By Robert Sudha Hamilton
It is early on Sunday morning; it is cold, raining and windy. A collection of golfers, clad in beanies and wet weather gear, are framed by mist and moisture. The ground beneath their feet is sodden and muddy. These are serious golfers, the cream of the club-golfing crop; out early to represent their respective golf clubs. Pennant’s golf (we play for a pennant, awarded to the overall winner of your division) is the peak of the amateur game for this gathering of inter-club golfers. There are some young guys among them, with a spring in their step, but the majority are grizzled looking fellows who have been around the block a few times. A few secret smiles are shared between repeat offenders, as they greet the green cathedral under grey skies. Golf: Playing pennants or doing penance?
Time is of the essence, as the clock ticks toward the allotted hour for proceedings to begin. Solitary golfers, and golfers in twos and threes, brave the inclement conditions to practice a few swings. Putts are struck across very damp greens. Chips are fluffed and duffed, quietly. Best to get that sort of thing out of the way early on. Tall trees clothed in heavy condensation line the fairways. It is wet underfoot and golf shoes are already letting some seepage in. There is that tell-tale nervous energy surrounding this scene, like some web of expectation that we are all trapped in. Everyday blokes are putting their hopes and fears on the line. Having sacrificed the comfort of their beds and warm homes for this squelchy arena, brought to you by nature in winter.
Team golf is a fairly rare beast on the golfing calendar in Australia, as we all usually go about our hacking and thwacking on an individual basis. Being one of seven playing members on your pennant’s squad pits you against another septenary of similarly handicapped golfers from a competing club. We are all, however, playing scratch golf without the safety net of our usual handicaps. This is the real deal, mano on mano, there are no catches, no mathematically adjusted excuses, just par golf, or bogie golf, as it used to be called.
“you fervently pray that your opponent is similarly confounded…”
Names are called out in order to announce the competing couples, who will hit off and head off down the fairway, hopefully toward the green. As we wait on the tee block for our turn, the water hazard in between tee and hole gradually gets larger and longer. The cold weather has stiffened already stiff limbs; and visions of embarrassing disaster flit across your inner screen. The question, “what in heaven’s name am I doing here?” Rings loudly inside your head. The ancient Greek term known as ‘hubris’ or big noting yourself before the gods, and the consequential carpeting, stares you coldly in the face.
Once you are out there, on your own with your fellow agonist, it is like being inside your own Private Idaho. This is tunnel vision within a wet, grey-green, tube of reference. When you swing down too quickly and pull your shot into the trees, you curse loudly to yourself. As bad shot after bad shot mounts up, you fervently pray that your opponent is similarly confounded by the conditions and circumstance. Nerves are apparent and you wrestle with your own inner demons. Blame it on the weather, baby. Blame it on last night’s one drink too many. Blame it on early mornings. The blame game eventually runs out of scape goats and are you are left with your own soggy self. Is this pennants or penance for something that you can’t quite remember stuffing up?
Don’t let yourself be bamboozled by the on-course rules of golf expert!
Pennant’s golf is decided by match play, rather than stroke or Stableford. You are competing against the other golfer on a hole by hole basis. If he gets the ball into the hole in four shots to your five, you lose the hole. If he takes six shots on a par five and you take seven, you lose the hole. Each golfer takes a turn playing a shot depending on who is further from the hole. If you play out of order, your opponent can request that you replay the shot, even, if you have hit a great shot, especially, if you have hit a great shot. Your opponent can concede you a putt, meaning that he might say, “pick it up”, without you having stroked the ball into the cup. Usually, shortish putts are given early in the round, in the hope that by the time these putts really matter, in terms of closing out the match, the golfer has had limited experience sinking the short ones and may miss the putt. Match play is sneaky like this, it is playing the man (unless of course it is women’s match play) instead of playing the course. You can play poorly and win at match play, as long as your opponent is playing worse. It is hole by hole and the overall score doesn’t matter, as long as you win more holes than your opponent. Match play can test your knowledge of the many rules of golf. It pays to brush up on your strict familiarity with things like lateral water hazards, how to correctly take relief from pathways and staked trees, and the other nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine rules of golf. Don’t let yourself be bamboozled by the on-course rules of golf expert, it could cost you the match.
