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Tee Time in London Town

"When a man is tired of London he is tired of life."
Samuel Johnson
The great Cham was referring to the excitements of the town, to the speeches in Parliament and the gossip at court, also to the paintings of Sir Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick's coffeehouse wit, the novels of Fanny Burney and the company of Mrs. Thrale. Had he lived in the early twentieth century instead of the late eighteenth, and had he been attracted to the sporting scene instead of the spectacle in the Strand, he could as easily have been speaking of golf courses--at least two hundred of them within a thirty-mile radius of London, several of them deservedly famous and nearly all of them somehow associated with the British Open or the English crown.

The traveler who goes to London for a week in hope of seeing the excitements of the town and enjoying the country pleasures of British golf is well-advised to make the journey in two stages. Most of the better courses lie to the southwest of the city, not far from Heathrow and densely concentrated in the counties of Surrey and Berkshire. A traveler who arrives on a Sunday evening can stay at one of the numerous hotels in the vicinity of Ascot, none of them more than twenty minutes from the airport and some of them as luxurious as the Four Seasons or the Ritz-Carlton; let him devote his attention to golf from Monday through Thursday, the days on which the nearby private clubs welcome visitors unaccompanied by members, and he can fit a second eighteen holes into the hours that otherwise would be squandered each day on the drive back and forth into the vicinity of Trafalgar Square. On Thursday evening, the traveler can retire to London for the theaters, the portrait galleries and the historical monuments.

Choosing a week in late September, I found it surprisingly easy to make the necessary arrangements. The Monday tee times must be spoken for two or three weeks in advance, but the reservations can be made with a trans-Atlantic telephone call to each club's secretary; all subsequent changes can be safely left to the concierge at the hotel. Quite a few of the better known clubs--among them Sunningdale, Berkshire and Walton Heath--offer the advantage of two eighteen-hole courses, their availability for two-ball and four-ball matches reversed between the morning and the afternoon. The protocol assures an unimpeded flow of play. Not once in six days did I wait to hit a shot, and a round never took more than three and a half hours to complete.

In the time allowed, I managed to play eight courses, but the possibilities are so many and so various that it would need a life as long and opinionated as Dr. Johnson's to rank them in an order of merit. Although the English imported the game from Scotland during the reign of Elizabeth I, they didn't invest it with the character of devout observance until the last two decades of the nineteenth century, and the sudden springing up of golf courses in the valley of the Thames suggests that the revelation was both beatific and widely distributed. As late as 1864, the English countryside harbored only three courses (as opposed to thirty north of Solway Firth); by 1901, the number had reached one thousand, many of the courses adjacent to the new suburban railway lines. The convenience allowed the Victorian gentlemen, side-whiskered and silent, to walk the short distance from the station to the first tee without having to change their shoes. The gentry dressed for golf in the way that they dressed for any other expedition in possibly troublesome terrain (Norfolk jacket, starched collar, tweed cap), and because a gentleman was by definition a sportsman (the two words were synonyms for "empire"), if one wasn't going to Scotland for the grouse, or maybe to India to shoot an elephant, one simply carried the clubs onto the train for Worplesdon or Woking.

The landscape favored the construction of golf courses--the soil sandy, the ground undulating and the forests not so impenetrable that they couldn't be reconfigured as parks. A generation of self-taught golf architects discovered what have come to be seen as the platonic forms of the well-balanced fairway, the deftly placed bunker and the properly contoured green. The golfer who plays their courses encounters a way of thinking about the game more likely to improve his attitude and score than an anthology of swing thoughts or a new driver forged from pure titanium.

The Old course at Sunningdale, designed by Willie Park in 1900, is said to be the finest inland course in Britain, and I see no reason to contest the judgment. The course is not long (6,341 yards, par seventy), but it is beautifully situated among old trees (oak, pine and silver birch). I didn't come across any hole that was trifling or weak, and several of them I thought as memorable as any I had ever seen: a long par four descending toward a pond at number five; another long par four at number ten from a dramatically elevated tee (this has recently been made a par five); at number seventeen, again a par four, a dogleg right that sets up what I'm willing to believe is one of the loveliest second shots in all of England. I was so taken with the course that I played it twice, on the second occasion in a match against the card turned in by Bobby Jones on June 16, 1926.


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