At Royal North Devon Golf Club there is a white fence. It separates the main paddock, which is overlooked by the clubhouse and contains various practice areas and the first tee, from the golf course itself. Apart from simply providing a barrier to entry for the course's grazing residents, which include herds of sheep and wild ponies, I've come to realise this white fence also serves as an entrance onto land that has a more significant impact on the soul than I’d previously been aware of.
Beyond the fence stretches ancient, low lying linksland that at first glance seems to be devoid of undulations and defining features. You would be quickly forgiven for thinking that this flat, unremarkable-looking terrain offered nothing other than a pleasant walk near the sea rather than being a place that golfing pilgrims have flocked to for over 150 years. Yet it is not just the act of golf that I have used this land for. And like many things in life, you don’t quite know what you have until it’s gone.
Golfers often speak of their pastime as if they’ve spent their entire weekend stepping on the wrong end of a rake, yet you can bet your last penny that you’ll see them again the following weekend. I was, on more than the odd occasion, one of those golfers. I could regularly be heard cursing a lie, bounce or a mis-read that was less the result of any wrongdoing on my behalf than it was to the fact I lied about something or other when I was five and now karma was cashing in its chips.
Recently, though, I haven't had the chance to be that grumbling, bemoaning golfer who questions why on earth he puts himself through the same abject disappointment round after round, week after week. And while the sensation of excavating 10 inches of turf from another chunked wedge hasn't been missed, one thing I now know for certain is that the next time I do play golf, I’ll think twice before stepping into the realms of despair.
In April 2019, during a friendly football match, a somewhat overzealous defender decided to let me know that “he was there”. This resulted in my 15-stone frame being sent into the air before returning to earth on my right hand. The following day, with a hand and wrist twice their normal size and coloured with an assortment of greens and purples, I ventured to the local hospital where I was informed, without x-ray, that it was a sprain and I should be back to normal in “two to three days”.
It wasn't until December 2020, a full 18 months of painful physiotherapy and treatment, along with numerous medical indiscretions, later, that I finally got an x-ray that showed a Scaphoid fracture. For reasons beyond my intellect, the Scaphoid, despite its small stature, is not a good bone to break and as I was soon to be told, and a really very bad one to have undiagnosed for any length of time.
I was told I’d need surgery and then I'd have to become accustomed to a small metal rod in my hand for the bone to re-form around. Whilst progress of any kind felt great, it was accompanied by the possibility that due to the substantial deterioration of the bone, there was a chance that I might never be able to play golf again.
The prospect of not being able to do the one thing that I adore beyond all others, and that I consume in so many ways, was, unsurprisingly, hideously unbearable. However, that’s exactly where I find myself.
The result has been a long and frustrating wait to see if the bone reforms, and whilst I have waited, I've gone into a self-imposed exile from golf. I’ve muted the various golf chats and podcasts I engaged with, ceased any reading or scribblings on the topic and (bar The Masters at Augusta and The Open at Royal St. George's) stopped watching golf on television and on YouTube. It feels breaking up with your first teenage love, and then erasing any connection to them to help ease the anguish.
Golf, you see, isn’t simply the act of swinging an odd-shaped stick at a dimpled white ball in a field with varying degrees of grass height. It’s a meeting. It's a meeting between you and your companions on the day, between you and the course with its many and varied obstacles, and between you and whatever drink your thirsty, battle-weary body requires at the end. And these meetings are what I’m yearning for so very much.
The yearning got so bad that I returned to Royal North Devon during this year's August week. I wanted to experience those meetings again, albeit without the golf, and to watch and be with the D’artagnan-esque, swashbuckling companions that golf has given me and whom I cherish so very much. But being around golf again has left me feeling conflicted, and left me dangerously close to re-entering a world of total devoutness.
Whether we realise it or not as we're lambasting ourselves for another errant shot, being a golfer is good for you. Without hammering the cliche too hard, it’s a way of life. It forms part of your DNA, shaping who you are and who you might become. Without it we’d be lost. The mantra “there's another fish in the sea” simply does not apply to golf; you cannot simply change what makes you.
When I do eventually get to the point of stepping through the gate in that white fence, my golf bag on my back and the wind in my face, it won’t be with trepidation about bad shots, quirky bounces or the inevitable re-telling of my round by my playing partners in the bar afterwards. It will be with a profound gratification that I’m about to do so much more than just play golf.