The Beauty Of Golf In Scotland
The door to the small white starter shack opened and, like he had for the group ahead of me, and the one before that, the young slender assistant golf professional popped his head out and said politely:
“Play away please.”
The first tee at Elie doesn’t overlook a long winding fairway but stares straight into a hill where, on top, rests a black and white pole which shows the golfer the way. A few decades ago, a member here rescued a periscope from a retiring British Navy submarine and it was given a second life as a lookout for the first tee. The assistant pro dutifully uses it for each group, sends them on their way and returns to his post.
As requested, I play away on a gorgeous sunny summer Scottish afternoon by myself – the group ahead was an older couple with their dog – and by the time I make it to the top of the hill by the black and white stake they are already on the second fairway and I will never see them again.
Golf in Scotland is many things – a simpler game, a game for everyone and anyone and a game with lessons that unfold itself to you as you walk the fairways – much like the blind shots lead you to tops of hills and vistas and the hole ahead. Here, everyone plays – for the social aspect, for something to do while you walk the dog, for the exercise and for the lessons learned I like to think. In the States, and much of the world, as the game has gotten farther and farther away from its beautiful simplicity, we have lost something – and as, golf is life, or life is golf, perhaps it shows us what we have lost in our lives as well.
Golf in the United States is almost always, especially in the South a repetitive game of hit it long and hit it high. A simple par three in North Carolina is almost always going to play 145 yards – today – tomorrow – forever. With a pin placement, it might climb to 154 or drop to 137 but you’ll never face more less than that.
In Scotland, golf is about the elements – the wind could make that same length play as much as 200 yards or as little as 100 yards. This variation then teaches ingenuity and adaptability – you need to think about the shot you are going to play, the club to hit. The same hole that is an easy three, or short par four one day, can be a monster of impossibility the next.
Here, the fairways and greens are wavy green or browned out Dali-esque paintings because they were formed by the winds and sand. The flat areas between mounds of sand or hills of gorse became greens two hundred or three hundred or even four hundred years ago. As such, what appears to be a perfect shot from the tee into the green often bounces left or right or disappears into the gorse never to be found again.
An American I brought over once bitterly complained about this once telling his caddy that a great shot should get a great reward.
“That’s not the way life works lad.”
The caddy took off down the fairway and my friend fumed – but I stood on tee – looking out at the curving wonder of a fairway and thought how true that was. In Scotland, they know that life is fundamentally unfair – a great shot becomes lost in the gorse, a not-so-great shot bounds to something close to perfection.
I have always that that was a great life lesson on the 4th tee at Royal Dornoch. When we study at the right school, marry the right person on paper, take the right job, we expect it to work out perfectly – but that’s not the way life works.
There is always one small thing that I am reminded about on every round in Scotland that drives home to me the difference between the game there and the game in the United States – and maybe a view on life, I wish we hadn’t lost.
In the States, in almost very private club pro shop and by the tea, there is a mountain of tees and ball markers, silver or plastic ball mark repair tools – scorecards and boxes of signed pencils.
In Scotland, you bring your own or buy them in the shop.
As I played the lovely course at Elie, I realized that not only did I not have any tees left, the couple ahead was long gone and I was the only one on the course. I started to scrounge through the grass near the tees – I found some semi-broken tees I could piece together and use.
One half-broken tee took me through the short par four 10th which with the wind behind, I easily drove the green and two-putted for birdie – it took me up the hill to the climb on the 13th and round back to the club house.
Instead of using four or five or more tees to play all those holes, my patch-work tee and I listened as the walkers came down the mountain from where the bunker was by the 14th tee.
We glanced towards the crossing on the 11th where people headed to the beach. We tried to guess where to hit on the 15th and guessed wrong – never finding the ball. Like so many Scottish golf courses, at Elie, you play back into town. The houses stood still to the left of the 17th and the clubhouse lay ahead on the 18th. The town was out in full force on a bank holiday weekend.
After my last drive on the 18th, struck well, but bounced awkwardly left into the light rough, I put my tee into the bag. It would go on the shelf when I got home in my office, a reminder that maybe in our world of abundance, and ever larger homes, and CEOs not content with earning millions but demanding tens of millions to run failing companies, that maybe it would be a better place if everything was just a bit more precious.