Cooke spared excesses of modern game

Today’s golfing circus would appal the late scribe, says Dermot Gilleece

Today’s golfing circus would appal the late scribe

– Published 30 March 2014 02:30 AM

Admirable moves by the Leinster Branch GUI at reshaping the future of golf through their ‘Roadmap 2017’ project have come at a particularly interesting time. This happens to be the 10th anniversary of the death of Alistair Cooke, a noted traditionalist who despaired in his latter days of the route the game was taking.


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In his weekly Letter from America programme for BBC Radio 4, the gifted broadcaster would comment with rare insight on matters of the day. And I have kept a tape of his letter of October 1, 1999, which dealt with the infamous Ryder Cup matches at Brookline.

Though aged 90 at the time, his delivery had the passion of a far younger man as he commenced his broadcast with the memorable line: “I never thought the day would come when I would be reluctant to talk about golf.” Then, in his measured, compelling way, he went on to describe how “a splendid international golfing event last weekend turned into a disaster for the goodwill that such events are intended to promote”.

At a time of diminishing etiquette and five-hour rounds becoming normal for tournament professionals, Cooke reminded us that “for about four centuries, golf etiquette has controlled and civilised the behaviour of golfers inclined to let their temper erupt in physical ways,” while preserving the game as “an oasis in a desert of gold and scruffy manners”. That was until Sunday, September 26, 1999, which he described as “a date that will live in infamy.” He claimed that from a note of rowdyism in the previous two or three stagings, “the excessive jollity has now passed over into a soccer fans’ brawl”. We had witnessed, as he put it, the arrival of the golf hooligan.

Cooke went on: “The crowd seemed unlike any group of spectators who normally watch golf. There is a new breed which goes to watch golf now as it does tennis. And why? Because more and more, the big events in golf have turned into trade fairs.

“Twenty odd years ago, I arrived in Scotland to watch the Open, the British Open, and didn’t recognise the course. Tents selling shirts, souvenirs and flags and other, fancier tents called, I learned, hospitality tents, dispensing various products both edible and drinkable, where chief executive officers and friends could slake an early thirst, early or late.

“‘What is this,’ I asked a friend, a Scot, ‘a golf tournament or a circus?’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘it’s somewhere in the middle’.” Cooke concluded: “As for discouraging the hooligans, I suggest that the CEOs be compelled to banish their champagne and that in humbler tents, alcohol be not served as it is banned from other juveniles who attend American college football.”

Interestingly, around the time of Cooke’s broadcast, a public relations company in the US was charged with the task of creating a greater awareness of slow play. After some consideration, they hit on the idea of a poetry contest, presumably in the belief that reminders would be sweeter when presented in metre.

So enthusiastic was the response that it took the judges a week to decide on the winner. Eventually they chose one of the many entries from females, which read: “If playing slowly is your fate . . . Don’t make those behind you stand and wait . . . Invite them through; let them go . . . Then courtesy and etiquette is what you’ll show.”

I first met Alistair Cooke in 1981 at Cypress Point on California‘s Pacific coast, where I was attending the Walker Cup matches in which Philip Walton and Ronan Rafferty were members of the defeated British and Irish side. Indeed he was to be seen on the opening morning, leaning against crush barriers at the famous short 16th, where the Irish youths ended a memorable 4 and 2 foursomes victory over Jay Sigel and Hal Sutton, the world’s leading amateurs at that time.

That, incidentally, was when Peter Davidson, a travelling Walker Cup selector who had lost to Rafferty in the first round of the 1980 British Amateur at Royal Porthcawl, engaged in a piece of delicious one-upmanship. It so happened that prior to leaving his Northumberland home to travel to the US, a friend in Rolls Royce told him to contact their West Coast agent in San Francisco. So it was that Davidson drove into Cypress Point in a spanking new, yellow Bentley T2. And in case the owners of the various Cadillacs and Lincoln Continentals in the parking lot had any doubts about relative quality, the bumper carried a little gold plate which stated: “The best car in the world.”

Ironically, it often strikes me that Cooke’s death aged 95 on March 30, 2004, spared him such excesses of the modern game as the 180,000 bellowing fans around the 16th hole of the Phoenix Open and inane shouts like “In da hole”, “You da man” and the ludicrous “Mashed potatoes”.

Who knows, he may even be enjoying regular heavenly outings with Henry Longhurst, who is the subject of a remarkable story about the hereafter, confirmed to me a few days ago by veteran English golf writer Mark Wilson.

It seems that Longhurst had decided he was going to die on a specific Friday in 1978 and earlier that week, he and Peter Alliss got seriously sozzled together on champagne. Said Wilson: “As they said goodbye – and each knew it was really goodbye – Peter asked whether Henry would let him know whether the grass was really greener on the other side.”

Longhurst had been dead about a year when Alliss attended a function in Leeds where he was approached by a woman, who claimed to be a clairvoyant. She then related a message she had from someone called Henry: she didn’t know the surname. He had asked her to pass on the fact that the grass was indeed greener.

Wilson concluded: “Peter was so taken aback that he had to return immediately to his hotel.”

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