The Car Park
Any decent club’s least important feature…
One of the great joys of posting this stream of nonsense via twitter has been the occasional friendly responses from the fellow inhabitants of the social media backwater that is #golf. And so it was that a casual and complimentary message from basically a total stranger (though he seems very nice, and I am grateful to him!) distracted me from possibly more urgent tasks like, oh I don’t know, finding a job? Or getting round to sending a couple of book proposals to publishers, in order that they can send back a refusal, and life can carry on as before. But it’s a nice distraction…
The message suggested I might be able to write a couple of thousand words about a divot, or a shoe lace, or - the one that really caught my eye - a car park, and since then I have thought about little else. For the world has great complexity and subtlety when we bother to look deeply at it, and in the past 24 hours, my throwaway reply that I’d need to edit a car park piece hard to get it down to that length started to look alarmingly (and uncharacteristically) prescient. For the ideas kept rolling in, until I had to actually stop eating dinner in order to write them down, lest they float away on the wind, like so many of my drives.
There’s a great piece in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, my favourite inanimate object by some distance, when the main character, a university lecturer, talks about an English class, and a pupil struggling with severe writer’s block (don’t get this; it’s a bit like the shanks). The lecturer keeps trying to narrow the field for the pupil, in order to just get the ink flowing, and eventually instructs her to just write about one single brick on a local building, the town hall from memory. And then, magically, the seal is broken, and the words pour out. Challenged to find something worth saying about a car park, my initial reaction was “tough gig”, but then one thought led to another, and I realised there could be material worth reflecting on.
Anyone who read the piece Cookie Jar Golf were kind enough to host (here) will realise I’ve little time for getting worked up about the usual sort of golf rankings, but I wonder if perhaps the scruffiness of the car parks at some clubs could actually give a contra-indication of the calibre of the golf course. The less a club spends on, or seems to care about, the car park (and, to some degree, other peripheral details like shower pressure, the food, or even the staff), the more central the golf course might be to the whole experience. It won’t explain every terrible car park, but if you insist on ranking things, two of the finest heathland courses in the area I live in have car parks that are truly, spectacularly awful. But no one really gives a damn because the courses are so great. I realise this theory itself may be truly, spectacularly flawed…
So let’s look at the experience of a golf club car park from the point of view of the main stakeholders. For the visitor to anything approaching the status of a decent club, there is usually a degree of nervous anticipation, as you don’t want to break any club bylaws before actually getting your clubs out of the boot, and the car park acts as a preliminary minefield for the tourist. You will probably face a number of menacing signs upon arrival, warning that you are the subject of intense surveillance (which never works, by the way), and that thieves will be promptly rounded up and shot.
You may also find a designated area for visitors, typically under a tree with some dodgy looking limbs, or next to the dusty top-dressing. As far away from convenience as a space can be as a rule of thumb. At all costs you must avoid the bays reserved for any club dignitaries, which is presumably the key reason anyone takes such positions of voluntary office. Regardless of how carefully you park, expect to be peered at with suspicion by the Member, who has driven in behind you, and is likely to criticise you on sight for existing, although they may cloak this loathing with some other subtext. Don’t take any of this personally; the dilapidated “Welcome to…” banner still applies.
The Member has long since stopped noticing the lack of warmth that the signage and security cameras imply on arrival, and so will aim to reinforce that by scowling whenever their wheels come to a halt more than five yards from the clubhouse. They are one of maybe five hundred members, so having to park a few spaces down shouldn’t always be such a surprise, but they will in any case make their way to the office to sound disappointed noises about having to park on “the other side of town”.
They are, of course, about to walk six or seven thousand yards, or perhaps more like twelve thousand by the time they’ve zigzagged their electric cart across the entire property (including the tees, tut tut), but these extra few steps are completely unacceptable, and someone must pay.
