It is statute an ordinit that in na place
of the realme be there usit...Golfe or
uther sik unprofitabill sportis.
—JAMES IV to Parliament in Edinburgh May 16, 1491
It was a gray, drizzly day like most in Scotland, and there was I, a lonely shepherd, strolling along a swollen dune by the North Sea looking for a wee stance to hit wi' a bit crook. Clumps of heather were up to my knees and the yellow-tipped whin was up to my chest, and I was up to here with my sheep because the little dumplings had wandered away. I had this crooked stick, that I normally used to keep the dumplings in line, in my hand. You know. Firm left side, eye on the tailbone, slow backswing—and whap. But they were gone and I was just ambling along when I saw this chuckie stane, as it was called, this round pebble. I also saw this rabbit scrape, as it was called, through an opening in the heather and whin. So I said to myself, "Self, why don't you take your bit crook and try to knock this here stane into that there scrape? And stay out of the heather because, boy, it'll make your hand ring." Well, I guess I took it back a little outside, because I cut a low one right into the garbage and almost never did find it, but anyhow, this is how I came to invent the game of golf a few hundred years ago.
There are those, of course, who claim that I did not invent golf in another life, nor did any other Scot. Some say the Romans did it long before me and called it Paganica, which, between you and me, sounds like a joint over on East 56th with a big tab. Some say the Dutch invented golf, or a game called kolven, which was similar. But no way. Kolven has to be a roll of veal stuffed with cheese and chives. Some even say that the French originated golf under the name of jeu de mail, but, as any European traveler knows, this is a game for the big players in Monaco.
The fact of the matter is, golf is a Scottish game. It is naturally Scottish, as natural to our instincts as the seaside links land is natural to the setting. It was the Scots, after all, who took the game and did something with it when everybody else was busy making crossbows. We made the courses and the clubs, the balls and the rules, the trophies and the tournaments. We invented wind and rough, hooks and slices, bunkers and doglegs, and we were just getting ready to invent the overlapping grip when Harry Vardon, an Englishman, beat us to it.
We looked at the seashores, our links-land, and said this is where the glory's at. Let the wet wind blow in from Denmark or wherever it comes from. Let the incursions of the sea make the giant dunes and the tumbling valleys. Let the birds bring in the seeds that will grow our curious rough—the wiry, purple heather, the bulging whin, the fern we'll call bracken and the broom, that does not have thorns to distinguish itself from whin, or gorse.
No, I don't know what the Romans, the Dutch and the French were doing around the 1450s, but we Scots were playing golfe then and had been. At least we were when the kings would permit it, there being, from time to time, this nagging problem of national service. Had to go fight the English. Cancel my starting time.
There was an afternoon, I recall, when the game came close to being banished forever. As it happened, I was out on a moor at St. Andrews trying out a new Auchterlonie driving spoon at the 11th—the short hole, of course—when a king's guard rose up out of the whin and handed me a scroll signed by our monarch.
The scroll said, "It is decreetid and ordained...that the Fute-ball and the Golf be utterly cryit doune, and nocht to be usit."
"Guy never could spell," I said.
The guard pointed his crossbow at me and said that the king, Jimmy the Roman Numeral, meant business.
"The golfe is sik unprofitabill sportis," he said.
"Pal, you got that right," I said. "See that shepherd over there with the cross-handed grip on his bit crook? Well, he's got me out, out, out and one down."
"Don't be abusit," the guard said. "It is statute an ordinit that in na place of the realme be there Golfe in tyme aiming."
"Look," I said. "Smell that air. Gaze over this land. Great, huh? Who would want a guy to be hanging around a drafty castle waiting for an Englishman to scale a wall?"
"Aye," he said. "The aire is guid and the field reasonable feir. But can ya na handle the bow for archerie? Can ya na run or swoom or warstle instead?"
"I don't know, man," I said. "Let me put it your way. Here's the deal. I was drivin' the chuckie stanes wi' a bit stick as sune's I could walk."
He nodded as if he were beginning to understand.
"Here's something else," I said. "I happen to know that a bow-maker in Perth is fixing up a set of clubs for the king right now. Why? Because the king sneaked out the other day to see what this game was all about and the Earl of Bothwell, who plays to a cool 23, brought him to his knees on the back three at Leith. The king's getting a pretty good price, too. Like only 14s's for the set, whatever an s is."
The guard put down his crossbow and said, well, go ahead and play if that was the case. And by the way, he added, did I want to buy "a dussen guid golfe ballis?"
"Hold it," I said. "You got featheries?"
"Aye," he said. "Guid featheries that cum from the Laird of Rosyth. Guid featheries stuffed with flock."
"Four s's," I said. "And not an s more."
"Eight s's," he said.
"They're hot, man. Six s's and we both eel out clean," I said.
He went for the six—you can always strike a bargain in Europe—and disappeared back into the whin. And now that I had saved golf, I couldn't wait to try out one of the new high-compression featheries. I heeled up a good lie and gave the shot a full body turn. Wow. There is still a hole in the wind where I hit that shot and I thought to myself, what a happy and golden time, indeed.
