Monday, 20 February 2012

Hob Nobbing

Perhaps the greatest joy the game of golf gives is the ability for players from all walks of life and ability to enjoy a game together. Sometimes, usually in the name of charity, its possible for the average club member to rub shoulders with a top professional or famous celebrity and enjoy a few hours in their company playing the noble game on some fantastic course. I've been lucky enough to enjoy the company of a number of well known names (in their day) as a playing partner, as a caddy and even as a member of the same club as these celebrities. There has even been one real Fellini moment when two of the best golfers Britain has produced arrived on my golfing doorstep at the peak of their powers.

Wimbledon Common Golf Club is a humble club set on the edge of the common about a mile from Wimbledon Village. I was lucky enough to have a short spell as the assistant pro working for their long standing professional Jeff Jukes. In the late 1970's and early 80's the club was able to claim the voice of tennis commentary on the BBC, Dan Maskell as a member. Also there during that period was TV actor James Bolam, famous at the time for his role as Terry Collier in the Likely Lads and Jack Ford in When the Boat Comes In.

Dan Maskell in particular was a revered member, with a table always set aside after a game for him to enjoy his post round tea and coffee with his partners. As a rather young, impetuous youth, it was always an intimidating affair playing alongside him, but despite the stiff and brusque exterior he was a warm and engaging partner. Always full of stories about the tennis players of the day (Nastase, Connors etc) if anyone in his fourball hit an outstanding shot, he sometimes used his most remembered and best loved catchphrases such as "Oh, I say!" or "What a peach". He talked as he commentated and the first time he popped out with one of these I have to admit I was gnawing on my golf glove trying hard not to giggle too loudly. He was a lovely, lovely man and even into his 60's played off a 12 handicap and was as tough as iron to beat.

Dan Maskell doing his day job

James Bolam, was another famous member. Not a frequent a visitor due to filming he was another with whom a round of golf was a very enjoyable experience and a man with few airs or graces. Indeed as we share the same birthday (16th June) I use to receive a birthday card each year for a while until he moved to another club. He was another with many a tale to tell, from filming the cult comedy series that made his name to various escapades as a jobbing actor. He was a staunch supporter of charity events and regularly gave up his time. He appeared on the BBC show "Pro Celebrity Golf" which paired two celebrities with two famous golfers of the day for a filmed nine holes usually at somewhere in Scotland like Turnberry or Gleneagles. I actually sold him the pair of shoes he wore on his Pro Celebrity TV appearance during my time as the assistant pro.

James Bolam - hopefully he didn't get blisters from the shoes I sold him
The final member of a celebrity triumvirate I rubbed shoulders with as a start-struck youngster in my time at Wimbledon Common was the Formula 1 world champion and TV Commentator James Hunt. Although not a member of the club he often walked his Alsatian dogs past the pro shop and would regularly pay a green fee to play and once in a while we would pair up for a game. As a sportsman who reached the pinnacle of his field he had that winning mentality. However as a novice golfer he would become very frustrated with his inability to control his little white sphere and the two Alsatians that would accompany us would often be sent deep into the foliage to try and retrieve his ball. Despite his lack of ability he was a joy to spend time with and we'd get some very strange looks as the public on Wimbledon Common realised who it was and I'd often have to wait while he signed an autograph or stopped for a chat.

James Hunt - Mr Laid Back - until he stepped onto the 1st tee
've been fortunate enough to have played in the odd pro-celebrity event myself. There was an annual tournament sponsored by the Daily Express newspaper and the legendary Harry Secombe in aid of the Lords Taverners Charity. This was held at Effingham Golf Club in Surrey and I was partnered with the ex-England wicket keeper from the 1950's and 60's Godfrey Evans. It was a team event and I'm afraid nerves got the better of me standing there with photos being taken, famous faces all around and a reasonable sized crowd. Dear old Godfrey wasn't the most adept player and was quite advanced in years and to be honest struggled with the hilly terrain. There was a marquee behind the 6th green for the players to get a drink. Godfrey ordered a double G&T and sat down to get his breath back. Next thing we knew he'd another double G&T in his hand. It didn't help his golf any. There was another marquee at the 9th and Godfrey repeated the trick. Double G&T when he walked in and joined the back of the queue to get another. However by this time the snifters had kicked in and for the back nine he was "missing in action" and last seen enjoying his drink and chatting to friends and the crowd. Quality effort.

