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The alternative guide to club fitting - Part 1

Richard Pennell has been around golf for 35 years - as a player, greenkeeper, secretary and humble club member - and most recently, as the the author of the Stymied blog. In his first piece writing for Sounder, he attempts to demystify that most delicate subject - the membership interview…

The alternative guide to club fitting - Part 1

Forget the fitting session, and the various heads, shafts and grips to choose from.

The true meaning of ‘club-fitting’ is the identification of like-minded souls with whom to play golf and lick wounds afterwards. And within golf, there are enough clubs, societies and cultures for every one of us mad enough to continue to play this daft game. You just have to find your tribe within the tribe.

At a club, this begins with the interview.

My name is Richard Pennell, and I am a golfer, presumably as a result of previous sins somewhere down the line. I’ve been playing the game for 35 years now, and still haven’t quite abandoned hope of that elusive decent round, though the logical part of my brain (which I suspect began a process of gradual shrinkage after that first exposure to this strange custom) knows this may not happen in this lifetime, or the next.

Nevertheless, I plough on, waking up on golfing days with the same enthusiasm as the trusty dog that often accompanies me on the links. These times are precious for us both, and the species barrier is not enough to prevent her making it perfectly clear what she thinks of my pastime. She shows the same disregard for my authority that the golf ball does, and she’s right - there is only one boss in my relationship with golf, and that is the game itself.

I’d be far better off following her lead - searching for rabbits, perhaps applying my scent to the occasional ball-washer, and squatting for a dump behind the 18th green, in full view of the clubhouse windows. It would be, the look in her eyes tells me, a far less absurd way to spend a morning, and that glance of impatient disdain on those days when I can’t seem to play at all remind me how enjoyable her version of golf must be seem by comparison.

I have also spent 20 years working in golf, as both a greenkeeper and a club manager, and in that time have been employed by several different facilities. Add to that about half a dozen personal memberships over the years, and a smattering of golf travel in the UK and beyond, and I am starting to get a feel for the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of the membership application process.

I have seen world-renowned surgeons unable to stop shaking for long enough to draw the club back during the play-in (a terrifying sight, given that they were still, at that point, practising the day job).

I have seen successful barristers, for a rare moment, lost for words under the glare of the interview panel - their memory effectively erased by the most basic of questions under such pressurised conditions.

There is something about these old clubs that creates both a deep-rooted desire to belong - and to be thought worthy of belonging - and a fear of overstepping some imaginary, or rather, well-hidden mark beyond which a polite letter declining your application lies. Often, the poor individual who is under scrutiny will feel that. their decades of exemplary educational and professional performance, combined with continuous integrity, count for precisely nothing in this, the most important interview they will ever have. And, depending on how they do, and who is among their supports at that stage, they’re probably right. For the moment you step into that interview, the canvas is wiped blank.

In light of this, I thought it might be worth laying out, for anyone likely to be put through the mill of this exacting and mysterious process, some light-hearted observations from about a dozen years of involvement in such delicate situations. What follows is by no means exhaustive, is presented in no particular order, and may or may not be the case.

1. You must be keen, but not too keen. Appear too relaxed, or in any way imply that you don’t really mind which way this goes, and you will be marked down for it. On the other hand, if you appear impatient, or seem to want to know on what criteria or timescale things might proceed, another mark off. You need to exhibit just the right amount of keenness for these total strangers, taking into account their mood on that given day and the lifetime of biases that they bring with them.

2. You must be early, but not too early (see 1.). Arriving when the panel are deep in discussion about rugby, or the drainage beside the 13th, or the suspicion of some irregularity in the handicap of a fellow member, is likely to set the interview off on a dubious course. On the other hand, if they have satisfactorily set the world to rights and the bar clock (which, remember, will almost certainly be wrong) is showing two minutes to the appointed hour, then they will start to wonder if you have cut it too fine, or are perhaps valuing their time less than you ought, given their status here, as both judge and jury. It may well be that they will decide to have a drink or two after the morning’s business has concluded, so if they are ready and you are not there, even if the actual or displayed time still shows a minute or two spare, one mark off. Clear?