In a few more years all of royalty would be playing golfe. There were rumors of Mary Queen of Scots shanking around the fields of Seton when some said she should have been mourning the demise of Lord Darnley. Charles I got a very bad press for being in a match at Leith when the Irish Rebellion broke out. A lot of Jameses and Dukes of York were seen swinging at Musselburgh, which still claims to be the oldest layout in the world and now sits inside a racecourse near Edinburgh. There was a Stuart or two spotted in a putting game at Leith, where The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers got started.
All golfers, I think, are indebted to a small group of us that got together in 1744—The Honourable Company, or The Company of Gentleman Golfers as we called ourselves then. What we did was form the first country club. Not only that, we sat down and wrote the first rules of the game, which we called the Articles & Laws in Playing at Golf.
Those first rules have been well-preserved, along with some terribly clever comments I made at the meeting as I spoke keenly above the roar of our first president, Duncan Forbes. Among those rules were:
I You Must Tee your Ball within a Club length of the hole.
(It's going to be uproarious fun, guys, waiting for somebody to drive before you can putt.)
II Your Tee must be upon the Ground.
(Nothing like teeing up the ball in the air for greater distance.)
III You are not to Change the Ball which you Strike off the Tee.
(The caddies will take care of this. When I tried to put down a clean one to putt the other day at St. Andrews, my man, Ginger Johnson, tugged at the sleeve of my cashmere and said, "You'll not do that here, Laddie.")
IV You are not to Remove Stones, Bones or any Break-club for the Sake of playing your Ball Except upon the fair Green, and that only within a Club's Length of your Ball.
(Well, we'll get some pretty tricky breaks over the stones and bones.)
V If your Ball come among Water, or any Watery filth, You are at Liberty to take out Your Ball, & bringing it behind the hazard, and teeing it, You may play it with any Club, and allow your Adversary a Stroke, for so getting out your Ball.
(Unless your Adversary doesn't see you do it.)
VII At holeing, You are to play your Ball honestly for the Hole, and not to play upon your Adversary's Ball, not lying in your way to the Hole.
(I heard about this across the ocean in a place called Easthampton. They call it croquet.)
VIII If you should lose your Ball, by its being taken up, or any other way, You are to go back to the Spot where you Struck last and drop another Ball, and allow your Adversary a Stroke for the Misfortune.
(And if your Adversary has been seen taking up your Ball, you may strike your Adversary wi' a bit crook, teeing him upon the Ground.)
IX No Man at Holeing his Ball, is to be Allowed to Mark his way to the Hole with his Club or anything else.
(And if you do, man, the greens committee will chew you out.)
XII He Whose Ball lyes furthest from the Hole is Obliged to play first.
(This is a good rule, but I'll tell you, the public course players are going to relax it a little.)
XIII Neither Trench, Ditch or Dyke made for the preservation of the Links, Nor the Scholars' Holes or the Soldiers' Lines, shall be Accounted a Hazard, But the Ball is to be taken out, Teed and played with any Iron Club.
(Oh, swell, Duncan. So how come you let me make eight passes at it yesterday in the Soldiers' Lines with no relief?)
Well, you know what happens. You let one private club get started and down the road another pops up. The noblemen and lairds of Fifeshire couldn't stand it that we had The Company of Gentleman Golfers, and some rules, especially, they said, when everybody knew St. Andrews was the cradle of golfe. So in hardly any time at all they formed The Society of St. Andrews Golfers, which later would become known as the Royal and Ancient Golf Club. And you know what happened after that. They had the sport by the old gutta-percha and never would turn loose of it.
A lot of arguments have gone on through the years about the history of the game—where it began, who molded the first cleek and so forth. Over at Muirfield, where The Honourable Company still hangs out, they say that the R&A would still be the Greensboro Jaycees if the Edinburgh code of golf hadn't, been written. And at the same time, over at Prestwick on the West Coast, they like to say that the R&A wouldn't have anything to do but run the St. Andrews city championship if Prestwick's members hadn't decided to invent the Open Championship and stage it the first 12 years of its existence. The Open Championship, of course, is what a lot of crass Americans would call the British Open today.
All I know is, every time somebody at Muirfield or Prestwick or Troon or Carnoustie goes out and finds an old track iron which had to have been made over 200 years ago, somebody from the R&A will reach down into Hell Bunker or the Swilken Burn and find a club that is older. One envisions genial Laurie Auchterlonie, the honorary professional of St. Andrews, carving and hammering away these days, making an antique putter dated 1742.
What truly matters, of course, is that the whole scene is old—the gray clubhouses and the rolling land, the minute books and the scrolls, the wind and rain, the heather, dunes and swales—everything that makes Scottish golf what it is. It has been said by many that a golfer hasn't played the game until he has gone back where it all was, and where it all still is.