Sometimes, the Member will be in a hurry to report some infringement of an imaginary code of conduct, as if the positioning of one car - whose owner was the first to arrive and is therefore enjoying the tenth hole, and who didn’t have the decency to predict how subsequent vehicles would park, leaving theirs looking like an offence to the principles of feng shui - has ruined their day before it even got going. The offending car’s keys are of course in the pocket of the distant owner (or perhaps not; we’ll come to that), so this latest rant is both pointless and irritating, and the staff will be glad that the Member cannot read minds. Every now and then, a photo of some offence will be submitted, and in exceptional instances, a note placed under the wiper of the car, thereby destroying all positive memories of the visitor, whose faith in humankind will be tested by this unnecessarily petty tactic.
It is important to not take such complaints to heart; for it is really The World which is at fault for the Member, not the car park or anyone in it. Plus they almost certainly play golf to a standard that is also truly, spectacularly awful, and we understand that pain well. It may be a simple case of displacement for them, so empathy is required.
A further hazardous situation at some clubs is where the car park lies within range of a really bad shot. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that a well hit pull on Worplesdon’s final hole, for example, could go bounding over the mound and down into the car park, but the length of the hole probably protects against this happening regularly. But at Royal Cinque Ports, for example, it is a very different picture. I don’t think I’ve experienced a worse feeling on a golf course than beginning a play-in round, alongside a category one player of international pedigree, with a huge slice, endangering not only my own car but that of the potential supporter and, seemingly, half of the rest of the membership.
I never found the ball, but the levy of another one, even a ProV1, was inconsequential compared with the potential costs of repairing broken sunroofs on the assorted luxury cars. It was only while I quickly scanned the ground for the errant missile that I realised that I oughtn’t to have been parked in that area anyway. I’d missed the signs…and judging by this start to the round, I might never be permitted this side of the Members Only placard.
I imagine this happens all the time, but luckily in the years that have passed since that horror, I’ve been able to rely instead on a highly dependable duck-hook, slowly replenishing the coffers of the wonderful Head Professional in the process, ball after ball lost in the long grass. I’d happily bribe a foursomes partner to “take the evens”, as I’d like to never go looking for a ball in that particular car park ever again. It happens fairly regularly in my sleep, anyway.
For those clubs who retain a strong roll up culture, a different form of dance will sometimes be performed in the car park. For there is in every such club situation one or two individuals who you would cross a busy autobahn to avoid playing with, but if you see them removing their clubs from the car at the same time as you, you are risking another round in their company, three long hours for which no celestial expense form can be submitted. Life is short, the Stoics tell us, and this guy is so dull/slow/self-obsessed/serious/fill in the blank. Avoid at all cost.
This is not the time for eye contact, and you would be well served to peer deep into the recesses of your boot as if you’d lost the Crown Jewels in there. Another option, if you sense their eyes bearing down on you, and start to fear the “are you rolling” inquisition, is to pretend to take a call, and, if they are close enough that they might hear, make it sound medical in nature, perhaps contagious. But try and make sure that the tiny switch that controls your ringer is off, as if some other swine calls you at that moment, perhaps to tell you you’ve parked incorrectly, your cover is blown.
In the old days, before anyone at the golf club gave a damn about contagious diseases, the staff would very occasionally receive a report that someone - usually a visitor, understandably terrified of entering the clubhouse in case a cravat or black tie were required in the toilet cubicles, already scarred by the confusing and at times abusive challenge of simply parking their car - changed their shoes in the car park. That’s right, changed their shoes, in the car park. An outrage.
The person reporting this despicable crime would regard it as an formal indicator of the apocalypse, coming just a week after they’d observed some other poor soul who dared to not predict in advance what colour socks were appropriate. The member of staff might try to placate the Member, trying all the while to not look at the ancient, dry gravy stain on their crusty club tie, or the expanding hole in their sweater sleeve. But Covid-19 changed all that, and, in the months when we were not permitted indoors, changing shoes in the car park was the only option. Turns out the sun will still rise even in these circumstances.
