What does growing the game *actually* look like? This little golf course offers clues
Steve Deeble needs a day off. His body is telling him so, sacking him with an illness during the first week of July, maybe the biggest week of his summer.
Deeble is 67, mind you, so his doctor can’t be thrilled about him spending six days a week managing a golf course. (Unless, that is, his doc is a golfer.) Deeble stands about 5-foot-6 and weighs maybe 9 stone (roughly 130 pounds). Those are estimates but specifics aren’t necessary — point is, he’s a featherweight in a job better suited for a farm hand. Indeed, being Mr. Everything at Dagenham’s Central Park Pitch and Putt on the East End of London requires much manual labor. For Deeble, the upkeep has resulted in multiple hernias.
“I feel it now,” he said in his Cockney accent, a club “comp” (competition) playing out on the course behind him. “Pullin’ hoses around, wa’ering greens. Sometimes even just cuttin’ a green — you’ve cut one and you go into the second one and you go, ‘Ahhh, I’ve got seven’een more to do.’
“But, the end of the day, if I don’ do it, it won’ get done. The course would’n be ‘ere.”
He’s wrong about that. Even without Deeble’s tireless work, Central Park Pitch and Putt would survive, just as all essential things do. The course is too important to too many people.
There’s a reason why mini golf in America (or “Putt-Putt”) is referred to as crazy golf in the U.K. For starters, “crazy” is the perfect adjective for 18 holes of loop-de-loops, hidden tunnels and tiny doorways through which you maneuver your ball to reach the hole. The other reason is that a “mini” derivative of golf already exists. It’s called Pitch and Putt. Another perfect name.
Pitch and putt is not simply par-3 golf, nor is it as easy as it sounds. The rules are strict. Hole lengths, by the book, are 90 meters or less. Course length for 18 holes must be 1,200 meters (just more than 1,300 yards) or less. Everyone must play from the same tees, and the tee balls must be played from a tee that stands a minimum of 5 millimeters off the playing surface. Players may use a maximum of three clubs — pick whichever wedges you’d like, but one of them has to be a putter. Pitch and Putt is officially recognized by the R&A and operates with its own handicap system. As Deeble likes to say, “’It ain’t Mickey Mouse.”
Scour Google and you’ll find that Ireland is home to the world’s best pitch-and-putt courses; Deeble will tell you the best players hail from there as well. The Pitch and Putt World Cup results underscore that point. (The Irish have won the last three.) But the very first P&P track was built in Portsmouth, England, just south of London, along the English Channel. It’s called Southsea Golf Links, and when it came on line in 1914 — with nine holes, all measuring between 50 and 91 meters — it was introduced to locals as “miniature golf.”
All these years later, pitch and putt is still alive and well in the U.K., but particularly at communal places like Dagenham, which debuted in Central Park nearly 100 years ago. It is owned by the town council but feeds off the TLC of a few specific people. Take any golf club, anywhere in the world, and ask its members what makes it great. The people. Dagenham has its own chairman, secretary, treasurer and captain. Every few months, Deeble welcomes new members in an announcement posted on the club’s Facebook page.
Last Sunday, a couple dozen members milled about. A black dachshund played fetch with a Titleist. The first Sunday of each month offers a medal match, followed by a four-person scramble comp. Side wagers are made — a fiver here, a fiver there. The idea of missing a Sunday morning medal drew a laugh from a group of competitors.
Another dozen people were perched up in the shed, or at tables on the lawn, enjoying the sun. Deeble’s wife, Lesley, tended to her patrons from the cafe, where a ham-and-cheese toastie goes for $2.20. This group is called the “10 O’clock Club” and they visit Dagenham P&P every day it’s open (Tuesday through Sunday, and all bank holidays) simply to hang out, have a chat, maybe even gossip about the politicians 15 miles west who run the country.
The 10 O’clock Club exists because Dagenham Pitch and Putt exists. Deeble is an honorary member, even if it’s him and his wife who also supply the food-and-bev service. A blue, circular sign is tacked to a nearby wall. “Steve Deeble,” it reads. “Born 19-05-1956, Special Friend, Cares about everyone, Top Bloke, 10 O’clock Club.”
Once a lorry manager, Deeble took over management of the property in 2015. It’s owned by the Borough of Dagenham and leased out (for a few more years at least) by a company called GolfWise. Deeble called the deal a “halvsie-halvsie basis” — a 50-50 revenue split of what is 100 percent his playground.
Under Deeble’s watch, wispy fescue has grown between the holes, giving the 18-hole course 18 distinct sections. “Like a big course, scaled down,” he said. Deeble is keen on turning players around to make them feel different winds on successive holes, and wants them facing different yardages on consecutive tee shots. Seventy-one yards here, 42 there, 62 on the next. Too many 50-yarders in a row allows a player to get in a groove, Deeble says. He doesn’t want that.
There’s a single bunker on the course, but over time it’s been relegated into a pit of uneven mini-mounds of sand. A true beach! Good luck getting up and down. Deeble has grown bamboo bushes on various holes, placed neatly between tee and green to serve as visual manipulation. When a nearby building burned down, Deeble rescued a 5-foot-tall Santa figurine from the ashes. Now “Father Christmas” stands short and right of the 16th green, like a jolly, banged-up nightclub bouncer.
“This course will break your heart,” Deeble said. “There’s so many fings in your eyeline. There’s trees that shouldn’t be there that are there. Just when you get on that tee, you see the tree. You ain’t s’posed to see the tree. You s’posed to see the flag. That’s where the golf becomes a problem. That’s why they’re there. They’re there just to distract you from your game.”