Godfrey Evans - England wicket keeper and fond of a G&T
The following year I was back but this time as a caddy. I was fortunate to have the bag of Bernard Cribbins, narrator of the Wombles on TV and famous in the 1960's for novelty records such as "Hole in the ground" and Right said Fred". He was great with the crowds and slipped into Womble mode for the kids of happily gave a few bars from his tunes. He also appeared in the classic film "The Railway Children" and was happy to talk about his stage and screen life. He has recently come back to prominence as Wilfred Mott in Dr Who which was ironic as he had starred in the 1966 Dr Who film - Daleks Invasion Earth 2150AD with Peter Cushing as the doctor. A decent golfer he played very well and was very patient with the crowd and not too wrapped up about the winning or how he played despite my best efforts to plot a course and club him correctly. To be honest it wasn't a chore to carry the bag and he even blagged me a ticket into the main function to have a meal and a drink and paid me handsomely.

Bernard Cribbins - kids favourite, housewives favourite and all round Mr Nice Guy
Since then, I've been to a lot of golf events, tournaments and corporate events and seen a host of top players. Just before the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor, the European captain Colin Montgomery held a clinic at Silvermere Golf Club in Surrey. It was a chance to get close to the man, watch as he demonstrated how he played certain shots and ask him questions about his game, team selection for the Ryder Cup and on golf in general. He was very engaging and came over very differently from the dour, spikey persona portrayed on TV when he was playing.

Me and Monty at Silvermere
Even when I moved down to deepest Berkshire (well Bracknell) and joined Royal Ascot I wasn't able to escape "celebrity" altogether. When the club was situated in its old home on Ascot Heath, inside the racecourse, Tom O'Connor, comedian, presenter of "Name That Tune" and regular in dictionary corner on Channel 4's Countdown, was a member. He wasn't a frequent visitor but catch him in the 19th and he could never help himself by firing off gag after gag. On the course as well, you could be playing like a one armed man fighting an octopus but he'd take your mind off your own troubles and just have you crying with laughter. Not a swear word in site, but good old fashioned story and joke telling.

Tom O'Connor - one of the funniest guys I've ever met and not a swear word in sight
However, perhaps the most interesting encounter I had was in 1986. It was the last Saturday in March and I'd just come off the course at Wimbledon Common having not played particularly well. Getting changed in the locker room, someone came in and said that Nick Faldo and Sandy Lyle were playing at Royal Wimbledon Golf club, some 200 yards down the road. Being a sceptic I couldn't beleive that two of the best golfers in Europe at that time (if not the world) would be playing a course like that on a Saturday afternoon. Still, no harm in going to have a look. Just to be sure you understand.

Sandy Lyle - hit it a country mile even with a balata ball
I couldn't beleive it. I caught them up on the third hole and it was just them, their caddies and about twenty others. No ropes, no marshalls. I could look in their bags and Faldo even asked me to show him my swing and gave me a pointer on what I could do better. Watching them play was jaw dropping. This was still the days of persimmon woods with miniscule heads and even smaller sweet spots and balata golf balls. These golfing gods were able to hit it miles and with such control.
We got to one hole and I asked Faldo what he planned to hit for his second into the green. We were only about 150 yards away and he said six iron. Now I'd have fancied my chances of getting there with a six iron but this was a golfing icon. "That's way too much club" I cheekily suggested. "No, it's a 6 iron" he replied. He hit this thing and it started off at tree height and then rose like a rocket upwards and landed softly on the green some six feet away. "Yeah, I thought it was a six iron too" I said to him as he walked up to the green. To this day I don't know why they were there. I wanted to get their autographs and the only thing I had was my club diary so both Lyle and Faldo signed the inside cover.

Nick Faldo - awesome display of ball striking
Professionals are use to playing with the public. It's part of their job and so I'm sure a lot of the time they are putting their PR faces on and getting the job done. That day with Faldo and Lyle was different. It was like watching two mates having a game at the local muni. Nothing put on, just hit it find it and hit it again.
Celebrities too can put on the smiles and make playing partners feel wanted. Its all for charity and everyone is there for a good time. However, meet a few up close and in their personal time and they prove that despite the publicity and wealth, deep down they are ordinary golfers who just share the same love of the game as everyone else.
I'm sure many of you will have your own encounters over the years. Feel free to comment and let me know who you've played with either by leaving a message at the bottom of the page or via twitter at @mbedboro. Lets see who's played with the biggest star or best golfer.

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