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Golfing in Scotland: Demoralizing and Wonderful

Playing Six Rounds on Hallowed Ground Nearly Broke My Golfing Spirit

We ventured onto the course to get our Swilcan Bridge photo op, but was I ready to actually cross this storied bridge as a golfer?

I am not a good golfer. In fact, I’m quite a bad golfer. Want proof? My golfing buddies call me “Jimbo Slice.” I am not only a member of the Georgetown Bad Golfers Association, I am the organization’s founder. I’m constantly trying to refine my golfing abilities through practice, yet my skills don’t seem to improve. I should give up, but for some reason I don’t. I’m like that kid at the skating rink who’s inching along and gripping the rail while his classmates whiz by — I shouldn’t even be out there, but for some reason, there I am, hoping I’ll be just as good as everyone else, and quickly realizing I’m not.

But I am strangely addicted to the game, so when my wife and I decided to travel around the world this year, I knew I’d want to spend part of that time on the links of Scotland. It’s the home of golf. The Mecca. Hallowed ground. The prospect was both exciting and terrifying. Especially when I considered setting foot on the home of golf — St. Andrews Links. The storied Old Course at St. Andrews was where golf began over 600 years ago. I was completely intimidated at the thought of playing on this historic course. Legends of the game have trod there. Nicklaus. Palmer. Woods. Luetkemeyer? That last one really doesn’t have the same ring to it. How could I even step on that course without embarrassing myself?

My fear turned to excitement looking out my window as our plane drifted below the clouds on final approach to Glasgow. I giggled with glee as I counted no fewer than four golf courses in the short distance before the runway. Who cared if I was terrible? Surely all those courses had room for one bad American duffer. Plus, my friend Scott was joining us from America, and he’s no Jordan Spieth himself, so at least I wouldn’t be the only one raising a few Scottish eyebrows.

The Cathedral of Royal Troon

From a mile away, the stone facade of the clubhouse to the Royal Troon Golf Club jutted out from the land like a castle, looking out over the Old Course and beyond to the coastline and the icy blue waters of the Firth of Clyde. I gripped the wheel tensely and wondered what possessed me to book our first of six rounds at one of the most fabled courses in all of Scotland? Couldn’t we have warmed up at a pitch-and-putt or maybe a mediocre city course? Will the faithful members of this religious congregation identify us immediately as imposters, like crass tourists in Pennsylvania Dutch Country trying on Amish hats and fake beards?

We walked into the clubhouse like two freshmen slinking into the senior party. I’d estimate the clubhouse is comprised of about 140 percent mahogany. A replica of the Claret Jug, the prize for golf’s oldest major championship, is prominently on display as you walk in, just in case you forgot that the course has hosted The Open no less than nine times. The corridor is lined with trophy cases and pictures of stoic bearded ODGs (old dead golfers).

I had wondered for so long what the Scottish courses would be like, and as we surveyed the course on our way to the first tee, I knew that Royal Troon would live up to the hype. This would be unlike anything I’d played in the U.S., with very few trees and wide-open, undulating fairways typical of Scottish links courses. The seaside courses like Royal Troon also boast swirling sea winds that can slap golf balls out of the sky, but today those winds were thankfully tranquil, providing a few picturesque clouds and a pleasant cool bay breeze. The massive clubhouse and the bay on the horizon provide a delightful view.

The course was immaculate and in excellent condition, but was it the absolute greenest, most picturesque course I’d ever played? No, but playing storied courses like Royal Troon or St. Andrews is about more than the view, it’s about being among the ghosts of the game. You could feel the history as you walked onto the grass. When I was in Mumbai I had visited the home of Gandhi. It wasn’t opulent or even particularly noteworthy from the outside, but walking on the floorboards where the Mahatma’s sandaled feet had shuffled gave me chills. As we headed for the first tee, I felt chills here too.

As Much by Skill as by Strength

As we stepped onto the first tee box, the wagering negotiations between Scott and I would come to its long conclusion. This is a storied ritual between the two of us, a series of long, drawn-out deliberations on the number of extra strokes he’ll give me for our wager on a round, because he usually plays a bit better than I do. This haggling involves an elaborate kabuki dance of offers and counter-offers that would exhaust the most resolute of Bedouin rug-traders.

