31st May 2017

How golf made me a novelist

Unrequited love, alas. The game doesn't love me. My best scores are still in my dreams. But when the sun shines (and even when it doesn't) there's no better place to be than in the open air, with good companions, the song of the skylark, blackbird, thrush, the smell of cut grass. I don't think I'd be writing fiction if the experience of writing a golf guide had not taken away my nervousness about tackling a novel. 
My sport was tennis. I played with enthusiasm, if not always great skill. But my husband was, still is, a golfer. So I cheerfully began hacking my way around golf courses to keep him company.  
I knew that golf courses, especially in Ireland, are almost always in lovely scenery and the hunt for lost balls could turn up a rabbit, a hare or a nesting lark. I knew the taste of salt on the wind off the sea, the warmth of a hot whiskey after 18 holes in the rain, and not to park my trolley on the tee. But I didn’t know golf could get you by the throat and not let go. It got me on March 1st, 1997 at Mottram Hall golf course near Manchester. We were the guests of Jim S. – a successful entrepreneur and a terrific motivator. It was the secret of his success. Every half-decent strike was greeted with “Good shot!” When I foozled, duffed and shanked the ball, he contrived to be looking the other way. My confidence grew.

Mottram Hall is a long course: meadowland on the front nine, undulating woodland on the back. The 10th is a par 5. Amazingly, I had a chance of getting on the green with my fourth shot. This was pretty good for a hacker more used to picking up the ball after too many shots, than making par. My ball landed on the green, a few feet from the flag. Now in those days I couldn’t really play golf, but I could putt. So I knew I would par the hole. My heart swelled with pride. A voice in my head whispered, “You could be good at this game” – a happy delusion that persists to this day. (Many lessons later, I found I could hit the ball well, but had mysteriously lost the ability to putt. That’s the infuriating thing about golf. No sooner do you get one part of the game right than another goes wrong.)

Golf magazines accumulated in the lavatory and on the bedside table. I practised chipping a 10p piece off the carpet into the waste-paper basket and spent a fortune on lessons. I even bought checked trousers. I also bought a new set of clubs and took them everywhere I went. In Sicily, I drove the ball over streams of lava hardened into natural hazards at Il Picciolo, on the slopes of Mount Etna. High above Monte Carlo I teed off into a cloud advancing up Mont Agel. I saw wild boar in the forest beyond the rough at Les Bordes in the Loire Valley. I played with the Wild Geese (golfing ex-pats) near Brussels. If golf wasn’t going to bankrupt me, I had to find a way of combining my reporting skills with my newfound passion.
By good fortune, the publishing company, Appletree Press,  commissioned me to write a guide to holiday golf in Ireland. I wrote it with non-golfing partners of golfers in mind. While golfers played the courses detailed in the book, the non-golfers (and golfers who could tear themselves away) could explore the attractions described beyond the 18th green. I researched the history of the game, golf-course architecture and greenkeeping. I discovered the meaning of Irish placenames and their associations with Celtic saints and chieftains, Vikings, Normans and Cromwellians. (“Destroyed by Cromwell in 1649″ cropped up a lot.)
I read about the corncrake and the natterjack toad – species for which golf courses provide a safe habitat. I learned that Irish women dominated the game at the turn of the last century and won more prizes than their male counterparts. Fellow golfers, club secretaries, professionals and greenkeepers were generous with their knowledge and advice. I had heroic companions (all better golfers than I am) who played the courses with me in fair and foul weather and shared their observations. I had great fun. Reassuringly, I saw other golfers duff the ball, miss putts, shank drives and take more than one shot to get out of a bunker.
For four months I golfed nearly every day. By the time I had played my way around the Irish coast to Cork, I could barely stand up, much less swing a club. I still play my way round golf courses at night, instead of counting sheep. Most importantly, If I hadn’t written Emerald Greens, I would not have written my first novel.
I always knew I would write fiction but I thought my natural form would be the screenplay – I’d worked in television, I’d produced and directed documentary films. I was daunted by the idea of writing a novel. Too many words! But when I finished writing Emerald Greens, I realised I’d written 72,000 words. My fear fell away. I took the screenplay which I had been writing – attempting would be a more accurate word – put it in the bin, and wrote the first sentence of my first novel, Singing Bird: “We were drinking champagne in the kitchen when the nun telephoned.”
I still love golf - although I don't play as much as I'd like, or practice as much as I should. Practice is the key to competence - never mind excellence. That holds true for writing as well.