The 72 Club: proof that golf can be quick
I was looking forward to experiencing the greatest feeling in golf today: my final tee shot in the 72 Club. I was due to make my 14th appearance in golf’s most unique club before the coronavirus cancelled the tournament for the first time since 1972.
Never heard of the 72 Club? It’s a club that proves golf doesn’t have to be slow.
The 72 Club does exactly what it says on the tin. A bunch of us get together every year and play 72 holes in two-balls in one day around lovely Littlestone Golf Club, a course perfect for quick play because tees are close to previous greens.
Everyone walks and carries their clubs. No trollies, carts, caddies. No ranger finders. It’s pure stroke play. Everything has to be holed out. The winner receives the Clare Antonia Challenge Cup; the rest of us are just happy to have survived another year.
Believe me, there’s no better feeling than that final tee shot after 71 holes of endurance. My back is usually tighter than a duck’s you know what, I'm acutely aware of my hamstrings, my feet are aching and parts of my body are chafing that I never knew chafed. I usually don’t care if the ball hits the fairway. I can see the clubhouse. I know a hot shower, fresh clothes and a meal awaits.
Last year my partner, Sean Murphy, and I teed off at 6:58am and finished at 8pm. We averaged 2:53 per round. We walked 21.5 miles. We would have been quicker, but we were the last of the nine two-balls, and were forced to take an hour and 28-minute lunch break.
There are players far quicker than me.
“The one thing we all have in common is that we hate slow play,” said Martin Watters, a 32-year 72 Club veteran. “This club proves that it doesn’t have to take four hours to play 18 holes, because we average between two hours and 10 minutes to two hours and 20 minutes per round for two balls.”
He and iron man Bryan O’Neill usually lead off. O’Neill knows all about playing quickly. He played in 47 consecutive competitions since the inaugural year of 1972. He couldn’t play last year because of a pinched nerve in his back. O’Neill’s original plan was to play in his 50th 72 Club at age 72. The 70 year old still plans to complete his half century before calling it a day.
I joined the 72 Club back in 1996 when then secretary Watters wrote to me asking if I wanted to write a feature on a group of nutters who played 72 holes in one day. One experience was all it took. I joined the madhouse. I would have played more than 13 times since my debut but work commitments sometimes got in the way.
The notion behind the most unique golf club in the world came about via a whim during a round of golf.
“I was playing golf with my friend Graham Wilson, and as we were walking around I happened to mention that I used to play 72 holes in one day at Walton Heath (Surrey, England) as a youngster,” founder Trevor Barnes said. “Graham said he wouldn’t mind trying that one year, so I said I would set it up.”
In April 1972, Barnes and nine others, O’Neill among them, agreed to play 72 holes in one day at The Berkshire Golf Club and the 72 Club was born.
“I was quite convinced when I started this that it would run for a couple of years and then I’d be the only one playing,” Barnes said.
The club found a permanent home at former Open qualifying venue Littlestone in 1981.
I know of no other club of this sort that exists anywhere in the world. Despite my physical and mental condition after every tournament, it’s my favourite golf outing of the year.
It’s not for everyone, though.
As of last year, 56 players had made just one appearance. Steven Norrel is one of those. He made his debut alongside me in 2010. The seven handicapper from Eagle Marsh Golf Club in Coral Springs, Florida was gung ho the night before in the bar of the Broadacre Hotel in New Romney. After 48 holes, he had blisters on his feet and was hobbling about 30 yards behind up Littlestone’s 12th fairway.
“You guys are nuts,” he suddenly shouted.
I was worried he wouldn’t complete the fourth round, but he did before hobbling back to Florida never to be seen again.
At least PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh has stuck it out. The American was due to make his fourth appearance this year with son Clancy. However, he had his doubts on his debut.
“The third round is the hardest,” Waugh said. “That’s when you really wonder why you’re out there.”
O’Neill agrees. He says the hardest part is maintaining focus.
“The thing about playing 72 holes in one day is not to lose your concentration,” said O’Neill, a former 72 Club secretary. “In a normal round of golf you may lose your concentration over one shot or for half a hole, but in this event you can find yourself losing concentration for four or five holes. Sometimes you just lose track altogether. There are times when you get to the 25th hole and think ‘I’ve still got another 48 holes to go. What the hell am I doing out here?’”
I know that feeling. You need to psyche yourself up to play that third round after lunch, especially if you’ve played badly before lunch.
I wish I was out there today. I can’t wait until next year to experience the greatest feeling in golf one more time, to prove yet again that golf can be played quickly.
Photographs by Jason Livy.