I rate it as a golf course.

In the ranking section of the blog it is no 1 of all the courses I have played since I began this Odyssey. Above Loch Lomond, Turnberry and Silloth on Solway. I haven’t done the detailed review on the Old Course yet as I want to see how the best players in the world (ex Rory) play it this week before I finally opine. But! But! I have a few questions.

  1. If The Old Course is the one true test does that means that all the other Open venues are lesser examinations – a bit like a GCSE in media studies. Can that be right?
  2. Is the Old Course the best golf course in the world?  I am tempted to paraphrase John Lennon when he was asked if Ringo Starr was the best drummer in the world. The Old Course is probably not the best golf course in St Andrews as a golf course.  The New is a better track in my opinion.  But what the Old Course has is history.  Layers and layers of history.  It has history in the same quantities as Glastonbury has mud or rock festivals in Scotland have midges.  And that weight of history brushes aside any doubts about how good a course it is. The history trumps every other consideration I guess.So I will leave my final analysis until next week and content myself with trying to pick some good value bets for this week in consultation with my sons.  So far we have discussed Coetzee Willet Fisher Fleetwood Warren Donaldson Olesen All can start well and can be birdie machines before fading!!!  So bet and lay if they start like sprinters in the St Ledger.

Chambers Bay and the Tiger that Wasn’t

My cabin fever is getting worse as I count down the days to my op. I am nowhere near being able to play golf, or even go for a long walk. Never in the field of human moaning has so much been said by me about so little.   I need outlets for my frustrations and a series of sporting events has provided that and also demonstrated the evolutionary need to create patterns where none really exist.  (Diversion – the ability of the brain to create patterns is an evolutionary plus. The example generally given is looking at sunlight through long grass.  The different shades can seem like the stripes on a tiger. In the vast majority of cases it isn’t a tiger. But in evolutionary terms seeing it as one and therefore avoiding that part of the Savannah pays off because the alternative strategy of ignoring the pattern loses badly when it is a tiger.)

So it wasn’t too difficult to create one to link the SPFL plays offs , Royal Ascot and the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay. In this case it was the number 6 – actually lots of 6s.  

 

 

Motherwell v Rangers -The SPFL play offs  

Unbelievable!! We should never have found ourselves in that situation and I suppose neither should Rangers.   The tension, the real prospect of dropping down to the Championship after 31 years in the Premier League and our complete capitulation against Rangers over the last 10 years didn’t bode well.   But!  But! Our greatest displays since the cup win in 1991.  3 nil up at Ibrox.  Missing an open goal to go 4 ahead.   Rangers getting a late goal.   Our fans singing throughout and silencing the Huns. Twist and shout in our section of the ground.   The build up to the second leg at Fir Park.   Restricting the Rangers allocation so for the first time I can remember we outnumbered them at Fir Park by about 4 to 1. My boy Wills excitement at the game.  But most of all the complete hush that settled over the ground when Marvin Johnston’s deflected shot spun towards their goal. Every Motherwell supporter on their feet watching, willing it in. Then the exhalation as their goalie pushed it into his own net and the sound was switched back on!!!! Unforgettable. One of the best moments in my football life. And the triumphal ramping up to 3-0 making the aggregate 6-1.  The first of the 6s

 

 

Royal Ascot

I hadn’t been at Royal Ascot since I moved back to Scotland.   Too far away?  Too busy to go? But Amanda and I had a standing invitation from her two oldest friends, Carolyn and Peter.   School pals and married for ever.  Peter has a very successful business refurbishing offices and has a box at Ascot which he uses to entertain customers.  This year we said yes to their kind offer and went down – hobbled down – for the Friday.  It was nostalgic, in the slowest way possible, to crawl by car from Heathrow to the racecourse and pass golf courses I had played in the 80/90s.  Wentworth, The Berkshire and Sunningdale.   It was also interesting to observe a new social approach to a day out at the Royal week.   As we sat in the traffic we saw a large number of other travellers leave their transport to attend to their ablutions. Men I have seen do this. But women??!!  Into the bushes or running to the pub just outside the town.   Then sprint again in high heels and tight dresses to catch up with their cars or buses.  

 

But eventually we got through the toilet traffic and were deposited in car park 3 -just across from the Grandstand.  And never has a word been so appropriate.  Very, very grand indeed.  Spacious with fantastic views from our box which is just along from the Royal enclosure.  A full description of the day would take up far too much space but

1- we did see the Royal family at close quarters.   The Duke of Edinburgh looking particularly grumpy.   Very much in Victor Meldrew mode

2- the atmosphere on a bright warm day straight out of a modern day Merchant / Ivory movie

3- the singing at the end led by the Band of the.  … Out of a musical. So patriotic. So British so English. )

But the most incredible aspect was that we had 6 straight winners.   We went through the card!!!

Unbelievable given my family’s betting history.   My father and two uncles, Jack and Archie, had a cumulative 150 of betting between them and together never had 6 winners in all that time!!  In fact I doubt very much if they had 3 between them.  

