Sport - Jason Cowley takes up golf as displacement activity

Despite its elitist and racist past, golf is a game that exudes moral force

In January last year I put away a novel on which I had been labouring intermittently with no real enjoyment, and even less conviction, and bought myself a set of golf clubs. Displacement activity? There's none better than golf - as I have since discovered.

I used to play golf in my late adolescence and early adulthood. I was never coached, nor did I have lessons. As a result, my swing was unsettlingly idiosyncratic (to those who played with me, at least), but I had a good eye and could putt well enough. Then one day I gave up the game, as a child gives up his toys, and took up writing instead.

When I began to play golf again last year, I discovered that I could not really play golf at all: when on the green, I stabbed rather than stroked the ball. When using my irons, I could scarcely lift the ball into flight. Rather, I shanked and yanked it, doing everything but strike it properly. And yet, I could hit the ball long and far with my woods, for reasons I still can't explain.

"You're sweeping the ball," said one coach, from whom I received an afternoon of tuition (during which, with scarcely a blink, he remodelled my grip and swing).

"Are you a cricketer?" he asked.

Indeed, I am - or was. I slip into the past tense because to play most sports, even at the lowly level of the village green or recreational field, is to be reminded ceaselessly of time's arrow: of the ruthless, inexorable unidirectionality of all of our lives.

More than anything else, sport reminds you of how your body is ageing and how you are no longer able to do what you once did so well.

Golf is not like that: it is a game at which you can improve deep into middle age, a game to be enjoyed by both men and women. Yet it remains rather unpopular in the country at large, certainly with the left. How can it be popular, when so many clubs for so long sought to exclude women, Jews and people of colour? And unlike street sports such as football, it requires expensive and elaborate equipment and abundant open space, which automatically excludes the urban poor.

This is to be regretted, because golf is such a good game, one which, perhaps more than any other, requires infinite patience and, with its insistence on etiquette and codes of behaviour, has moral force.

My younger sister once had a boyfriend who was something of a small-town rogue, as well as a drinker. He played golf, and once invited me to his club for a round.

Out there on the wide-open spaces of his parkland course, he seemed like a different character. This is because he was a different character: respectful, subdued and often lost in concentration.

On one occasion, I attempted to strike the ball but missed it altogether. "I'll have that one again," I said.

"No, you won't," he replied. "That's a penalty. Play by the rules." Later in the round, I displaced some turf from the ground and walked serenely on. He called me back, asking me to replace the "divot", as he called it.

Are there any decent contemporary politician-golfers? I know of one, the Tory shadow frontbencher Tim Yeo, with whom I recently spent an enjoyable few days playing golf in Dubai. Yeo, with his smoothly oiled hair and urbane conversation, is a good golfing companion, not least because he plays the game so well. A member at Sunningdale and Royal St George's in Sandwich, Kent, he plays off a handicap of nine and strikes the ball with deflating accuracy.

He told me that he was captain of the Commons golf team, and was looking for new players. Perhaps Blair or Brown should take up the game. "For golf," as John Updike wrote, "appeals to the idiot in us and the child."

Idiotic and childlike behaviour is something with which the Chancellor and the Prime Minister are, alas, rather too familiar.

Jason Cowley is editor of Observer Sport Monthly

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