It is a special feeling, I think, that calls the golfer back to Scotland. "Take me to the grave of Old Tom Morris," a voice says. "Drive me around the Road Hole. Show me where the Wee Icemon chipped it in at Carnoustie. Lead me down the long narrow 11th at Troon where Arnie made the 3s. Let me hear the groan of the Spitfire ghosts at Turnberry. Carry me over the Sleepers at Prestwick. Bend me around the archery field at Muirfield. Drown me in these treasures of time."
The Scots themselves relish all this more than anyone. It is in their faces as deeply as it is in their verse. They are constantly writing poems about their bunkers and burns and braes. "The swallows are high in an empty sky, so let's to the tee once more." That kind of thing. It's enough to have a man packing his clubs, tossing his alligators into his suitcase and....
"So let's to the tee once more," I said to the customs official at Prestwick, having deboarded my Pan Am flight from JFK. "The nature of my visit? Well, I have a meeting scheduled with Heather, Whin, Bracken & Broom, one of your very successful brokerage firms."
There was this tour that Keith Mackenzie, the secretary of the R&A, had worked out for me. Fly to Prestwick, an old WWII air base where everybody played Twelve O'Clock High, and motor down the West Coast to Turnberry, the Pebble Beach of Scotland. Stay at the Turnberry Hotel, which is the only thing there and covers a hillside overlooking the course and the Spitfire runways. From Turnberry, he said, one could reach two other famous Scottish links—Troon and Prestwick—simply by driving over the Electric Brae, a road that goes up when it appears to be going down. Cover the West Coast first, said Mackenzie, then move to The Old Course Hotel at St. Andrews, where you can play the Old Course, right outside your window, and then journey north toward Dundee and Carnoustie or south toward Edinburgh and Muirfield.
"This is the best possible route for an American," said Mackenzie.
"But I'm Scottish," I said. "I'm just retracing my steps from a few hundred years before."
"Of course, dear chap," he said. "We're all Scottish when it comes to golf."
"Aye," I said.
"Simply marvelous tour," he said. "You'll see a bit of it all. Turnberry, for example, pitched right there on the Firth of Clyde. Tees practically hanging on the water like Pebble. And Prestwick with those slender fairways and blind shots, and seven bloody 5 pars. Too outdated for the Open Championship, of course, but mind you, the Pine Valley of Scotland in a way. And wonderful Old Troon. The Postage Stamp green. One of the first sharp-angled doglegs. I say, Arnie argued a good case there, didn't he?"
"Aye," I said.
"Then to the East Coast. That's your story," Keith said. "You'll quarter in The Old Course Hotel, naturally, right where the railway sheds were on the Road Hole. Walk out on your terrace and spit in the Principal's Nose, by Jove. With the new bridge you can reach Carnoustie in an hour now. Good old somber Carnoustie, the Barry Burn and all that. And then, of course, there's Muirfield. Marvelous place, Muirfield. Not a burn on it, you see. Just 165 bunkers. You'll see a bit of sand there, I'd guess."
"Aye, Aye," I said.
"Best of luck," he said. "See you at St. Andrews. We'll have a bit of port. It goes well in the Big Room."
For some evil reason, some death wish that perhaps is concealed within us all, the first thing a touring golfer is captivated by in Scotland is the plant life adjacent to all fairways. The heather, whin, bracken and broom. Turn-berry, my first stop, had all of these other landmarks to dwell upon—holes hanging on the Firth of Clyde, as Mackenzie said, the Spitfire runways now bordered by wild flowers, a bird sanctuary on an island off in the distance, the huge hotel on the hill where God Save the Queen reverberates from the orchestra pit in the ballroom at night through all of the tearooms and the RAF monument at the 12th green commemorating those men from Turn-berry's aerial fighting and gunnery school who died in combat. But I was preoccupied with the rough.
You find yourself having this running commentary with your caddie as if he's a botanist in his checkered James Cagney cap, his coat and tie and scruffy face that hasn't been shaved since the last air raid. His name is Jimmy or Peter or Ginger or Tip or Cecil and chances are he caddied for Hagen at Hoylake in 1924.
"What am I in here?" I asked my caddie at Turnberry on the very first hole. "Is this gorse?"
"Not likely," he said. "I think that's a bush."
Your caddie is a warm, friendly man who knows his golf. You swing once and he knows your distances. If he says the shot is "a wee seven," you'd better hit it wee-ly or a dozen of you with machetes won't be able to find the ball behind the green.
Such a hole was the 4th at Turnberry, which bears the name Woe-Be-Tide. It is a 175-yard one-shotter. You practically stand on the firth and hit into a crosswind to a green about as big as your golf bag, with more water on the left and the hounds of the Baskervilles on your right.
"What am I in now?" I asked, having hit a firth-lock safely to the right. "Is this heather?"
"That," he said, "is gorse. You ca'na swing softly, Sir, and be way o' the gorse."
"Gorse is whin, right?"
