For more than fifty years, Donald Steel has led a life as golf writer and golf course architect. He also had the other distinction as a notable international amateur golfer, frequently taking part in events he reported for his newspaper, the Sunday Telegraph, London. This front line experience forged an undying love and respect for the game and for our courses which he has striven, by word and deed, to exalt and protect.
Now over 80, he lives with his wife Rachel in Chichester, Sussex.
The Steel Story
I enjoyed a varied life in golf because my father, a medical graduate of St Andrews, was a golfer. On the fringes of war- torn London, that was less obvious than it may appear. The other sequence of events that followed is all relevant to the tale: a compelling tutor in John Sheridan, who was a professional at Denham when I was nine years old and still when I was sixty-one; a schooling in Edinburgh which introduced me to the historic courses of East Lothian including Luffness, Gullane, Muirfield and North Berwick, and three years at university at Cambridge with matches against leading clubs every weekend throughout the winter.
That was good grounding for any life in golf, but entry into the industry hinged on a single event that still has me marvelling how lucky I was. My very first job was as golf correspondent, aged 23, of a brand new national Sunday newspaper, which started up in February 1961 - I was appointed without any journalistic experience whatsoever. Arnold Palmer won the first two Opens I reported and from such beginnings, all else flowed. Nothing was planned. It wouldn’t have taken much for the walls to have come tumbling down but mercifully the link in the chain held. Searching for options was never an option -
no wonder my motto is “better lucky than good.”
GF: The genesis for your book - “Thin Edge of the Wedge - a life in golf,” was what?
DS: A central theme of all autobiographies is “everyone’s entitled to my opinion.” Modesty is in short supply. There is something of a tradition for golf writers to tell their story. I felt mine was unusual enough to follow suit. It is one fiction would reject.
GF: Given all you have done in golf - if you had a mulligan - is there anything you would have done differently the second time around?
DS: I would go back and see how good I could have been as a player. We thought we practised hard but, compared with today’s standards, we didn’t. Improvement in the standard of play is a direct reflection of the improvement in the standard of coaching. Attitudes needed to change and they have. However, I wouldn’t have traded the fun of golf.
GF: You competed in a range of competitions, most notably qualifying for The Open Championship. Did playing the game well have an advantage in your reporting about the game as a correspondent?
DS: Without doubt. You see so much more with a front row seat. Bernard Darwin and Leonard Crawley were distinguished writers who golfed, or distinguished golfers who wrote. By happy chance, my newspaper wanted me to play as much as possible. I was happy to obey instructions. The principal value was talking and listening to great players as much as watching them.
GF: Is there anyone in golf alive during your prime writing years as a correspondent you would have liked to have met with who you were unable to meet?
DS: It was my great good fortune to meet Bobby Jones and Bernard Darwin, if only for a few minutes. They were the two to whom everybody of my generation looked up. So, for the purposes of the question, let’s pretend I didn’t. Darwin was the patron saint of all sports writing, Jones “a golfer matchless in skill and chivalrous in spirit” - the last amateur to be master of the professionals. Augusta is where the modern greats pay homage annually. They may never have known Jones but it is right that everyone knows all about him.
GF: What prompted you to become active in golf course architecture?
DS: As with my writing for a newspaper, you get nowhere without opportunity. Nothing of mine was ever planned. My architectural chance was dependent on Ken Cotton’s invitation in 1962 to visit two courses he was designing and building. It was an eye opener as to how an architect goes about making the best of what he finds and the contrasts of land that exist. When, nearly eighty, he called again to ask if I would be interested in helping him out, he had my answer before he finished the question.
GF: Curious to know of all the courses you personally played or visited - which one was the most endearing, the most underrated and overrated?
DS: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Likening golf courses to works of art isn’t, therefore, as farfetched as some might think. It is everyone’s duty to see they remain vibrant. I am not a rankings person. My preference is for beautiful settings, treasures where you least expect them. It is a close call but, if you twist my arm, Cypress Point is my Shangri-la. A better description than “underrated” is “not so well known” but everyone has gaps to fill. Overrated? Don’t offend. I see good in all courses.
GF: If you could change one thing in golf unilaterally - what would it be and why?
DS: The revolutionary dictator in me would limit the number of clubs to seven or eight. This would make players more inventive. The endless debate about what club to take would be reduced. Nobody could carry four wedges which, in turn, would eliminate the awful collars of deep rough around some greens whereby good players need a full swing to send the ball a few yards. In similar circumstances, poorer players can hardly shift it at all.
With seven or eight clubs, more golfers could carry them over their shoulder instead of in giant sized bags on super-charged trolleys/pull carts. Rounds would be faster and the game cheaper - both problems the game is trying to address.
GF: Golf’s major organisations - USGA, R&A, PGA of America - are all attempting to expand the game to new people - especially Millennials, women and minorities. What counsel would you give them all if asked?
DS: One of the main reasons for building new courses is to enable more people to take up the game but the lesson of the Scots is too often forgotten. Only by being affordable can golf be truly popular. There is nothing wrong with shorter, faster versions of the game although they are nothing new, but there is a fine line between jazzing up golf and having fun. Slow play is the game’s greatest threat and longer and longer courses take longer and longer to play. There is a double whammy. Sort them out and salvation beckons.
GF: Best advice you ever received - what was it and who from? Also - if you could provide advice to those just getting started in the game - what would it be?
DS: With writing and designing, you start with a blank canvas and have to bring it to life. Today, it is a blank screen. Either way, instinct and expression play an important role. Advice is scarce. You learn by looking. Good architects get things right first time. Second attempts cause delays and are costly. To anyone taking up the game, my advice is emphatic. Learn the basics of the swing before playing as many different courses in different countries and climates as possible. Like a study of wine, you will never exhaust the subject.
GF: You’ve got one round of golf to play - what’s the venue you would choose and the rationale for the picking of the three other golfers to join with you there?
DS: It would be wonderful to go back to the beginning and join Old Tom Morris, Young Tom and Allan Robertson on the 12-hole course at Prestwick, where the Open began and wrestle with hickory shafts and a gutty ball. Perhaps then fast forward their remote controls to see what they would make of modern equipment and the wonderful state of modern courses. As a second wish, let’s pop down to Rye in Sussex with Peter Thomson, Tom Watson and Tiger Woods, all connoisseurs of traditional golf with 13 Opens between them. Oh yes, and sit out on the terrace afterwards and have a drink, a chat and a good lunch.