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How it all began - the story behind the Seniors Golf Association
and Royal British Legion Golf

 

I am often asked how, when and why I started the Seniors Golf Association, which led on to the highly successful golf programme for the Royal British Legion.

 

Where to begin ? Well, birth, I guess. Monday March 31st, 1947, to be precise, about 10 am though I never really looked at the clock to check - there were more important things do. Where ? Oh yes, Rochford Hospital, near Southend in Essex, so yes, I am. I believe I spent my first ten days of life in an oxygen tent, a huge, iron contraption in those days, though neither of my parents could ever remember why. I only found out when I was about 18. I obviously survived whatever it was.

Childhood was spent in and around Southend-on-Sea and my first forays into sport would have been cycling and kicking a football around our back-garden, dribbling between toys, flower-pots, chairs, the rabbit-hutch and anything else I could find. 

Talking of the rabbit-hutch my big sister (three years my senior) once decided we should play hide-and-seek from our Mum and she hid me in the rabbit-hutch. Dinner-time (lunch to us today) came and no Peter appeared. My sister denied all knowledge and it was not until tea-time that I was found, snuggled up fast asleep with Archie, our pet rabbit.

Cycling was my main passion and it used to cause my Mum panic-attacks as I would head off for an afternoon on my green bike, aged about eight, going either to watch the steam trains on the sea-front at Leigh or out into the country. In those days there was little traffic and I felt perfectly safe. I still cycle now, and play tennis, golf and still kick my football around in a local sports stadium. I've not missed a penalty all year !

Football was my passion and, when Southend United moved into their new Roots Hall stadium in 1955 I went along and got a “job” walking round the pitch before the game and at half-time carrying sandwich-boards asking fans to stay off the pitch.

I stayed there doing odd-jobs on match-days (so got in free) for maybe six years and managed to do some training with the first team in school holidays - they and the trainer, Ernie Shepherd, (later to be their manager) tolerated me though I was only about 12 and was the original seven-stone weakling. I actually learnt quite a lot from that, including how to sprint from a static position, which was very useful later on. 

 

I left school at 16 and went out into the wide world with little real idea of what to do, though fell into working for Radio Caroline (through which I met the Beatles, Stones, Roy Orbison, Little Richard, Lulu, Cilla Black and many more); I also landed jobs at the BMA and a book-publisher in Fleet Street. I was always interested in books - still read loads.

In the early 1980s when I was working freelance I once more became involved in football, taking professional teams to Spain for pre-season or mid-season, training and tournaments. I met some very interesting characters from the game at that period - Ron Atkinson, Jim Smith, Tommy Docherty and Brian Clough among them - all lovely people especially Cloughie - a very gentle man despite his public image. Elton John was the Chairman of Watford too, at the time - another lovely person with a fantastic memory. He's six days older than me.

I took up refereeing too, locally at first but further up the ladder as the years progressed, with games involving Chelsea, Brighton, Manchester United, Manchester City, Coventry, Nottingham Forest and Sheffield Wednesday among the bigger names. The lessons from Ernie Shepherd on sprinting really stood me in good stead, and I was faster over 40 yards than most professional players of that era, which quite shook them during a match. I ended my career at Highbury - not a bad place to call it a day.

Several years were spent in West Africa and then I got into golf in a very strange way. I was on a six-month marketing consultancy contract in Coventry. My next-door neighbour would get up every Saturday and Sunday at 6.30 am, come rain or shine, and go out to play golf, making quite a lot of noise with banging of garage door, dropping his golf bag on the ground and slamming the boot. And then honking to his wife as he drove away. I hate people who do that. 

Then, lo and behold, I was invited (through the company for which I was consulting) to the 1985 Ryder Cup on the Sunday, at the Belfry, just a 20-minute drive. Private car park, champagne all day, best seats behind the 18th green and special access to the rest of the course.

 

And drinks with the team after. I still have a photo of me holding the Ryder Cup - (left), though this one was taken after the 1989 event - see below.

