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Oxford and Cambridge Golfing Society stop for nothing

By John Vinicombe,

SUSSEX, England - Just as mad dogs and Englishmen went,according to Noel Coward, out in the midday sun, the same may be true ofthose golfing oddballs who like nothing better than braving the worst ofthewinter when sane folk stay indoors.

They are all members of an exclusive club, the Oxford and CambridgeGolfing Society. These doughty university men (and three women) of allageshave gathered every January since 1920 at Rye to play for thePresident'sPutter.

The location of the famous links exposes the sand dunes and narrowclose-cropped fairways to the excesses of a crazy climate. While thereis noprotection from Channel blasts and northerly gusts blowing in fromRomneyMarsh, it has been possible to bask in warm sunshine and discard thelayersof thermal clothing.

Rye is the spiritual home of the Putter which exerts a magneticsocialattraction as old chums re-unite and maintain a stiff upper lip whentemperatures plummet. This year 164 competitors laid siege to the 1,000year-old red roofed town on the East Sussex-Kent border. In the freakishperiod of long nights, early-morning starts at eight o'clock sort themenfrom the boys.

When the glass has fallen drastically it is said by Putter old handstobe a four-Kummel day. As a tribute to British phlegm there has been onlyonecancellation when snowdrifts in 1979 turned the course into an Arcticwaste.

At stake is the distinction of every victor to hang his ball on anancient putter. There are two hickory-shafted implements displayed in aglass case in the bar and from which are suspended trusses of yellowingdisintegrating balls secured by silver bands.

The first Putter was presented to the society by John Low, thefoundingpresident and originally belonged to Hugh Kirkaldy who used it whenwinningthe Open Championship in 1891. There are three British amateur championsthus commemorated but America has not only left its mark once, buttwice.

In 1923 the American Walker Cup team visited Rye for a one-daycontest offourballs and foursomes and finished honours even. The visitors, whileguests of the society, did not play in the Putter as they wereineligibleand it was also the wrong time of year, for Rye prides itself on beingprimarily a winter course.

It was Guy Wuollet, an Oxford postgraduate and product of theAmericanuniversity golf scholarship system, who created quite an upset bywinning onhis first attempt in 1988. When Wuollet returned home after two years atNewCollege his golfing opportunities were restricted as he settled down topursue a career.

However, the bug had bitten way back in England and this giftedamateurwho had played in many inter-collegiate matches in the States plustourneyswith mega-dollar Tour winners, decided it was time to re-visit Rye wherethesociety play all their matches.

His first round opponent in 1988 was Robert Lowry, a 68-year-old andeight-handicap Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland. To guard againstpossible terrorists he was accompanied by five bodyguards that made foralarger than usual gallery.

When Wuollet reached the final he was opposed by Ted Dexter, a formerEngland cricket captain whose aloof manner caused him to be dubbed LordTed.No respecter of reputations, Wuollet started off 4, 3, 4, 4 and wasthree upat the turn. Out in 33 he played perfect golf and went on to prevail by4 &3, shaking hands with a living legend who had two previous Putter scalpstohis belt.

So Wuollet, who today plays at Merion, gave his country their firstwinin an event described by Bernard Darwin as, "one of the few reallysacredfestivals of golf." He had been preceded in the late 1940s by RobertSweenywho, like his brother Charles, had won his Blue at Oxford in 1932 andwasBritish Amateur titleholder in 1937.

Robert went on from Wadham College to blaze not only a golfing trailinEngland. He was a member of the famous Eagle Squadron in the RAF andgaineda DFC in the Battle of Britain.

Also around about the same time was Sandy Tatum, an old Oxford manwhobecame president of the US Golf Association.

The fascination of the Putter attracted Herb Warren Wind whodescribed itthus in The New Yorker of 1972: "I found the President's Putter a worldofits own, an entirely different world from anything I had ever beforeencountered in golf. During my days at Rye I lost all track of what wasgoing on anywhere else."

The distinguished golf writer stayed at the quaint hotels bordered byRye's cobbled streets and attended both the annual meeting and dinner ofthesociety. He caught entirely their motto: "100 years of seriousfun."

Everything about the Putter plays down the cult of personality. Thewinner's silver medal bears the inscription, Primus inter pares, whichmembers roughly translate as, 'he was rather lucky to win'.