3. You will likely be extended some hands to shake, regardless of any wider societal concerns around germs or viral infections, and your performance here is important, for reasons that are probably not fully understood by anyone present. It is fairly unlikely that any of your hosts are insisting on this custom as a means of testing whether you are carrying a weapon, as was the case in Ancient Greece, but make sure you don’t carry one all the same. Your handshake must be a perfect match in firmness but also duration for the other party involved, and you will not know whether they are a limp shaker or a full on clasp until you engage. Be ready to adjust your position in the blink of an eye (but don’t blink; eye contact is part of the test), and even if you feel the snap of a bone in your hand, you mustn’t exhibit any visual or verbal signs of such an injury.

4. Do not, under any circumstances, mention religion or politics. If they do, you will need to react in such a way that makes it impossible to draw a conclusion from your expression that is anything other than what they would expect. And you don’t know what they expect, so it is hard for me to help in this regard. You must also not seem ignorant or dismissive of such topics. If possible, it is probably best to make yourself invisible until such time as the topic returns to golf, or something less controversial.

5. You may be invited to ask some questions yourself. If this opportunity arises, don’t ask too many (see 2. ; anything that suggests that you may be looking to collect silverware in the short to medium term; or anything that implies you would be looking to play more than once a week. Don’t ask anything that they might not know the answer to (they’re interviewing you, remember); or anything that is too easy to answer. Remember, you know virtually nothing about these people, but you must still tailor each response, facial expression and in fact every single moment of this examination to their precise expectation of what a ’good member’ might be. This includes how you look, so don’t be too tall/short, fat/thin, weak/strong, etc. And remember, there are three of them, and they are all potentially radically different, but these parameters apply to all of them at the same time. Tread carefully.

6. With regard to your golf, your handicap should be neither too high or too low. You should be unable to play to it under any circumstances, while not being so far above it as to embarrass yourself. Any apparent interest in significant improvement in your handicap, or in the methodology or algorithms that lie behind the mysterious new handicap system will likely provoke an immediate red card. These people are not concerned with slope ratings or scoring averages; they come here to belong, and judge their success on any given day by their performance in the Dining Room and by the time it takes to get round the course, not by any sort of scoring mechanism.

7. Your selected clothing should be neither too casual or too smart, by their definition, not yours. Either extremity will give the wrong impression (see 1.). All ties should be selected in accordance with a code of conduct you will never see, and should have some, but not too much, grease on them, indicating a committed approach to the prandial side of golf club membership.

8. If you are invited to partake in the ‘knife-and-fork-test’, do not eat too much or too little. Do not eat too fast or too slow. Do not exhibit any left-field preferences with regard to the menu, or offer any judgment regarding the available fare. If your interview and subsequent meal are at a time of day when your fellow diners are likely to enjoy a libation or two (you can broadly base this on whether the sun is up, but if you were to indicate that this is in any way a little early, or that there could be a dependence issue or three at play here, again, you risk a straight red), every single drink is on you, but you must not draw attention to this, or imply (or have them draw the private conclusion that you might have implied) that they have been marginally slow to put their hand in their pocket in search of the levy card they lost several months ago.

9. If wine is to be imbibed, you may consider Italian winemakers (and even those from certain French terroirs) as New World Wines for the purpose of this exercise. It will need to be either fine Burgundy or claret, and if the latter, you had better choose one that is the personal favourite of all three of the panel, despite knowing nothing about them, including the fact that two love St-Emilions and the other one will drink nothing but Paulliac. And, finally, you must not appear neither too flash or too cheap in your selection (see 1.)

If, as things progress, it looks as if you might not fail on a single one of these challenging and complex criteria, it is not only the best performance of your whole life, regardless of whether you are a Captain of industry or a tech billionaire, but it is, to all effects, a miracle. But you must not appear either anything short of delighted or, on the other hand, complacent (see 1.), for this is rather like snakes and ladders, and one false move will see you hurled back to the bottom of the pile. But, if things go well and you get past this stage, you may be invited for an even more daunting parade: the play-in...


Read more of Richard's writings about golf on his blog Stymied.

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