The ground is baked dry and bone hard underfoot. The grass is grubby and ill-looking; wispy in places, patchy in others. The landscape has little to distinguish it — a few mature trees, some weeping willows and assorted mounds and low berms offering punctuations on a small, flat, largely forgotten square of municipal park tucked between tennis courts, a bandstand and a nature trail in a leafy corner of North-West London.
Two young women, seemingly oblivious to the purpose of this place, sun-bathe in the long grass to the right, and a couple can be spied sharing a picnic on the third green. Beside the fifth tee, a topless man appears to be facing the boundary fence in the lotus position. Make no mistake, this is a golf course. More, some would argue. For this is Queen’s Park pitch & putt course, or Royal Queen’s Park as it’s known to those who have come to appreciate its modest but myriad charms.
Arthur Gapas (and lone sunbather), Queen’s Park, September 2020. All photographs Ben Ingham.
Arthur Gapas, who lives with his girlfriend a couple of good 9-irons from Queen’s Park, is one such devotee. He’s only been playing golf for two years, but he has fallen in love with the game, and fallen hard. During the early days of lockdown, Arthur, who has been working from home since March and has been furloughed since March, could be found in hitting balls across Queen’s Park pitch & putt course in the pale light of the morning. There were no holes cut, no flags out, and no misanthropic park keepers to find spurious reasons for denying him the pleasure. The clay underfoot was dark and damp, the greens and fairways were badly overgrown, but Arthur could play. And play. And play.
Playing through on the 3rd green at Royal Queen's Park
“For me, golf is the best thing to come out of lockdown,” he says. We are sitting under a tree on a Sunday afternoon in mid-September. All around us are people sprawled out on the grass, kicking balls, pushing prams, chasing toddlers, and queuing for coffee, cakes and ice cream at the café at the entrance to the course. “I would take five balls,” he says of those early days of Spring. “And sometimes I’d lose five because I was that bad. But I just kept at it. Up and down, up and down. For hours every day.”
Arthur took up golf because his friends played, and he realised he was missing out on get-togethers and weekends away. “I can pinpoint exactly the moment I got the bug,” he says. “It was the 30th December 2019 when we played Celtic Manor. I was still hacking it but my mates said, ‘Just come, it’s a golf weekend’. It was my first golf weekend. Celtic Manor should not have been open. It was so wet balls were plugging everywhere. You can imagine how bad I played that day. But I hit a few good shots and that’s all you need; those glimpses, those moments when you hit the ball sweetly and it goes where you want it to go. That was it. I’m a proper golf perv now. I’ve bought new clubs. I can’t stop looking at golf equipment online. I follow people who play golf. I watch videos on YouTube and I watch a lot of golf on TV, which my girlfriend finds difficult to understand.”
Arthur might be a relative newcomer to the game but he can already identify its most addictive properties. “It’s not like football, which is over in 90 minutes. It’s a whole day. It’s the build-up, the playing, the camaraderie you get within the group. And also, I just love being outside.” He pauses for a moment, and looks out across the park, “It’s everything really. The feel. The sound. The aesthetic of hitting that ball straight or fading it or drawing it because you wanted it to do that. You get a massive sense of accomplishment. After all, it’s a stick and a ball.” He laughs.
“I had zero exposure to the sport of golf”
Arthur was born and spent the first 11 years of his life in the Philippines, living with his parents and two younger brothers just outside Manila. “I had zero exposure when it came to the sport of golf in a country where the national sport is basketball,” he says. “Golf was widely seen as a rich person's game or for the elite, but I come from an average family; my father was a policeman and my mother was a nurse. It wasn't until I was a teenager that I first held a golf club in a PE lesson in school. I didn't take much interest. I preferred playing football or basketball. Plus, I still had that Happy Gilmore perception of it being a posh sport for rich old men in awful trousers.”
Arthur tees it up on the tricky 5th hole at RQP
He admits he could not have possibly imagined the golfer he is today, something his father still has trouble understanding. “Every time I tell him I’m playing golf he always makes the same comment: ‘I can’t believe my son is playing golf’. He thinks it’s for rich people still. He just can’t get his head around the fact that we’ve come from quite a humble upbringing, and here’s his son playing a sport that he truly believes is for the upper class. I try to break barriers in his mind, you know. It can be cheap.”
As well as his morning drills on Royal Queen’s Park, Arthur has clocked up the miles, lugging his golf bag on tubes and trains and buses to play twilight rounds at Royal Epping Forest, a public course many miles away in Chingford. He likes Royal Epping Forest because it’s “relaxed”. It also only charges only £10 for the privilege – not that Arthur’s Dad is willing to be swayed: “Sometimes my dad has come down to the driving range with me, but when he sees all the other people with their shiny clubs he says, ‘Golf is for rich people.’ I say to him, ‘Dad, I’m not rich. I just love the sport.’”
"For me it's all about the enjoyment..."
Arthur’s love affair is burning bright. It is also teaching him things — not least about himself. “I’ve found out that when I put my mind into something, I’ve got a really long patience,” he says. “If I like something, I will go out of my way to do it, way out of my way. Five years ago, if you told me that I’d be lugging a golf bag up and down stairs and changing platforms and getting on and off trains and buses, I’d be like, ‘You’re mad. That’s never going to happen.’”
His game speaks to the passion he has poured into it. On the difficult fourth hole at Queen’s Park, with its domed putting surface welcoming incoming balls with all the enthusiasm of a concrete paving stone, he not only finds the green but rolls in the putt for a birdie. Two scantily clad sunbathers in the long grass continued to show each other their phones, oblivious to the rarity of what they have just missed.
The knowledgable gallery at RQP
During our second circuit of nine holes (the park keeper had given up and gone home by this point), Arthur makes another two on the fifth, a devilish 46-yarder to a crowned green protected by the overhanging branches of a large horse chestnut tree. Once again, the response is lukewarm: the half-naked yogic marshal beside the tee paying no heed whatsoever. Afterwards, Arthur is happy, although he insists that he’s not setting himself goals. “To be honest, if I get to 18 – a bogey on each hole – I’d be really happy with that.” He’ll go deeper than that, trust us.
“For me, it’s about the enjoyment,” Arthur offers as a parting shot. “I once heard someone say, ‘Golf is the most fun, when you're most serious about having fun’, which sums me up as a golfer right now. I’m striving to slowly improve but I’m just enjoying playing.”