The name's McIlroy…Rory McIlroy
If you tell the average sports nerd that literature’s greatest golf match took place at Royal St George’s – the venue for this week’s Open Championship – he’ll shake his head in a superior manner and say “No mate, it was at Stoke Park.”
That’s because our expert is thinking about the movie version of Goldfinger, during which the dastardly henchman Oddjob decapitates a statue with a whirl of his bowler hat. But the source material is actually set in Kent, on an unmistakeable links course that author Ian Fleming unsubtly renames Royal St Marks.
These 50 pages are the culmination of the greatest love affair of Fleming’s life. Like his fictional protagonist James Bond, Fleming was notorious for seducing dozens of women and casting them off as soon as they lost their novelty.
But he never tired of golf – a sport that he taught himself at the age of 15 – nor the clubbish male camaraderie that surrounded it. He ate his last ever lunch in the clubhouse of Royal St George’s, before suffering a heart attack that same evening.
So stylish in his accoutrements, so superior in his manner, Fleming was contrastingly self-deprecating about his golf. His account of playing in a 1957 Pro-Am alongside reigning Open champion Peter Thomson is another classic of sporting literature. “I am a nine handicap weekend golfer,” he wrote, “with a short flat swing that has been likened to a housemaid sweeping under a bed.”
Bond was Fleming’s idealised alter ego: the secret agent with the supercharged sex life. Unsurprisingly, Bond approaches his shots in a similar style to his creator – the narrative voice describes a “flat, racket-player’s swing” – and his handicap is also nine, the same as that of the villainous Goldfinger.
In this antler-locking test of masculinity, the competitors’ styles could hardly be more different. Where Goldfinger is plodding and unimaginative, Bond is adventurous and full of flair. In another example of wish-fulfilment, Fleming has the club professional Alfred Blacking (the real pro was called Albert Whiting) say “A bit of practice, Mr James, and you’d be scratch.”
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In fact, Fleming was hardly lacking in time on the course. After he joined the Royal St George’s committee in 1959, his long-suffering wife Ann told a friend that his “only happiness is pink gin, golf clubs and men.”
Goldfinger describes each hole of Fleming’s favourite course in exhaustive detail. The tenth, for example, is “the most dangerous hole … The second shot, to the skiddy plateau green with cavernous bunkers to right and left and a steep hill beyond, has broken many hearts.”
There are moments when reading these three chapters can feel like being stuck in a lift with a classic 19th-hole bore. Yet there are enough warm and human touches to keep the pages turning.
Goldfinger proves to be a terrible bounder. (Perhaps not a surprise, given that Bond had previously exposed him in Florida for cheating at cards). His clubs and outfit are too showy by half – “Everything matched in a blaze of rust-coloured tweed from the buttoned ‘golfer’s cap’ to the brilliantly polished, almost orange shoes” – whereas Bond wears an ancient pair of spikes and a faded black anorak.
Bond triumphs on the 18th hole courtesy of a cunning plan
Credit: AF ARCHIVE/ALAMY
Worse still, Goldfinger keeps finding his ball in unexpectedly helpful lies, and deliberately trying to put Bond off by jangling the coins in his pocket or throwing his shadow across Bond’s putting line. (A detail which is reflected in the movie by Sean Connery’s dry remark, “Shades, Goldfinger”.)
On the 17th, Bond’s gentlemanly caddie Hawker tries a little trickery of his own, by placing Bond’s golf bag over Goldfinger’s ball where it lies in the rough. Their rivals – who also include the “obsequious, talkative” caddie Foulks – promptly stumble across a different ball, positioned perfectly for the approach to the green. (Again, this element is reflected in the film when Oddjob resorts to shaking a replacement ball out of his trouser leg to cover for the one his master has lost in the rough.)
Now confident that they are being swindled, the good guys hatch a cunning plan. Hawker switches Goldfinger’s ball for an alternative (same brand, different number) after picking it out of the hole on the 17th with the match all square. Even though Goldfinger wins the 18th, Bond then points out that he is using the wrong ball, and triumphs via a technicality.
It is a masterful sequence, summing up Bond’s ingenuity and his readiness to resort to underhand methods (at least, when his opponent was an outsider like the 5ft tall, “peasant-legged” Goldfinger). Scruples never featured highly in Fleming’s world-view, whether he was playing cards or getting off with other people’s wives.
For Fleming – who was once described by the essayist Christopher Hitchens as “quite a heavy sadist and narcissist and all-around repressed pervert” – inter-personal relationships were all about what he could get out of them. Like so many raffish young men, he didn’t age well, and was only 56 when his own story reached its final page.
But at Royal St George’s, Fleming was in his element. If he couldn’t retreat into his private world of collapsible helicopters and Pussy Galore, then the next best thing was to stand on the fifth tee and gaze – as Bond does – “at the glittering distant sea and at the faraway crescent of white cliffs beyond Pegwell Bay”. Here, at least, he felt at peace.