He said, "Aye, the whins we call it. You ca'na plant the whin and neither will the whin die. The whin is just here where it always was."
I took a forceful swing with a sand iron, moving the ball about one foot, and said, "Don't forget to show me the heather when we find some."
"Aye," he said. "That's heather you're in now."
You can't often find the ball in heather. It is a stubby dwarf plant, all matted and wiry, brown at times, purple at others. You can top a shot with a driver and, whereas in America the ball is likely to run for a hundred or so yards, if in Scotland it finds a cluster of heather only a few yards away, it will go flimp—and either disappear forever or bound straight back to you.
I could see at least half of the ball there in the heather, and I took a full swipe at it with the wedge, so hard that the caddie counted all of the cleats in my shoes and the veins in my legs, and the noise I made sounded like the Luftwaffe had returned to drop another load on the docks at Glasgow.
And the ball didn't move at all.
"When does my hand stop tingling?" I said.
Turnberry has one hole that is more magnificent than all of the others. It is the 9th, 425 yards with a tee sitting back on an island of jagged rock. Water and rock border it on the left where a lighthouse marks the farthest point of the course from the hotel. Off to the right, beyond the plant life, is part of the Spitfire runway. Behind the green is broom and dabs of bracken, which cows won't eat.
One finds in Scotland, however, that if the botany doesn't confuse you, the scorekeeping will. I drove well at the 9th, which means safely onto the close-cropped fescue grass which dominates all Scottish fairways. I reached the small green with one of my rare unshanked four-irons, and I stole a putt of about 20 feet for a 3. Then the trouble began.
"Is this a par-4 hole?" I asked the caddie.
"No, Sir," he said. "It plays to a bogey-5."
"Then I made an eagle," I said.
"It ca'na be an eagle, Sir," he said.
"Well, what's par for the course?"
He said, "Bogey today is about 76."
"But level 4s is 72," I said. "Shouldn't that be what I would call par?"
He thought a minute and said, "I reckon par to be about 74 today."
"What was it yesterday, for instance?" I asked.
"Oh, in that wind, par must have been 77 or so."
I said, "Well, I think I just made an eagle."
"You did na make an eagle, Sir," he said.
"Not exactly a birdie with the helpin' wind, Sir."
"Oh, much better than a par, it was," he said.
"So what the damn hell was it, James Cagney?"
"It was a very good score, Sir. Your first of the round."
There is much to see in the neighborhood of Turnberry and along the route to either Prestwick or Troon, like a castle here and there or a birthplace of Robert Burns, of which there must be a dozen, but never should a visitor miss that hill—that thing—called the Electric Brae. Years ago bicyclists discovered it, one is told. They found themselves forced to pedal sweatily to get uphill when it obviously looked as if the road were going downward into the woods. It is an optical illusion, and you would lose your wallet betting on it. The proof is this: stop the car at a point where you are certain you are headed uphill. Put a golf ball on the road, a shiny new Dunlop 65. It will roll uphill, that's all.
As mysterious as the Electric Brae is, it is no more mysterious than the course at Prestwick, the one where all of those early British Opens were staged beginning in 1860. Your first impression as you gaze out on a wasteland punctuated by a crumbling old stone fence is that this has to be the biggest practical joke in all of golf. "I've got it," you say. You pay your green fee, put down a ball, aim at the world, take four or five steps and are never heard from again.
Consider the 1st hole, only 339 yards. On your right: the stone fence about 10 feet away, separating you from a train that will come chugging by at intervals. On your left: mounds of heather and scrub. Directly in front: wasteland. Absolute wasteland. Small and large clumps of it, sheltered by thin layers of fog. And the caddie hands you a driver. The fairway, presuming one is actually there, can't be more than 20 yards wide but the caddie hands you a driver.
"Where is it?" I asked.
"Straightaway, Sir," said Charles, who was distinguished from my caddie at Turnberry by two things. Charles wore a muffler and had his own cigarettes. "It's just there," he said. "Just to the left of the cemetery."
It is asking a lot, I know, to expect anyone to believe that you can bust a drive about 250 yards on a 339-yard hole, have a good lie in the fairway and still not be able to see a green anywhere, but this is Prestwick.
The green was there, all right, as are all of the greens at Prestwick, but you never see them until you are on them, which is usually eight or 10 strokes after leaving the tee. They sit behind little hills, or the terrain simply sinks 10 or 15 feet straight down to a mowed surface or they are snuggled over behind tall wood fences where you have nothing to aim at but a distant church steeple.
You would like to gather up several holes from Prestwick and mail them to your top 10 enemies. I guess my alltime favorite love-hate golf hole must be the 3rd hole of this course. Like most of the holes at Prestwick, it is unchanged from the day in 1860 when Willie Park Sr. shot 174 to become the first Open champion. Quite a good score, I have since decided.
