Matt Cleary: A Short History of Golf: Review

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By Brian O’Hare

Reviewed by Brian O’Hare

AS someone who came quite late in life to the glory that is golf one of the weakest areas of my knowledge about the game was its rich and storied history.

I’m forced to admit now that before I first struck a golf ball at the grand old age of 49 (and a half) I had a total lack of interest in the game.

Actually, strictly speaking, it probably wasn’t really “a total lack of interest” as golf wasn’t on my radar at all.

Even when I was a young journalist at the Sydney Daily Telegraph in the 70’s there would have been sports writers just up the hall reporting excitedly about Jack Nicklaus and his three Australian Open victories at the nearby Australian Golf Club. Me: totally oblivious. Ditto about other greats playing just up the road around that time such as Gary Player, Peter Thomson, David Graham, Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson.

I was probably living only a couple of good drives away from The Lakes Golf Club in 1980 when Greg Norman won his first Australian Open, and maybe through the 80’s and 90’s that name did penetrate the consciousness a little. But not much.

Then I hit my first golf ball, and everything changed.

When you do start on the road from zero knowledge about golf to almost total obsession there are so many new things to try and absorb. I had to learn how to pronounce strange new words, like “Titleist”, and find out what the hell a “Stableford” is.

But when something called a “swing plane” becomes critical to your life, history has to take a back seat.

So after I hit that first shot – which went surprisingly well really (that was before I started concentrating on swing planes and spoiled everything) – I played out 18 holes with two friends who were golfers but visited my area only occasionally,

About a month later I thought: “I want to do that again” and went and “played’ 18 holes on my own. Then again three weeks later. Then just two weeks later.

After what was my fourth game I went to a party on the Saturday night and started talking to a 30 something couple who turned out to be golfers. I was a bit reluctant at first to admit I now seemed to be a bit obsessed with my new hobby and was playing every two or three weeks.

Looking at me very seriously the guy said: “I can’t imagine going two weeks without playing golf.”

“Neither can I,” his partner said.

It was a total shock to me. It was like a whole new world of possibilities opened up.

Had I had Matt Cleary’s new book, A Short History of Golf, at the time, such sentiments would not have come as such a surprise.

For instance, Matt quotes golfing great Harry Vardon on the subject of golfing regularity:

“Don’t play too much golf,” Vardon, who won The Open Championship a record six times, once advised golfers.

“Two rounds a day are plenty.”

Author Matt Cleary

Matt is an Australian sports, travel and lifestyle writer and a self-confessed golf tragic.

His book, with a foreword from the very same Greg Norman whose headlines I once so studiously ignored, is a lively, engaging and often humorous romp through the history of the great game and its many characters.

As Matt says in his Preface: “It’s what one mad golf hound found interesting after lightly tracing (and Googling) antiquities. It’s one golf hack’s crack at history.

And thus Greg Norman has a chapter (and some more), Moe Norman has a stanza or two, Inbee Park a paragraph, Colin Montgomerie a mention here and there, Billy Casper a sentence and that’s all.

Just how things rolled.”

With Matt’s book, if you don’t know a whole lot about golf history you will find out – in a very pleasant manner – lots of the best bits. If you are a bit of a golfing scholar, there’s plenty here to revisit and enjoy, plenty with which to agree or disagree, plenty of new morsels to add to the feast.

Even people like the nice Mr Faldo gets a few pages.

As Matt points out the Englishman – maybe not everyone’s favourite  – “… practiced alone. He played alone. In Pro-Ams he’d walk five yards in front of his amateur partners so they’d have to chase him to have a conversation which wouldn’t last long. He had a ‘game face’ that was resting bitch face and which he adopted pretty much all the time.”

Maybe that’s a bit harsh, maybe not. Mt Faldo will no doubt cope.

But now, as someone who has played at least two rounds of competition golf a week, most weeks, for the past 15 years or so, I do have to agree 100 percent with Matt’s closing sentiment.

“Long live golf.”