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I was watching President George W.Bush's inauguration ceremony a couple of weeks ago on television. Seeing vice-president Dick Cheney sitting alongside cradling his granddaughter reminded me of the picture of Sir Alexander Don on the north-eastern wall of the dining room at Muirfield. Sir Alexander, in case you'd forgotten, was the baronet who was captain of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers in 1779 and the unique feature of his picture is that he is portrayed with a young lady on his lap.
Although this girl's identity is not known for certain she is widely assumed to be his daughter. What is certain is that no subsequent captain of the Honourable Company has chosen to be accompanied in this way in their official portrait and my study of pictures of other golf club dignitaries around the world, admittedly limited to just over 200 clubs in 17 countries, has not uncovered a single example of anyone else doing so.
Displaying faded black and white photographs are how older clubs milk their history. Carbon dating is a mystery to me but I've discovered the golfing equivalent. A club's age can be measured by the number of reproduction prints of old golf heroes and cartoons on its clubhouse walls. The more there are, the newer the club is because they haven't got enough mug shots of past captains, presidents or treasurers to fill the spaces.
Right now Britain has too much golf course capacity after the boom in course construction during the 1980s and 1990s, which occurred exactly 100 years after the original golf explosion in the late 19th century. This oversupply means new courses struggle to achieve viability. The Wisley's pristine condition, Loch Lomond's spectacular setting and Mount Juliet's all-round quality have delivered for their promoters but a famous designer does not ensure success as the disappointing PGA Centenary course at Gleneagles shows.
Nor is grandeur or size necessary to impress, even in the United States. The clubhouse at Peachtree Golf Club, founded by Bobby Jones, dates from 1845, one of the few houses in Atlanta to survive the civil war. This charming period building, used by General William T. Sherman as his headquarters in 1864, has an intimacy that is refreshingly different from most American clubhouses.
If you're the best golfer of your time, or in the case of Jones, possibly of all time, you have a head start in getting a new venture going. Others may need outside help and in Britain rivals must envy the coup pulled off by The Grove, a new track near Watford, north of London, that will stage the American Express World Golf Championship in September next year. This will be the first time so many of the world's best golfers have competed inside London's M25 orbital motorway since the Ryder Cup was played at Walton Heath - and the M25 didn't exist then.
When I played The Grove recently, the breeze was so strong I needed a full three iron to reach the green at the 147-yard seventh hole. Despite the conditions, the course - designed by Kyle Philips of Kingsbarns fame - passed my first test because I could still remember each individual hole a week later. There'll be plenty to interest and challenge players even without a gale blowing.
The Grove is built in a large parkland estate surrounding the Earl of Clarendon's former home, now converted into a hotel and conference centre. It won't have members and will rely instead on corporate events and individual green fee payers. The calibre of the course and its accessible location should ensure adequate demand and the service orientated attitude of the staff will help to justify the prices. The test will be whether a place that doesn't have any regular members can generate the atmosphere that even visitors like to experience at a golf course.
Thanks to Sky television in the UK, golf addicts don't have to suffer much of a Christmas break before being able to watch the professionals back in action again. Most leading golfers have taken part in the opening events of the new US season in Hawaii and California and in the very first week Vijay Singh, Tiger Woods and Ernie Els, the top three golfers in the world were all close to victory in the final round of the Mercedes Championships last month.
Little of this would have been known to anyone who had to rely on UK newspapers. Why do sports page editors assume that while our appetite for pages of soccer and rugby coverage remains undimmed, the only golf they need to cover is the European Tour, which at this time of the year understandably operates thousands of miles away from Europe? It's right and patriotic to report European Tour events but, when nearly all the best players are elsewhere, the US counterpart shouldn't be ignored.
If established golf writers are still on a well deserved Christmas break in January, I'm happy to take on the onerous burden of a fortnight in Hawaii each winter to report what is happening. I might even do it for expenses only.
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