First of all, without a caddie it would take you a week and a half to find the 3rd tee. It is a little patch of ground roughly three yards wide perched atop a stream—a burn, rather—with the cemetery to your back and nothing up ahead except mist. Well, dimly in the distance you can see a rising dune with a fence crawling across it. "The Sleepers," the caddie says. But nothing more. Nothing.
"I'll be frank. Charles," I said. "I have no idea which way to go or what with."
"Have a go with the spoon, Sir," he said.
"The spoon?" I shrieked. "Where the hell am I going with a spoon?"
"A spoon"ll get you across the burn, Sir, but it'll na get you to the Sleepers," he said.
"Hold it," I said. "Just wait a minute." My body was sort of slumped over and I was holding the bridge of my nose with my thumb and forefinger. "These, uh, Sleepers. They're out there somewhere?"
"Aye, the Sleepers," he said.
"And, uh, they just kind of hang around, right?"
"Aye, the Sleepers have took many a golfer."
Somehow I kept the three-wood in play and when I reached the shot, Charles casually handed me the four-wood. I took the club and addressed the ball, hoping to hit quickly and get on past the Sleepers, wherever they were. But Charles stopped me.
"Not that way, Sir," he said.
"This is the way I was headed when we left the tee," I said.
"We go a bit right here, Sir," he said. "The Sleepers is there just below the old fence. You want to go over the Sleepers and over the fence, but na too far right because of the burn. Just a nice stroke, Sir, with the four-wood."
Happily, I got the shot up and in the general direction Charles ordered, and walking toward the flight of the ball I finally came to the Sleepers. It was a series of bunkers about as deep as the Grand Canyon. A driver off the tee would have found them and so would any kind of second shot that didn't get up high enough to clear the fence on the dune. A worn path led through the Sleepers, and then some ancient wooden steps led up the hill and around the fence to what was supposed to be more fairway on the other side.
It wasn't a fairway at all. It was a group of grass moguls going off into infinity. It looked like a carefully arranged assortment of tiny green Astrodomes. When Charles handed me the pitching wedge. I almost hit him with it because there was no green in sight. But I got the wedge onto a green that was, sure enough, nestled down in one of those dips, and two-putted for a 5 that I figured wasn't a par just because the hole was 505 yards long. Charles said I had played the hole perfectly, thanks to him, and that I could play it a thousand times and probably never play it as well.
I said, "Charles, do you know what they will say about this hole in America?"
"Sir?" he said.
"This is one of those holes where you hit one bad shot and you're dead," I said.
"Aye, 'tis that," he said.
"You're S-O-L," I said.
"Sir?" said Charles.
"Sure out of luck." I said.
"Aye," said Charles. "You call it S-O-L. At Prestwick we call it the Sleepers."
Prestwick has a number of other charming atrocities. There is a 201-yard 5th hole the caddies call the Himalayas. It plays with anything from a five-iron to a driver, depending on the wind. You flog the shot over a mountainous dune and discover, on the other side, about 100 feet down, a green. You ring a bell when you've putted out. There is a wonderful 15th hole of only 329 yards, straightaway, but the fairway is total heather except for the width of an umbrella, and there is no green at all that I could find. All in all, I would say that Prestwick has 18 holes all right, but I dare any visitor to find more than, say, 12.
Only a couple of graveyards and trash piles away from Prestwick lies Troon. In fact, from the 10th tee at Prestwick you can see Troon better than you can see Prestwick. The course is on the Firth, not so much as Turn-berry but more so than Prestwick, and the town is filled with small resort hotels and rooming houses that advertise bed-and-breakfast. Troon is the seaside getaway on weekends for the inhabitants of Glasgow. You can wade there, and hike, and go camping in the drizzle. But the best thing you can do if you are privileged enough is play Old Troon, the championship course of the snootiest club on the West Coast. Mr. A. Sweet, sektry, will arrange the round if he approves the cut of your blazer.
Old Troon is the only Scottish links on the West Coast that the R&A keeps on what Keith Mackenzie terms "the championship rota." These are courses fit to host the British Open. In Scotland they have been narrowed down to St. Andrews, Muirfield, Carnoustie and Troon. And in England they are Birkdale, Lytham and Hoylake. Troon takes immense pride in the fact that it is the jewel of the West and even more pride in the fact that it was the scene of one of Arnold Palmer's most glorious weeks. It was at Troon in 1962 that Palmer won the British Open by six strokes (276) on a course that Gary Player declared "unfair" before departing in a rage, and a course that drew such horrid individual holes out of Jack Nicklaus as a 10 and an 8.
For the full haul of 18 holes, Troon is not all that memorable. The rough, for one thing, is more like rugged American rough; you can escape from it in one hearty swing if the waist of your trousers is cinched up. Troon, I found, is what you would call a very pleasant course and perhaps more modern than most Scottish courses, if any layout without the hint of a tree can look modern to an American. This is not to say that Troon is void of character. It has several holes, as a matter of fact, that are as good as any to be found, including the single hardest hole I have ever seen—the 11th—not to forget two others that have been architectural landmarks since they were constructed.
