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Far from the Madding Crowd

The third hole at the Isle Of Purbeck golf club in the county of Dorset, England, is a modest par four of only 302 yards. There's not a level lie on the fairway, and the humpy, bumpy, firm ground cants sharply right to left, tumbling to a scrubland of thorny bushes. Here on this rugged course on the Purbeck downland, I've struck gold.

My companion is Howard Singleton, the club president and a man very much disposed to this course. I first saw him when I pulled into the club parking lot high on a hill overlooking the course; he was loading his clubs on a pullcart--or trolley, as the English say. As I soon learned, Howard preferred to carry his clubs but had started using the trolley three years ago as a concession to advancing age. Howard Singleton is ninety-six.

Howard loves his golf and takes it in doses of three or four rounds a week, walking, always walking. Howard is ninety-six, it's true, but he still gives the ball a solid thwack. Typically it carries about seventy yards in the air and then, thanks to the hard ground, bounds along another seventy yards or so. He plays briskly and, like me, swings right-handed and putts left-handed. "I see the line better," he tells me.

At the third tee we survey the prospect. Golf holes spread out all around and about us. Flags for the holes sway in the breezes carrying here from the English Channel. I can see forever, it seems, and golf green after golf green is visible, as are the fairways that snake and twirl and, sometimes, run straight as a ruler between the hills and mounds. Clearly this is superb golf country. I have always loved golf on firm ground with a fresh breeze as accompaniment. You can hit a far wider variety of shots because the possibility is always there of running the ball along the ground to your target rather than carrying it there through the air, the only choice available on most American courses.

Howard cracks his tee shot 130 yards down the sloped fairway. The ball bounds madly, then stops in an awkward spot in a bushy copse. No matter. Howard simply fits himself into a stance, then slaps his ball another 130 yards. Watching him, it occurs to me that he could not play many American courses, where water and massive sand traps often mark the passage from tee to green. Because the fairways and greens are accessible along the ground, not only through the air, the course allows players of all ages and abilities to get around. "I reckon I've walked twenty thousand miles here," Howard tells me.

His second shot finishes within twenty-five yards of the green. He then plays a pitch-and-run between two bunkers that flank the green and clips it perfectly off the turf. It's bouncing along, curving with the right-to-left slope of the ground. I think Howard's pitch-and-run has just the right look. It's wending its way toward its ultimate destination, hopping and skipping along, and it looks in all the way. Our senses can get so acute on a golf course, where we're out in the fresh air and scampering along. The great Johnny Miller once told me it's amazing that a golfer can hit a forty-foot putt and know immediately that it is going to come up one roll shy of the hole.

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