“I like a golf club that allows dogs,” a non-dog-owning friend told me the other day. “It makes the place more human, if that makes sense.” It certainly does. It signifies an openness of mind not always typical of golf clubs; an awareness that golf is a country pursuit, and that to separate a man and his dog on a country walk is a cruel thing It is doubly hard on the dog, because not only is he deprived of the outdoor fun and his master’s company; he almost certainly won’t get a proper walk all day. A dog is a civilising influence on a man, and what is a golf club, if not a collection of men?
There are practical benefits too. A secretary’s dog at Saunton, Rikki, dug 24,000 balls out of those mountainous sandhills in an illustrious golfing career, but was outdug by Hannah from Budleigh Salterton’s claimed tally of 38,000. Both owners spent the proceeds – more than £10,000 in Hannah’s case – on furniture for course and clubhouse. I hope some of the money went on furniture for dogs.
The retrieving skills of a Swinley Secretary’s dog, Ben, did not stop at finding the ball. Ben also knew where to stand, ears pricked, to show you the line on a blind shot, and your body language, address, grip and backswing gave him all the information he needed to set off in search of your lost ball before you hit it. There was a school of thought that this crossed the line between caddying and gamesmanship.
I knew nothing of these prodigious ball-hunters when Poppy came along, but it did occur to me that a dog might save me half a dozen shots a round. Naturally I kept quiet about this when the dog question came up at lunch. “How about a retriever?” I said. “Lovely family pets. Awfully good with children.”
Poppy soon learned how to conduct herself on the course. She sits behind the ball in the traditional fourth slip position, respects the sanctity of tee and green, and resists the urge to excavate bunkers. She doesn’t chase livestock or set off in pursuit of the ball before you hit it, and when you send one out of bounds Poppy doesn’t say ‘oh, bad luck’ with palpable insincerity, or cough and study her fingernails in silence. She just gives her tail a tentative wag and looks as if to say: shall we move on now, or do you intend to lose another?
A canine golfing paragon, in fact, with but one blot on her escutcheon: retrieving balls is not on her agenda. I tried decorating them with painted whiskers and a tail, and I experimented with topical applications of Pedigree Chum gravy. Nothing works. It’s not that she can’t find them. She won’t even look.
Never mind. While some chaps use the dog as an excuse to nip down to the local, Poppy drags me out for hours of happy hitting. “I don’t think she has had a walk today,” I’ll say, around five. There is nothing furtive about this. I am not one of those sad golfers who sneaks his clubs out of the house when no one is looking and burns his green fee receipts. That used to be me, but Poppy is my passport for golf without guilt.
But where to play? Had I known how difficult it is to find a friendly club with a good course where dogs are welcome, I would have taken a closer interest in the house hunting process. Too late, I now know that famous old clubs with long waiting lists allow dogs, because they always have. Sunningdale, Huntercombe and other delightful playgrounds spring warmly to mind. At these civilised havens, hounds and their golfers enjoy their shared recreation in quiet harmony. It goes without saying that all parties know how to behave. Those that don’t are soon seen off. Brancaster has water bowls beside the tee.
New clubs and brassy facilities reliant on society golf days and corporate memberships exclude dogs, as a rule. There are noble exceptions, such as Stoke Park, the James Wyatt-designed stately pile near Slough where they filmed the golf game in Goldfinger and the dirty weekend in Bridget Jones’s Diary. Before a recent visit I nearly saved myself a phone call, so certain was I that Poppy would be denied access. But the sight of my familiar eve-of-golf spike cleaning and pencil sharpening routine raised her hopes, so I agreed to call Stoke Park, just in case.
“We have about three members who bring dogs,” said the assistant professional. “They don’t bother anyone, and we see no reason to stop them.” Well said, Stoke Park.
The number of dog-friendly courses is in decline, because it only takes one muddy paw print on the Ladies Captain’s trouser leg to set the wheels of protest in motion. And once a club bans dogs, it is hardly going to change the rules back again to readmit them.
I know: no one wants their good walk soiled. And yes, Poppy goes to the loo from time to time. Is this such a terrible crime? We carry plastic bags for those embarrassing must-go moments.
For the travelling dog, the trick is to find is a club with a dog-owning Secretary. I knew I was in with a chance when a Club Secretary replied “what sort of dog?”
“She’s a flat-coat,” I said.
“Lovely,” said the Secretary, “I look forward to meeting you both.”
Or better still, a dog-owning owner. A friend of mine belongs to a club whose owner/manager/barman also finds time to play and runs his two dogs the while. These friendly little chaps not unreasonably regard the course as their playground and zoom about at high speed playing their own games, chasing squirrels and sticking their noses in rabbit holes. Golf and its balls hold no fascination for them but if they spot a squirrel or some other enemy on the far side of the green … well, they’ll take the direct route, as happened on the 18th recently, while the game ahead of us was putting out.
“Some of the members do get a bit upset,” Tim said, with the relaxed smile of a man to whom life has dealt a three no trump opening hand, and who has played it well. “But if they don’t like it, they can play somewhere else.”
I am struck by the absence of dogs in my reading of Bernard Darwin, though this is far from complete. I fancy dogs were not high on his golfing agenda, but there was a family hound, and when the Darwins played a family game at Aberdovey the faithful spaniel came too. “A great many golf balls were lost in the rushes at the last hole, and Johnny made a bustling pretence of finding them, and never found one.”
At least Johnny pretended to help. Poppy just sits beside the bag, patiently waiting for me to declare the bloody ball lost and her the worst bloody retriever that ever was born.