 

I wasn’t really interested in golf at that time but decided to go, letting my neighbour know in advance, obviously. He went a funny shade of green.

This was the Ryder Cup where Sam Torrance holed a 20-foot putt on the last to secure the winning point - and there I was, right in front of it. It was a very exciting time. I took up golf a couple of weeks later, buying a half-set of clubs out of the local paper and tentatively venturing out onto the municipal course next to Birmingham Airport. In my first two years I had two aces there - 161 yards and 190. Beginner’s luck obviously. I’ve had another two since then, one in Sweden, one in Canada.

 

Fortunately I was in almost exactly the same place when Christie O'Connor Jnr hit that 2-iron to four feet on the 18th in 1989 to beat Fred Couples and ensure we retained the trophy.

 

By then, I was an established business and travel writer, so got to travel the world free of charge though mainly to the US (and lived in NY for a year), Europe, the Middle East and Africa. I did quite a lot of work for The Economist Intelligence Unit. In 1980, I’d had a biography of John Constable published and have had over 20 books published in total, though I doubt any are still in print.

I was still heavily involved in marketing and moved to Madrid for two years as well, which did not leave me much time to play - maybe five times in two years. 

 

After I left Madrid I went back to writing about travel and also about golf, for a few magazines and that developed so much that I became editor of a monthly magazine in 1996. I’ve been fortunate to play golf in dozens of countries around the world, from Australia to Zimbabwe - all over Canada, Brazil, the US, throughout Europe, North Africa, and very extensively in south-east Asia. I’ve even played on ice in the Arctic Circle.

I also co-wrote and edited the training manuals and magazine for the PGA, working with professional instructors obviously. Free lessons from the best in the world - wow !

My writing gave me entrée to the European Tour and Ladies’ European Tour, and I was fortunate enough to play in practice rounds, or on other days, with some rather decent players - Lee Trevino, Payne Stewart, Christie O’Connor Jnr, Darren Clark, Ian Woosnam, Bernhard Langer, José Maria Olazabal, Sam Torrance, David Feherty and a lot more, picking up little bits of knowledge as I went. I was all-square with Bernhard - on the first tee. Many of the Ladies were great fun too.

The work involved meeting and interviewing most of the top male players of that era. Some very nice ones like Vijay Singh (lovely, gentle, kind - never stopped practising); Seve Ballesteros (a very private person who was actually quite timid); Tiger Woods (what a gentleman, really polite, generous and patient). And a few others whose names you will remember - Phil Mickelson, Nick Faldo, Colin Montgomerie, Craig Stadler, Sandy Lyle. 

I also had the chance to play nine holes at Penha Long in Portugal in 1994 in the days leading up to the Portuguese Open (won by Phillip Price) with the course designer, Robert Trent Jones Jnr. He explained his thinking as we went round - it added a totally new dimension on golf. 

 

 Putting a face to a name - a little photo taken in February 2020 in the oldest city in the Caribbean - you'll have to google that. I was there to interview for a new caddy . . . in my dreams.

 

 

I wrote several books on golf including one on junior golf, one for left-handed golfers and  also ghost-wrote Christie’s book on golf - which was in the best-seller list for a year. I played with him several times in Ireland and stayed at his rather grand house in Galway. Sadly he died on holiday in Tenerife in 2016.

In autumn 1997, as editor of National Club Golfer, I was invited to the finals of the Daily Mail (or was it Mail on Sunday ?) Club tournament, being held in Normandy. A good weekend away and, on the boat coming back to Portsmouth I had a drink with the sports editor of the paper. At the PGA at the time we had just received the results of a survey into Golf Club membership in UK, which showed that 64% of all Members were Seniors. I suggested to the sports editor that he should consider a Seniors’ event as well.

“Boring old farts,” he replied, “I want nothing to do with them.” 

A bit rich I thought, but there we go. So, I decided, if you won’t I will. I approached Saga to see if they would be interested in supporting it, and also the Daily Telegraph. Both said no. So I opted to get on with it on my own. I printed and posted out letters to maybe 800 GCs throughout the UK, sent details to all the national papers and sat back. I think I had about five entries. It wasn’t looking good. I then bumped into an old friend who had been the golf correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, at a lunch, and mentioned it to him. He said he’d put a little piece in the Telegraph the following Tuesday. This was in early March 1998.

