Oxford vs. Cambridge, at a course called Rye. This uniquely British event distills the game into its purest form
Words by Jock HowardPhotos by David Cannon
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The Brits do eccentricity quite well. Whether it’s pantomimes or “Punch and Judy,” marmalade or Marmite, you can trust the land of Mr. Bean, Basil Fawlty and Monty Python to hit you from left field. What other nation, after all, prides itself on queueing, afternoon tea and cricket?
There is a little golf tournament on the south coast of England that is quintessentially British in the same way. The President’s Putter is played on the wonderfully unique links at Rye. It takes place in the middle of winter, when the weather can be unspeakably awful. In order to participate, you must be a member of the Oxford & Cambridge Golfing Society, which in practical terms means you must have played for either university’s golf team.
Oxford and Cambridge are the two oldest (and, some would argue, best) universities in Britain and two of the oldest in the world. So, in addition to the ability to strike a golf ball sweetly, these combatants also possess some of the finest intellects in the country.
Brains and golf are not necessarily great bedfellows. “Excessive golf dwarfs the intellect,” warned Sir Walter Simpson over 100 years ago in The Art of Golf. “Nor is this to be wondered at when we consider that the more fatuously vacant the mind is, the better for play.” Despite this, the standard of play at the Putter, especially when you consider the wintery conditions, is extremely high.
This is amateur golf, but it is very good amateur golf. The history of the Putter is littered with Walker Cup players and amateur championship winners. Roger Wethered, who won the British Amateur in 1923 and finished second in the Open Championship in 1921, won the Putter five times. In the most recent event (like most years), both finalists were better-than-scratch players, playing off handicaps of +1.5. Swings may be idiosyncratic, hip flasks much in evidence, but the battle is keenly fought and the golf invariably excellent.
The competition takes place over four days. The draw is done a month or so beforehand, with names picked out of a hat. In order to win the Putter, you will likely win eight rounds of match play. At that time of year in England, the days are at their shortest, so playing 36 holes in a day is itself a challenge; it doesn’t get properly light until about 9 a.m., and it is almost pitch dark by 4 p.m. Play is fast, with matches tending to take about three hours.
Conviviality and camaraderie are obviously vital ingredients to the week, but it should never be underestimated how much players want to win. If you go to the Putter, there is a truly tense atmosphere as Sunday afternoon’s final approaches. Everyone except the two finalists have been knocked out by this stage and are now watching with keen interest, pulling for their personal favorite.
The Putter is played in all sorts of weather, and sometimes it all arrives in the same week. In recent times, there has been frost, fog, snow, drizzle, hail, wind, bitter cold and warm sunshine. A couple of years ago, the rain was so torrential that the raindrops pinged off frozen cheeks like bullets, and the wind was so ferocious that flagsticks sought the horizontal. (It is entirely appropriate that both universities have blue as their color—dark blue for Oxford and light blue for Cambridge—because this is the color that most of the usually ruddy faced combatants return from battle.)
The most recent Putter was a bit different, as the barmy event was played in balmy sunshine. The conditions were spring-like; birdsong filled the air and all seemed well with the world, as long as you weren’t too concerned about global warming.
Whatever the weather, the Putter is very seldom cancelled. This happened only once, in 1979, when there was a carpet of snow several feet thick over most of southern England. Even then, a large number of competitors drove down anyway to Rye to drink, eat and be merry together.
“I remember one year there was so much snow on the ground that the pro sent his wife in search of as much red nail varnish as she could find,” says David Simons, a past president. “We had to paint the balls red so we could see them. We’ve had players wearing nine layers of clothing, it has been so bitterly cold. I once sat opposite a chap called John Blackwell at dinner. It was so cold that year that his hands looked terrible and frostbitten. You couldn’t see his knuckles because his flesh was so swollen. And yet, despite this, he went on to win the Putter the next day.”
And that’s what marks out a “Putter man” from other, lesser mortals: persistence against adversity. This is the stiff-upper-lip attitude that built an empire and won two World Wars. It’s an attitude that never knows when it’s beaten. The bigger and tougher the challenge, the better.
In theory, the President’s Putter could be played at a different course (and indeed, in 1963, it was moved to nearby Littlestone Golf Club because the cover of snow at Rye was too thick to allow for play), but there is a huge synergy between the event and the golf course. Rye G.C. was chosen as the venue for the first Putter, in 1920, because a couple of the founding fathers behind the original idea for the tournament were also members at Rye.
