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Christmas Golf Goodwill

Dermot Gilleece on golfing good etiquette and sportsmanship

Posted Dec 17, 2012 by Dermot Gilleece


In their increasingly desperate attempts at securing an elusive hamper, certain club golfers may seek inspiration from the exploits of Christmases past.  Indeed for all its dramatic changes, from obedient balls to graphite-shafted and peripherally-weighted clubs, the game remains remarkably unchanged from the way it was presented in those old paintings of hardy enthusiasts braving winter winds with hickory shafts on wild, exposed duneland.

Indeed a great chronicler from another century, beautifully illustrates the similarity to which I refer, in the charming essay, "A Christmas Sermon".  Written in 1913, its author, Bernard Darwin, informs us:  "A friend of mine who is a recent and zealous convert to the game of golf, has provided me with the text of a sermon which is, on the face of it, admirably adapted to a season of peace and good will.

"Briefly, my friend complains that golfers are not what Mr Yellowplush called 'beneviolent' (stet); they never tell him what he is doing wrong in his shots, not do they tell each other. Indeed he had been so much impressed by this universal minding of their own business, that he had come to believe that to tell a fellow-golfer of his faults was contrary to the 'etiquette' of the game, a dread code of which he stands very properly in awe. He declares that if better players would more often go out of their way to help worse ones by pointing out their errors and the appropriate method of amending them, it would make for general happiness in the world."

Generosity of spirit should, of course, be at the heart of this special season. Which prompts me to recall an uplifting tale about the unimagined benefits which can accrue from simply being a gracious winner.  It comes courtesy of a letter sent by American, Richard Davies, the 1962 British Amateur champion, to a Belfast friend and golf enthusiast, Philip Donald, who passed a copy on to me.

The story began in 1952 in Phoenix, Arizona where Davies met the notorious British playboy, John de Forest, in the semi-finals of a high-stakes, amateur tournament.  "I could have crushed him - he was eight down on the front side," recalled Davies, who was born in Pasadena in 1930 and played in the 1963 Walker Cup at Turnberry, where he lost to Ireland's David Sheahan on the second day.  "But I relented, not wishing a guest from abroad to go home with a 9 and 8 loss, particularly knowing that he was Amateur champion in 1932."

In the event, Davies coasted on the back nine, allowing his opponent to escape with a face-saving defeat on the 16th. "He thanked me afterwards for being a good sport and we became friends," recalled the American. 

Two years later, Davies was almost flat broke on a train from Italy to France, when fate intervened.  "A voice called down to me from the first-class section," he went on. "It was John.  He invited me to join him and ordered a lavish meal and wine to boot. And he introduced me to his wife, a Spanish contessa.  John de Forest was now Count John de Bendern. Spanish nobility no less."  But the best was yet to come.

On their arrival in Paris, they were whisked away in a Bentley driven by former Walker Cup player Harry Bentley, whose father owned the famous car company. Their destination was St Germain where the count had invited Davies to join him in a game of golf. There, the American waited patiently with a French female caddie. "Finally," he reflected, "as I was looking the other way, some heels clicked behind me and John introduced me to my golfing partner for the round  - HRH Prince of Wales, Edward Duke of Windsor.  I thought I might wet my pants."

On the first hole, which was only a little more than 300 yards, Davies drove the green with a three wood and had a two-putt birdie from 10 feet. "Good half ... nice four," said the Duke, who was apparently more interested in the female caddies than in his partner's golf.

After the match, he was invited to join HRH for tea, which was served in a 1948 Buick by a butler resplendent in tails.  Davies concluded: "He brought out this big silver tray with a silver teapot and fine china and silverware, prepared the tea and stepped aside. The Prince and the pauper sat down to tea."

And all because of compassion, once shown to a beleaguered golf rival.

- Dermot Gilleece

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