September 16th, 2013

Golf Nostalgia



Something profound happened to me recently. I was at customs in Instanbul Ataturk Airport, writing down my birth date on the immigration form; Australians need visa travelling in Turkey, Europe(my Romanian passport is obsolete), and the page jumped out at me. For the first time, two concurrent numbers reflected an uncomfortable truth. I am getting old.

Growing old has never worried me, mainly because it was something that only happened to others. When you are male and young, or anyone who has a standing relationship of more than six months is old. But this moment in time was something of a wake-up call, and upon further examination, I find that I am exhibiting tell-tale, signs of aging.

The chief of these is the increasing prevalence of nostalgic thought. The habit of reminiscing about the past was to me, always something that old people did. Invariably, it induced a yawn and a roll of the eyes as the mind immediately wandered off to the present.

But lately, nostalgia is creeping up on me, especially when it comes to golf. The autumn golf season is simmering, waiting to ignite, and makes me yearn, just a touch, for the heady days of the  80’s when there was a feverish sense of excitement surrounding the onset of the tournament golf season.

Golf changed forever during this period. The arrival of Norman mania in 1984 lifted both media interest and participation in the sport. A simple test of this could be found playing out at the club I first joined when I moved to Auckland in 1983.
Titirangi Golf Club setting between the lower slopes of the Waitakere Ranges and the Manukau Harbour.Founded in 1909 it is a private members ONLY club but offers limited playing opportunities for New Zealand and overseas visitors.Titirangi is ranked as one of New Zealand’s top golf courses and it is the only one in the country designed by Dr.Alister MacKenzie.Dr. Mackenzie’s designs are notable for their sensitivity to the nature of the original site and he is admired for producing holes that offer ideal balance of risk and reward.After designing Titirangi in 1927, Dr. MacKenzie went on to design some of the world’s top courses including AUGUSTA where the first major of the year is played THE MASTERS.Despite this, in 1983 you could fire a gun on the golf course some days and not be seen or heard by anyone. Every Friday afternoon, a group of guys would head out for a skins match – and I mean up to ten players, teeing off in one group. It was never a problem because there was no-one in front, or behind.

Come 1984, this was no longer possible. Golf changed. People wanted to play. Tee times filled up, memberships grew, and most visibly, this new legion of golfers flocked to the autumn tournaments to watch, filling the fairways with numbers not previously seen.

Much of this excitement was built around Greg Norman. Why????, commercial radio even kept a hole by hole report on his round on the airwaves over the weekend. The Shark was to the 80’s what Tiger Woods was in the ‘90’s and it is even now, but most importantly, he was Australian.

Remember those tight pants with the front pockets that the Shark used to wear? The ones that made wetsuits look like hessian sacks by comparison? I had them about five pairs, the more colorful and garish the better. His wide takeway?  I had one of those too. Niblick shoes with the flap over the laces? Had to have them – although as soon as Shark stopped wearing them, I threw mine out.

I even used those dreadful Spalding Tour Edition balls for as long as Shark did, until he realized they were crap (after they cost him three majors) and mercifully moved on. I knew they were crap long before him, but if the Shark used them, well, there was only one choice.

When the Shark flew into town, every news crew in existence was at the airport waiting for an exclusive. More to the point, we watched, glued to our screens as he alighted from his jet like Australia’s own version of royalty. He was news, he was golf, and he was the MAN.I did win with his mother the “mixed foursome” which we both never going to forget. It was a great day coming from 3 strokes back with 9 holes to play and win; Greg Norman father following us every shot on every hole. That afternoon Greg got a call from his mother giving him the news of our achievement. The year before I had won the tournament with a great LPGA player Belinda Kerr, however to win with Greg’s mother was a thrill for me.

Of course, those days are long past. Shark is in his 50’s, with a dodgy, sutured together body and his mind on other things than golf. We’ve got new stars now, perhaps more of them than ever before, but none with the kind of charisma and magnetism of the blonde bomber.

That’s not to imply a criticism of any of the current Australian golf players either.They are who they are Adam Scott,Geoff Ogilvy,Aron Baddeley,Jason Day with the latter I had an opportunity to play in 2002. At age of 15 he was and now he still is a “bomber of the golf ball” as Norman was in his high days.When I was at the Volvo World Match Play this year at Thracian Cliffs Balcik I even had this discussion with Geoff Ogilvy about this, like I said to him; You are all brilliant players in your own right, with your own personalities and individual ways of conducting yourselves. By any assessment you are world class golfers, competing with distinction during golf’s most competitive era.

The difference is though that we know what we are going to get from them. We’ll get good, often magnificent golf, but rarely much drama. We don’t anticipate them tearing up the back nine on Sunday with birdie after birdie, chasing down the leader, a roar greeting every putt holed. We also don’t foresee an implosion of train smash proportions; the unknown and the unpredictable was what made Norman so tantalising, so utterly fascinating and ultimately, entertaining. Severiano "Seve" Ballesteros was a Spanish professional golfer who could not hit a straight ball of his life depended on it but he was a great entertainer you never knew where his ball will end up.

Perhaps that’s the key. Golf is about entertainment, and our expectations of what should fall under that description are now a moving target. The precedent, the model, is built around a one off, home bred, unique individual, the type of which may only come along once in a lifetime. We also have a degree of over-familiarity bought on by the immediacy of the internet and digital age, which, when combined with the rapidly shrinking attention span of the ‘Now’ generation creates an environment ill attuned to the staid, time consuming nature of golf.

But the game is still here, we love it, and it’s not going away in a hurry as a result. This affinity for the game is also the chief reason why we reminisce about its past – the seeds of nostalgia need passion in order to germinate, OR OLD PEOPLE.