December 18 2010
If you find you’ve overdone it during the party season, a bracing seaside walk is a good way to clear the head. If you are a true sporting eccentric, you might even like to combine your constitutional with a round of midwinter golf amid the frost, fog and icy winds of the Sussex coast.
Mark Twain allegedly described golf as “a good walk spoiled” but that’s not how the members of the Oxford and Cambridge Golfing Society see it. Every year in the first week of January, past and present golfing “blues”, with ages stretching from 18 to 80, congregate at Rye Golf Club in East Sussex to participate in the annual ritual of the President’s Putter. The knockout tournament, which takes place over four days, dates from the 1920s and is one of the most cherished amateur sporting events in Britain. The putter in question is a hickory-shafted club sitting in a glass case in the clubhouse at Rye. It was used by Hugh Kirkaldy, winner of the Open Championship in 1891, and a gentleman called John Low also played with it when reaching the semifinals of the Amateur Championship six years later.
Golf’s respect for etiquette and strict adherence to the rules of the game is an integral part of its charm, especially in the UK where the sport was invented. Some pampered modern professionals, used to manicured fairways and perennially clement weather, might recoil in horror at the idea of playing links golf over frozen terrain on some of the coldest days of the year. But the 130-170 entrants in the President’s Putter, played in a spirit of “serious fun”, as they describe it, scoff at such namby-pamby notions. Indeed, many of them seem to relish the extreme conditions – even sleet, snow and a gale-force wind blowing in off the channel. The more testing the weather, the greater the challenge and the more they can look forward to a restorative malt whisky or sloe gin in the warmth of the clubhouse when their round is over.
The standard of the golf is surprisingly high and past contestants include Peter Dawson, the current secretary of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, which organises the Open, and the former England cricket captain Ted Dexter, who won the Putter twice in the 1980s. There is always a strong overseas presence, especially from the US, and in January this year CNN even sent a reporter (who was bemused but intrigued) to cover the action. But despite the press interest, there is no great fanfare about the winner, who simply receives a silver medal from the Society president and is allowed to attach his winning ball to the putter in the glass case.
The occasionally Wodehousian tone to proceedings may seem light years away from the high stakes world of professional golf. But what the amateurs at Rye – like countless other recreational golfers up and down the country – have in spades is true passion for the game. It was a similarly intense fervour, combined with magnificent team spirit, that enabled Europe’s golfers to win back the Ryder Cup from the Americans at Celtic Manor in October. When the sporting history of 2010 comes to be written, those emotional four days may well be seen as the highlight, eclipsing the overblown football World Cup in South Africa. The US Open champion Graeme McDowell, who clinched the winning putt in Wales, looks overpriced to be voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year at 9-2 with Victor Chandler.