By Alec Ross
The great horror fiction writer Stephen King once gave an interview where he talked about meeting his fans at book signings. He said: “They’d often say to me, I feel like I’ve a book inside me”. And I’m always desperate to say to them: “yes, and that’s exactly where it should stay”. And that’s probably good advice for anyone thinking about writing the Great Scottish Novel to assuage the crushing boredom of global pandemic induced enforced isolation.
However, there is something I’ve wanted to write for a while.
Yesterday was a day of extraordinary, wildly contrasting emotions. A brilliant, competitive, fun eighteen holes. The last round of “proper” golf for a good while. Social distancing wasn’t a problem for me and my playing parter big Sam Mitchell, as he hits it significantly further than I go on my holidays. Just to make absolutely certain, I’d occasionally deliberately slice it onto the wrong fairway. That’s how sociably responsible I am.
Golf has its critics, but not all clubs resemble the elitist, reactionary stereotype and hardly any of its members resemble Donald Trump. The game in Scotland is, on the whole, a pretty egalitarian affair. Because of the handicap system, we all start as equals. In theory, at least, if I bring my ‘A’ game and Tiger brings his, we finish all square. That’s unique in sport, extraordinary. And the beauty of a random draw on competition days like yesterday is that you inevitable end up playing with folk who you might not normally play with – older, or younger people with interesting back stories, differing worldviews, opposing political beliefs. And that’s healthy. It’s good to be challenged, to get out of the echo chamber, to re-assess. And, in truth, to just enjoy the sheer thrill of hitting a wee ball in the company of our fellow travellers.
And, today, all that is gone.
Yesterday, we finished our rounds and immediately learned that the inevitable decision to suspend golf for the year. We all knew it was coming, but that didn’t make it any easier. We will miss it terribly.
The great sportswriter AJ Liebling famously described sport as “magnificent triviality”.
In any other age, that’s the perfect description. But not yesterday.
I have genuinely no idea what people who don’t follow or play sport talk about. I really don’t. I’m forty-nine years old. I write articles. I own my own business and can talk about loads of stuff with a degree of confidence. Yet, despite that, I’m also that guy at the wedding who’s only really at ease when he meets a person who pretends to listen to the speeches but is actually desperate to know how Stranraer got on in the crucial relegation six-pointer against Forfar, whilst harbouring grave doubts about the wisdom of attending the nuptials of the type people who decide to get married without checking the Scottish League one fixtures first.
Some people have no interest in sport, but you don’t have to like it to appreciate its deep value.
Sport has provided an important and enduring structure to my life. I met my oldest and best friend in a chance meeting in an Edinburgh bar when he mentioned he was an Aberdeen fan. Golf has given my eldest son confidence, status, life skills, great friendships – and, who knows, possibly a career path. For many, a shared love of sport is a big part of parent-child relationships. Holidays are determined by the football calendar. Even a trip to Orkney is dependent on the promise of regular games at Stromness. Weekends are about a morning round at Dunskey, then the bus into Stranraer, a couple of pints and a Stranraer game with pals.
It’s not stretching a point that sport is an important glue that holds us together. You get people who gleefully trivialise those who “kick a ball around a field”, and, yes, sport isn’t life and death. But it isn’t nothing, either. It would be wrong to underplay something that profoundly underpins the lives of so many people, myself included, and contributes so much to wider society. Magnificent? Certainly. Trivial? Far from it.
Iceland rebuilt its economy after the 2008 crash in no small part by making sport absolutely central to the school curriculum and wider cultural life – and within eight years they were playing France in the quarter-finals of the European Championships, something that must have given a small country an immense sense of pride. Scotland, take note. Closer to home, I have a pal who runs a place for people suffering from dementia. She showed me a room where old men can watch DVDs of old football matches and bond over bygone days. Sometimes sport can be really powerful.
The quiet tears and downbeat mood on the eighteenth green yesterday shouldn’t be mistaken for grown individuals who need to re-assess their priorities. We know that sport isn’t life and death, and we know that while it’s a welcome distraction from the tedium and worries of existence it isn’t going to stop Covid 19.
But at the very least we’d be able to enjoy this magnificent triviality and leave the world for wee while.
We can argue about the relative importance of sport to the wider affairs. But, on a very human level, those of us with sporting persuasion feel a central part of our lives is missing. Something very important to us has been removed.
In the end, both of these things can be true at the same time.
Suspending sport is absolutely the right call.
And, boy, we shall miss it
Watching Tom Lehman (centre) hitting a 1 iron at Turnberry . Bobby Clampett (right)