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Postcard from Portugal – Golf and the Greater Jihad

June 23, 2015

Sesimbra, Portugal

I’ve just come back from a long weekend in Portugal – yet another episode in my quest for golfing perfection that becomes ever more futile as age and decrepitude encroach. The time was when I sought the perfect round. These days I have to content myself with the perfect hole, or – failing that – the occasional perfect shot.

There are some people for whom golf is an amiable stroll through the countryside punctuated by the occasional swing at a golf ball. The trouble is, the more inept your swing, the more likely you are to find yourself where you don’t want to be. Depending on where you are in the world, you might also encounter hostile flora and fauna. In England, where I live, the worst you are likely to tangle with would be gorse, rabbit holes and impenetrable rhododendrons, plus the occasional adder lurking in the long grass. In other parts, cacti, scorpions, poisonous spiders and alligators await the unwary. And in these times of climatic volatility, you also risk falling into a sinkhole or disappearing down a cliff along with half of the undergrowth.

So sensible golfers leave their wayward balls where they lie, or better still, hit straight and, if necessary, often. That way they enjoy the view without disturbance to mind and body.

And therein lies an analogy which as yet I’ve failed to exploit. I could turn it over to my sister, who is a Church of England priest, for use as the centrepiece of a tasty sermon. Or broadcast it over the social media in preparation for our imminent incorporation into the Islamic State.

For, as aficionados know well, golf is a moral game – much more up IS’s street than that of the CofE, which seems to have gone rather soft on morals of late. No wishy-washy thinking among the jihadis of the Caliphate, where the threat of punishment and retribution is ever-present. Their scholars will tell you that in Islam, there are two kinds of jihad. The lesser one, surprisingly enough, is the external struggle: holy war. The greater jihad is the mental struggle to stay on the path. Hence the floggings, amputations and flights off buildings without parachutes for those who fall off the wagon of righteousness – just to keep the mind focused.

Golfers would recognise the concept of the greater jihad. We are constantly battling with ourselves. To clear our minds of unwanted distractions, some of us engage in bizarre rituals before taking a shot. These are usually prescribed by golfing equivalents of imams, otherwise known as coaches, golf professionals or psychologists. In the hands of amateurs, such rituals morph into compulsive tics. Facial twitching, hyperventilation or long periods of silent meditation over the ball, usually with the same disastrous result. And then there are the rules – hundreds of them, written by generations of golfing mullahs. More than enough to gladden a jihadi’s heart.

The golfer’s greater jihad is to avoid temptation and impulse. Temptation to give the ball we find nestling under a bush a little kick into a more playable position – thus risking being cast into the outer darkness for cheating. The impulse to wrap your club around the nearest tree – or your opponent’s neck. The desire to curse, screech, blaspheme or collapse on the fairway chewing the grass and foaming at the mouth.

All these things are regularly to be seen on a golf course near you, although homicide and lapses into long-term insanity are relatively rare. But in unfamiliar surroundings, the risks of personal implosion are greater.

Which brings us back to Portugal. Golf tours are a lucrative business for any country that offers a pleasant climate, doesn’t prohibit alcohol and has a reasonably advanced transportation system. A seaside location, decent restaurants and reasonably-priced hotels complete the proposition.

Sesimbra, where we stayed, ticks all the boxes. It’s a fishing port that dates back to Moorish times. Our hotel was on the sea front. It was a treat for people watchers – an endless parade of joggers, walkers, families old and young, lovers, bathers and jousting dogs. The promenade is clean and well-maintained. It’s seemingly safe, judging by the throng of people passing back and forth until late in the evening.

It was hard to imagine that you were in a country that had received a massive financial bail-out only four years ago. But then if you can’t afford to keep your prime tourist locations in good shape, no bail-out can save you.

I got chatting with a local wine producer about the economy. I asked him how Portugal had avoided the fate of Greece. With barely perceptible sniff, he told me that his compatriots had a “different work ethic than the Greeks”. When times were hard, he said, the Portuguese never hesitate from finding work abroad.A little unfair on the Greeks, perhaps, but he has a point. According to Portugal News Online, 30,000 Portuguese nationals came to Britain seeking work in 2013 – an increase of 47% over the previous year.

I asked him how his wine sales had held up. Pretty well, he said, except that the locals are not going for the premium wines as much as before the bailout, so they have had to adjust their production. Volumes, though, are the same as before the crisis. He also mentioned that because Portuguese wines are not so well-known in Europe (apart from the eponymous port), they have looked elsewhere for export markets. As a result they sell 30% of their wine to China. As you would expect from the homeland of the great navigator, Vasco Da Gama, the Portuguese have always set their horizons beyond the shores of Europe.

As for the golf, our collective greater jihad was as usual sorely tested by an infernal twist introduced many years ago by my old mate Shôn, who organises the annual jaunt. Primarily as a means of raising funds for the evening festivities, we have to endure a penalty system known as “animals”. Just about every mishap on the golf course incurs a one euro penalty. Hit a tree, and that’s a squirrel. Land in the bunker – a camel. Slap your ball into a lake – a frog. There are wallabies, snakes, lambs, and so on ad nauseam.

To make matters worse, there are penalties for cursing, as well as for displays of uncontrollable rage, such as chucking your club into the nearest forest, or beating the mobile phone in your golf bag into a pulp. Each group of players has its own Stasi-style informant, whose job is to note down infractions. The experienced sneaks have the ability not only to spot the infractions but to provoke fury in the process, thus doubling the penalty.

At the end of the round the person who committed the last instance of each offence picks up the accumulated penalties in that category. One year I ended up with 83 euros-worth of animal fines in a single day. So failure to perform the greater jihad has dire financial consequences. Not surprising that one or two of our number are reduced to gibbering wrecks over the last few holes as the prospect of impoverishment gets closer. The artistry of the perfect swing gives way to crab-like animal avoidance.

After four days of relentless struggle against deviation and sin we hauled ourselves back to England courtesy of Easyjet, an airline that has turned waiting into an art form. 30 minutes to drop bags, a 30-minute departure delay, two hours in a packed terminal whose only food outlet was a MacDonald’s, 30 minutes in a seat-free cattle pen waiting to board, followed by a 30-minute wait to show our passports to a computer at Gatwick Airport. So much for the time-saving capabilities of online check-in and electronic passport readers.

But hey, the days were warm, the nights were balmy, the seafood a delight, the locals were friendly. We enjoyed our usual mixture of cacophonous mirth, crocodile tears and a strong dash of the obsessive-compulsive. Golf tours beat working any day.

Were we better prepared for the coming of the Caliphate after four days of internal struggle? I think not. Perhaps we shall have to wait for the black flag to fly over Wentworth and St Andrews before we finally start behaving ourselves.

  1. Ian Miles permalink

    Wish I could have been there and played decent golf – however ………..!!
    Happy memories
    Ian Miles

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