November 4, 2009

The President's Putter

An annual match of Oxford & Cambridge alumni, might be the game's most authentic event

View additional photos from the President's' Putter Annual Match

The bar inside the little white clubhouse on the hill is full. As the windows blacken at the end of a fine winter's day on the links, the talk is of the golf, the weather, the cricket, the old days. In one corner, an animated debate breaks out among a fraternity of gents about whether the Royal Burgess Golfing Society is older than the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers.

This is the President's Putter, the annual January gathering of the Oxford & Cambridge Golfing Society in Rye, on the southeast coast of England. The Society, founded in 1898, is for those who made their university team as undergraduates and thus earned a "blue" -- a "letter" in U.S. parlance. Oxford and Cambridge golfing alumni -- including many old friends of a ruddy, uniquely Anglo-Saxon disposition, who still address each other by their surnames and who show their affection through merciless ribbing and jokery -- congregate for this four-day match-play contest, as well as plenty of drink, conversation and merriment.

"It's a reunion as much as a golf competition," says journalist-turned-golf-course-architect Donald Steel, a three-time winner of the Putter. "The motto is 'serious fun,' and that's a good description of the week. It's dark around 4, and people stick around after the golf to have a drink or two, have a meal, and play bridge long into the night."

There was a time when the Putter would be contested among household names, men like Holderness, Tolley, Wethered, the great and the good of the day. After Holderness won the first four Putters, the fifth, in 1924, was won by Bernard Darwin, the esteemed, tweed-bedecked golf writer who won a Walker Cup singles match in 1922. Four of the eight-strong 1926 Walker Cup side were "Oxbridge" men and Putter regulars.

The only ex-Walker Cupper in the 2009 field is David Marsh, 74, one of the last of the great true amateurs. A doctor in northern England until he retired a decade ago, Marsh found time to play in three British Opens and was the man of the hour at the 1971 Walker Cup, drilling a 3-iron to the green at St. Andrews' notorious 17th hole to secure a rare victory for the Brits. Marsh is not the oldest competitor at Rye this year. That honor goes to Malcolm Peel, 76, making his 46th appearance in the event -- impressive, but a long way from the record: World War II army parachutist Peter Gracey played in 57 consecutive Putters, bowing out in 2006 at 84. "There's a tremendous spirit here," says Peel, after walking 18 holes in his first-round match. "You meet all your old friends. This is one of the last true amateur events."

"It's my favorite event in golf," says David Normoyle, one of five Americans in the field. "There's nothing like it in the U.S." Normoyle is the assistant director of the USGA Museum in Far Hills, N.J., and had a hand in recent acquisitions like the hat that Arnold Palmer threw into the air after winning the 1960 U.S. Open. Normoyle is here because, working at the museum one day, he happened on Herbert Warren Wind's 1972 story in The New Yorker about the Putter. "I decided I wanted to be a part of this world," he says. He applied to do a one-year master's in history at Cambridge, which turned into a three-year Ph.D. -- his doctoral thesis is titled "Bernard Darwin and the Development of Golf Literature." Sitting in the clubhouse on Darwin's old chair -- which used to belong to his grandfather, Charles, the man who figured out the origin of species -- Normoyle explains the allure of this competition, which endures not despite but because of its antiquated nature. "It's the game's most authentic event," he says. "It's a connection to the past, present and future. Coming here is a pilgrimage."

On the walls of the clubhouse, where a century ago Henry James used to take tea, there are scorecards of long-ago course records, a framed letter from Winston Churchill accepting honorary membership in 1946, and photographs of club secretaries past, such as the monocled Brigadier Robert Scott D.S.O., peering out across the decades with the kind of fearsome gaze that could make small trees wilt. All around, colossal amounts of ginger wine, port and warm beer are being consumed, along with the house beverage at many of Britain's finest clubs, kümmel, a deadly liqueur that is said to improve one's putting. I was offered a glass of champagne by Steven Turnbull, an affable London attorney who had found himself 4 down after four earlier in the day but then turned matters around with a hole-in-one. It was an expensive stroke.

These men -- the sole woman in the field this year, teacher-turned-accountant Lisa Webster, has the dubious distinction for the week of being "an honorary chap" -- are privileged not only with the mental capabilities to have earned a place at Oxford or Cambridge but with sufficient athletic talents to play a good game. Blessed with such bestowments, it would be easy to despise these par-shooting geniuses if it weren't for the fact that they all seem so jolly, decent and entertaining.