If you are going to play a golf tournament in January in Britain, then Rye is probably the best place to play it. Apart from being at the southern extreme of the country (and so having longer daylight hours than almost every other links in the land at this time of year), it is a magnificent winter golf course. When the sun shines, the light is spectacular. The links drain brilliantly, and the turf is of that seaside nature where even after an almighty downfall it still plays hard and fast-running.
What’s more, because it is short (a par 68 of just over 6,500 yards, with only one par 5) and eccentric (lots of quirks and blind shots), it is the sort of place where brains are as important as brawn. It is an unusual links, quite incomparable with any other of Britain’s many seaside courses. The secret to playing Rye well is getting up and down from around the greens. These greens are small and slippery, so chances are you will miss them, and that’s when the fun begins. This is especially true of the five par 3s, and it is difficult to think of any course in the world with five more-spectacular one-shotters. As many have said before, the toughest shots at Rye are the second shots on these short holes.
The finish at Rye is also built for match play, in that it builds to a climax and the final four holes (like the back nine at Augusta National) are the ones where dramatic swings in scores are most likely to take place. This is an extraordinarily volatile stretch of holes that offers ample opportunity for anything to happen. As a result, wild turnarounds occur nearly every year, with one player seeming near victory, only to collapse like a cheese soufflé at the finish and be overtaken on the last or in a sudden-death playoff.
Rye is nevertheless a traditional club with a modest, unpretentious clubhouse. Ham and eggs and treacle pudding are the signature dishes. If you want ice cream on your treacle pudding, then you need to knock on the kitchen door. It is the sort of place where P.G. Wodehouse’s “Oldest Member” would undoubtedly base himself, were he around today.
Another of the things that make the Putter special is the amazing age range of the players. “It is not unusual to have an 18-year-old, who will be an undergraduate at university, playing alongside an 80-year-old,” says Patrick Webb. “There is something very wonderful about seeing a tremendous tussle between a young and fearless type who goes for everything and an experienced old head, full of guile, who may not hit it as far as the young buck, but who makes up for that in spades with wisdom and shrewdness.”
The oldest winner of the Putter was 58; the youngest, 19. And the way youth mixes so seamlessly with the elderly on and off the course is something to behold. Everyone seems to have a nickname of some sort; failing that, people are usually known by their surnames. There is plenty of tweed being worn. And corduroy—avocado, mustard and raspberry in color. Labradors almost outnumber spectators. Laughter, raucous in nature, rings around the clubhouse, and everyone seems to know each other, greeting one another like long-lost loved ones. It is difficult to imagine a more amateur occasion.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there is plenty of crossover between members of Rye Golf Club and members of the O&CG Society, with about 90 belonging to both. Every year there are about four or five women who play in the Putter, and although none of them has won it yet, that day will certainly come.
If you get knocked out early, there are subsidiary events, like the Secretary’s Niblick (foursomes—i.e., alternate shot—knockout on Saturday and Sunday), the President’s Plate (foursomes stableford) and the Croome Shield (foursomes on Wednesday and Sunday of teams from the same college).
There is also an exotic betting game. Known as the Swindle, for £2, you can attempt to pick the eight quarterfinalists in the Putter. The winner is the person who successfully predicts the most quarterfinalists, and often four or five out of eight is enough to take the pot.
Characters who seem larger than life, and who return every year whatever the weather, are what make the Putter such a memorable event.
Bernard Darwin was certainly one of these until he died in 1961. Grandson of the British naturalist Charles Darwin, he was the golf correspondent for the Times in the days when the newspaper didn’t give its writers bylines. And so, in 1924 when he won, he had to write a report of his victory, describing himself in the third person: “I do not think Mr. Darwin will be hurt in his feelings by any remark I make about him, and so I will say that he is one of the most enigmatical golfers of my acquaintance. You never can tell to what depths of futility he may fall.”
Darwin spent his last days living in the Dormy House at Rye Golf Club. In the same year he died, he sent a message to the Annual Dinner saying he was sorry he couldn’t make it to the evening, but that he was wearing his medal, proudly, on his pajama jacket.
John Blackwell was a schoolteacher and former captain of the R&A who won the Putter in 1963. He was a good friend of Ian Fleming, famed author of the James Bond novels. Indeed, Fleming borrowed several names of boys from Blackwell’s school (“Scaramanga” and “Goldfinger”) and in return sold his Thunderbird to Blackwell, who drove it down to Rye in January. When he played in the final of the British Amateur at the age of 49, Blackwell would get out a folding chair to study the racing pages if his opponent was a slow player. There was never any need for such antics at the Putter.
