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A Tale of Two Clubhouses

He is referring to an episode back in the 1970s, when the new M25 highway was being built around London, threatening to engulf three holes at Walton Heath. The wealthy full members may have owned the club, but the locals—the artisans—realized they were about to lose a piece of their soul if the road went through their turf. Apparently, the artisans' chairman made an impassioned speech at a public meeting that made a huge impact, and the plan was eventually scrapped.

In match five was the honorary secretary of the artisans, John Sparks. A gentle man simply in love with Walton Heath, Sparks had just finished the artisans' annual task of repairing divot marks and seeding the damage on the club's two courses. Walking and talking his way around the heathland, Sparks appeared to know the terrain as if it were his home hallway. Financial muscle created and maintains Walton Heath, but the labor of Sparks and the other artisans continues to help keep it in good health—and make sure it isn't misused. (According to ancient English land-ownership laws, the club owns the golf courses themselves, but the public still has a right to "take air and exercise" over the "common land" on which the courses were built. The artisans patrol the courses daily to ensure that "air and exercise" doesn't include a drive, an approach and a few free putts.)

Unlike those at many other clubs, Walton Heath's artisans are in no danger of extinction. Not that there haven't been awkward moments. In the mid-1990s a new agreement was reached whereby the artisans would pay the main club to hire a greenskeeper—which meant an additional annual cost to each artisan. Artisans would continue to patrol the course, but their workload would be reduced. Then the agreement was unexpectedly terminated five years ago by a new club secretary who believed artisans should be encouraged to uphold the old work-for-play tradition. "Somebody didn't want us to simply pay—they wanted us to work," said Dave Lucas. "And we were kind of put back in our place." Whatever the motive for the about-face, at Walton Heath the relationship between the main club and the artisans appears to be sound.

Out on the course—mostly heathland sand and natural heather, dotted by the odd coppice of mixed woodland and older patches of Scotch pines—Peter Renshaw paused. "You know," he said, "I suppose Americans will find all of this a bit strange." The comment itself was odd, because Renshaw's club partner was Bill Gerhauser, an American who seemed to understand "all of this" quite well.

Gerhauser, who looks like an elegantly dressed hybrid of Alistair Cooke and Jay Gatsby, came to London from Chicago in 1966 as a Playboy executive organizing the distribution of the magazine and directing operations at London's Playboy Club and Casino. Now seventy-three, England has long since been his home and Walton Heath his club. Able to talk and punch his way out of thick heather at the same time, Gerhauser observed, "All that class and division, all that knowing your place—it's all gone now. What is crucial in England is that the middle class has gotten bigger."

Renshaw and his American partner were up against an artisan pairing that included one of Walton Heath's greens staff, Jason Woodger. Recognizing the damage that was being inflicted on them by two elderly but steady opponents, Woodger said: "I get to play this game twice a year. They [pointing at his opponents] are playing all the time." As he spoke, another hole was lost to age and experience.

Elsewhere on the course, youth and power were making a difference. That combination, coupled with a graceful low-handicap swing, belonged to David Sayers. As a former junior member of the full club, Sayers could have been asked to join when he turned eighteen—something of a Walton Heath tradition—which would have required a difficult decision: a social leap into an elevated arena where he had few friends versus choosing to remain, for lack of a better expression, among his own kind. Ultimately, Sayers said, "I wasn't asked. But even if I had been, I'd probably have joined the artisans. Most of my family play in the artisans." There was a hint from Sayers that he knew his "place," as if his golfing skill mattered less than his social position.

In Scotland, the egalitarian spirit of the game has made the artisan concept almost unnecessary (there is one club associated with the Artisan Golfer's Association, Perth Golf Club). You shoot seventy-three in most clubs in Scotland and no one will ask you what you do. What you do is shoot seventy-three—hit the ball a mile and putt like a god. In England, you shoot seventy-three and someone will most likely still ask, "And what do you do?" In Scotland, David Sayers would have had no choice to make.

Then again, both Sayers and Walton Heath rest firmly on the southern side of the England-Scotland border.

Others may wonder why his supposed predicament is still being discussed at all. Sayers is a good golfer, regularly playing what Jack Nicklaus, in a letter to the club to mark its centenary, called "among the rankings of the world's finest courses." The young Sayers—for very little money—is among his family and his friends in this wonderful place. What's to worry about?

Looking at the challenge-match scores, Sayers was a loss to the regular club. The struggling-but-cheerful Sir Michael Pickard and his partner were losing to Sayers and a fellow artisan. Did Sir Michael appear to mind?Yes, but he also had the demeanor of someone who had lost his swing somewhere between the Bank of England and Windsor Castle and was confident he would eventually find it again.

At the tail end of the artisan team was eighty-two-year-old Fred Faulkner, who'd been playing regularly in these matches since 1937. For outright victory, Faulkner and his partner would have to deliver.

Family history, and an upbringing around the game, was on Faulkner's side. Other Faulkners had delivered, notably cousin Max, who walked off with the British Open Claret Jug in 1951. Fred said that he'd been an artisan "as long as I can remember." He recalled constant visits when he was just a small boy to the workshop of the club's first professional—James Braid.

One of the "great triumvirate" or "holy trinity," along with J. H. Taylor and Harry Vardon, Braid took the British Open championship in 1901, '05, '06, '08 and '10 (and finished in the top five throughout the decade). If the artisans have a guiding spirit, it is Braid, who encouraged the villagers—among them Faulkner's father—to get organized. Braid held the position of honorary captain of the Walton Heath Artisans Golf Club from its founding until his death in 1950.

Born in Earlsferry, Scotland, Braid grew up in Fife, the birthplace of golf. He'd learned to play on the local linksland and brought with him to Walton Heath a deeply held belief that golf was not the reserve of the elite. At a time when even professionals were routinely banned from entering through the front doors of clubhouses, Braid diplomatically knew his "place"—but that wasn't the same thing as accepting it. So when, at age sixty-eight, Braid shot a sixty-four at Walton Heath, and again at age eighty, when only a bogey on the eighteenth prevented him from shooting his age, it was among the artisans—including his two sons—that he celebrated. In the artisans' clubhouse at Walton Heath it doesn't take that long on any evening for someone to mention Braid and point to his distinguished place on the honor board.

The lounge of the main clubhouse at Walton Heath, though, is technically out-of-bounds for artisans. This is a haven of the elite, filled with enough silverware and trophies to pay off the debt of a struggling country. It is both memory lane and a shrine for a club that has held not only the Ryder Cup (in 1981) but also five European Opens. Around the clubhouse the many honor boards read like a who's who of political and royal British history. As one older member said, "Remember, this place used to be an annex of Westminster; at one time, more cabinet meetings were held here than in London."


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