News & Opinion

It takes a pandemic to stop golf’s longest day

Only coronavirus can sideline 72 Club as the sturdiest – and perhaps nuttiest – players miss out on their annual 72-hole day (yes, day) for first time in 48 years in golf's version of a marathon

TURVEY, England – Steven Norrel isn’t the first golfer to discover the 72 Club is much more attractive in the mind’s eye than it is in reality. Norrel’s hamstrings were screaming after 48 holes, the blisters on his feet had him hobbling up Littlestone Golf Club’s 15th fairway, and parts of his body were chafing where he didn’t think chafing was possible.

That’s when he reached this conclusion: “You guys are nuts!”

Norrel, a 7-handicapper at Eagle Marsh Golf Club in Coral Springs, Fla., finished low American in the 2010 edition of the 72 Club. He hasn’t been back since. He’s not alone.

17th Hole at Littlestone Golf Club
The 17th hole at Littlestone Golf Club, which in any year other than 2020 would be the site of the 72 Club’s annual golf marathon on the southeast coast of England.

Monday was supposed to be the 49th edition of the 72 Club. Coronavirus forced the cancellation of this unique tournament for the first time since 1972. I was set to make my 14th appearance, 13 more than Norrel and 33 fewer than 72 Club iron man Bryan O’Neill.

Every April, about 20 of us get together and play 72 holes in two-balls on the same day. Everyone walks and carries his clubs. No caddies, trolleys, carts or rangefinders. Nor is it a Stableford, scramble or skins format. It’s strictly stroke play, with everything holed out. A handicap of 12 or better is required to play.

Norrel isn’t the only American to tee it up over Littlestone’s lovely links, a former British Open qualifying course on the southeast coast near the Strait of Dover. American Seth Waugh made his debut alongside me in 1996. Waugh, the former banker who is the chief executive of the PGA of America, has been back twice with son Clancy, a former college golfer at Wake Forest. They were due to play again this year.

This year is the second consecutive year that O’Neill has missed competing. A pinched nerve in his back ruled him out last year after 47 consecutive appearances. He had been on course to play his 50th event at age 72, which would have been a neat achievement.

Like many good ideas, the notion behind this special event 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 [in Walton-on-the-Hill, 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 Berkshire Golf Club. “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 once conceded.

The competition found a permanent home in 1981 on the 6,676, par-71 Littlestone Golf Club layout, which lends itself to quick play because tees are close to previous greens.

“The one thing we all have in common is that we hate slow play,” said former 72 Club secretary Martin Watters, a 32-year veteran. “This club proves that it doesn’t have to take four hours to play 18 holes, because some of us average between 2 hours and 10 minutes to 2 hours and 20 minutes per round for two balls.”

I wasn’t quite that quick last year. Playing partner Sean Murphy and I teed off at 6:58 a.m. and finished at 8 p.m. 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 a longer-than-usual lunch break.

Italy’s Edoardo Molinari complained last year about taking 5 hours and 30 minutes to play one round in the Trophée Hassan II on the European Tour. Many 72 Club members will play 36 holes in that amount of time.

Waugh concedes that he had his doubts about returning that first year.

“The third round is the hardest,” Waugh said. “That’s when you really wonder why you’re out there.”

O’Neill 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?

Norrel reached a similar conclusion on the 48th hole. He’s not alone. As of last year, he was one of 56 entrants who’d played just once. They perhaps should have followed seasoned 72 campaigner Carl Lawrence’s path.

Lawrence survives the day by “greasing up” an hour before his tee time, applying liberal globs of Vaseline to areas of his body best kept for his own private viewing.

Whatever it takes to get through the longest day in golf.

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