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The purest form of the game

The Sunningdale Foursomes is one of golf's great traditions - a curtain-raiser to the season ahead that features men and women, amateur and professional, all competing in a matchplay foursomes knockout. Charlie Lemay shares his love/hate relationship with golf's ultimate test.
The purest form of the game

‘Golf is deceptively simple and endlessly complicated.’

It was Arnold Palmer with the quip, but it could have been anyone who has had the misfortune to be my foursomes partner.

Foursomes – or alternate shot, as our American cousins call it – is a game that’s fallen out of fashion outside a handful of our more traditionally-minded clubs. But for me, the joy of pairing up and sharing one ball with another golfer is a prime colour in golf’s rich palette.

Foursomes affords golfers an intimate examination of your partner’s game, and an insight into their relationship with golf. You may or may not like what you find, but as Tiger says, “it is what it is”. When your teammate stands over your ball holding the club like a wriggling mutt, there’s nothing you can do but scream internally. It’s a good exercise in letting go and accepting your fate, which we all know is key to golf. And to life, for that matter.

You’ll also find yourself in some different spots off the tee, and needing to leave different distances and angles based on your partner’s strengths. You may even read greens differently, depending how aggressively your teammate rolls the rock. You may have played the course a thousand times, but you will never have played the particular version served by this format.

While the combination of physical capabilities is an intriguing part of foursomes, the mental aspect is perhaps even more entertaining. Not only are you dealing with your own demons, now you have some other mug’s to contend with too – and who knows what he gets up to in his spare time. There are more players are around the table and more cards are being dealt.

We all know an average swinger who knocks in round in the low seventies through sheer force of will. And we all know the guy who swings it like Ernie, but will unravel like Spurs in a title challenge. Now these two must tango. Will they help or hinder each other? Will a rising tide lift all ships, or will the dinghy pull the mega-yacht over the falls?

Can the Zen-like golfer, possessive of a Lowry-esque short game, still hit the green when he knows his partner has the chipping yips? Do you take a line from a partner that is ten shots better than you, or stick with your gut? Can you stay calm when he takes driver off the tee on a short par four and blows it OB? You’re forced to be both player and caddy, performer and assistant, shrink and patient.

It can be the most combustible of formats, but there’s something life-affirming seeing a scratch player zipping their ball around the dancefloor with glistening Miuras, only for their 18-handicap partner to de-green their putt with a battered Hippo flat stick. Or witnessing the club champ watch on in horrified silence as some chopper has the honour on a short par four with water all the way down the right side. A dose of the real world for the flushers.

Golfers with differing abilities and styles are brought together in foursomes. And what happens when these two immovable objects collide? I’ll tell you – fireworks.

When the match is all-square, and you stiff the approach only for your partner to miss the flat four-footer. Fireworks.

When you get stuck in the bunker for the third hole in a row. Fireworks.

When they suggest you take an iron off the tee because they say ‘you struggle with the driver’. Fireworks and kick up the backside.

I adore foursomes, but I can’t say I have prospered playing it.

At times I can play some respectable stuff. Drives will start finding the fairway, with iron in hand my swing feels like it slows down as I plonk irons into the middle on the green. What’s all the fuss about?

But then the conscious mind kicks in, I realise what’s happening, I am aware I am playing well. And we all know the rest.

Many have tried to take the helm of my sinking ship. At some point, we start taking on water, and no amount of bailing can help. I could have Tony Robbins and Deepak Chopra on the bag, but I’m still blading a simple chip through the green if the match is on the line.

After an afternoon replete with hooked tee shots, chunked pitches and four-footers that don’t even touch the hole, most of my playing partners have a glazed look in their eyes when they offer a limp handshake on the 18th green. And I can usually be found extending my sympathies, hoping that I can buy them a consolation pint before they feel compelled to resort to physical violence.

There is, of course, another side to this particular coin. The moments when you and your partner seem to gel perfectly. When you read the putt and they drop it right in the middle. And in those moments you realise that that it’s not really about the match – it’s about playing a game that you love, and sharing in both the joy and the pain with someone else.

I wonder if the today’s golfer seems to shirk foursomes because it seems so alien. The modern world revolves around individualism, and foursomes is the antithesis to this. It’s only about you every other shot, and even then it’s not all about you. To the insular, navel-gazing world of modern golf, this doesn’t chime. But maybe it’s exactly what we all need – a forced thinking of the other, when everything tries to push you in the opposite direction. Everyone gets a say in this democratic format.

Foursomes has a touch of madness. It’s like JMW Turner handing over his brush and taking alternate strokes with a rank amateur; or Pavarotti duetting with a tone-deaf pub karaoke wannabee.

It’s both comedy and tragedy, often in the space of two holes. Most of all, it’s a lot of fun.

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