News & Opinion

Golf and dogs: U.K. unleashes ideal pairing

At Woburn Golf Club northwest of London, the author and his faithful black Labrador retriever Izzy play a style of mixed-couples golf that would be unrecognizable in much of North America

LITTLE BRICKHILL, England – There will be a strong canine presence among the spectators at this week’s Sunningdale Foursomes. Sunningdale Golf Club and dogs always have been synonymous.

It’s not alone. Many golf clubs in the British Isles welcome man’s best friend.

Alistair-Tait-and-dog-Izzy.jpeg
Alistair Tait and his dog, Izzy, an 11½-year-old black Labrador retriever, enjoy a late-day round at Woburn Golf Club in England.

I’ve been taking my dog, Izzy, to Woburn Golf Club, northwest of London, for the past 11 years. Many members do likewise. It’s not uncommon at some clubs to see an eight-ball: four members and four dogs.

Izzy, an 11½-year-old black Labrador retriever, has watched the Sunningdale Foursomes on several occasions. I didn’t realize just how dog friendly Sunningdale was until the first year I took her. I decided to buy a sausage sandwich at the halfway hut. I asked if I could get just a sausage for Izzy. The server asked me whether I wanted a dog sandwich. I naturally said yes, and she produced a small wax-paper package with diced sausage slices for Izzy.

Izzy gets the same service at Woburn. Staff working the halfway huts usually have a sausage sliced up for her when we arrive.

My North American friends are surprised when I tell them that I take Izzy to the golf course on a regular basis. Keith Pelley, the chief executive of the European Tour, grew up in suburban Toronto and was stunned at the canine contrasts between continents.

I’d just finished a phone interview with Pelley shortly after he became CEO when he asked me where I played golf. I told him Woburn, and added: “I’m heading up there for nine holes with my dog after I hang up.”

“You can’t take your dog to the golf course,” he replied.

“Welcome to England, Keith,” I said.

I first took Izzy to Woburn when she was 3 months old. It didn’t take long to train her not to pick up golf balls, although she was reluctant to stay out of bunkers. On her first round, she jumped into a greenside bunker and galloped around as if it were a giant play pit.

A few stern words were all it took to get her to appreciate that I didn’t enjoy spending 10 minutes raking over paw prints. She, unlike her master, has avoided bunkers ever since.

I didn’t think about keeping her off the greens. I figured that a dog wouldn’t differentiate between various grass heights. Paul McGinley made me think otherwise.

The 2014 Ryder Cup captain is a Sunningdale resident and member. McGinley spent many years playing the Old and New courses with faithful hound Febe, a yellow Labrador retriever, until her death a few years ago. He taught Febe to stay off the Sunningdale greens.

“I didn’t think it was possible, but [former European Ryder Cup player] Eamonn Darcy told me how to train her,” McGinley said. “Darce said to take her to the green and stop on the fringe and make her stay, then walk around the fringe to the other side of the green and call her. When I called her she naturally trotted straight across the green. I took her back around the fringe and repeated the process. It took me five tries before she finally realized she had to walk around the fringe. From then on, she never went on another green.”

My dog was 7 when McGinley told me this story. It didn’t seem fair to tell her off for something she’d been doing for her whole life. Besides, she doesn’t do any damage to the greens. Mostly she just lies down and tries not to look at my dodgy putting stroke. She’s seen me miss too many 4-footers.

It’s not always plain sailing. Sometimes dogs will just be dogs. McGinley found this out when Febe was a pup.

“I was playing with a pal who was having a bad day,” McGinley said. “His temper finally got the better of him. He threw a club about 60 yards down the fairway. To his horror, Febe ran down the fairway, picked it up and brought it back. She thought he’d started a game of fetch. He was mortified. I was howling with laughter. I don’t think he’s thrown a club since.”

Head professional Paul Anderson used to let dogs into his professional shop at The Berkshire. Not now.

“I’d just put out my summer stock when a member’s dog wandered into the shop,” said Anderson, who estimates about 30 percent of members bring dogs to the club. “It was a wet day, and the dog suddenly decided my shop was just the place to shake the rain off its coat. Luckily it was only water flying around and not mud.”

Anderson since has put up a polite sign banning dogs from the pro shop. However, they’ll never be banned from The Berkshire’s two courses.

I once asked a former Berkshire president how members would react if the club banned dogs.

He looked at me as if I were from another planet and said: “Why on earth would we do that?”

Good question. After all, some dogs often are better-behaved than some members.

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