Today is February 29, a date which comes around once every four years. What do you do if it’s your birthday? Celebrate on February 28 or on March 1? Make the decision depending on which, if either, is at the weekend? Well, that’s no problem for me, but speaking of celebrations…
On February 29, 1984, I played the Old Course at St Andrews for the first time. By then, my golfing career already in decline, I had slipped from my high point of 7 to (I think) an 11. I was working as assistant editor at Golf World magazine and I played with the editor, Peter Haslam. Our opponents were of rather stouter golfing pedigree: Michael Bonallack, now Sir Michael, one of the greatest British amateur golfers in history and then in his first year as secretary (effectively chief executive) of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, and his deputy, the late George Wilson.
The main purpose was for me to play the course ahead of writing a preview of the forthcoming Open Championship in the July, the one which would be so memorably won by Seve Ballesteros. But more than anything, I wanted to play the course. With this in mind, while we played a friendly match against the gentlemen of the R&A, it was agreed we could treat it like a medal round if we wanted. As it happened, I did.
I won’t bore you by going through the round (I do still have the card, of course) but I shot 79. I know – it still looks ridiculous to me in print! On the front nine I birdied the 3rd and the 9th (OK, so agreed that’s the easiest hole on the course) and I was out in 38. Not that I was bothered about this bit at all but by that point we were 5 up.
The back nine was harder going, although I was fortunate – with regard to my score – that this was a day with a breeze rather than anything stronger. I was four over for the back nine, six over in total, with two holes to play, and very aware that I had a great chance to break 80. First, though, there was the dreaded Road Hole to be negotiated. “Play it as a par-five,” Bonallack gently advised. Well, you don’t argue with a man who’s won the Amateur Championship five times. I did as I was told and, remarkably, it worked. I had two putts for the five and gratefully used them both. I reached the 18th in two, a long way from the hole, and was left with a five-footer to break 80. When it fell in, our opponents were generosity personified. I doubt it was the reason but perhaps that was because they had found something like their A-games coming home and our little match finished all-square.
So as not to risk sullying the memory, I swore I would never play the Old Course again. But I did, once, in 2005, and I played pretty well then, too. But not like that time. Leap year? You bet I leapt!
Robert Green’s ‘Seve: Golf’s Flawed Genius’ is available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @robrtgreen