The phone started ringing at 6.30 am and by lunchtime I had 32 entries in total - a perfect number for a knock-out tournament. They included a team from Stirling and one from Belfast. We got through the rounds without any problems and the finals were at Barnham Broom, Norfolk. The Scottish team made the finals and flew down.

The Seniors Golf Association was in business !

The following year I offered teams entering the chance to donate £3 to one of three nominated charities, Prostate Cancer, Royal National Institute for the Blind, or Royal British Legion. Most opted for RBL so I decided to go and see them at their offices in Pall Mall and suggest they become more involved - senior golfers go well with a charity for veterans, obviously.

They would not put any money into it, they said, but I was free to use their name to do something in golf. Nobody there had any real interest in the sport. Thus I thought of the idea of asking Clubs to hold their own tournament around November 11th rather than setting up another national  tournament, which would have been very difficult to organise. Again, everything was sent out by post - no mass internet way back then at the end of the last century.

The first year brought in about £5,000. RBL was delighted as they had expected a few hundred, apparently. The next year it went up to about £8,000, then £15,000 and has been rising ever since, with golfers having now raised well over £1.25 million for RBL. And of course, internet has made my life so much easier and more efficient.

 

Last year, 2019, saw the 75th anniversary of D-Day and that proved a major boost as I asked Clubs to hold an event in June, to coincide with the anniversary. Over 150 Clubs took part, as well as the “regulars” in November. We raised almost £100,000.

It was particularly poignant on a personal level as my Dad - who had spent his 21st birthday on the beach at Dunkirk (not on holiday as he constantly reminded me) had gone in on D+2. He was a driver of trucks carrying supplies for the front line, including ammunition and fuel, so was a constant target for the Luftwaffe. He escaped almost unscathed until he got hit by shrapnel in a bomb blast in Brussels late in 1944 and was flown back to England to recover. He was still on active duty on VE Day, looking after German PoWs in North Wales. I had planned to take him back to Normandy on D-Day (2019) for those wonderful commemorations, but he passed away just before Christmas 2018, just six months short of his 100th. I have and treasure the Légion d'Honneur medal he received for services to France.

Thus you can understand my dedication to the work of the Royal British Legion. 
And why I appreciate your support so very much.

 

 

Left - my Dad with Prince Harry in the garden of Kensington Palace on the day of the premiere of "Dunkirk" in July 2017. One of the last survivors of that, at the time. He looked pretty good for a 98-year-old !

 

 

The Seniors Golf Association has also kept going and, although never huge, has become a fixture in the annual diaries of a lot of senior golfers, to whom I am immensely grateful. Many have become good e-friends, as have many who take part in the RBL Golf programme, though I’ve never met the majority of you, sadly.

And this year, 2020, was looking to be a major season of golf for RBL, with over 20,000 golfers due to have taken part in the commemoration of VE Day and VJ Day. Sadly, this virus has put paid to that though I am hopeful that our regular November golfers (about 12,000 hardy souls) will be able to play at Remembrance time; and that everyone else can pick up the pieces and take part in 2021, when we’ll call it VE+75+1. We're looking - tentatively and hopefully - at May 2021 - which is also, co-incidentally, the 100th anniversary of the Royal British Legion.

 

Our parents’ generation literally battled through six years of war and came through it to give us the wonderful opportunities we have had. The least we can do is to persevere and get through this short period of disruption to leave a better world for our children and grandchildren. Without doubt there will be difficulties ahead, but we can only remain determined that life will go on, maybe not totally as it was before, but that might be a good thing in many ways. We'll get through. I am determined that SGA and RBL Golf will continue for many years to come, with your support.

As Winston Churchill so aptly put it in his wartime "We shall fight them on the beaches," speech, “We shall never surrender.”

Thank you. Take care.