There is the 8th, for example, the famed Postage Stamp. It is so named because the green clings to nothing but the lower half of a heather-covered mound, and a tiny one at that. The hole measures only 125 yards but it can play up to a four-iron if the wind is whipping out of the north. Mr. A. Sweet likes to tell about a member who made a hole in one at the Postage Stamp in a most unusual way. His tee shot came to rest atop the mound. He swung at the ball with a wedge from up there and missed it. But the sweep of the club through the grass dislodged the ball and it trickled down the hill into the cup.
"Rightly, of course, the chap made a 2," said Mr. Sweet.
It did not harm the fame of the Postage Stamp that in 1923, when Troon was first used to stage the Open Championship, none other than Walter Hagen made a double bogey 5 there to blow the title by a stroke to a Mr. Arthur Havers.
All over Scotland one continually finds par-4 holes where, at one time or another, according to the caddies, Jack Nicklaus was on in one. The hole before the Postage Stamp, Troon's 7th, is such a hole. It is renowned for two other reasons: first, it is supposed to be one of golf's earliest doglegs, since the fairway curves sharply to the right, and it is also considered one of the most beautiful of golf holes.
With the tee up on a bluff furnishing a wide view of the sea, and with the wind usually helping, you can envision how Nicklaus might have driven all 385 yards of it. He caught one just right and strung it out over the sand hills, hit a downslope and burned a path through the whin up to the putting surface.
It might well have been this good fortune back in 1962 that encouraged Jack to take out the driver at Troon's 11th the day he had to sink a good putt for a 10. The 11th hole is 485 yards of railroad track on the right and clusters of whin on the left. The fairway is nothing but moguls all the way with the tiny green hard by another of those old stone fences. This is the hole Palmer won the Open on, for he played it with a 3, two 4s and a 5—four under—by using a one-iron off the tee and a two-iron to the green.
My caddie at Troon, Peter Neil, who happened to have toted Sam Snead's bag in the 1962 Open, gave me the driver at the 11th and when we lost sight of the ball soaring out over the whin, he consoled me the way a good caddie should.
"You're just not with it today, Sir," he said.
Troon makes no claim to being among the oldest clubs in Scotland, seeing as how it wasn't built until just the other day—1878—but like any other self-respecting private domain for gentlemen golfers, it has a set of relics that are said to be the oldest in Britain. Mr. A. Sweet proudly pointed to the trophy case and said those clubs were found in a cupboard wrapped in a newspaper dated 1741.
"I think Laurie Auchterlonie at St. Andrews is getting ready to discover a set from 1740," I said.
Mr. A. Sweet did not laugh.
The crass American would not think much of a clubhouse at a Scottish links, be it Troon or Prestwick or most anywhere. There are no tennis courts, of course, and no swimming pool. There is no Mixed Foursome Grill because there is no mixed. Which means no women or pros allowed inside. The pro stays in his wooden shack nearby, selling rain suits and mending clubs. The main clubhouse itself is for ex-wing commanders to eat lunch in—no smoking until after 2 p.m.—to change socks in before or after their daily 36 holes and to slump over their London Times in. If there is a shower stall down some creaking corridor, the water is chilled and hits you with all the force of a leak in the roof. On the walls of the dining room and the reading room, both of which are likely to offer a closeup view of the 18th green, will be portraits of a lot of men who look like George Washington but would rather be dead first. They will be ex-secretaries and ex-captains of the club who not only invented the mashie niblick but were survivors of the Black Hole of Calcutta.
If you are as poor at geography as I, you have to divide Scotland like this. The West Coast, where Troon and Prestwick and Turnberry are, and where I had been, is the Ireland side. From almost any point on those three courses, in other words, if you could see far enough, you would see Northern Ireland. This is also known to me as the Glasgow side which, even to the Scots, is not exactly Sutton Place. Where I was headed now was to the East Coast, the Edinburgh side, to the North Sea, to the more posh area of the country where St. Andrews, Muirfield and Carnoustie are. There is a great deal more to Scotland than just this "golf belt," which embraces the land across the midsection from Troon to Muirfield. There is, for instance, way up north, the links of Dornoch. As good a test as any, according to Keith Mackenzie, but too far away for the R&A to transport its people, chestnut palings, gallery rope, scoreboards and tents for the Open Championship. Thanks, Dornoch, but Carnoustie is as far north as the R&A cares to travel.
Actually, if one could grease himself up and swim like Florence Chadwick, he could get to Carnoustie from St. Andrews in about 30 minutes. It is just across a bay. Driving, however, takes longer because cars have to go through Dundee, which is Yonkers with, as they say, less glamour.
From the viewpoint of providing difficulty for the top professional golfers, Carnoustie is surely the toughest course in Scotland. It is long and windy and wet. It is also smoky, dreary and somber. It is a course with more of a sameness to it throughout than any other. Every hole begins to look like the one you've just played—unreachable. Even the names of the holes are unimaginative. The 2nd: Gulley. The 4th: Hillocks. The 6th: Long. The 11th: Dyke. The 18th: Home.
