April 04 2011
The US Masters, invariably the most exciting of golf’s four Major championships, gets under way in Georgia on Thursday April 7. As well as following the fortunes of the world’s marquee players, fans will also be relishing the annual visual feast that the Masters provides. The Augusta National course is famous for its profusion of beautiful flowering shrubs, including magnolia, azalea and jasmine. There’s also a rather special tree on the 17th hole, a local Loblolly Pine, about 210 yards from the tee. It’s known as the Eisenhower Pine in honour of the former president, who was an Augusta member and spent so much time clattering his ball against the perfidious perennial that he eventually suggested, unsuccessfully, that it should be cut down.
Eisenhower is by no means the only US head of state to have enjoyed golf. Indeed, 15 of the past 18 presidents have played the game, the most talented being JFK, who was on the team at Harvard and, despite persistent back problems, had a smooth and graceful swing. George W Bush and his father were both conspicuous golfers, as was Bill Clinton, while Barack Obama – initially tagged as a basketball addict – has taken to the sport with élan and already played more rounds while in office than his predecessor.
But if golf is valued as a political skill at the highest level in Washington, it’s not quite the same story on the other side of the pond. David Cameron claims to play “a bit”, though there have been few sightings of him with a club in his hand. The prime minister has, perhaps rashly, accepted an invitation to play a round with President Obama but the date for this duel has not been revealed and Cameron has joked that he will need a few lessons first with Europe’s Ryder Cup-winning captain Colin Montgomerie. At least the PM seems more interested in the game than his predecessor, Gordon Brown, who despite being a native of Fife – home to some of the finest links courses in the world – has been conspicuous by his absence at places such as Carnoustie and St Andrews.
One senior British political figure with a genuine passion for golf is the former cabinet secretary Lord Butler, who is a member of St Enodoc, the exquisite course near Rock in Cornwall, not far from where Cameron goes on holiday. St Enodoc’s ancient Norman church is where John Betjeman is buried and the setting inspired the poet to write his famous verse Seaside Golf, which begins with the lines, “How straight it flew, how long it flew,/It clear’d the rutty track/And soaring, disappeared from view/Beyond the bunker’s back”. For the club’s 100th-anniversary dinner in 1990, Lord Butler came up with his own witty pastiche of Betjeman, which began, “How low it flew, how left it flew,/It hit the dry stone wall/And plunging, disappeared from view/A shining, brand-new ball”.
Many amateurs – including US presidents and, quite possibly, David Cameron, who played at St Enodoc last August – might echo those sentiments. Of course, the professionals at the Masters will be striving mightily to avoid all bunkers, pine trees and dry-stone walls. Tiger Woods, an uneasy favourite, is not the force of old and I’d far rather back the reigning champion Phil Mickelson, who consistently excels at Augusta and has been trading at 7-1 with Fitzdares.