The Secret of Golf
I’ve played over 500 courses, written countless more golfing articles, covered each of the four Major championships several times over and spoken to dozens of the game’s most distinguished characters, but it wasn’t until I played at Limpsfield Chart that I realised what golf, in it’s purest form, is all about. That simple delight gleaned from moving a ball over a piece of land from A to B through hitting it with a stick.
When I was a boy at Woking, I was wrapped up in the complications of grip, stance and posture. I took lessons, had a fiercely strong grip and a dream that one day I’d clear the heather and reach the freedom of a fairway. Golf was already a seemingly insurmountable challenge tinged with frustration.
As a teenager those same questions of technique remained, but were fuelled by a desire to compete and get my handicap down. Winning club trophies, beating ‘the best player’, carving out a reputation as an amateur of note were all reasons I found myself pitching up at the club to play.
Sure, I was aware back then that this game, which can be played for a lifetime, was quite a bit more than ‘just a sport’. I knew that a glorious summer’s evening spent on a classic links with the warm breeze in my hair and the smell of the seaside in my nostrils was as therapeutic as it was beguiling.
But it wasn’t until I approached golf as a writer that I was introduced to the concept that a secret existed that could fill the souls of its protagonists much like the Holy Spirit fills the hearts of religious men. Suddenly, I could imagine Old Tom Morris learning the game as a wee bairn among the tweed-coated and whisky-breathed men of St Andrews. I was entranced by the words of that most famous of course architects, Dr Alister Mackenzie, when he wrote in 1920 that
“…famous holes and greens, are fascinating to the golfer by reason of their shape, their situation, and the character of their modelling. When these elements obey the fundamental laws of balance, of harmony, and fine proportion, they give rise to what we call beauty. This excellence of design is more felt than fully realised by the player, but nevertheless it is constantly exercising a subconscious influence upon him, and in course of time he grows to admire such a course as all works of beauty are eventually felt and admired.”
Limpsfield Chart is just nine holes. It’s a course I might have scoffed at in my youth, but it’s one that I’ve come to love. I don’t carry a driver because there is barely a need for one. The holes are not long and you never play there and feel that you’re up against a heavyweight who could knock you out with a listless jab.
Limpsfield Chart doesn’t want to knock you out, but it does enjoy trying to confuse you with questions. It fires them at you with the sort of joyful enthusiasm that my dog shows every time I release her from the lead so that she can arc, with the speed of a far flung boomerang, across a the fairway and back to my bag.
Thinking in bed one night about the opening hole, I was entranced by a dichotomy that exists there. Is this a good hole or a bad one? It’s a dogleg par 4 that can be played with a 6 iron then a wedge. In years gone by I’d have considered this decidedly underwhelming. You want an opening hole that demands at least a good 3 wood followed by a good 7 iron to a green protected by cavernous bunkers.
Wait! This is where I’ve been getting it wrong. What’s the problem with a 6 iron? Golf, being a game of infinite psychological guile, finds a way to make this opening stroke hazardous enough. Hold the club off through impact and I can strike down the line of the trees on the left and see my gentle fade land in the ideal spot just short of a road that crosses the fairway. But a pull hits the trees, a poor strike lands short in heather and too much cut turns the wedge into a tricky 7 iron approach to a small target. If you’re lucky enough to have mastered a controlled draw then the fairway over the road is accessible, but for most players such an aggressive line is an unnecessary gamble.
With so much to consider before the game has even started, your strategic senses are on full alert which is why this gentle 9-holer is such great fun. To my mind, seven of the nine are strategic wonders in the sense that they require a plentiful degree of cunning to make opportunities to score more realistic. Only the second and the fourth are straightforward par 4s, even though the second calls for a tee shot over an old slate mine.
I’m not sure that reading about strategy makes for sparkling prose unless of course you’ve played the course. Better then to dance across the surface with a few expertly considered observations. The short 3rd has a subtle plateau in the green that can sabotage your path to par and only the foolish go long on the 4th because the chip back down a vicious slope is devilish indeed.
The fifth is the hardest hole. A par 3 of more than 200 yards through a funnel of trees to a green that slopes right to left. Miss on top side and par becomes a distant wish.
The sixth, for my money, ranks as the most strategic on the course, for the simple reason that there are so many ways in which it can be played. The most basic is the driver from the tee straight onto the green, an option only open to the thunderous hitter. There’s the element of The Belfry’s 10th about it when you consider the accuracy that is needed to pull it off.
The Sixth Hole
The entrance to the green is a bottleneck between trees of juggernaut proportions, so depending on the flag position, perfect placement on the fairway is paramount.
It’s almost impossible to turn the three shotter that is the seventh into an eagle opportunity. After a precise drive, a looping draw of great length would be required to reach this par 5 in two.
A trio of trees, known as the three bears, sit in the centre of the eighth fairway and must be avoided, while the green is the best on the course with huge awkward swales. And one might be forgiven for resorting to a sat nav to locate the hidden putting surface on the ninth, tucked away over shrub and gorse to an enclosed glade on the left.
It’s when you think deeply about these holes, and as your relationship with them becomes intimate through countless journeys from tee to green, that you start to realise how the astute golfer must consider so much more than is immediately obvious. Modern design tends to map out a single route which, for some, can only be accessed through sizeable hitting from both tee and fairway. This requirement for length, in my opinion, should only be asked of a golfer on an infrequent basis. For golf to be fun, it needs to pose a challenge that tests guile, strategy, accuracy, control, touch, technique and length in relatively equal measures. Limpsfield does that.
Admittedly, there are areas of the game that are not tested quite as much, but almost all those, with the exception of the 120-yard bunker shot, are related to power. For the elite golfer, who drives it well over 270 yards and can strike a searing long iron with three yards of draw, Limpsfield may not be enough. But the only golfers I’ve seen capable of such skill have been ones who are paid for their perfection. For the enthusiastic amateur, the heathland tapestry that is Limpsfield Chart is cut from the most colourful of cloth.