Of the eminence grise who play in the Putter today, Minnow Powell is certainly one. Faced with a flooded fifth green one year, he persuaded his opponent to pace how far they each were from the flag. They then played the sixth hole and replaced their balls on the sixth green at the exact distance they had been from the fifth flag and putted out. Such ingenuity, when faced with insurmountable odds, has made Britain great.
An American called David Normoyle (known affectionately as Mr. Dottie Pepper because he is married to the American golf analyst) went to Cambridge some years ago, aiming to do a one-year master’s degree in history. He ended up doing a three-year Ph.D. with a thesis called “Bernard Darwin and the Development of Golf Literature,” and he has been ever-present at the Putter since. “The Putter is a bit like going to a family reunion where you actually look forward to seeing everybody,” he says.
It is extraordinary to see how many of the participants are heads of industry and movers and shakers in the government of the game. You can be listening to an animated conversation about the rights and wrongs of a particular rule in golf, or the advantages and disadvantages of a certain Open venue, and then realize that the people talking are prominent members of the Royal & Ancient’s Rules Committee or their Championship Committee. USGA members have played in the Putter. Some of the conversations, decisions and ideas that have helped our game evolve over the last century were first hatched in the clubhouse at Rye during Putter week.
On second thought, it is not quite as mad as it at first may seem for the Oxford and Cambridge Golfing Society to play their annual match in January. This is, after all, the time of year when little else is going on at either university. Once the spring and the summer arrive, there is too much swotting for exams and other more scholarly pursuits to allow for the hitting of little white balls into holes. On two occasions, proposals have been put forward to move the Putter to a more “sensible” time of year, but both times they have met with heavy defeats.
One of the great pleasures of doing something painful is what happens after it’s finished; a large part of the attraction of the Putter comes from returning to the warmth of the clubhouse. There, all manner of hedonism and epicurean delights await, from warm showers to long lunches, from small glasses of the strong stuff to large gin and tonics.
Alcohol plays an important part in the proceedings. Immediately after a match, some will imbibe a couple of beers—though, as one player warned me, “If you start drinking at 4 p.m., then you are unlikely to make dinner.” Fine wines are much in evidence, as is a strange aniseed-tasting drink called kümmel (pronounced “kimmel”). This strong liqueur is popular in many traditional British golf clubs and is known by many simply as “the putting mixture.” It is sweet, sticky, colorless and quite potent. Flavored with cumin, fennel and caraway seeds, it goes down like smooth velvet, but leaves a very warm aftertaste. Often you can tell if the weather is particularly inhospitable because people will talk about it being a four- or even five-kümmel day.
The evening entertainment is a big part of the week. Because it is midwinter, the evening starts fairly early. Players eventually depart from the clubhouse toward the little village of Rye, where most will have lodgings in local houses, hotels and bed-and-breakfasts. The society’s Annual Dinner takes place on Saturday night in the George Hotel. It is a black-tie affair. Just as past winners of the Masters are allowed to wear their green jackets only at Augusta National, so past winners of the President’s Putter are allowed to wear their medal on their lapels only during the Annual Dinner.
Additional activities abound. There is a quiz night in a pub with lots of questions and in-jokes about sport, golf and the Putter. (“Name three players who have won majors in the last 40 years with moustaches.” “Answer: Scott Simpson, John Daly and Corey Pavin.”) Elsewhere, pool, snooker and billiards are all popular after-dinner pursuits, but bridge probably trumps all of these. It is played until the early hours, with much vigor and vine.
“How pleasant it is,” wrote Bernard Darwin—a member of both the O&CG Society and of Rye who played in the Putter on many occasions—in a 1959 article for Sports Illustrated, “after the day’s work on the links, to drive home across the marsh, seeing Rye perched above like a fairy citadel, and to subside into one of the seats by the big open fireplace, where the sparks fly up the cavernous chimney, and listen sleepily to the click of the pool balls.”
What happens within the Oxford and Cambridge Golfing Society, and in particular what happens during the week of the President’s Putter, encapsulates the very essence of amateur golf. In a golf world dominated by pampered millionaire professionals playing relentless 72-hole stroke-play events, the Putter is a wonderfully refreshing return to the original form of the game. It’s old-fashioned singles, scratch, match-play knockout—golf in its purest form. This is the very essence of what was happening in Prestwick and St. Andrews in the 1850s, before the Open Championship had even been conceived.
Like all things at the Putter, the final award ceremony is rather understated. When the result is known on the Sunday afternoon, the captain walks up to the winner, shakes his hand, hands him a medal and takes his golf ball (which is later fixed onto the President’s Putter trophy). Everyone claps, and they all go home.