Now that I come to think of it, I can say that Ben Hogan featured rather more in my childhood than might be expected of a boy growing up in a country on a continent 5,000 miles to the east of Hogan’s.
Probably about 1954, about the time that Roger Bannister set a world record by becoming the first man to run the mile in less than 4 minutes, I remember burrowing for something in my father’s wardrobe in his bedroom. There, stuck on the back of a door, I noticed a certificate saying that on a certain day in a certain month in a certain year he had beaten Ben Hogan. That got my attention.
It seemed that as some kind of transatlantic gesture of friendship between golfers on each side of the Atlantic there had been a competition in which Hogan would play a round on his course and entrants from Britain would play a round on theirs. If their net score was lower than Hogan’s gross, they won a certificate such as my father had in his wardrobe near to where he kept a box of brand-new Dunlop 65 golf balls, all in their shiny, crinkly cellophane paper.
About the same time, I remember watching the Hogan film, Follow the Sun. In my mind’s eye, as clear now as it was that day 65 years ago, is the sight of his flat cap, his flat swing, his cupping a cigarette. I thought I remembered that a copy of his Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf was to be found next to some of Henry Cotton’s annuals in a bookshelf in our sitting room – but then I discovered the book wasn’t published in the UK until much later.
In part because of my father’s certificate, in part because I had started to play golf a couple of years earlier and, living on the edge of a golf course, was besotted by it, I knew more about Hogan than most 8- or 9-year-olds. I knew he had won three major championships in 1953, that he had survived a terrible car crash and saved his wife’s life by throwing himself in front of her. I knew he favoured a flat cap, usually white. And I knew, somehow, that he used to tune up for the Masters at a golf club in Florida called Seminole, a name that had a distinct Indian ring to it. Seminole. Was that the name of a settlement or a tribe?
When I was a little younger than that, Cowboys and Indians was a popular game just as at that time I was fascinated by a television programme about a masked cowboy called The Lone Ranger. His sidekick was Tonto, an Indian.
I thought Tonto was a Sioux but I was wrong.
Years later, in a post-prandial discussion with a fellow golf writer who was much more travelled than I was, he said in no uncertain fashion that the best locker room in golf was that of Seminole’s.
So here was a thread that linked the topics
of golf, Hogan, where he prepared for the Masters, Seminole, Indians and the
I loved the view of the Atlantic Ocean from the 14th tee and particularly the way you can walk onto the tee and not know the vast expanse of sea is there until someone says: “Look over the hedge.”
If you mix all those influences together in the mind of a golf-mad young boy who later went on to become a golf correspondent it is easy to understand my enthusiasm when, one lucky day, I played Seminole. The memory of my bad golf that day was quickly suppressed by the memory of a course with greens that were as fast and difficult to read as any I had ever played, of the feeling of extreme comfort I had in my surroundings and of the impression that here, even amidst dozens of golf courses within a few miles of one another, off a road named after one of the world’s greatest course designers, in a county known for its golf courses in a state seriously enriched by golf, here was a golf club that stood out for the sum of its parts.
It was not the best course I have ever played because every course I have played has one hole that is strategically weaker than the others. I do have favourite courses, beloved courses, and Seminole would certainly be one of those. I loved the view of the Atlantic Ocean from the 14th tee and particularly the way you can walk onto the tee and not know the vast expanse of sea is there until someone says: “Look over the hedge.”
Seminole is not the most beautiful course in the world, nor the longest nor the shortest. It was a pleasure from the moment I drove in through the gates and saw what resembled the palace of a minor Venetian doge. And my colleague was right all those years ago. It has the best men’s locker room ever, at least in my experience.
Sweating and discombobulated, tired and disappointed at my play and feeling a bit like Bobby Jones’s “yellow dog,” I had hauled myself into the holy of holies after my round. I slumped into an armchair rather like those they have on cruise ships. I saw a copy of The New York Times at my feet and soon a drink was to hand. I looked at the hunting trophies on the wall and up and up at the ceiling. It was very high. And then I noticed the honours boards.
Wallasey has some good honours boards and so does Formby. Those in the “Big Room” at the R&A take some beating and to see at the New Zealand golf club a locker with the name A. Conan Doyle and a thin line through it to delineate his death is to be reminded that the brilliant man who created Sherlock Holmes played golf. They were all memorable. But boards with names such as Hogan, Snead, Nicklaus, Palmer and Sean Connery. They took the biscuit.
Asked to explain Seminole’s unique selling point, a member said: “The simple answer is it’s the golf IQ. The members at Seminole love golf and care about the game itself more than even their own game. We have all benefited from the great game of golf, we have seen others benefit in life by being part of the game and we all hope more people are captured by the game in the future. Golf will thrive in the future for many reasons, but the lessons learned in and around golf are some of the most important things some will ever learn. We feel golf is important.”
Martin Slumbers, chief executive of the R&A, has played there three or four times and at mention of its name an affectionate smile passes over his face. “The biggest compliment I can give the place is I feel very relaxed and at home there.”
So do I. I don’t think anything more need be said.