My first golf club was Louth in Lincolnshire. Royal Louth to its patrons. According to the website it is a ‘well groomed parkland’ with ‘panoramic views over the Lincolnshire wolds’.
This may well all be true but, for me, it was home for my salad days and, as such, holds a special place in my heart. I make no apology for getting misty eyed about the place and, for me, golf clubs and indeed golfers, will always be judged by my early years at Louth.
It helped that the course bordered the football pitches of my school. It didn’t help my GCSEs or A Levels but it did make it easy to hop over the fence, skip double science and get stuck into a thousand laps of the putting green. My cohorts in those days were Jim Guise; alpha male, long driver, great match player, someone we all wanted to be, Ian O’Malley; purist, towering iron shots, sufferer of the chyips and a tremendous drinker.
Then there was Simon Moody; the world’s greatest putter, designated driver and owner of no jeans and my best friend Paul Spence; a proper golfer, scratch in the days when it meant something and undefeated in four years of eight-hole matches versus me.
We were rebels, anarchists of the system but, instead of sniffing glue or nicking car stereos, we got high on lime and soda and going 10 deep in the Texas Scramble. For a teenager the golf club offered complete freedom, we chatted and competed with adults, we sat with them in the bar, we were free of the apron strings of our mums for the first time but always in a sanitised, safe environment.
The golf club then was like a giant soft play for young adults, our parents could dump us there safe in the knowledge that the worst trouble we were going to get in was a 6/1 on the par-5 18th. There were no drugs, no street corners to sit on and we couldn’t fall out over girls because there weren’t any.
Our handicaps tumbled together, we were the scourge of the club majors, naturally there were four, all 36-holers, all board comps – The Grimsby 101, The Tathwell Trophy, The Club Championship and The Founders.
I never won the Tathwell but it remains my favourite club tournament of all time. It was played on a Sunday and on the Saturday night there was a player auction in the bar. All of the field were available for purchase, the money went into a pot, split between the buyer (often a syndicate) and the player. It was amazing, we were 16 or 17 years old and always among the favourites. We would all be sold for hundreds of pounds; I swear this is where the IPL got the idea from.
In those golden days we would pool our winnings in the Saturday morning swindle (£2 in, 50p bits and birdies) which would pay for lunch, and then go in the bandit or a horse and, when we got older, those winnings would contribute towards our night out. It felt like we never lost, as we lived for free on chip butties and Stella.
I can still vividly remember all of the characters from those days; Alan Blundell, the pro who passed away this year, Dave Parkinson, ex Manchester United footballer and local chip shop owner and Peter Whitworth, a golfing obsessive and my first golfing mentor. It was 22 years ago but the summer of ‘95 remains the best six weeks of my life.
I have never been able to replicate this in my clubs since being too busy, having too much work and, now, too many children. Golf still dominates my life thankfully but now it is through my job, or Twitter, or gawping at the PGA Tour, or a snatched half-hour practice. In those days home was the golf club, we lived and breathed the club but it was the people who made it, we could have been playing bowls.
Handicaps, scores and who won what has all faded into insignificance, it is the memories of those people that stick.
Golf club numbers are now declining with cheaper green fees elsewhere and more accessible clubs making people ask themselves why they are keeping up a club membership. We often make the argument that you should be a member of a club to keep a proper handicap, to play in competitions. That is all good stuff but really you want to be a member of a club to belong to something, to feel like you are part of a place and for me a big part of me will always be at Louth.
There are clubs out there that foster this mentality – Cleveland is like a pub with a course next to it and it is a thriving, vibrant club in a working-class area. Maybe we are focused too much on social media, marketing, flexible membership and faster formats. Maybe we should just try and make people feel part of something, invest time in being good members and the balancing of the books will look after itself.