Tired, weak and hungover a few days ago and in dire need of an emergency fry-up, I was disappointed that my car was nowhere to be seen.
‘Where’s the motor?’ I enquired of Mrs Raider.
‘In Kent. Where you left it,’ came the reply with just a hint, I thought, of satisfaction. Ah, yes. Kent. It was all coming back to me. Some of it.
A couple of nights previously I’d been in the Phoenix Artist Club with Deserter amiga, Roxy.
‘It’s my day off tomorrow,’ she said, waving a tenner in the direction of a barman.
‘Great, wanna do something?’ I replied.
‘Sure, as long as it doesn’t involve Lambeth Reuse and Recycle Centre again,’ she said, referring to a recent dreamy afternoon we had spent in each others’ company. And steady drizzle.
‘How about golf?’ I said, and she screwed up her lovely, shiny face.
‘I haven’t got the trousers,’ she said.
‘Ah, but crazy golf,’ I said. ‘Flukes, windmills, waterfalls, pterodactyls…’
‘Pick me up at noon,’ she said.
On the face of it, proper golf has a lot going for it. Invigorating country air, views, horizons, hip flasks, the 19th hole and three full hours of twatting a ball about with a stick… It sounds dandy. And yet I’ve played only a handful of times, largely due to concerns about donning the correct footwear, having to borrow clubs, being shouted at by officials about unfathomably alien protocols and all the associated tutting and head-shaking. Not to mention my ability.
But crazy golf is another matter. Like me, it’s designed to be silly. Which is why it demands to be taken very seriously indeed. The best courses are the braindumps of surrealist games-masters who have followed their time-wasting dreams for the general benefit of humankind.
Early versions of golf were apparently more akin to crazy golf than today’s formal long game.
The Dutch, the French and of course, the Scots all have legitimate claims for inventing versions of golf during the 13th-16th centuries, but it transpires that the Chinese are the first in the golf timeline, with evidence of the game being played in AD945, while we were all still fucking and fighting.
In Scotland various forms of golf were being played by the 16th Century and a twelve hole course was in existence at St Andrews by 1754. The first game of golf in England was played on Blackheath by James I, who brought it down from Scotland, where, confusingly, he was James VI. Imagine the Court’s disappointment when, instead of single malt, he brought back from Scotland a tiny ball, a stick and some terrible trousers.
Landscaped ‘pitch and putt’ courses began to appear in the UK during the 19th Century, using hillocks, water features and plants to add both to the difficulty and, more importantly, the nuttiness. Even Mark Twain, who famously referred to golf as ‘a long walk ruined’, is said to have enjoyed the foreshortened game, which he played with Woodrow Wilson in Bermuda.
In 1912 a game called ‘Gofstacle’ was manufactured and offered for sale in The Illustrated London News, complete with hoops, rings, a bridge and a tunnel with which to design your own course in the garden.
But it was the Americans who, in an entirely unsuitable metaphor, really picked up the ball and ran with it.
First James Barber commissioned a course on his estate at Pinehurst, North Carolina. On seeing the completed design he declared, ‘This’ll do’ and the course became known as Thistle Dhu (a nod to Scottish origins) and was the first standardised crazy golf course to enter commercial mass-production.
The game was revolutionized six years later when Thomas McCulloch Fairbairn created the first artificial ‘green’ and when Garnet Carter patented his ‘Tom Thumb’ course in 1927, America was poised to be overtaken by the mother of all crazes.
I told Roxy all this in the car over to Wandsworth Park’s Putt in the Park.
‘Can we have some music on?’ she said.
My overnight research had revealed that our two closest crazy golf courses were in Beckenham and Wandsworth. South London transport has come on leaps and bounds in recent years but the Beckenham to Wandsworth golf express is still a way off so I’d plumped for the car over public transport in order that we could establish a two-course ‘tour’.
For those that thrash blindly up and down the A3 on a daily basis it may come as a surprise that the leafy, riverside Wandsworth Park is just a few hundred metres from the multi-lane wastelands of the Wandsworth gyratory and I recommend anyone stuck in traffic on the way back home to Guildford or Portsmouth to stop off there and wait for the rush to pass. We parked in the new Riverside Quarter and strolled through the gates to Putt in the Park.
‘Everywhere’s a Quarter now, isn’t it?’ said Roxy.
‘I know. It can’t be right. Strictly speaking there should only be four of them.’
As soon as you approach Putt in the Park you know you’re in safe hands. It’s cleverly landscaped using the latest materials and – a couple of more straightforward holes aside – the designers have had some real fun. Of particular note were the artfully placed stones that open up unexpected rebound shots. But don’t take my word for it, indulge yourself in a 360 walk-through. For £7 I would have liked to have seen a few more par 3s on the card, but you do at least get a tiny pencil to keep.