As Deeble plodded around his course on a walking tour, he sounded like a proud father, proclaiming that the 48-yard 3rd “has everything. It’s crackin’.” He knows his stuff, too. When he gets going on wind directions and scoring opportunities, backstops and competition-only pin positions, you’d swear Hanse and Doak have nothing on him.
“You’ve got to commit to the shot,” Deeble said. “Like the Irish — whatever you put it in front of them, they just get on the tee, look at the distance and they just hit it. That’s the mentality. Which is the way to be, really.”
He mentioned “the Irish” a few times, but never with a hint of disdain or political rivalry. Only respect. When Dagenham played host to the World Pitch and Putt Strokeplay Championship in 2019, an Irishman took the top spot. And the silver medal. And the final spot on the podium. In fourth place? John Deeble, Steve’s son.
There must be 50 tokens at the Dagenham Pitch and Putt that signal this place (and this sport) is a family institution. There are 30 trophies and plaques collecting dust atop the cupboard in the club shop, with Deeble inscribed more than any other name. There’s the course record, written in red marker on the whiteboard: 11-under 43, shot by John Deeble. There’s the team photos of the 2016 British National Pitch and Putt squad, when John, Jamie and Steve Deeble were ranked 1, 2 and 3 in all of Britain.
Then there’s the bench near the 15th tee, covered in shade, flowers and placards. A paper card is pinned into the wood from a June 8 funeral. In loving memory: Kim Eve. Steve’s sister-in-law.
“The coolest place on the golf course, this is,” Steve said. “Like a warrior, she was. Never moaned. Fightin’ cancer for years but never moaned once. Never winced. Went-uh work soon as she could.” Next to her card is a placard that reads, In memory of Ernie Deeble, 10/9/32 – 09/10/03.
“That’s my favva.”
Ernest Deeble began bringing his son to Central Park Pitch and Putt in 1965, when Steve was nine years old. Steve’s asthma kept him up at night, requiring him to catch up on sleep during the day. “Once I woke up, my dad would put me on the back-uh the mo’orbike and bring me over ‘ere. We’d play eigh’een ‘oles. Then we’d have pie mash on the way home.”
For a moment, a smile shone through.
“I see me dad. Out ‘ere. All the time.”
Steve leaned back, tucked his hands between his knees and exhaled. Why he works himself into the ground starts to feel pretty obvious. The fondest memories of a 67-year life took place on these 10 acres. Locals call it “a sacred garden.” Steve feels obligated to remind you it’s not about the money, which was never in doubt. It costs $8 for a round, or $13.50 for a full-day pass. Club rentals are just $1.50.
“People come frew ’at gate, they feel at ease,” Steve said. “Which is what you try and create. Like all across the board. Everyfing. This is Dagenham. This ain’t up the city. This ain’t loads of money. … We don’t need to be millionaires. I do this because I love it.”
Steve waters his greens exclusively in the evening, to give his “babies” extra time to grow overnight. The “sprinkler system,” he said with a laugh, are the five hoses he hoists over his shoulder, stretching from spigot to spigot. It takes him five hours to mow the property. When the weeds grow faster than the grass, as they’ve been doing this summer, Steve is on his hands and knees prying them from the turf. “That’s why I’m knackered all the time,” he said.
All of this to deliver the best course possible for that date circled on the calendar: July 9, the Town Show. It’s the club’s longest-running comp, a 54-hole stroke-play championship. When high winds snapped a tree branch on the 16th hole on the night before this year’s event, Steve wasn’t able to do much about it. The illness that bothered him in late June just wouldn’t go away, and he was sapped of energy. Club members bounced into action that morning, cleaning the debris and mowing the greens. John Deeble won the comp with an eight-under 154.
Steve’s message on Facebook: “Gutted. Let meself down.”
An often undiscussed factor in golf’s perpetual mission to “grow the game” is that the pursuit cannot be accomplished simply with a ticket to the nearest tournament. Or by tuning in on Sundays. Watching Jordan Spieth win the Valspar Championship can inspire children in Tampa, no doubt. But where does that inspiration sprout roots? Inspiration needs avenues for growth. It needs veins through which the blood flows. It needs places like Dagenham and people like Steve Deeble who are so convinced by the form of a golf derivative that they unconditionally devote their lives to it.
“This is the grassroots of golf,” Deeble said. “Wiffout a shadow of doubt. This is the place to start the game.”
With another Town Show in the books, the work continues. In three weeks, the British Pitch and Putt Open again visits Dagenham. After that, Deeble has designs on obtaining the deed to the course in his name. If all goes well in the negotiating process, in a few years he just might accomplish that. The deed would allow him to apply for lottery grants and move beyond the shoestring budget he works with now. He wants better grass seed for the greens and a new mower. He wants to welcome in the local school’s physical education classes for golf lessons, just as they did when he was a student. He wants the art teacher to view the pitch and putt as an oasis, too.
“I’ve got benches out here where they can sit, and they can draw,” Deeble said. “And they’re in a safe environment. There’s one way in. You can sit four or five people on a bench. Children drawing their picture, out in the fresh air, away from the school classrooms. That’s what I have in mind.”
He was about 15 feet from the 1st tee box as he said this, where a green-and-black sign with yellow lettering reads Hole 1, Index 18, 51 Yards. There are 17 other signs like this at the Dagenham Pitch and Putt. Each has its own sponsor listed at the bottom, often just an appreciative club member kicking in a little money to the cause. But the sign by the 1st tee is slightly different; it’s the only hole on the property with a name.
“It’s called Field of Dreams,” Deeble said with a sheepish chuckle. “If you build it, they will come.”