There was nothing fortunate about Guy Wuollet stepping forward toaccepthis second gong in 1990 after coasting home by 6 & 5. In all, Wuolletplayed in six Putters (28 matches, winning 24).

There was, regretfully, an unhappy ending when Wuollet discoveredthathis clubs had been stolen. There were 40-odd bags outside the lockerroomand Wuollet, after the informal presentation, looked in vain for his.Gonewere not only his clubs but wallet and hire car keys. He left Ryewithoutmore ado and never returned.

Derek Sparrow, one of the many Putter addicts commented: "I'm prettysure his bag was stolen but you never know at Rye. There are so manydottyold chaps about it could have been taken by mistake." One thing is forsure, a thief would never have got close to Lord Lowry's bag with aclutchof secret service men hovering.

The society enjoys close links with the United States having madeseveraltours, the last in 2003. This marked the centenary of the first. Thoseoldbuffers who breathed life into the society endured the mini-ice age oflateVictorian days when the Thames froze at Oxford.

Fortune favoured the bold decision to play in January, winters becamegenerally milder over the following half-century, with some exceptionsenabling the Putter to be played almost without hindrance.

If it snows then red balls are used - or nail varnish in anemergencywhen the pro shop runs out. So far nobody has expired during thePutter.Two years ago Alan Ahlquist became the oldest winner of a first-roundmatchaged 81.

In a membership not exactly short on brains a minor problem wassolved in1990 when Fiona Edmond became the first woman to compete. Fiona playedGuyWuolett and was two up after five holes (matches are scratch affairs)andall square at the turn.

Then Wuolett's length began to tell and he won at the 15th, going ontocomplete his second Putter victory.

The snag facing Rye and the society was that Fiona was not allowed inthemain bar. The solution was to declare her an, "honorary man" for theweek.Frightfully simple, you might say. But the Putter is straightforward andanobject lesson to other tournaments.

The required speed of play is three hours for 18 holes. There are nomarshals or stewards or busybodies with stop watches. Everything isbasedon honour.

There is a large degree of conformity about Rye, which is strictly amembers' club. Casual visitors are not allowed. You cannot just breezeupand pay a green fee. A member may introduce a guest, or specialdispensation be arranged by way of a letter to the secretary John Smith.Sometimes a telephone call will do the trick. Proof of handicap isrequired.Stuffy? English snobbery?

Hardly. To lay such an accusation would be to ignore the right of anyprivate club to make its own rules. Try getting in on spec at Augustaor,for that matter, the Old Course at St Andrews and a host of exclusiveclubsI can think of throughout the world.

During the war Rye's clubhouse was damaged by a bomb. This was not abadthing as the building was frugal to say the least and was once a tinshedwith corrugated iron roof and sanitation by way of external earthclosets.There was only one hot dish for lunch; buttered eggs and sausagesaccompanied by a good help-yourself side table.

In the early days, access, if not by car, bicycle, flat feet or ponyandcart, was via a steam-hauled tramway loco from the town three milesaway.

During the war the course was studded with concrete pill boxes, a fewofwhich can still be found hunkered down in the dunes. Barbed wire waseverywhere in case of attack. An old 75mm French gun was sited alongsidethe11th green and three large fuel tanks sunk into the 18th fairway toprovidepetrol for a pipeline to France when the invasion was launched in1944.

In the darkest days of 1940 the course was strewn with mines and abattleschool occupied part of the links. From that time for the next fiveyearsRye was a restricted area, the survival of the club depending entirelyonthe dozen elderly members living locally and playing a few holes to keeptheplace in common order.

While today Rye preserves its status as a private members' club,visitors, once having observed the procedures, are given a very warmwelcomeand especially those from the United States.

Perhaps Guy Wuollet might care to return? He will find his two golfballs hanging from the Putter and, I daresay, not a few heartyhandshakesand slaps on the back from those who remember him well. And, should hevisitin the depths of winter there would sure to be on offer a Kummel ortwo.

Off course

In addition to golf, bird watching, country or seaside walks,potteriesand steam trains are some of the attractions of the area.

