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Why golf is no joke for Hugh Grant

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KINGSBARNS, Scotland (CNN) -- This month, Living Golf host Don Riddell meets British actor Hugh Grant, at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland.

It is a quintessentially British trait to be self-deprecating, and the actor Hugh Grant has made a career out of it. From his portrayal of the hapless Charles in "Four Weddings and a Funeral" to the simple bookshop owner in "Notting Hill," he's earned global acclaim for being the loveable, but dithering, fool who seems destined to take the most tortuous route in the quest for true love and happiness.

It seems that often his personal life has imitated his art. At 46 years old, he remains a bachelor; frequently the subject of celebrity gossip columns, but ultimately single. However, there is one true love in his life, and he's about to apologize for it.

"I'm a proper sad golfer," he told me recently in Scotland, and he makes the day he was wooed by the game sound like a personal disaster, "Your life is gone. So too your personality, and your interest in life. Nothing but golf interests me now."

He clearly feels that admitting to being a golfer is something to be ashamed of, and something he never thought he'd admit to. "I played for a year or two in my 20s and then one day I thought, 'I hate this, this is miserable,' and I threw my clubs away." He didn't play again for 12 years, whereupon one good shot got him hooked.

Now, having worked hard enough to achieve a handicap of seven, it's an obsession he can deny no longer. "If there's a new gadget for sale, I'll buy it. I've never not bought anything that's been offered, and there's now a whole room in my house dedicated to golf equipment. You can't get in there for clubs and impact bags." Has any of it helped? "None whatsoever," he scoffs, "A lot of it has done me a lot of damage. I'm in a real mess. I feel like running away."

He doesn't appear overly stressed, calmly sipping a mug of tea as we chat in front of the clubhouse at Kingsbarns, but if Grant is feeling any apprehension, it's because the next day he's due to tee off in the Dunhill Links pro-am championship.

Some of the game's top stars -- including practically all of Europe's successful Ryder Cup team -- will play alongside the best amateurs from the respective worlds of business and show-business. And as you'd expect from a top PGA tour event, the drama will be played out in front of thousands of fans and dozens of live television cameras.

In recent times, Grant has confessed that he is weary of the film industry; describing it as "just a miserable experience, so long and so boring." The golf course now provides his excitement.

But nothing he has ever learned as an actor will be of any assistance on the first tee of The Old Course at St. Andrews. "In my world, you can be relaxed by take 5. But here there's only one take. It's just completely terrifying."

Every golfer can relate to his phobia. In most other walks of life, one can adopt a confident swagger -- even with insufficient talent to justify such an air. We all know that positions of seniority are not always merited. Not in golf though, it's a profession where any pretenders are cruelly exposed.

In the wrong sort of company, a sliced, hooked or -- even worse -- an air shot can be humiliating; and often the pressure of the situation can make such catastrophes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Colin Montgomerie -- one of Grant's former partners at the Dunhill Links Championship -- has seen it all first hand.

"The first fairway at St. Andrews is the widest in golf and so everybody's expected to hit it. That includes every amateur, off any handicap, and that's difficult. I see them shaking on the first tee."

Still, the chance to play with the best golfers on three of the world's top links courses isn't one that any amateur would pass up in his right mind. And it's virtually the only profession -- certainly the only sporting endeavor -- where an amateur can walk in the same shoes as the professionals.

"Golf is the only sport where you could do this", says the NFL legend Marcus Allen. "If you tried this in football, someone would get hurt."

With so many egos involved, the only thing likely to be wounded at this event is a bit of pride. According to the Eagles guitarist Don Felder, "it's easy to play guitar, anybody can learn a few chords. But to play a good round of golf is really difficult. I can play music to 50,000 people, but this is frightening."

Also playing in Scotland were the actors Michael Douglas, Bill Murray and Grant's good friend Kyle McLachlan. Their incredible success allows them to indulge their golfing fantasies on beautiful courses all over the world, and Grant is no exception.

He belongs to some of the world's most exclusive golfing establishments, including the Queenswood Golf club in Surrey. With joining fees reputedly approaching the three hundred thousand dollar mark, it's by far Britain's most expensive club.

It would be a cliché to say it, but to most of us this is another world -- in more ways than one.

Take, for example, the golf handicap. It's a status symbol for amateurs -- the lower the score, the better the player -- but in the make-believe world of Hollywood, Grant reckons that sometimes they are a works of pure of fiction. "I once played with Dennis Quaid, who's very good. He plays off 1. Although it's what they call a Hollywood 1. It actually translates to about 12 here!"

Men like these need big bank accounts to fund their recreational time, but I got the sense that Grant's work now actually gets in the way of his golf.

He blames the "collapse" of his game on the decision to make a film earlier in the year. "I try to work as little as possible these days. When I'm filming I hardly play at all and then when I come back my swing is in disarray. I'll become frantic to try and repair it."

At times, it's hard to tell when Grant is joking, but his description of himself as a golfer is quite intriguing. "I'm extremely unpleasant," he says of his on-course disposition, "I'm the worst. I like it very competitive, I like a lot of money at stake, and I don't like any chit-chat or jokes. I hate all that. I just want serious brutal golf and if it goes badly, I get very nasty."

Ireland's Ryder Cup star Paul McGinley examined his game at close quarters in Scotland and said there was nothing unpleasant to report, but Grant's competitive streak was obvious.

"He hid it well, but you could see how much effort he was making and what it all meant to him. He played a pitch onto the 17th green at St Andrews. It was a hard shot -- from behind the infamous "road-hole" bunker and with all the fans watching -- and I think that gave him as great a thrill as he's ever had from any movie."

Grant had a very respectable week in Scotland -- proving a reliable teammate for England's David Howell. But he didn't make the cut, and he didn't win; an outcome that he dryly declared would result in a "tantrum."

Before we parted, and before he finished his cup of tea, I asked if Grant would be interested in emulating Kevin Costner or Adam Sandler, and starring in a golf movie like "Tin Cup" or "Happy Gilmore." Surely that would be a dream role, especially for someone jaded by the industry?

"Nothing very interesting like that has ever come up," he mused, "but it would be nice to get paid to get a better swing!"

Ah, the pursuit of perfection! And Grant is undoubtedly hooked. Counselors will tell you that in order to succeed, a relationship needs a lifetime of work. So I reckon that, regardless of what happens with Hugh's birdies off the course, this particular love affair has a very bright future indeed.


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The golf course now provides Hugh Grant his excitement.

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