For all the trans-Atlantic DNA we share with our British golfing brethren, it’s easy and, I daresay, somewhat natural to assume that college golf here in the U.S. is pretty much the same as it is over there. Not so.
Top players from the U.K. (and mainland Europe) routinely travel stateside to hone their games at American colleges and universities. Indeed, many of these men, women and their games will be on display later this month (May 19-31) at Rich Harvest GC, site of the 2017 NCAA Championships. But why do they make this trip in such appreciable numbers?
Because collegiate golf in the U.K. — like all college sports there — is decidedly low-key, even compared to the low-stakes Division III golf I played at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., during the early 1980s.
Yet, for my money, one can place collegiate golf alongside beer and period cinema as something the Brits still do better, with more nuance and panache, than we do. Yes, our universities turn out more tour professionals, but for the majority of college golfers, in both countries, that’s not the aim. It’s about competition and its sensible integration with the game’s social niceties — and no one does that better than the British upper crust, whose ethos dominated my university golfing experience abroad. Coats and ties, foursomes in the morning, singles in the afternoon, and no less than two proper English piss-ups sandwiched between them. You can have your vans, your matching shirts and golf bags. To Yanks, collegiate golf in the U.K. may look and feel more like a club sport, but having played both sides of this fence, I’ll go with the Pommies.
At mighty Wesleyan, a perennial golfing doormat, the exercise we underwent during the ‘80s remains recognizable: Throw on a pair of khakis and a golf shirt; pile into a van and meet a different college team, or two, at the course venue; play 18 holes of medal (maybe match play, on that very rare occasion); shake hands, tally up the scores, pile back into the van and drive home to campus. Big-time Division I golf schools don’t play many dual or tri-matches like these any more, I understand. More often they play various invitational tournaments whereby dozens of schools show up in one place, seven guys from each team play medal, and the best 5 scores count. We did this, too, though only once or twice a season.
Collegiate golf in England during the mid-1980s, when I played for the University of London, was nothing like this. Nothing. For starters, and perhaps most important, we rarely played other schools. Instead, university teams were hosted by golf clubs themselves, which trotted out their best players for a day of intergenerational match play and assorted reverie. Here’s a typical match-day regimen:
1) Put on coat and tie, pack some golf clothes in your golf bag and hump it to the nearest Underground station. Yes, we all got ourselves to the golf course, somehow — by bus or subway or some teammate’s car. We played a lot of matches in Greater London, at places like Roehampton and Royal Wimbledon, and I fondly remember riding the Tube with my golf clubs in tow.
2) Arrive at the club and enjoy tea & scones with our opponents. As with most British golfing clubs, coat and tie were mandatory in the clubhouse, hence the need to dress for breakfast. The University of London Golf Team never once faced another school the entire semester I participated. We played the top 7 amateurs at various clubs who had deigned to host us for a day of matches. They were damned good players, as you might imagine, and they took great delight in showing off their home courses and, more often than not, kicking our asses around them.
3) Change into golf attire and head out for 18 holes of foursomes, or alternate-shot, at match play. This was great fun but very, very difficult. We typically see this format only in the Ryder Cup or President’s Cup contexts, where a world-class professional, if just a bit off his game, can make life truly miserable for his partner. Just imagine teaming with a 7 handicap who’s probably hung-over, hasn’t picked up a club since the last match two weeks prior, and is seeing some course for the very first time. The highs were very high, but the lows were… well, awkward. I don’t think I’ve ever apologized or been apologized to more often, anywhere, for anything.
4) Change back into coat and tie for lunch. There were matches where we convened for casual buffets “at luncheon”, but more often than not these were grand affairs: four-course meals with elaborate place settings and replete with wine, port and various toasts (read: shots of whiskey) to top things off. If we students had fared well in the morning, the object of our hosts was mainly to get us as drunk as possible in preparation for…
5) Afternoon singles. Having changed back into golfing attire, we played 18 holes of singles, at match-play, of course. Depending on the luncheon miniseries, these could be quite entertaining affairs.
6) Change back into coat and tie so as to hang around the clubhouse bar drinking pints of properly pulled ale with our new, middle-aged friends. Sometimes there were “antics”. At Roehampton (or Royal Wimbledon; I can’t remember which), someone suggested a 1-club tournament, whereby we went back out onto the course, at dusk, still dressed like Harry Vardon, pint in hand, to play a short loop of holes using but a single club. Great fun. I recall choosing a persimmon 4-wood. Remember them?
I honestly couldn’t tell you the first thing about whether we won, lost or drew any of these overall matches against the golf club teams. First of all, from a team perspective, I don’t think it mattered to anyone all that much; second, by the end of these marathon golfing days, I was far too drunk to give a fig.
I do remember well my last match before heading home to America, however. It was played at Royal Blackheath, which, if memory serves, is the oldest golf club in England, i.e. south of the Scottish border. We had arranged this match because a fellow on our team has been a member there growing up. He arranged it and, for him, the matches were equal parts homecoming, competition and piss-up.
Luncheon had been a complete free-for-all, as I recall. Some two hours of eating and drinking had finally given way to the singles matches. Our Blackheath alum went out first against one of his oldest friends, while I — because it was my last match — was given the honor of going out last vs. the club captain, a 50-something fellow who kept offering sips from his flask all along the outward nine. I sorta held off; I wanted to win my swan song (and was finally sobering up from lunch). On 12 or something like that, I went 3 up and we set about finishing his brandy together.
When we arrived at the tee box serving the par-3 15th, our match nearly decided, we came upon the first group. They had decided to park themselves on a bench, wave everyone through and concentrate on their drinking, reminiscing and needling. In the three years of college golf I played at Wesleyan, I ran into and even competed against several guys I had grown up with — but the idea that we might blow off or otherwise back-burner our match in favor camaraderie like this would never have occurred to us. Pity, that.
As we gathered in the clubhouse bar that evening, my teammates — in honor of my pending departure — presented me with a formal and quite stylized summary of the day’s results, complete with my skunking during the morning foursomes and my full point (!) from the singles. I’ve just gone and consulted this document in a scrapbook I keep. It was a touching gesture… The mere fact that someone like me — an American, but really just a guy who showed up unannounced, for a single semester — could join the golf team, compete in 5 or 6 matches, and be so thoroughly welcomed (then bade such a fond farewell), speaks both to the informality of the collegiate golf exercise as it existed in England then and to the oft-maligned English social character. Yes, they can be a bit stand-offish at first but once they let you in (perhaps with the aid of proper lubrication), they are great fun, quite warm and perhaps more prone to sentiment than we Yanks.
I don’t honestly remember how I got home from Royal Blackheath that night. My last concrete memory is playing snooker with several guys in the club’s ornate billiard room, a vast mahogany-paneled expanse whose high, pressed-tin ceilings seemed to hold at arm’s length a settling cloud of cigarette and cigar smoke.
Every once in a while, people find out I played college golf in England. Once they get past the fact that, today, my game is so bad that it’s hard to believe I played anywhere competitively, they ask, “So, what was it like?”
In a word, exhausting.