All that food and no blogging left me feeling decidedly bloated over the holiday break and so I accepted an invitation to play golf in the hiatus between Christmas and the New Year faster than a four-year-old unwrapping a present. And lest any of my family should stumble across this, let me make it absolutely plain that the presence of countless relatives clogging up the house, drinking my wine and preventing me from watching golf on television had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with my decision. To be honest, had my hero Dimitar Berbatov rung up and suggested a lunchtime pint down the Dog and Duck I would have had to have disappointed him because the invitation was not to some casual hack around any old course but it was to none other than Royal St George?s in Sandwich.
Reluctant though I am to sound incredibly smug, there aren?t that many courses that I haven?t already played/damaged that I have a burning desire to experience. Apart from Augusta National, where my chances of getting on are roughly equivalent to recording back to back albatrosses, I can?t really think of any. Muirfield, perhaps, because everyone I have met who has ever played it raves about it and possibly Pebble Beach because I once birdied the last three holes on a computer game and so am labouring under the ludicrous misconception that my game might be ideally suited to it.
Royal St George?s is special for all sorts of reasons. For a start, it was the venue of the first Open Championship I ever attended. That was back in 1981 when Bill Rodgers won. Although he never achieved much else after that, I was inspired by the whole experience and went on to enjoy several Stableford successes and two nearest the pin prizes. I was there again in 1986 where, despite a dodgy chip at the last, something with which I can readily identify, Sandy Lyle ended a long British drought that stretched back to Tony Jacklin?s Lytham and St Anne?s win in 1969.
By 1993 I had developed into a fully-fledged sports journalist complete with dirty Macintosh, gravy-stained tie, surly expression and cynical outlook. In July, Sky News sent me to cover my first Open Championship as an accredited hack, which was, of course, at Royal St George?s. That was the year Greg Norman romped home.
Finally, there was 2003 when arguably the worst player ever to win a major, Ben Curits, nicked the claret jug at St George?s. I remember it rather more vividly than I would like because I had put on the biggest bet of my golf gambling career and stood to win a massive four-figure sum (well, just over a grand) if Thomas Bjorn hadn?t bunkered my dreams on the 16th.
Naturally the place looked very different without the grandstands, marquees, TV trucks and all the other paraphernalia that accompanies the Open circus. Apart from a few dogwalkers and sundry individuals seeking exercise, there was no one about to provide the ?oohs? and ?aahs? and thunderous applause. As I was greeted at the clubhouse door, the only noise was coming from gulls screeching and wheeling overhead. In a concerted effort to absorb as much of the magic of the place as I could, I took in dozens of deep breaths of the deliciously salty air before I began to feel giddy. Perhaps that was the fate that befell the hapless Bjorn. Maybe he breathed deeply in an effort to calm his nerves as he stood on the brink of capturing golf?s greatest prize, overdid it and the world swirled about him as the ball twice rolled back into the bunker and his chances vanished along with my anticipated windfall. What the hapless Dane would have given for the almost flawless bogey that I recorded at the 16th.
I say ?I? because I?m always prepared to take the lion?s share of any credit that?s going but it should more properly be ?we? since Royal St George?s is one of those gloriously eccentric courses that sniffily disapprove of that American import, fourball golf. The ?correct? form is, of course, either singles or, better still, foursomes. I think Harold Wilson was Prime Minister on the last occasion that I had played foursomes. Anyway, I joyously rediscovered this quick, sociable and appealing form of the game over the course of the next two-and-a-half hours.
The original plan was to play another 18 after lunch but the food was simply too splendid to rush. That combined with a few too many drops of traditional kummel and we could only manage another nine. Although one of the principal purposes of the exercise, to undo the damage done by the Yuletide excesses, was thus largely negated, the whole day was so hugely enjoyable that it really didn?t matter. I can hardly wait for 2011 when the Open returns to this gloriously quirky corner of Kent.