They're what used to be called "good sports." The event isn't really about winning or losing; in the words of golfing Englishman Rudyard Kipling, combatants at the Putter know to "treat those two impostors just the same." Any signs on the course of excessive anger -- or exultation -- are viewed as bad form. "The great thing about the Putter is that it adheres to the true spirit of the game," says Steel. "That sounds a bit pompous, but it's true. You play hard. You play fast. But above all, you play to have fun."

To get a taste of Rye in advance of the Putter, I came down from London a month earlier for a game with the Society's secretary, Martin Yates, a qualified referee who has officiated at eight British Opens, has played 857 golf courses and owns the record for the most Putter matches contested, 130. Nothing so vulgar as handicaps was discussed -- it was assumed, as in the Putter, that we'd play a head-to-head match with no strokes given. There are no carts at Rye, or yardage markers. Just pure, natural golf as it was meant to be played, on firm, fast-running turf where you have to use your imagination and play the ball along the ground as well as in the air.

The golf course jousts with a series of ridgelike dunes a couple of miles east of the ridiculously quaint medieval town of Rye. It was these dunes that in 1895 inspired a young, scratch-handicap lawyer down the road in Hastings to try his hand at golf-course design. Harry Colt went on to create many of the finest courses in the world, Sunningdale, Royal Portrush and Pine Valley being just three of the more illustrious examples. To many, Rye is still his best work.

On the ninth tee, waiting for the twosome ahead, Yates, a Rye member since 1961, apologized for the "disgracefully" slow pace of play -- 90 minutes after we'd teed off. "Anything more than a three-hour round here is outrageous," he said. "Playing slowly is the worst thing you can do here. Word gets around. You'll be ignored in the bar. You'll be an outcast." (This holds true, too, for the Putter, whose draw sheet announces unequivocally: "Players are reminded that the required speed of play is three hours to complete 18 holes.")

We putted out on the 18th at 3 p.m. It would be dark by 4:20, and already it was getting gloomy, with storm clouds congregating overhead. But as long as there was daylight and a course at hand, for Yates it would be unthinkable, immoral even, not to play on. So without any discussion, we marched to the first tee and played the front nine again, with light to spare.

It was a bracing, frigid day, as are most competition days during the Putter. There have been many weather delays over the years, but only once was the Putter not completed, in 1979, when deep snow proved too much even for the hardiest of Putterheads. The brutal conditions are part of the appeal, in keeping with an at-times eccentric nation that is proud not only of sporting fixtures like Ascot, Henley and Wimbledon but of lesser-known events that test competitors' skills in, say, cheese-rolling, boot-tossing, mud-racing and shin-kicking. In 1963, a proposition to move the Putter to a more clement time of year was put to a vote; it was defeated, 57-2. Bernard Darwin described the Putter as "a little red glowing jewel set in the cold waste of winter."

The 2009 Putter began in dense fog, so that only hazy silhouettes were observable, moving silently atop the sand hills like ghosts. On following days there was a thick, whiteout frost, with temperatures dipping below 20 degrees; the links looked like a roiling ocean that had suddenly frozen, mid-wave, and the fairways were as hard as concrete. On the last day, a bitter, biting wind kicked up.

The Sunday-afternoon final was between entrepreneur Richard Marett, 36, who ran a financial-advisory business in the Far East before returning to London to set up an online-education company, and Logan Mair, 40, a partner in a London law firm. Braving the harsh elements was a decent crowd of maybe 100 onlookers, made up of Rye members, friends, locals with their Labradors, stray golf fans and vanquished Putter competitors, some of them still nursing wicked hangovers from the night before -- or possibly from New Year's Eve.

Marett, a 1-handicapper, closed out the match on the 17th green, just under three hours after proceedings began. He needed a 4 at the last for a 73, a fine performance given the conditions. The captain of the Society, Jamie Warman, shuffled over to the competitors in near-darkness and handed the winner a medal. The entire prize-giving ceremony was over in about 12 seconds. "We like to keep things low-key," says Yates. On the back of the medal is inscribed the Latin phrase primus inter pares, meaning "first among equals." Society members, however, like to joke that the better translation is: "He was lucky to win."

The President's Putter