In idle moments I have often googled golf and bicycle (or cycling). Almost nothing comes up, apart from a virtual debate about whether cycling is the new golf, the motion being that Masters of the Universe now do their takeover deals on bicycles instead of golf courses.
My friend who caddies occasionally for Mark Carney when not yo-yoing between Frankfurt and London City tells me that the Square Mile is indeed swarming with lycra louts these days. UK contributors to the internet debate are mostly inverted snob cyclists who pedal beneath the weight of a heavy chip on at least one shoulder; proud of their sport’s supposed proletarian origins and scornful of golf.
I did come across a contribution from a once-habitual golfer who with his wife took up cycling a couple of years ago and reports that they now rarely bother with golf, don’t miss it and are happier, fitter and better people. Perhaps if he had found companions other than his wife to play golf with, and vice versa, they would have stuck with the game.
I certainly found that my cycling research for France On Two Wheels left little room for golf: in 18 months I can’t have managed more than five hacks at the alma maternal turf of the golf club I belong to in west Wales. This made me no happier, and better only in the strictly mathematical sense that I played fewer bad shots, lost fewer balls and totted up a horrible score less often than usual.
On my rides through France, golf moments were so few, I can detail them all. The first was over dinner at the foot of the great (and steep) hill of Vézelay, where superstar chef Marc Meneau sat down to watch my fellow traveller and me scoff our halfway celebration blow-out at the end of a long day’s ride through the Morvan hills.
Luckily for me, Meneau and my friend had hunting in common and I was able to chew and doze unnoticed while they chatted away, swapping game vocab.
I came to when Meneau let slip that he is a keen golfer – a surprising revelation, for one who cuts a slightly raffish figure and surrounds himself with jazz and modern art. “Where do you play?” I asked. “Chez moi,” Meneau replied in lordly fashion.
Marc Meneau’s golfing chez moi is a resort he has created or taken over at Roncemay in northern Burgundy, not far from Chablis and well placed for the Parisian weekend stay and play market. I can’t speak for the golf, but I am sure the lunch would be good.
A second golf moment, scarcely worthy of the name, came when our route led north from the great brick cathedral of Albi towards Cordes and the Lot. Passing the gate of a secluded luxury hotel, La Réserve, which once numbered the Queen Mother among its guests, I realised we were tantalizingly close to one of my favourite French golf courses: Albi Lasbordes, its fairways framed by the meanders of the Tarn and giving a fine view of the cathedral, slightly in the manner of Constable and Salisbury. This is not one of France’s best-known golf regions, but one good course is enough.
Our narrowest escape was on the banks of the Loire below Sancerre, where we lost the Loire à Vélo cycle trail and found ourselves on the cart path that separates the 15th and 16th fairways of le Golf du Sancerrois. Eight thirty in the morning was too early for any golfers to have reached this stage of their round, but a few hours later the same mistake would have exposed us to the holiday equivalent of a bike ride through no man’s land during the Somme offensive, with bombardment from all sides. The course looked delightful, and there are good hotels near by, as well as an excellent wine museum and local growers who welcome potential purchasers to call in and taste the goods. Sancerre/Vézelay/Roncemay/Chablis has the makings a nice little gastro-golf tour, unless one tried to do it by bike.
If golf and cycling rarely go together these days, except in being ridiculed for the awful clothing worn by their practitioners, this was not always the case. The two sports enjoyed a simultaneous explosion of popularity in the late Victorian period, and many enthusiasts must have gone a-golfing on their bikes.
One of them was the future golf writer and Walker Cup player Bernard Darwin, who played much of his young golf at Aberdovey; and I have often heard it asserted that the bicycle was his usual means of transport to the club. I am not sure about this: when based in Aberdovey, as they were in winter, Darwin and friends walked to the start in their nailed boots. And during his summer holidays near Machynlleth, I believe he preferred to take the train.
But he certainly would have gone to Aberdovey by bike when no train was available, and in one of his books or essays he makes the interesting observation that cycling rendered him incapable of swinging the club without digging up the turf in a manner equally damaging to the course and his temper.
Now if I made an excuse like that, you might reasonably be sceptical. But from a plus 4 handicap, the statement deserves to be taken seriously. Darwin thought it had something to do with cycling’s effect on the wrists, but I wonder if the legs do not come into it. Either way, it is a great comfort for me to reflect that if I wanted to be any good at golf, all I would have to do is pick up my bicycle and throw it in the bin.