There’s just a touch of the approach to the home of golf, St Andrews, about the drive up to The Old Course at Minchinhampton, in Gloucestershire. The landscape is vast, rolling and wide, and the clubhouse is visible a good mile before you reach it. Yet upon anything but the closest appraisal, Minchinhampton does not look much like a golf course at all. Cows graze on its fairways and light rough, and there are no bunkers. With its raw, unspoilt appearance and the mounds and ditches left over from its time as the site of an Iron Age fort, the 580-acre common on which it is situated is a mystical landscape. As I approach it, I am listening to early 1970s acid folk rock on my iPod – songs about wizards and witches and paying homage to the earth – and it seems perfectly apt.
“Oh, I like a bit of that myself,” says Keith Allen. “Fairport Convention. That kind of thing. I stole a wallet from one of those bands in 1969 and got put in borstal. Damn. What was their name? The Strawbs. That was it!”
This statement confuses me, because, though I know Allen – star of The Body Farm and Shallow Grave, comedian, singer of the novelty band Fat Les, and father of Lily – was born in 1953, I can’t help but think of him as someone who grew up later, during the punk era, perhaps due to his association with the alternative comedy set, and his reputation as a hellraiser. Whatever the case, it makes him a rather unlikely golfer.
His local course, the oldest of the three here at Minchinhampton, suits him down to the ground. “You can pretty much turn up and play in jeans here,” he says, as we walk up the par four second into a fierce wind. I have played the course before, as a competitor in their Junior Open event, back in 1990, when my playing partners and I were disqualified for holing out on the wrong green. It is that kind of place: a bit confusing, a bit wild – a course built as much by God as by man – but very charming, and a place that encourages imaginative play. Allen says he hates windy conditions, but his game looks like it has been built by them, and this course. His swing is short and punchy and it suits the contours around these greens. “I’ve only hit one of the cows once,” he tells me. “It just sort of stood still and rolled its eyes at me, which I took as a fairly damning criticism of my game.”
Allen started playing golf at the end of the 1980s, with his actor friend Danny Peacock. “I find it hard to explain to people who don’t play why I find it so addictive,” he says. When travelling to a film set or theatre, he would stop in a layby with his map, and plan a route based entirely on nearby golf courses. But long before that, he had been an early innovator in the sport of urban golf – often cited as a 1990s invention – staging a performance piece on Fleet Street in the mid-1980s, which re-enacted the final scenes of Sandy Lyle’s victory in the 1985 British Open.
Nowadays, Keith’s most fiercely competed rounds are for The Manly Cup: an annual Ryder Cup-style tournament where Keith teams up with the actor Kieran O’Brien against their friends Michael Park and Phill Savidge (who has joined us today). The cup itself is perhaps more valuable than many professional trophies: a bronze club and divot smelted by the artist Damien Hirst. Though it has “officially” changed hands several times, Keith is rather possessive about it, and it tends to live permanently at his house. The last Manly Cup was held at Gleneagles, which Keith found “surprisingly relaxed, for a posh course”.
There is a glint in Allen’s eye, but he also has an instantly disarming affability. He seems without the spiritual shield of many celebrities: there is no feeling of needing to reassure him that he is important. When I ask him about the area, he’s keen to point out how different it is to the Cotswolds – “Clarksonland” – and the more modest, ageing hippie ethic that characterises the place. At the farmhouse where he lives with his partner, Tamzin Malleson, he grows his own vegetables, and recently killed and ate a couple of his own pigs. “You say you shouldn’t name them, so your kids don’t get too attached,” he says. “But that didn’t seem to matter with my daughter. She’s only five, but she was actually quite looking forward to eating them, and kept badgering me about it.”
I’ve only hit a cow once. It just sort of stood still and rolled its eyes at me, which I took as a fairly damning criticism of my game
Allen seems to have frequent run-ins with animals. He has to hit an awkward curving shot around another cow today, and during a recent golfing trip to Scotland he was followed by a fox that a wise old local told him was “after your chocolate”.
We tee off at the par three eighth, and Keith pulls his six-iron shot into a bush. He gets quite frustrated with his game, often reprimanding himself for errant shots with the insult “muppet”. He says he has never got round a course in less than 80, though this surprises me: he’s a little unpredictable, but all the elements are in place, and his short game is pretty airtight. I notice he is studying my swing quite carefully. Allen tells me his acting is “really just me playing variations of myself” but what happens a hole or so later contradicts this. “I’ve decided to start swinging like you,” he says. This seems a dangerous choice, as my panicked squid of a swing is notoriously unreliable, I have already lost two balls, and haven’t made a birdie all day. Remarkably, though, Allen’s game improves. Before I know it, he’s level par after four holes on the back nine, and I’m two over. In the space of an hour, he has become much better at being me than I am.
Tom Cox is the author of the golf memoirs ‘Nice Jumper’ and ‘Bring Me The Head Of Sergio Garcia’