From my earliest days playing the game, golf to me was about competition.
It was about my performance, and my enjoyment of the game was intrinsically linked to it. Then, six years ago, my mother passed away. In the intervening years, golf has taken on a whole new meaning in my life, and the golf course on Cleeve Hill has been central to everything that the game has given me.
For those of you who haven’t visited Cleeve, I can only say that you really should. The views dazzle, the wind bites, and, on calmer days, the skylark’s chorus carries you across this crumpled hilltop like a marching band leading an army.
There is a reason that the earliest inland courses were arranged across the kind of improbably elevated terrain that Old Tom Morris found when he laid out the first holes on Cleeve Hill. The free-draining turf on the highest accessible peaks was firm, and perfect for golf at any time of the year. That firmness makes the golf course on Cleeve Hill a bastion of golfing creativity and strategy; what the ball does when it lands on the ground is as important as how it cuts through the air.
‘A game played on the ground is the best way, I’m told
The same ground that has given so much to the Wolds
Entwined with the land like it is stitched to its side
The course on Cleeve Hill is one that not all will abide
But it is a purer, more wholesome version of our game
Leaving one knowing golf elsewhere can not be the same’
(Alex Frolish, 2022, A Course in the Sky, The Links Diary No.5)
Golfers who learn the game on a driving range aren’t always exposed to the art of shot-making. Half shots, draws and fades, knock downs and punches don’t fit with the vision of a lesson focused on trying to find the perfect position at P6.
Seve was arguably the greatest (and the last) of the true shot makers, and it’s well documented that he learned the game on the beach, armed only with a couple of clubs and balls scavenged from the local club.
Have you ever tried to hit a three-iron off tightly-packed beach sand? I have, and it’s not as easy as it sounds. What a way to teach your body and hand to manipulate the clubhead, executing shots that would be impossible to the rest of us.
In recent years, I’ve become a bit obsessed with the spirit of Seve and the challenge provided by Old Tom’s natural golfing landscape. At this time of year, many of you will embrace a game played with a half-set – a lighter bag, and the need to get creative and manufacture a shot is surprisingly good for the soul, and for re-engaging the feel in your swing. I sometimes venture out at Cleeve with as few as three clubs, and never regret doing so.
But the idea for the Old Tom One – a one-club event we’re hosting at Cleeve Hill on May 4 – came from a game with a fellow Sounder Players’ Journal contributor last year.
Richard Pennell and I were part of a merry band of golfers touring the north coast of Ireland. It was a rather inclement morning on the Old Course at Ballyliffin, with a howling wind and a hard swell running in the North Atlantic. By the time we reached the turn, the weather was getting even worse, and our team of eight was reduced to just two.
I’m originally from Sheffield, where the Yorkshire weather is notoriously changeable. I wear it as a badge of honour that I will play in any weather, so my commitment to finishing the round was never in doubt. Richard wavered briefly before heading in to change his waterproofs, before re-emerging armed only with a six iron. He looked hilariously ill-equipped for the challenge that lay ahead of us. But I could not have been more wrong.
Watching him tame the back nine was so much fun. He embraced the challenge and the deluge, and we returned to the warmth of the clubhouse 52 minutes later. That makes it sound like we ran round, but that wasn’t the case. We just kept moving our balls forwards, playing a simpler form of the game. Richard’s score of +6 was remarkable, but more so was the sheer joy on our faces as we bounced off the final green, soaked to the skin but happy as two pigs in muck.
And thus the idea for the Old Tom One was born. An opportunity to join a group of like-minded adventurers to take on the challenge of Cleeve Hill, with just one club, but carried along by a tidal wave of good spirt. I hope I’ll see you there.
The Old Tom One takes place at Cleeve Hill Golf Club on Saturday 4 May. Everyone is welcome - for more information and to sign up, please click here.