Carnoustie began to develop a distinction around the 5th hole, I thought. But maybe I felt this because my caddie had me primed. Here was the hole where The Wee Icemon, Ben Hogan, had chipped in for a birdie-3 in 1953 during the last round. It was where he had made the chip from the sand at the edge of the lower left bunker that launched him toward the British Open title the one and only time he ever played in the tournament.
"He stood right here," said Phillip, the caddie. "Aye, it was only a short flick of the wrist."
The 6th, too, had character, most of it provided by an imposing cable fence down the left side of the fairway. Periodically there would be a sign in red letters hanging on the fence that said: "Do Not Touch Anything. It May Explode and Kill You." On the other side of the fence was a firing range used by the Ministry of Defense. The hole is 565 yards long and the Scots named it Hogan's Alley in '53, for Ben birdied it the last two rounds.
Phillip stopped at a point far beyond my tee shot down the fairway. "Here," he said, digging his shoe into the turf. "And here." He moved it a couple of inches. "Then here." He moved it another inch. "And over here." He moved his shoe about a foot.
"That's where the Icemon drove it," he said.
From here until near the finish Carnoustie became something of a blur. The wind wouldn't give my four-wood a rest and the steady drizzle turned my under-and over-cashmeres into about 700 pounds of inconvenient weight. The most fascinating landmark near the course, after the firing range, was a factory calling itself Anderson Cranes & Stone-Cutting Machinery.
"Phillip," I said. "Did anyone ever suggest to you that Carnoustie is not Antibes?"
Somewhere near the end, I vaguely recall, there is a Barry Burn that you have to cross about 30 times on the last three holes, which happen to be first a 243-yard 3-par into the gale that Jack Nicklaus finally reached with a driver in 1968, then a 438-yard par-4 that you are forced to lay up on off the tee and finally a 453-yard par-4 that I judged to be a driver, spoon and full eight-iron. With dry grips, maybe less.
As it turned out, I finished with a flourish. Good driver, good spoon, good eight-iron, four feet from the cup. Of course in my haste to have Phillip show me the spot where Hogan used to go to wring out his sweaters, I blew the putt. And with a number of people staring at me through the clubhouse window, too.
Muirfield is everything Carnoustie isn't. Muirfield is elegance and class, charm and dignity, convenience and pleasure. There is not a true distance on it, nor a fixed par, nor a name for a hole, but it is a course with a championship quality in the purest sense. There is not a tree or a bush or a burn, but there are those 165 bunkers, and they are trouble enough. It is the only course in Scotland that takes advantage and disadvantage of the full cycle of the wind, for the outgoing nine goes clockwise and back to the clubhouse, and the back nine runs counterclockwise and returns. Par is probably 72, but it is easy to envision days when the winds would make it 76
Muirfield is on the Firth of Forth between Gullane and North Berwick, not painfully far from Edinburgh. It is on a fine shore surrounded by estates, and one gets the idea that this area is to Edinburgh what the Hamptons are to New York City. Muirfield's clubhouse is noted for its spaciousness in comparison with other Scottish clubhouses, and its kitchen is esteemed for its cuisine. This, after all, is where The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers hangs out.
Directly next door to the huge stone clubhouse with its sprawling veranda and putting green is the Greywalls Hotel, where a member of The Honourable Company would stay. Greywalls fronts on the 9th green, and the Scots have long felt that part of the vast charm of Muirfield is that a fellow can stop after nine holes and grab a tap at Greywalls—the way Americans do at their courses.
The real charm of Muirfield is in its memorable fairness and its splendid pacing, both of which are much on the order of Merion, that gem of a battleground on Philadelphia's Main Line where every club comes out of the bag every round you play. Muirfield has short 5s and long 5s, short, bending 4s and long, narrow 4s, short, tricky 3s and long, reachable 3s. Its fairways are skinny but the lies are perfect, and there are shortcuts to be taken by the brave or long-hitting who wish to flirt with more bunkers than the eye can count.
Because of the eccentricities of the wind and the roll of the fairway, as well as, perhaps, the exaggerations of the caddies, one hears that Jack Nicklaus was able to drive the 407-yard 15th hole when he won the British Open there in 1966. But, they say, he had to lean on a three-wood coming back to reach the 198-yard 16th. It would be difficult to imagine a more implausible course on which Nicklaus could win a tournament, because the tightness would practically render his big drive useless. But as they say at Muirfield, "He one-ironed her."
The highest compliment anyone could pay Muirfield, I suppose, would be to say that it is a Hogan type of course. Distances are meaningless because of the wind, and Hogan always said they were meaningless, anyhow. Every shot has a look to it, he said, a certain feel. "I might hit a two-iron 150 yards," he often said.
I played Muirfield that way. My two-irons went 150 yards and frequently off the shank of the club to the right.
