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Golfing in Cornwall

Back in the Twenties, the British humorist A. P. Herbert wrote a piece for Punch magazine entitled "Is a Golfer a Gentleman?" It tells of one Mr. Albert Haddock, who, after a series of mishits on a particularly challenging cliffside par three at Mullion Golf Club, in Cornwall, lets loose a string of profanities that puts him in violation of the Profane Oaths Act of 1745. The act levies a one-shilling-per-curse fine for those of the lower classes but charges five times that to a "gentleman" like Mr. Haddock. Having admitted to more than four hundred curses on the golf course that day, Haddock faces a hundred-pound fine, but he contests the amount on the grounds that when he's playing golf he is not a gentleman.

Fortunately for Haddock, his judge was a kindred spirit. Mr. Haddock, the magistrate says, "has reminded us that the law takes notice, in many cases, of such exceptional circumstances as will break down the normal restraints of a civilised citizen and so powerfully inflame his passions that it would be unjust and idle to apply to his conduct the ordinary standards of the law."

I played Mullion last autumn, and I too can sympathize with Mr. Haddock. Like a number of Cornwall's courses, Mullion combines natural beauty and unnatural difficulty in a way that is destined to inflame the passions of any golfer.

Cornwall, England's sea-battered boot, is not the part of Great Britain one readily associates with golf. I only became aware of this region myself in 1997 while living in England to research a book. One brisk yet balmy November afternoon, I hiked out along the ocean cliffs at Cape Cornwall, and where the trail crested between a high stone wall and a fifty-foot drop to the Atlantic Ocean, came upon a rather startling scene. Just on the other side of the wall, a group of golfers in sweaters and tweed caps stood at a tee about to hit, it seemed, toward heaven. I walked a bit farther and saw the greens and waving flags of the course's holes arranged in descending, wall-rimmed tiers of plush green--like the farmed steppes of a Nepalese hillside. The course's designers had so yielded to the landscape that they had only to trim the grass and place the pins. As for the golfers, they--despite the imminent peril of sliding off into the sea--seemed to be in golf nirvana.

Here, it occurred to me, was the perfect antidote to a malady that often overcomes me on a golf course: ennui of the links--when you have only yourself to visit with, remonstrate, regret. High on a Cornish cliff with the ocean crashing below, you have no choice but to get out of yourself. I decided then and there that I would return at roughly the same time of year. Showing up as I did in mid-November not only allows you to stroll right onto a given course but also ensures that you will have to battle the elements, which define the Cornish golf experience.

Cornwall being only half the size of New Jersey, I decided to situate myself in one place and light out each day to a different golf course. Along with major stretches of the British coastline, the National Trust owns a variety of homes and cottages that can be rented very reasonably, especially off-season. So I put up in Cadgwith, a tiny, thatched-roofed fishing village on the southeastern tip of the peninsula, and planned my tour, starting with the cliffside layouts at Mullion, Falmouth and Cape Cornwall, working inland to St. Mellion and finishing at the fabled tracks of Trevose and St. Enodoc.

Mullion Golf Club, England's southernmost course, is a mere fifteen-minute drive from Cadgwith, though no drive in Cornwall is "mere." Aside from its few main thoroughfares, Cornwall doesn't have roads so much as hedgerowed cow paths that can render you a nearsighted rat in a maze. Every inch of land was parceled, purchased and plowed long b efore the dawn of the automobile. You either slow down and take in the landscape or take the chance of wearing it.

Along with A. P. Herbert, A. A. Milne, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir James Barrie were among the many British literary lights drawn to Mullion. Situated above Mounts Bay, the course, first established in 1895, encompasseswithin its 6,037 yards the whole spectrum of golf course geography, from clifftop to inland to traditional links. Hole by hole, Mullion is not particularly demanding. But like a number of the Cornish courses, it has, at first, a sprawling, somewhat ill-defined feel. So overwhelming is the Mounts Bay backdrop and the mounded lay of the dunes upon which the course sits that you and your purpose there are rendered entirely incidental. Standing on the first tee, I had the feeling I was about to hit into an animate landscape painting.

This was Cornwall golf exactly as I'd been reliving it in my mind since that first encounter at Cape Cornwall. A stiff wind was blowing in off Mounts Bay, but the sun and the Gulf Stream conspired to keep the day in the low sixties. The Cornish wind can seem another kind of landscape, and at times you must play it as such, bounce shots off of it, hit others through the valleylike lulls. That and learning to stop confusing stray gull feathers for your ball are the first two lessons of golfing Cornwall. The sooner they're absorbed, the sooner you can get past the patent absurdity of trying to will a ball around such a glorious, windswept expanse and start enjoying it.

A. P. Herbert caught the spirit in "A Song of Mullion":

My ball is in a bunch of fern
A jolly place to be;
An angry man is close astern,
He waves his club at me.
Well let him wave--the sky is blue;
Go on, old ball, we are but two,
We may be down in three,
Or nine--or ten--or twenty-five--
It matters not; to be alive
Is good enough for me.

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