No British golfer of recent times has acquired such an aura of sober statesmanship as Neil Coles. As chairman of the tournament committee he set an impeccable example to his fellow players and presided over disciplinary hearings with the demeanour of a bishop wrestling with a knotty point of ecclesiastical dogma. No golfer ever fought and won a more savage battle with his turbulent nature.
Coles was setting out an illustrious tournament career and seeking, as a young assistant professional, to qualify for the old News of the World Matchplay Championship. The qualifying course was Dunstable Downs and Coles selected his nine iron for the par three 9th of 126 yards. It turned out to be one of those shots for which the gulf between triumph and disaster can be measured in inches. In this case, six more inches of carry would have pitched the ball onto a downslope and sent it rolling close to the hole.
As it happened, the ball plummeted under the overhanging lip of a cavernous bunker. With the benefit of more than a quarter of a century of experience, Coles now recognizes that it was physically impossible and sheerest folly to try to advance the ball directly towards the flag from this desperate lie. Youth sees such challenges differently, however, and Coles set himself for an almighty blast at the ball. Naturally, he succeeded only in driving the ball deeper under the lip. His second attempt made matters worse and by now all his capacity for rational thought had drowned in the rising tide of anger which engorged his features. He would get this ball out even if it meant demolishing half the golf course. He resumed his labours which resembled a frenzied experiment in open-cast mining. Sand blew by the bucketful. Turf bespattered the green. The ball remained in the bunker. After five or six thunderous blows his caddie shouted: "Hang on a minute guv'nor. You'll wear yourself out. Take a rest"
Coles duly paused briefly before resuming his furious onslaught. It took four or five more blows before his anger subsided through physical exhaustion.
Like Napoleon on the road to Moscow, he finally allowed the realities of the situation to penetrate his consciousness. He turned and pitched backwards towards the tee, then chipped to the green and holed out. He marked himself for a 16 although on later reflection he might have over-estimated the extent of his trauma by a stroke, not that it mattered then or now.
The Book of Golf Disasters by Peter Dobereiner
Illustration by John Ireland