London's public golf courses
Forget golf‘s pompous image and discover democracy on London‘s public courses
Throughout the late 1970s I yearned intermittently for golf, but played little. I hadn’t a car, nor did I know any golfers who had one. It is a sport ill-suited to that predicament. Then I discovered a course I could get to by public transport and one summer day took a train from Hackney Downs to Chingford. It was just across the street from the station. At some point I caught up with a council estate caretaker from Mile End named John Collins and we finished the round together. He told me he’d known the Krays when he was a boy. He also told me about the Hainault Forest Golf Course, somewhere else in the vast north-east of London I knew nothing of. ‘You’d like it better than this,’ he told me. ‘You can play with me and some friends of mine if you like.'
And I did. We played the Lower Course, one of two 18-hole layouts there, which rolls sweetly through hills and woodland. It is a par 71 with only a single par five, but it has some excellent par fours, such as the sixth and the superb twelfth, which is launched from an elevated tee, then swings in a parabola rightwards along the forest edge to a little green set in a pocket among trees. It is one of Henry Cotton’s ‘One Hundred Best Holes in Britain’.
Hainault Forest, named for the wife of Edward III, was opened to the public by the London County Council at a ceremony in July 1905, where it was announced that a golf course with a green fee of 6d would soon be opening. When I played it the GLC ran it and it cost around £3.
I began to play regularly at Hainault and continued to do so for years. We’d play early on Sunday mornings and occasionally get a round in during the week. I’d take a bus to Mile End and John would give me a lift or I’d get picked up at dawn in the Balls Pond Road by one of his friends. When I got a motorbike sometimes I’d put my bag over my back and drive there. We’d play for a few pounds and then have egg and chips in the café after.
These men were older than me and relatively new to the game, but a couple of them played hard, particularly a half-Zulu, half-Irish park attendant named Vince. There was a Lothario with silver hair named John who drove a minicab by day and did Frank Sinatra impersonations in East End pubs at night, and once brought one of his girlfriends out on to the course with him. We’d been hearing about her activities for weeks and now there she was, 20 years younger than him, following him with wounded devotion while he concentrated on his game. There was an ex-boxer who’d had something of a career as a welterweight, but had the misfortune to coincide with the era of John Stracey. The club looked like a little twig in his hands. He could occasionally hit the ball enormous distances but he liked to call me ‘The Gorilla’ whenever I caught a drive well.
Taxi drivers played there, as did stall holders from the Ridley Road market in Dalston. You’d see Ford shiftworkers from the Dagenham plant with poor swings who played off five because their timing was so good after years of daily golf. The people I played with were thrilled to have discovered the game. They couldn’t imagine how they’d borne life with equanimity beforehand when they didn’t have this great pleasure to divert them. They thought golf should be kept a secret because if everyone knew how wonderful it was all the courses would be overwhelmed.
All through my golfing life I’ve heard the game described as something only for the wealthy and snobbish while I played most of my golf on public courses with green fees the price of a round of drinks and where people changed their shoes on a bench. I have always thought it the most truly democratic of all games. The handicap system allows people of both sexes, all ages and all levels of ability to compete as equals and there are public courses cheap enough to exclude virtually no one.
I’ve played with small children, jazz drummers, grandmothers, CEOs of multinational corporations, priests, professors, rubbish collectors, hoodlums, postmen, models, gymnasts, barmen, poets, black, white, Korean, Kenyan and Thai people and a man with one arm, as well as my friends at Hainault. It is difficult to imagine anyone convening a dinner with such a variety of people. But golf can do this. It creates friendships that would otherwise be unlikely to exist. You learn not only about how they rotate their wrists on their backswings or the new weight distribution techniques they’ve adopted, but also about their anxieties, their tastes, their yearnings, their families. I can think of no other institution or activity which has given me anything comparably various, including education and public houses.
Timothy O’Grady’s books include ‘On Golf’ (Yellow Jersey Press) and ‘Light’ (Vintage). Hainault Forest Golf Complex, Romford Rd, Chigwell, Essex, IG7 4QW (020 8500 2131/www.hainaultforestgolf.co.uk). The English Golf Union (01526 354500/www.englishgolfunion.org) has a directory of other courses in the London area.
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