Now, it was time to close the deal on a bet for the six rounds we’d play through Scotland. I’ll admit Scott is a better player, with longer drives and generally steadier play, but the night before I had finagled a sweetheart deal on the number of extra strokes I received for our epic six-round wager. As I looked down at the scorecard I saw the regal crest of the Royal Troon Golf Club (of course there’s a crest) with the inscription in Latin (yes, a dead language, perfect): “Tam arte quam marte,” which I’d later learn translates to: As much by skill as by strength. It was like those dead Scottish players on the clubhouse wall were giving me a wink and a nod. I couldn’t out-drive Scott to win his money, but maybe I had outwit him instead. By the end of the trip I had played worse on the scorecard, but still took home the purse for our six-round wager, not by driver strength, but by negotiating skill. That negotiating gave me plenty of wiggle-room for my errant play to come.

A Dreadful Mess in the Sarlacc Sand Trap

That errant play was in full force on all six Scottish rounds we’d play. On the 18th hole of our first round, I watched my approach shot drop into the gaping maw of a massive and imposing sand trap resembling the sarlacc pit from "Return of the Jedi." To the amusement of my playing partner, I hacked away in the sand for four strokes before I extricated the ball from this hellish expanse. I had never experienced a sand trap like this before, and clearly it left me flustered, because after the hole an elderly woman playing behind us walked up to us. “Excuse me,” she said, with an accent that made me imagine she was Sean Connery’s mom, “but I noticed you left that sand trap in a dreadful mess.”

Great Scott! I completely forgot to rake my sand trap! I would never think of leaving a sand trap without properly raking it, but I was so flustered by that god-awful bunker that this etiquette completely escaped me. I apologized profusely and immediately went back to the bunker to literally smooth things over with her. Mrs. Connery was a polite but stern reminder that the Scots take their rules and their golf etiquette seriously. I needed to get my act together if I was going to play the storied St. Andrews.

How do the Scots Keep their Kilts Down in this Wind?

I thought I knew what it was like to play in windy conditions. I was wrong. Because the old links courses in Scotland have almost no trees, you don’t have to worry about hitting into the woods, but it also means that there’s nothing to shield the winds, which can appear suddenly and seem to swirl in every direction.

Especially for the courses we played next to the coastline, these winds were deceptively difficult. While at the ground level we were experiencing a light breeze, something entirely different was happening from about 30 feet up and higher. At a course in Aberdeen off the eastern coast, I saw my ball make a left turn in mid-air so sharply that I thought it was ricocheting off an invisible wall. I had never played in these conditions, and clearly didn’t have the skills to ensure every shot I took didn’t turn left like a UPS driver on his last delivery of the day.

I used to think that wind is wind wherever you are. But now I can say that Scotland is different. Wind is something more in Scotland, and it is an ill wind that blows my golf score into the triple digits. Knowing that St. Andrews was a links course right next to the ocean winds gave me one more reason to quietly panic for our potential extra round there.

Playing St. Andrews

As we drove on the last leg of our trip into the quaint town of St. Andrews next to the historic golf course, I realized I wasn’t the same man who excitedly stepped off the plane in Glasgow. Six rounds over nine days — or 108 holes of golf — had taken their toll: my back ached, my feet were throbbing and my face was windburned. Much worse, my golfing spirit was largely broken. The bunkers and tall grasses of Scotland had robbed me of my golf balls, and my dignity. Those Scottish streams crossing the fairway weren’t babbling brooks, they were laughing rivers — snickering at me and my pathetic attempts to play their dignified sport. There was still time for me to take up bowling, I thought to myself. That’s a hobby I could actually enjoy into my senior years, right?

I limped into the St. Andrews clubhouse and were informed that yes, it was actually possible to get a tee time the next day, I’d just have to arrive at the clubhouse early in the morning and stand in line. I looked across the historic vista and saw the awe-inspiring course and the Swilcan Bridge on the 18th hole, the same bridge that Nicklaus, Palmer and Woods had crossed in a tradition that had spanned generations. They were worthy of this place, I realized, but I wasn’t — not now anyway.

Being in the presence of this historic home of golf made me recognize that my golfing spirit might be bent, but it was not broken. I may not be ready for St. Andrews now, but I would be some day. I decided that I wouldn't play that extra round at St. Andrews, but I would stick with this game, and eventually come back to Scotland as an improved golfer, to play this course the way it was meant to be played — with skill, with dignity and without losing a dozen golf balls. I would cross the Swilcan Bridge another day.

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