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A Tale of Two Clubhouses

Twice yearly, almost since Walton Heath's inception, its artisans have taken on the main club in a challenge match. Just before World War II, Sir John Simon (captain of the R&A and of Walton Heath), who held the office of chancellor of the exchequer as well as foreign secretary, played in one of these matches. Sir John's artisan opponent was a local bricklayer—no prize for guessing who was on which side of the class divide.

Nowadays that might not be so easy a task. As the club and the artisans warmed up for the first of this year's challenges, Richard Williams (a retired brewing executive playing for the club) told of how the edges have blurred. "One of my colleagues was playing for the national seniors club against a national team representing the artisans. And although—how shall I say this—he liked to look after his pennies, he nevertheless bought his artisan partner drinks and lunch; he wouldn't allow him to buy anything. At the end of the day he asked his rival what he did. He was told his artisan opponent was the finance director of one of Britain's leading companies. Boy, was he bloody furious. Didn't find it funny at all."

The annual contests at Walton Heath are keenly fought. For the artisans, honor is clearly at stake, hence fielding anything less than a strong team would be unthinkable. For the club, there is a sort of duty to compete, if not exactly to triumph. The combination of the two strategies ensures equitable competition.

In past eras, the artisans might have met to discuss pre-match strategy in their first "headquarters"—the Fox and Hounds pub in Walton-on-the-Hill. But in the 1950s the old caddiemaster's office and the chauffeurs' rooms were given over to the artisans. In 1973 the artisans built their current smart clubhouse, which lies only a few steps from the official version. Inside it is complete with a well-used bar, a pool table, several honor boards, changing rooms, showers and distinguished-looking carpeting bearing the pattern of the artisans' club logo. In artisanspeak, this is "our place," and the grander historic clubhouse of the full members is "over there." Perhaps only in the Palace of Westminster—where members of the House of Lords and the House of Commons by convention refer to the opposing chambers in any formal debate as "another place"—does simple language offer such a complex disguise.

Dave Lucas, a former artisan captain at Walton Heath, drove in from his impressive home near the club to observe this year's match in April. Lucas owns a building firm specializing in restoring historically valuable property. Like Sheehan, he had a new Mercedes adorning the artisans' car park. Having lived in the village since he was a boy, Lucas knows the history of Walton Heath intimately. He used to caddie for the wealthy group of members who bought the club from Rupert Murdoch in 1971.

The club, for most of its history, had been controlled by the Carr family, publishers of the News of the World. But when Murdoch bought the paper in the late 1960s, he found Walton Heath to be an unwanted asset on the balance sheet. It went up for sale, narrowly avoiding conversion into a hotel and resort complex owned by an American corporation.

Lucas recalled the wealthy members who took Walton Heath off Murdoch's hands: "They were lovely old boys. True gents. Now it's totally different. There's a lot of younger members—and they haven't got the same kind of money—and there's a jealousy." Still, by American standards, all Walton Heath members are getting an incredible deal. Regulars pay an initiation fee of about $3,200 and annual dues of $1,600. Artisans, even more incredibly, pay only about $270 a year (plus a onetime "administrative fee" of about $80 and an annual bar-tab advance) and are only required to have lived within two miles of the clubhouse for at least three years.

Within Lucas's language there is a hint of "us" and "them," indicating an appreciation of a lingering class awareness. On the one hand, there are undoubtedly artisans who are jealous of regular members' wealth and access to the club. On the other, some regular members may not entirely understand how the artisans' hours of early morning and late afternoon are deemed inconvenient. No Edwardian gentlemen would have considered golfing at such ungodly hours. But in today's London?Try booking a squash court during those times, or finding a gym that offers discount rates for early birds. The artisans' hours are now the confined hours of the busy urbanite.

But if there is genuine animosity, it didn't show on the first tee of the challenge match this spring. A 235-yard opening par three with two well-placed guarding front bunkers is one helluva leveler.

Mike Bawden, Walton Heath's secretary, stood out. You would, too, if you dressed in dark blue plus twos with a matching roll-neck and an old-fashioned cloth cap. At Walton Heath for the past two years—and before that for eight years as a headmaster in Zimbabwe—the sartorially splendid Bawden has looked as if he'd walked out of the pages of a P. G. Wodehouse novel.

The match format was foursomes, two teams of twenty players each. At Walton Heath, this alternate-shot game is played quickly, as members routinely advance up the fairway while playing partners are still on the tee, thereafter leapfrogging one another, shot following shot, in a routine two-and-a-half-hour sprint around the course. Slow play at Walton Heath is about as likely as an artisan section at Augusta National.

A dispassionate observer looking at the swings of the competitors would have initially thought the artisans were better tutored. But when someone mentioned this detail to one of the full members, he was told, "I don't believe the club is fielding its A-team today."

Among the club team, Peter Renshaw had seniority. A member of Walton Heath for forty years, he noted that while the difference between the two clubs was shrinking, there seemed to be no disappointment that the old order was on its way out.

"That's the way things are going," he said. "Just after the war, there was still a lot of 'Sir this' and 'Sir that,' a lot of tugging of the forelock. That's all gone."

In fact, Renshaw considers this day's opposition to be a boon to the main club. "The artisans are crucial," he said. "Coming mostly from the village, they are our eyes and ears."

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