Each state golf association runs pennant golf; and there is pennant golf for Men, Women, Seniors and Juniors. In addition, within these categories there are numerous divisions based on ability and success. SA Golf runs the show in South Australia, where I find myself; and in Men’s Pennants A1 is called the Simpson Cup. Here you will find the best amateur club golfers, from the most successful and recognised golf clubs in the state, competing team against team. Famous courses and clubs, such as: The Grange, Glenelg and Kooyonga do battle for ultimate golfing glory. Those little colourful pennants affixed to a club house wall, mark the history of champion teams representing their clubs in various calendar years. This is the true signifier of status in golfing ‘premiership’ terms. A2, B1, B2, and B3 sit below the crème de la crème, competing in the lower divisions, and patiently waiting and hoping for their turn at greatness.
Why do these golf organisations choose the worst time and season to turn out their golfers for this competition? Simple economics. Clubs and courses do not want to lose the business of paying social golfers in the peak seasons of summer, spring and autumn. Therefore, pennant golfers are consigned to the cold and soggy winters in South Australia, especially. I imagine things are similar in Tasmania, Victoria and parts of New South Wales and Western Australia. What price golfing glory? Sodden socks, wet feet, cold hands and bodies. The wet dog smell of damp old golf gloves and muddy golf shoes in the car. Later, in the club house over a shared lunch, with a bottle of red and an overcooked Schnitzel with special sauce, tired and hungry golfers remember highlights of the round. They are like the rare glimpses of sunlight breaking through canopies of grey sky. An unlikely putt that found the bottom of the hole. A cracking drive that split fairway like thunder and lightning. A rare recovery shot that escaped a prison of trees like Houdini. Smiles are wide and tall stories loom larger with every telling. The camaraderie between these doughty competitors is a big part of what makes playing pennants worth the penance of early Sunday mornings in winter time.
A Rich History
Pennant golf dates back over one hundred years in Victoria. Men’s Pennant began in 1899 and involved Royal Melbourne, Geelong, Kew, Surrey Hills (Riversdale) and Essendon (Northern) under the auspices of the VGA. In those days, just six players played for each team. The Women kicked off their Pennant golf in 1906 under the direction of the Victorian Ladies Golf Union. In NSW, The Suburban and Country Golf Association was formed in 1902, and this body was responsible for interclub matches. Australia’s oldest active golf club is The Australian Golf Club in Kensington. The inaugural meeting of the Australian Golf Union was held in 1898 in Melbourne and involved just three clubs: Royal Melbourne, Royal Sydney and Adelaide (prior to its Royal Charter status). In 1927, the SA Golf Association introduced the Simpson Cup, named after Fred Simpson. He, who part owned the land on which the Kooyonga Golf Club was established; and donated his share of this land and a perpetual trophy to the club. Fred’s brother was Alfred Simpson, who gave his name to the Simpson Desert, that rather large bunker in the centre of our continent. The Simpson Cup became a true interclub competition in 1946, when Glenelg and Grange began competing with Kooyonga.
In Victoria, Men’s Pennant golf is scheduled between mid-March and May; and Commonwealth were ultimately successful in 2017. In WA, Men’s Pennant golf runs from the 11th June until August; and last year in 2016, Gosnells Golf Club were Champions in Division 1. In NSW, the Metropolitan Major Pennant takes place from mid-February to April; and the Australian Golf Club were the Division 1 Winners. In Queensland, pennant golf is organised by various associations looking after their geographical zones. Sunshine Coast Golf, Golf North Queensland and the Brisbane District Golf Association, to name three such overseeing bodies. In Brisbane, the pennant’s season for men runs from July to August.
Women’s A1 Pennant golf in South Australia is called the Sanderson Cup; and is scheduled from late May until July. Last year in 2016, The Grange were ultimately successful in the final. Cassidy Evreniades from The Grange (pictured below) winning the deciding match in last year’s final.
This article was written with the assistance of information provided by Golf Australia, SA Golf, Golf Victoria, Golf NSW, Golf WA, Golf Queensland, Golf Tasmania, and Golf NT.
The author, Robert Sudha Hamilton, is a professional writer and historian; and a second-year pennant golfer, representing South Lakes Golf Club on the Fleurieu Peninsula of SA. He hopes for ultimate victory; and a break in the weather next Sunday morning. firstname.lastname@example.org