Jeremy Ellwood talks to the legendary Donald Steel about his new autobiography and his life as a player, writer and golf course designer...
Donald Steel Autobiography
Thin End of the Wedge – A Life in Golf
Available from Rhod McEwan Publishing priced £30
To order a copy visit rhodmcewangolf.com or call 013397 55429
I guess the first question should be why now for the autobiography?
Well, a) we’ve come to the end of the story, I suppose and b) I’ve got time to do it. All autobiographies, I suppose, have an element of vanity about them. Henry Longhurst used to tell me that there is an awful lot of interest in people’s lives.
Nowadays in the papers you read four or five different obituaries every day. You may not know the people but reading them is very fascinating and can tell you a lot. But to go back to your question, I think because I’ve had such a privileged life in terms of how it’s all panned out, I thought this was perhaps a way of explaining to people.
I thought it would be fun to do it. It’s a self-published book. I wrote the text and Catherine Hollingworth, who I’ve worked with before, did the design. She had a free hand, and if you see the design, it’s very eye-catching and appealing. Without her it was dead in the water!
How good a player were you?
Better than most but nothing like as good as some! We always used to think we worked hard at the game, but when you see them today, we didn’t.
How good a player could you have been?
When you look back, you think, yes, I really should have been a lot better. Could I have made the tour? No, I don’t think I could have.
But you did play in the 1970 Open. What was that like?
It was wonderful and the fact that it was at St Andrews made it more special. Looking back, it’s much more terrifying now. I think at the time you rather took it in your stride a little. You were, of course, as you always are, afraid that you were going to make a fool of yourself because golf has a great knack of jumping up and biting you.
I probably wasn’t terribly ambitious and was more defensive than attacking. I shot 78, 76, which didn’t make the cut, of course, although there were quite a number worse than that.
How did your writing career start?
My whole career has been extremely lucky. It was never planned – it just happened. I played golf at Cambridge and knew Leonard Crawley, who worked for the Daily Telegraph and was a wonderful player, very well.
The Sunday Telegraph was just starting up with its first edition on February 8, 1961 and they decided they wanted a new editorial staff rather than people doubling up. Originally they thought Crawley might do both and he had asked me if I’d like to be his assistant. I said, ‘That would be fantastic.’
About two or three weeks later he called to say they didn’t want him to do both and wanted a new correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph. I said, ‘That rules me out then.’ He said, ‘No, I think you should apply.’ I don’t know what went on behind the scenes, but luckily they took me on on a six-month trial and everything worked from there. That was an incredible break.
How did you end up designing golf courses?
It came about through a story for the Sunday Telegraph with Ken Cotton, who subsequently became my senior partner. He was building two courses – St Pierre and Ross on Wye – in the early 1960s, so I went down and wrote a piece about building new courses, which was fascinating.
We kept in touch, and about two years later he contacted me as they wanted a bit of help and asked me if I’d be interested. I stopped him before he’d even finished the question and said, ‘Thank you very much!’ That’s really how it evolved.
Do you have to be a good golfer to be a good golf course designer?
I don’t think you do, but I think it’s a great help if you are. I think you have to see your creations through the eye of a player otherwise I don’t quite see how you can judge – that’s my take on it. You’ve got to keep asking yourself questions as to whether this hole or that is okay from the back tees, the forward tees and so on.
They get the greens so quick nowadays that judging whether the contouring is fair or unfair is really quite a fine balance. The difference between getting it right and getting it wrong is so small.
Is there a Donald Steel trademark design feature?
I don’t think so. A lot of people will say, ‘That looks like a Donald Steel bunker’ or something. But if there is, then it’s a pity really because I think every golf course should be different depending on the location, the climate and the type of grasses that you have to use. And you can’t build the same style of bunkering everywhere.
What do you make of the lack of golf coverage in the papers these days?
Every paper I pick up, there are ten pages of soccer every day of the year. That, to me, is overkill. I don’t know anybody who reads ten pages of it. I don’t know anyone who reads two pages, and you’ve probably watched the match the night before so they won’t be telling you anything you don’t already know.
Newspapers used to do that. I know it’s a different era, and I accept they have to look at it from a different point of view, but I do think golfers are very interested readers so a little bit of balance would be very welcome..
What would you say was your most underrated design in the UK?
Oh dear! I’m always of the view that I duck those questions – what’s your favourite course, that sort of thing – because I think that should be left to others. When you are involved, you sometimes get pleasure from those that don’t have the glitter and glamour of some of the others.
I think it was Alister MacKenzie who said: ‘Don’t judge me by my good courses; judge me by the ones on bad land.’ It’s a bit like looking at a picture – we all know what we like and we don’t have to justify why.
So you’re not a big fan of course rankings?
Well, I find it very difficult. I’m always conditioned by setting and beauty. If it’s a beautiful spot, that’s why I go, rather than because it’s a fantastic course, although it may be.
I don’t like necessarily breaking things down into categories as to why I like them. I just like them – I don’t need to explain why. And it may be because afterwards you sit down on the terrace with a glass of beer and it’s a beautiful outlook. That is all part of the experience.