For some reason however the curse of the McMahons was lifted that day and as I went back to the Tote win for a sixth consecutive time I was only thinking of them and how proud / amazed they would have been.  

The second 6.

 

Chambers Bay – the third 6

Watching another major without having played this year was strangely disorientating but not as disorientating as my first look at the course.   Certainly unusual.   My first thought – it’s a set from Mad Max Fury Road but stripped of extras (ie spectators) but unlike some / most of the competitors I warmed to it.  However I don’t think I will be flying to Seattle anytime soon to take it on.   Looks far too dangerous - literally dangerous Made for interesting viewing though and gave me the thread for the blog.  The tiger that wasn’t.  In this case Tiger Woods.  It was sad to see such a talented player putting from some distance out on a number of holes instead of chipping.   The man with perhaps the greatest short game ever reduced to sort of shot I might play.  That’s not Tiger.  It’s only an illusion caused by the sunlight and terrain.  

 

I couldn’t find a bet I really fancied at the start of the event so left it alone but my older boy Jim nearly had the mother of all golf bets.   Like me he tries to find long odds value and decided to bet Louis Oosthuizen after his first round 77!!  At 350 to 1 Two 66 later the bet looked less insane.   If Oosthuizen had shot one lower in his last round ie another 66 he would have forced a play off with Speith and Jim would have had the betting story of this millennium.   So more 6s than you could shake a stick at.   Is that part of an overall cosmic design or random?  Vote now at ‘Numerology tells us how the world works.co.nut’

 

On to St Andrews – my next subject.  

Walking on the Moon

At present it feels as if I have as much chance of a moon walk as a game of golf.  A setback in my rehab means I now need a minor op to try and resolve the issue.  Never having been ill in my life (hangovers excepted) this is difficult to accept.  I have always been able to take part in any sport I wanted without considering physical limitations.  Having been so keyed up to play this year it is hugely disappointing.  So whether it’s giant steps or one small step – I am not on the course.

To compound my sporting misery Motherwell have fallen into the play offs and now have to beat Rangers over two legs to keep a 30 year run in the Premier going.  I have managed to hobble to the last two away games where our performance has been even limper than my walking.  But I know we will prevail!!  It would be beyond an annus horriblus if both my golf and my football team collapsed in the same year.

I have not wasted the additional time this enforced lack of play has provided – but entered an almost zen-like state to contemplate some of the deeper mysteries of life.

A.  Why are the adverts for gambling on TV universally appalling? (see previous blog).  Never have truer words been spoken than Ray Winstons almost Churchillian advice “Sometimes you’ve just gotta take the money and run” which I guess is what his agent said when selling the gig to Ray.

B.  How can QPR spend such an astronomical amount on wages for a group of players who look about as interested in putting in a shift as the Iraqi troops defending Ramadi?

C.  Did I actually see Ed Miliband unveil the Edstone or was I in a transcendental state of grace?

I have set myself two tasks before I have the surgery.

1.  Complete the course ranking section of the blog.  (I have had good feedback on the courses covered so far and any other comments would be welcome).

2.  Set up a thought experiment which I can then try out when I am fit again.  This revolves round one of the most famous golf quotes - attributed to Sam Snead I think - “You drive for show and putt for dough”, or in my case “You drive for show and putt badly”.  The recent form of Rory McIlroy pre the PGA has made me question that in part.  Rory looks to be the best, one of the best, drivers of the ball ever.  If I was to play each non par 3 on my home course Glasgow Gailes from the spots Rory would drive to at his best, say 315 yds on average and straight, what would I score?  That has got me really interested.  My estimate is low 70s, perhaps sub 70 on a good putting day – (another theoretical rather than practical possibility).  I will do it as soon as I  recover – something else to look forward to.

 

Apologies – Normal service will be resumed !!

After a number of years when the fire to play in the early Spring was at best banked, it is galling to find that my desire to get started this year is stymied by illness.  Flu then an inflammation means I have been restricted to hitting half wedges in the garden so far.

A lot of my friends have told me that my golfing career is beginning to look like a mirror image of Tiger Woods.  On reflection they are correct.

Neither of us has won a Major for over 6 years and our perfect swings are presently blighted by glute and other problems.  My glute issue is particularly severe.  I need to get off it and play again!!

In the forced interregnum I have been trying to answer some difficult philosophical questions to keep sane.

1- Will Mario Balotelli ever do something on a football field which would suggest he is worth even 10% of the money various ‘great’ managers have spunked on him?

2- Has there been an episode of Masterchef in which the most commonly used word by the judges is not ‘Yummy’?

3- If you multiply the number of violent deaths in Game of Thrones by the number of times a UK politician answers a question directly or says ‘actually I don’t know’ is the outcome always zero?

It will be a huge relief to escape from this philosophising and get back to the much simpler pleasures of three putting again.

As General MacArthur famously said after double bogeying the last hole in the Philippines Open to  lose it to an unranked Japanese ‘I shall return’.

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!