Journeymen golfers of the current era are earning millions more than even multiple major champions of the past. A fact, writes George Oldham, we should actually celebrate
Things change. My dad, who was born in 1900, three years before manned flight, gained his school-leaving certificate at 12 (if you were bright you could leave early), and was apprenticed at Beyer Peacock’s engineering works in Gorton.
By the time he was 18 he was building and racing motorbikes at Belle Vue and, by the age of 21, he was a foreman building aeroplanes at AV Roe. At 40, as chief estimator, he was a lead figure in running the Lancaster bomber programme.
What, you might fairly ask, has this to do with golf?
Well, after doing his bit, in the day, to fight fascism, in the evenings, as Honorary Secretary he ran Reddish Vale Golf Club. (I don’t know what his honorarium was – perhaps free membership.) As such, in 1942, he persuaded the committee to sell him a greensman’s cottage, for £250, to escape from the German bombers on their regular flight path over our former, rather grander residence.
At the bottom of our garden was a small hut which served as the pro’s shop, in which, as a very small boy, I would spend many an hour watching the pro do what most pros did in those immediate post-war years; fitting grips and whipping heads on to pre-war shafts and re-painting found golf balls found and delivered by caddies. Nothing very remarkable about any of that in those times of austerity unimaginable today. What was remarkable, however, was the pro’s name – Alf Perry, the man who won the Open Championship at Muirfield in 1935, finishing 10 shots ahead of the favourite, Henry Cotton (both pictured below).
An Open champion painting used golf balls in a shed in a working class-suburb of a nondescript northern town; some contrast with the life of Florida mansions and private jets of any number of today’s tour pros without a major to their name. There is a wider aspect to this contrast, to which I shall return, but the story is also specific to the circumstances in which Alf found himself.
When he won the Claret Jug in 1935, his prize money was £100, out of a total pot of £500. He had arrived at Muirfield, not by helicopter but by train from Leatherhead, where as club professional, he had taken a week’s holiday to qualify for, and then play in the final four rounds of the tournament. Nor was he ferried to the course in a courtesy Mercedes; indeed, Henry Longhurst wrote at the time that Perry “was last seen sitting alone at Drem railway station, waiting for the train home and with the Claret Jug on his knee.”
This was not an age in which professional golfers were lionised. Indeed most clubs still barred them from using the clubhouse. Perry was just fortunate to have a more interesting job than most. He was, and modestly regarded himself as, an ordinary man, and as such, was called up for the Second World War in 1939. On his return in 1945, he was told that his position as club professional at Leatherhead had been given to someone else; hence his taking up the post at Reddish Vale.
I’m sure that he could have done better, but he also could have done far worse; Reddish Vale (pictured below) was, and is, a fine course, despite its insalubrious surroundings, and was one of the earliest to be laid out by Alistair Mackenzie, and its 16th hole was rated by Henry Cotton as one of the finest he had ever played.
Anyway, Alf stayed as its pro for three years, returning to Leatherhead and the more comfortable south in 1949, where he remained until his retirement in 1972.
It’s a salutary tale of how, even in my lifetime, times have changed so radically, and, I would argue, for the better.
We live in strange times; the whole planet and its occupants are better cared for than ever in its history. By every measurable criterion, we are outperforming our past, yet the doom merchants, and social media, would have us believe that we are going to hell in a handcart.
Extinction Rebellion would take us back to the austerity of the 40s in order to “save the planet”, and Corbynistas would take us back to the strikes and inflation of the 70s in their determination to create a Marxist-Leninist paradise. Having lived through both decades, I can only say “thanks but no thanks” to putting the clock back.
What amazes me is how widespread this miserabilist trope is. Take the common complaint that sportsmen earn ‘obscene’ amounts of dosh. Putting aside the fact that the aforesaid dosh comes from performance of individual excellence, globalisation means quite simply that if Tiger’s name sells $200 million worth of merchandise, then he has to be worth $100m in endorsements. The last Manchester United vs. City derby had 1 billion viewers worldwide, translating, perhaps, into £10bn income. In that context, Vincent Kompany earning perhaps as much as £10,000 for his night’s work, has to be fair trade.
I first stood on the terraces at Maine Road in 1946, and in my time I have been fortunate to enjoy the City of the Revie Plan, the City of Lee, Bell and Summerbee, and Pep’s current City, by far the best of all, playing football the like of which, together with that of Liverpool, we have never seen.
Some naysayers cry ‘oil money’, as if this negates the results of investment, not only in the team but in East Manchester, which has been transformed. Others criticise Liverpool’s purchase of the most expensive goalkeeper and centre-back in Premier League history, ignoring the old adage that quality costs. I prefer to enjoy the privilege of having watched the most exciting and competitive battle in league history.
And when I follow Rory down the fairway, do I waste time begrudging the fact that in his professional lifetime, he will doubtless earn a thousand times more than I? No, not for one minute; I’m just happy to glory in his achievements and more than pleased that, unlike Alf Perry, his reward from society has not been to carry out menial tasks for a pittance.