In my view, one of the key principles of crazy golf is that every hole should offer the possibility of a hole in one, no matter how ludicrous or unlikely that route might be. This serves the dual purpose of allowing those behind the chance to catch up and those in front – thinking themselves now masters of the game – to indulge in trick shots. I had been doing exactly the latter as we approached the 9th and I realised with a start that there were only 12 holes and I was now two shots behind. Shit just got real.
‘How’s Jan?’ I enquired (this is Roxy’s boyfriend, or ‘current boyfriend’ as I like to call him).
‘Fine, thanks,’ she said, lining up a tricky shot over the water.
‘And the titanium prostatic stent?’
‘Coming out next week.’
‘That’s good,’ I said. ‘Really. Imagine having one of those jammed up your urethra.’
‘I am trying to take a shot here,’ said Roxy.
‘Fine. Just asking,’ I said, and watched as her ball first plopped into the water and then as she got one of her canvas shoes wet trying to retrieve it. My work was done.
‘Lovely bloke,’ I said.
‘I’ve got the car, though,’ I said.
‘Bloody hell, you can a have a Harvey’s,’ said Roxy. ‘It’s only 4%. That’s driving bitter. Pilots are allowed that in the cockpit.’
And so we sat out front on a wooden bench drinking a delicious pint of Best and looking at annoying architecture. Sadly, the Cat’s Back is the best thing about the Riverside Quarter.
Before heading over to Beckenham for the second leg, we stopped off at Battersea Park for a sneak preview of the new Putt in the Park course that is due to open there this month. Hopefully the course will be different to its Wandsworth sister but in its current state it was difficult to tell. Nevertheless, I took some photos through the wire mesh to study later in order to gain a competitive advantage on opening day.
Back in the car we set Google Maps for the glorious south east and I went on with my history lesson while Roxy rested her eyes.
Artificial greens and mass-production saw an explosion of crazy (or ‘putt putt’) golf courses throughout the US. Tens of thousands of courses opened and, astonishingly, there were at one point more than 150 courses on the roofs of New York skyscrapers. Millions of people were playing the game and by the end of the 1920s an estimated four million people were playing each night.
The obsession was so all-encompassing that attendances started to drop at movie theatres, pool halls and dance halls, many of which were demolished to create more space for crazy golf. Hollywood studios even issued a directive that their stars were not to be photographed playing the game.
The boom came to a dramatic end with the advent of the Wall Street Crash and the subsequent economic depression. Indeed, by the end of the ’30s almost every course had been demolished. But the craze had inspired visiting Europeans who imported the game and gave it a new home. The Scandinavians, in particular, embraced it and to this day the international governing body of the sport is headquartered in Göteburg, Sweden.
As we drove through South East London I was reminded about one Swede in particular who, five years ago, opened the UK’s first indoor crazy golf course in Hither Green. Nick Sandqvist, a professional bridge player, based the course on Nordic championship courses he’d known back home and reportedly spent five years and £700,000 on the project. Sadly, as far as I can tell, the course closed around a year later, but not before it had hosted the 2010 London Open (won by one Nick Sandqvist).
More crazy golf courses has gone straight into my Top Three Things That Could Improve South London (at number 2, behind ‘Seaside’) and it’s a great regret that I didn’t make it over to play the course in Hither Green and shake Mr Sandqvist by the hand.
But the past is foreign country: They do things differently there. The future, on the other hand, was a municipal course in a public park, although also, as it turned out, in a foreign country.
Kelsey Park, Beckenham
Beckenham is in a London Borough (Bromley) but the postcode for Kelsey Park was a somewhat disconcerting BR3 3LS.
‘Is it in London?’ asked Roxy. ‘Or is it in England?’
‘I think it’s Kentland.’ I said, which it was until 1965 when London annexed it, for laughs.
I had never been to Kelsey Park before and what a bucolic splendour it is, teeming with wildlife and with two lovely lakes at its heart. The sun came out as we strolled towards the crazy golf course by the cafe and all was set fair until we arrived to find the gates locked and the golf hut firmly shuttered.
‘Yep, it’s Kent,’ I said. ‘If it was London it’d be open.’
Through the fence we were able to see several of the holes on the course. I’d read that while reasonably simplistic in conception, many of them in fact offered a stiff and unforgiving challenge.
‘Balls. I was looking forward to that. What shall we do?’ I said, turning to Roxy.
Roxy, though, seemed unconcerned. In fact, if anything, she seemed to be rolling a joint.
‘I’ve got an idea,’ she said.
And that’s why my car is in Kent.
Update, September 2016:
Battersea Park Putt In the Park is now up and running, open every day, 9am till dusk. Jan’s urethra is now free of his prostatic stent.
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Sources and further reading:
Crazy Golf Museum – The history of the game by the ‘nutters with putters’
Ham and Egger Files – Listings and reviews of UK crazy golf courses – what the Internet was made for