The joys of going solo
I was on my own the first – and so far only – time I had a hole-in-one. You could call that a mixed blessing.
I avoided the obligatory bar tab, but, as the ball went into the hole, there was a bit of an “If a tree falls in the woods…” moment. I knew that my 8- iron had pitched straight into the hole at the par-three 12th at Diss Golf Club in Suffolk, six years ago, but my celebrations felt slightly make-believe. Who was I celebrating for? The group in front of me, who’d not long since teed off on the 13th, had, with tragi-comic timing, disappeared over the hillside behind the green mere seconds before the ball slam-dunked into the cup. A very small part of me had a mind to chase after them, shouting “Did you see that? DID YOU? PLEASE TELL ME YOU SAW THAT”, but I was a relatively new member at the club, and, with awareness growing by the day about my selection of ridiculous flared trousers and outdated equipment, I wasn’t all that keen to enhance my reputation for erratic behaviour still further.
A proper golfer will tell you that they don’t actually care that much about holes-in-one; that the mere quality of being overexcited by them marks you out as a novice who doesn’t understand the game’s true perks and tests. This is, for the most part, nonsense. The holes-in-one at the club I played at as a teenager were the stuff of legend: at least as much of a guarantee of your immortality as a club player as getting your name on one of the wooden plaques in the men’s bar. I can think right now of at least two men I haven’t seen for 20 years whose names I only remember because they holed in one on the short par-four 18th. When my friend Mousey crested the hill on the par-three 8th and found that his 7-iron shot had dropped into the hole, he burst into hysterical tears. I never had a moment of my own to match this excitement, and I’ll be honest with you: it stung just a little bit more than I let on.
The law of averages stated that, when I did finally hole-in-one, I was going to be on my own. I have played an awful lot of solo golf over the years. I enjoy it. Hugely. In fact, the single most distinguishing fact about my hole-in-one might be that it is the only time in my life that I have been sad to have been playing golf alone.
I suppose part of this might be a result of my only child status.
Before I started playing golf, in my early teens, I was equally obsessed with football. Before a televised match started, having arranged my parents’ big floor cushions painstakingly, and selected my snacks, I would shut the living room curtains and play my own version of the match, acting out all the roles. This required a rather overactive imagination, and I don’t quite remember how I filled in such details as tackles and saves, but it was one of the joys of golf that, when I started playing my own solo fantasy matches, with one ball as Seve Ballesteros and the other as Fred Couples, there were no gaps: I played the course exactly as my heroes would have.
Would I have imagined myself still having those games as a 30- something adult? Perhaps not. But I have, and an informal poll conducted around most men of my age range suggests I’m far from the only one.
I recently played golf with the actor Keith Allen. Allen is famed for his gregarious, hellraising nature. During the mid-late ’90s, he was so ubiquitous around Britpop gigs in London, you could have been forgiven for thinking he’d cloned himself. With no shortage of potential playing partners, he’s the most sociable and affable of golfers – a man who won’t even complain when a photographer stands on his line or talks during his putting stroke – but when I ask him what his favourite thing about golf is, he says “Probably being on my own on the course”. When Allen (who’s now 48) first discovered the game, in his 30s, before driving off to wherever he was filming or performing he would consult his map, to see if there was a golf course he could visit on the way and get lost in the solipsistic, undiluted challenge of man against course.
During one of his recent solo golfing excursions, a member of a fourball lagging behind Allen marched over to him and asked him if he knew he had “no standing on the course”. You hear this a lot as a solo golfer, usually from golfers playing in bigger groups, who you are not troubling in the slightest, but who have seen you hit a drive or iron shot whose quality their fragile ego finds slightly troubling.
This is one of golf’s most perverse rules. Just because I’m a huge fan of solo golf, it doesn’t mean I don’t also hold group golf sacred, in its own way, that I don’t think it’s potentially the greatest social sport in the world, but there is something pure and sanctified about being alone against the course, without interference. Cheat here, in an environment where it’s so easy to cheat, and you really are only cheating yourself. Even in matchplay, we are always ultimately playing against the course, so the solo golfer is, in this way, the ultimate golfer. We should stand back, in awe at the purity of his battle with nature, and give him the ultimate standing, not belittle him. After all, it’s not as if he’s going to hold us up, unless he is the most obstinate and unembarrassable of characters.
When I’m alone on a golf course, it is my instinct to get myself out of the way of other people as quickly as possible, and to skip holes to do so if necessary. This is out of the same human impulse that will make a child alone on a playground become sheepish and self-conscious when a gang of older boys arrive, but also because I am keen to get back into a situation where it is just me, the fairway, the green, the bunkers, and the weather, with no extraneous influences. I’ve missed a few things about being a member of a golf club, in the five years since I last was – the anticipation of the first tee in a medal, the freedom to practise when I like, the idea of a trusted time of week when other players of a similar ability might be around for a spontaneous game – but none of it feels like as much as a gaping hole in my life than those late summer evenings, on a tree-lined course, alone, partitioned off from the rest of humanity.
I’m a naturally sociable person – one of those folk who (much, probably, to the detriment of his writing career) will go slightly insane if he goes more than 24 hours without sharing some kind of beverage with another human being – but those late evenings provided my much-needed contrast: a point where I would feel no need to check my phone; where I could be entirely in the present.
I experienced a version of the same thing a couple of years back, when I attended meditation classes. The bonuses of golf over meditation, of course, are that nobody is instructing you to imagine your nostrils as a cave with the wind blowing through them, and that you get to pound 300 drives down the fairway. I’ve played my best golf at those times, found out most about myself as a golfer. This always seemed like a preview to me when it was happening: a tease, showing me who I could be as a golfer, in an actual tournament, if I could just clear my head enough and get out of my own way. But now, looking back on it, I wonder if I was wrong, if those were actually some of the best times – the times when I was playing real golf – and I didn’t even realise.
Tom Cox is the author of the golf books Nice Jumper and Bring Me The Head Of Sergio Garcia. www.tom-cox.com