Canadian photography legend Doug Ball, who also happens to organize golf buddy trips to Scotland, seems to know every breathing soul between Edinburgh and Dundee. As a result, I’m in the middle of the most memorable golf buddy trip anyone could ever imagine.
I’m writing this about two hours after watching, in person, Zach Johnson win the Open Championship at St. Andrews. Just to be in Scotland is cool, but to be at St. Andrews for the Open, AND to be watching it all from the top floor window of one of those lovely old buildings beside the 18th green, as I did, is way beyond cool. (Doug has a friend who happens to be a very nice member.)
It was thrilling beyond belief to watch the finish. I was really hoping Jordan Spieth would pull it off, but then I was also hoping for Adam Scott, Jason Day, and Louis Oosthuizen as well. And in the end, I was not bothered at all by Johnson’s victory… he earned it by making a hugely clutch putt on 18 the first time through, and by birdieing the first two holes of the playoff. Good on ya, Zach.
I was also delighted that the R&A brought out Peter Thomson to present the Claret Jug to Johnson. Not five minutes after the ceremony, I bumped into Mr. Thomson on the street behind the grandstand, and couldn’t resist the opportunity to shake his hand on the sidewalk.
Attending the Open was the culmination of the first week of a fortnight trip to golf’s version of paradise. So far this week, most of our group of 14 golfers from Toronto have played Troon, Prestwick, Turnberry, Gleneagles, and Kingsbarns. Coming up this week are Muirfield, Carnoustie, Crail, North Berwick, and hopefully, the Old Course itself.
Because the Old Course is always in such high demand, for several years the R&A has allotted tee times through an incorruptible ballot system: you have to call the R&A, give them the names of your group and their handicaps, then wait till the end of the day to find out if you were picked, theoretically out of a hat, for a time the next day. I say the process is “incorruptible” because everyone I’ve spoken to with a Scottish accent has agreed that not even the Queen (or Doug Ball) could use influence to buck the system. So we can only be hopeful to get on the Home of Golf, not smug.
One of the delights of playing golf over here, aside from the sheer thrill of playing such famous links courses, is taking caddies. It’s a relatively expensive luxury, but I’ve discovered that if you don’t have at least one caddy to guide your foursome around the course, advising you on where to aim your shots and your putts, you’ll play (or at least score) much worse. But the caddies are invariably unique characters, interesting to talk to, funny as hell, and irreverent beyond belief.
One of my colleagues missed a putt about six inches to the right the other day. His caddie just glared at him and said “I SAID six inches to the LEFT, fer Chrissake.” We fell over laughing. Some of the stories we heard had us in stitches as well. That is, when we could understand them. All week long I’ve been reminded of the great Robin Williams routine on the origins of golf, which he started by stating that you can’t understand a word that Scots say, even though they’re speaking the same language… except that about every fifth word is the F-word. It’s absolutely true!
Links golf is great fun to play, in many ways more interesting than our North American parkland courses. You get unfair bounces, impossible rough and balls that seem to make a deliberate, if roundabout, roll into a bunker which is then hellishly difficult to get out of. You need to leave your ego at home, and stop worrying about what your score is. Links golf forces you to have fun, and to keep an open mind about your game.
But funnily enough, of all the courses we played this week, my favourite has been the one non-links layout – the venerable King’s Course at Gleneagles. Nearly 100 years old, this course stands the test of time and aesthetics with some of the most stunning, creative and challenging holes I’ve ever seen.
The Gleneagles website says this about the Kings: “It is certainly one of the most beautiful and exhilarating places to play golf in the world, with the springy moorland turf underfoot, the sweeping views from the tees all around, the rock-faced mountains to the north, the green hills to the south, and the peaks of the Trossachs and Ben Vorlich on the western horizon.”
I couldn’t agree more.