"This is the course," my caddie said, over and over. "This is the best of the lot."
"I'd like to see it sometime," I said.
There are a number of spectacular holes at Muirfield, but the 6th is perhaps the finest. It is a par-4—sometimes a par-5—of 475 yards or thereabouts, an uphill-downhill dogleg left that curls around a battered rock wall which separates the course from an archery field. The landing area for the tee shot is no more than 20 yards across and deep bunkers patrol it. With a career drive you can then get close to home with a career three-wood to a rolling green, again framed by bunkers.
"What a hole," I said to the caddie as I stood there considering the three-wood.
"Have a good go with the spoon," he said. "But a word of caution, Sir A ball played into Archerfield Wood is irrecoverable."
The mystique of Muirfield lingers on. So does the memory of Carnoustie's foreboding. So does the scenic wonder of Turnberry and the haunting incredibility of Prestwick and the pleasant deception of Troon. But put them all together and St. Andrews can play their low ball for atmosphere.
To begin with, St. Andrews is an old university town. Spires rise up over narrow streets littered with shops and cozy pubs. Students wearing red cloaks are bicycling around. Statues confront the stroller. An inn is here and there, and the North Sea just beyond.
There are four golf courses at St. Andrews: Old, New, Eden and Jubilee, and they are all available to the public. The New Course is over 70 years old. Try that on for nostalgia. But no one, of course, is ever concerned about anything but the Old. The Old Course is St. Andrews, the R&A, all of those famed hazards. It is Jones, Vardon, Hagen and Old and Young Tom Morris, and Keith Mackenzie standing on the balcony of his office in the R&A building just above the first tee surveying the layout through a pair of mounted German submarine binoculars.
I was fortunate enough to secure lodging in The Old Course Hotel. Thus I could walk out on my terrace and it was all there directly below me. To my left, the course stretching out to the 11th green, and to my right, a matchless view of the 18th fairway leading up through the Valley of Sin, with Rusacks Hotel standing there as it is supposed to be, and with the great gray edifice of the Royal and Ancient clubhouse forming a backdrop.
The Old Course has been called a lot of things because, at first glance, it looks like nothing more than a flat, green city park. Some Americans have labeled it a "third-rate municipal course," and a "football field," but Bob Jones knew its subtleties better. It was, he said, the one course he would play forever if he could choose just one.
Two things strike the first-timer at St. Andrews immediately. First, the double greens. No less than 14 holes share the same enormous putting surfaces, the 2nd also being the 16th and that sort of thing. There are two flags, naturally, and often they will be as far as 80 yards apart, with many a dip and turn between them. The erring shot-maker is apt to find the longest putts in golf at St. Andrews. Secondly, the Old Course has some heavenly aspects for one with a chronic hook. The first nine goes straight out, you see, with all of the heather and the sea on your right. And the back nine returns, parallel, giving the hooker all of those outgoing fairways to land on.
The mystery of why no golfer has ever been able to tear apart the Old Course—278 is the lowest a winner has shot in the British Open there—lies in the wind and the putting, and in the fantastically perfect location of such hazards as Hell Bunker, a deep and somewhat inescapable pit at the 14th; the Swilken Burn, a small brook that rushes right up against the green of the 1st hole and catches many a soft nine-iron; and the Valley of Sin, the cavernous lower level of the 18th green from which three-putts, and even four-putts, are commonplace.
I attacked the Old Course in the company of Ginger Johnson, who had been caddying there for merely 45 years. For a few holes he thought he had Henry Cotton again. The wind was behind, and my shank, my top, my slice and my putting jerk seemed to have disappeared. Through the 10th I was only one over par, and I said to Ginger:
"I think I'm bringing the Old Course to its knees."
And Ginger said, "Aye, you made a putt or two, Sir. But now we go home into the wind."
In rapid order, I was lost in the Elysian Fields, lost in the Beardies, trapped in Hell Bunker, gouged in the Principal's Nose, over the fence, smothered in heather and even out of bounds on an overhang of The Old Course Hotel at the Road Hole. Finally I limped up the 18th fairway en route to the Valley of Sin. Par for 86.
"You had a wee bit of hard luck," Ginger said. "But it can't spoil the fact that as we cum up the 18th, we sense a wee bit of tradition, don't we?"
Keith Mackenzie peered down from his balcony as I walked onto the green. I putted out: a straight-in four-footer that broke six inches. The secretary motioned me up for lunch in the R&A dining room—no smoking at all. I toured the club and reread the letter that Isaac Grainger, then USGA president, had written to the R&A on the occasion of its 200th birthday.
Grainger said, in part: "What golf has of honor, what it has of justice, of fair play, of good fellowship and sportsmanship—in a word, what is best in golf—is almost surely traceable to the inspiration of the Royal and Ancient."
I thought of those words again as I strolled back outside to stand and look at the sea and at the town and all across the gentle green sweep of the Old Course—the oldest course.
I had been there all of my life.