Relive one of the most famous days in England's history with aninclusiveinteractive audio tour of the 1066 Battle of Hastings battlefield andabbey - at, appropriately, Battle - led by three characters who werewitness to the events of the day.

Visit the museum on abbey life, plus the Prelude to Battleexhibition.There is a themed play area for children and a large high-street shop.Thereare colourful and exciting events throughout the year including theBattleProms concerts in August.

The Kent & East Sussex Steam Railway, at Northiam, runs through 10Ā½milesof beautiful countryside. Vintage steam trains dating from Victoriantimeswill transport you back in time. Hot and cold refreshments are availableatstations and on many trains.

For that extra special occasion it offers luxury Pullman dining fordinners, Sunday lunches, teas, weddings and private hire. Free parkingisavailable at Tenterden and Northiam stations where you can 'park &ride' tobeautiful Bodiam Castle.

The imposing castle and barbican at Lewes, built shortly after the Normaninvasion of 1066, towers over the county town, offering spectacular views from the top.

The museum houses an interactive touch-screen history of the area and'The Story of Lewes Town.' Down the hill in Southover is Anne of Cleves House - a lovely Wealden hall-house given to Anne as part of thedivorcesettlement made by Henry VIII.

Solid seconds

If you get the chance to play some other courses in east Sussex, youcould do worse than Crowborough Beacon, where the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, once lived.

Situated 800 feet above sea level on the edge of Ashdown Forest, it is an undulating moorland course.

Royal Ashdown Forest made a great impression on Bernard Darwin in1910 -it is the one outstanding course in the British Isles without bunkers. Worth a visit for that alone.

Stay and play

Flackley Ash Hotel,
near Rye (www.flackleyashhotel.co.uk)
Tel: (0044) 1797 230 651.

Flackley Ash is a delightful Georgian country house nestling in the Sussex countryside. It offers an indoor heated pool, sauna, steam room,spa,gym and beauty treatments.

It offers a warm, friendly atmosphere, sensibly-priced fine wines and an award-winning restaurant.

All 45 bedrooms are individually furnished and are equipped witheverymodern facility. Choose from rooms in the main house or modern rooms over looking the gardens or Sussex farmland. AA/RAC three star.

Rye Lodge Hotel
Hilders Cliff,
Rye (www.ryelodge.co.uk)
Tel: (0044)1797 223838.

The Rye Lodge Hotel is situated within the citadel of the ancient cinqueport.A restaurant, bar and leisure centre are present on the hotel grounds. RyeLodge is ideally placed for all the amenities of the town and is adjacent to the high street with its many acclaimed restaurants.

The hotel has 20 attractive bedrooms and it has recently earned a three-star silver award from the English Tourism Council.

The Mermaid Inn
Mermaid Street,
Rye (www.mermaidinn.com)
Tel: (0044)1797 223065.

From a picturesque cobbled street, step back in time to experience the unique atmosphere of one of England's oldest inns - The Mermaid's doorshadbeen open 150 years when Queen Elizabeth I visited Rye in 1573.

Well frequented by notorious smugglers over the centuries, the Mermaidcaters for those who appreciate tradition and charm coupled with modern-day comforts. The Inn has a wealth of old timbers, and open log fires, withviews through quaint windows to the ancient town.

The cuisine is excellent and many of the en-suite bedrooms have four poster beds - some even claim a resident ghost. Originally dating from1156,the Mermaid was rebuilt, much as it still stands today, as the principal Inn of Rye.

The restaurant is AA/RAC three star.

Dining out

The Mermaid Inn (see above).

An award-winning, three-star restaurant offering the best of Britishand French cuisine, using only the freshest local ingredients.

The linen fold panelled restaurant is an extremely romantic setting for a candlelit dinner - so we're told.

Landgate Bistro
5/6 Landgate,
Rye (www .landgatebistro.co.uk)
(0044)1797 222829
Much acclaimed restaurant, recommended by the Good Food Guide, the AARestaurant Guide, Michelin and Fodors.

The Lonely Planet, Rough Guide and Time Out all named it the top restaurant in Rye.

River Haven Hotel
Winchelsea Road
Tel: (0044) 1797 227982
A fully licensed riverside restaurant, offering breakfast, lunch andevening meals in the dining room and riverside conservatory, for residents and non residents.

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