An Indelible Mark
Or, "All Hail Hayling"
“Our moments of inspiration are not lost though we have no particular poem to show for them; for those experiences have left an indelible impression, and we are ever and anon reminded of them.” Henry David Thoreau
The journey takes about an hour in a car, but the minutes and the miles drift gently by, and we are soon in the car park, choosing layers for this last outing of February. An hour in a car, but I’d probably walk there if it meant I got to do this again, to step onto Hayling’s sublime canvas and resume this long-standing match with a good friend, a fellow golfing traveller.
For golf is always enjoyable for me - the simple act of lunging at the ball a perpetually fascinating endeavour - but certain courses leave more than a passing influence and, fifteen months ago, Hayling left an indelible mark on me. I’d been meaning to come for years and when I finally did, there was an instant delight, together with an amusement that it had taken me so long…
So we come back, and as we chat over breakfast, our gaze keeps slipping out across the waving gorse and over to the Solent. For through these vast windows, the adventure that awaits us is clear. A nearby telescope brings into focus first the bobbing masts of Langstone Harbour, then a couple of bobble hats, and then, peering through the wispy grass of a vast dune, a red flag flaps in the cool breeze. These sights are, to me, as precious as that glimpse of the black-tailed godwit that awaits me beside the thirteenth tee, and I realise I am holding my breath to better soak in what is to come.
Our time arrives, and we strike off the first - “Trap - full of anticipation. My recollection from the previous game here is of a few specific holes and an overall appreciation for the turf and the design. Hayling is everything that links golf should be - firm, fast and fair - and the style that so impressed me before is all around from the off. I heard someone say that great literature is best read a second time, for the prior knowledge of an initial scan then sharpens the antennae for greater depth. And so it is with Thoreau. And so it is with Hayling.
Before we finish the opener it is all flooding back. The rugged craft of the revetted bunkers; that angular, white sand we avoid at all costs. The vibrant, insistent bent and fescue of the turf, whose hollow sound when a ball lands is at the very heart of this game for me. Around the greens, the gentle contours of Mother Nature are mown down tight, daring us to find a way to recover when our shots are wayward, and we so relish these challenges that the result always brings a smile, never a scowl. And we only ever play matchplay, so to quote an old acquaintance, “pretty much every shot makes someone happy…”.
But glorious though the golf is, there’s something more to this place. Maybe it’s the views, of the sun peering through the clouds above the Isle of Wight; maybe it’s this feeling of spaciousness that the coast brings, for we are an island community at heart. Perhaps it is some sense of the shared use of this strip of land; runners, cyclists, kite-surfers and bird-watchers going about their own passions as we trade blows amidst the dunes. This fresh air is so familiar to me, from dozens of days spent on the nearby beach, and it seems to recharge me, invigorate me.
As usual, we rip around, but as my opponent plays his shots, these precious moments allow a sacred pause, and time for gratitude. I stand on the fifth tee - “Narrows” - and am stunned by how simple the hole is and yet how daunting it looks. A single bunker to the left, the green a seemingly tiny button beside it. We both miss, and from where I am, out left in those wonderful humps and hollows, the full length of this target is revealed. It is narrow, but there’s plenty of space which the architect - Tom Simpson again, why is it always Simpson for me? - has disguised in another flamboyant brush stroke. I duff the chip and cannot wait to try it again, for this form of golf seems to offer only fun.
At the tenth - named “Pan-Ko-Chai”, though no one seems to know why - we take on this modest yardage in contrasting styles - his a flashed drive to within a few feet; mine a sweet five iron to the right of another single, genial bunker. And yet by the time we walk off this short par four, we’ve shared nine shots. No one builds 269 yard holes any more, but it feels as if a life spent grappling with the vicious green contours of this hole and its mind-bending simplicity would be a life well lived. Golf is richer when it requires thought and a deft touch, and Simpson’s legacy always demands of us in this way.
The twelfth green - “Desert” - tucked in the dunes in the distance, could be a close cousin of a Rye hole, or of some magical realm on the west coast of Ireland, rather than Hayling Island. We make it there, one way or another, and share five putts this time, and I grab the honour for the thirteenth tee - “Widow”. A devilish tee shot, concentration forced by the jangling masts of the local boatyard, but this match is building now, and we both hammer our drives, though mine is far enough left to cause concern in the air.
And then the most thrilling blind second - another rare architectural device these days, but the joy of running to see where our spheres come to rest never fades for me. Mine is the wrong side of yet another solitary bunker, but I seize a half and move on, exhilarated by this stretch of holes.
At the fourteenth - “Farm” - we begin the journey back towards the clubhouse, and an egret drifts across, gently landing in the nearby bird reserve. I make a big deal of pointing it out, not only because it is gorgeous, but as in a previous victory against this superior player, a lengthy putt holed across Sunningdale Old’s seventeenth green had coincided with the passing glide of another great Ardeidae, the grey heron. That putt left an indelible mark on us both.
At the next, “Jacob’s Ladder”, the skies part behind us, over distant Bembridge, and shafts of light cast a golden spell on the few sailing boats out at sea. And I manage to close out the game, but feel distracted by the scene all around me. For yet again, golf seems to have taken me outside of myself, away from my thoughts and the constant, niggling monologue. There’s something about the coast that feels so alive, visceral. The dunes don’t care for our petty cares and concerns; these grasses and sand scrapes were formed long before we walked here and will remain long after we return to the soil.
But by choosing to spend these regular chunks of our lives in the fresh air of the links, we tap into something deeper, primal. An awareness of the timeless wonder of nature; an immersion in some deep-rooted, hard-wired belonging. And today is another of those days when just being here is enough, and I notice the fine, lurking details that can enrich life, day by day, moment by moment. The hot water bottles by the terrace, the magnificent “Warden’s Bell” near the eighth green - “Crater”. The memorial benches, the way the putts break towards the sea, drawn towards these shores as am I.
Indelible marks, each of them. And Hayling’s fabulous, natural, beautiful golf course. And Simpson’s all too small legacy. And the sight of the final putt dropping in, and the sound of the waves crashing beyond the fence. And then these moments drift away, until the next time. But it won’t be long, for life is too short to not play golf…
With thanks to Hayling Golf Club; you are marvellous. And to a fine golfing foe, Mark. Your friendship leaves an indelible impression.