A few final observations on the many inherent dangers of this patch of untidy gravel and mud. Don’t leave your car door or boot open. It will be noticed, and will waste valuable, unreclaimable minutes of other people’s lives, as they stare at the offending opening through the rain, trying to work out whether or not to close it, suspecting that the car will then lock shut for ever. Almost every car built since the war has had a mechanism by which you can unlock the car from inside, but please don’t judge them for not thinking of this factor; they are in the centre of a crisis here, and clarity of thought is not easy in those circumstances. In all likelihood, they will drift back to the shelter of the clubhouse, and your seat will be soaked when you finish playing, but you left the door open, remember. Your responsibility.
Linked to this is the perennial issue of keys. You left too little time for the journey to the club, despite several hundred trial runs (if you are a Member), or some prior study of the route (if you are a visitor; see the nervous attitude element above). So you seek to make up a few seconds by not only parking in an ever so slightly wonky position, but by not bothering to take the extra one second to zip your car key in your golf bag.
The repayment plan on that small investment will run to probably half an hour of searching, involving multiple staff and a great deal of stress. In nine cases out of ten (and at a guess ten cases is probably two days’ worth of “lost key incidents” for an 18 hole club), the victim/perpetrator will eventually discover, amidst irritated yawns from everyone else, that the keys were zipped in the golf bag after all, and the four or five attempts to check this during the hurried search were hampered by the same impatient anxiety that caused the issue in the first place. If you learn nothing else from this stream of drivel, know this, for your sake and everyone else’s. Your keys will almost always be IN YOUR GOLF BAG.
The entrance gate will have an exit code, and it will not matter whether you have been given this electronically at the time of booking, whether it was handed or explained to you by a member of staff on arrival, or even if you have known it for years (as it will not have changed for a very long time). Regardless of the mode of delivery, at the critical moment when you approach the keypad, sloppily positioning yourself with the same lack of spatial awareness that saw a note appear under your wiper a little earlier, you will forget the code, and press the buzzer in the vain hope that a member of staff will hear it, or care.
Behind you is building up a steady line of cars more regularly seen on an A road, and from your brief glance in the rear view mirror (avoiding eye contact again a priority here), they are not looking particularly happy or patient after yet another humiliation at the hands of the greenkeeper and the course architect.
Lastly, accept that the condition of the car park will be, quite literally, everyone’s last priority. The Board, the staff, the Members. Money spent tidying up gravel will nudge up the cost of a drink at the bar, or perhaps the bean to cup coffees you inhale on arrival will incur a nominal charge, another sure sign that the end is nigh.
The greenkeepers are prone to be approached by Members who will let them know, out of the goodness of their heart of course, that their sixteen year old sand iron, whose manufacturer went into administration a decade ago, was damaged by a small stone in the bunker by the second green, or perhaps another such object in the centre of a gorse bush.
The course takes up almost 200 acres of natural land, and the processes of biological time that deposited the subsoil here in the Palaeolithic epoch unfortunately failed to eliminate all such stones from the area. Every other blade of grass is present and correct, but the devil is in the detail, the Member will explain, and this stone has ruined both the largely unused central part of the clubface, and the enjoyment of the day. So you can understand why the greenkeeper might decide to keep their focus on the golf course instead.
So there we have it. Who would have thought there was so much to say about the car park, or that so little of it was of interest in the grand scheme of things? I seemed to have creeped a little over two and a half thousand words, but I want to play golf now, so the editing will have to wait I am afraid.
We play golf for the sense of community it brings, and the fresh air and exercise, and to have the recurrent joy of battling wits against the ball (assuming we can keep it out of the Deal car park), the opponent (assuming they haven’t crossed the road to avoid us) and those genial, wonderful architects who laid out these courses for us golfers to cherish ever since. So don’t sweat the small stuff as you pull in to the car park, as it really doesn’t matter. No one will lie on their deathbed wishing they’d spent more time in a car park, or in a car for that matter. Use it as a tool, to get out on the course a little more. And please don’t lose your keys.
Thank you for reading this, and if you are subscribed, or have helped spread the word about these musings via email or social media, I am hugely grateful.