The sport of golf has long been associated with social snobbery, with patriarchal attitudes and other reactionary values. The fact that US President Donald Trump is reputed to have played over 100 rounds of golf at a variety of the courses that he owns in the fifteen months since his inauguration seems, well, par for the course. Actually his relatively liberal predecessor Barack Obama also played an average of over 40 rounds a year over his eight years of presidency and, going back, Presidents Eisenhower in the 1950s and Wilson earlier in the twentieth century are documented to have devoted even more time to the game. Maybe the reality is more benign, or at least interesting: the most powerful men on earth seem to feel the need to apply themselves to an occupation that is reliably humbling. Even well-practised pros may miss the fairway on their drive, land their pitch in the sand bunker or fail to sink a three foot putt. The rest of us, including Presidents, are just more consistent in our errors.

There is moreover an inbuilt feature of club golf that produces equality of opportunity which the most fervent of egalitarians can only applaud: handicapping, the award of extra strokes from the outset of a contest in accordance with players’ relative proficiency (or, more precisely, deficiency) in past performance.

Crude forms of handicapping can be applied in a number of sports: I have played in parent-child cricket games where the dad is required to bat with a slimmed-down piece of willow and in mixed age football games where only the under-tens are allowed to score. But these limitations generally involve a distortion of the competition. The only handicap that might equalise a tennis match between myself and Roger Federer would be if he were required to play left-handed (and blindfold too, I suspect). But put me on a golf course with Rory McIlroy and give me two strokes a hole, and on one of my good days he might have to have one of his good days to beat me. Thus juniors can play with seniors, women with men – though it is standard procedure to allocate (red) advance tees to women so that the superior hitting power of men (on average) does not give them a distorting length advantage – and the generally less proficient can mix with their technical betters in competitive equality.

Golf courses and the clubs that provide them should therefore, you would think, be centres of inclusivity.

It has to be admitted that that has not always been the case with certain local clubs. Rye still maintains its supposed social prestige and exclusivity by requiring any applicant for membership first to earn a handicap of 18 or less (21 if you’re a woman) then to obtain the support of ten existing members, and it still reserves the right to decline membership to any applicant deemed unsuitable on unspecified grounds.  The two Bexhill clubs, Highwoods and Cooden Beach, which at one time operated similarly restrictive entry, have liberalised substantially, each offering quite generous membership packages to under-30s (agewise) in the realisation that they need to widen their demographic range. But with due respect to them and to the re-branded Hastings and St Leonards (formerly Beauport Park) club at the western end of the Ridge which under recent new management offers the cheapest membership and green fees of any in the area, these days it is Sedlescombe – boasting a well-reputed golf school staffed by a number of pro tutors, a driving range and chipping area, several putting greens and a well-patronised restaurant as well as access straight off the A21 out of town – that seems to offer the most inclusive golfing experience.

Interestingly, neither of the current captains at Sedlescombe, Des Malcolm of the men and Angela Chivers of the ladies, took up the game in any whole-hearted way until around six years ago. Des, then aged 47 and by profession a sign language interpreter, says he had never lifted a club before organising a social outing for parents at his children’s school. Nine of them, none with any previous experience, turned up at the Sedlescombe range one afternoon for a half-hour lesson in basics, and were then sent out onto the junior (par 3) course to try to put what they had learnt into practice. That was all it took to get Des hooked: he bought himself a set of clubs, took some more lessons and became a regular on the course.

What does he like about golf? “It’s when you connect perfectly, the sound it makes off the club, and the feeling of getting the ball where you want it to be.”

In four years he brought his handicap down to 15 (though it’s back up to 18 at the moment). He is happy to play with anyone, from the club pros playing off scratch (i.e. nil handicap) to 28-handicap wreckers, and with all ages. “I admire the young ones    the way they improve so fast and the distances they can hit.  But I also respect the seniors    they don’t hit anything big but just put the ball straight down the middle.  Same with the best women, the way they just play the game naturally.” And if there’s no-one to go out with he’ll play a round on his own.

Angela has a husband David who has played golf regularly at Rye throughout their married life, and four sons who first learned at the little nine-hole course at Vinehall School. She had the odd sortie there with them then but didn’t play seriously until she retired from her law career.  “I didn’t have time before,” she says. “But I like being outside, I like the walking, and it’s sociable.”  She plays off a handicap of 30 but clearly doesn’t feel intimidated mixing with those with more honed talents. The functions of the captain are as much social as sporting, and there is a committee that includes some former captains to help her.

Isn’t it a little ironic that she has joined her husband’s sport in retirement only to find that they now play 16 miles apart? “Oh, David won’t play a non-links course,”
she says. “and even if I were good enough to play at Rye, I wouldn’t.  
I prefer the set up here.”

 

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