In 1992, when I was new to the game, I took my first golf trip to Scotland. You can probably guess at least part of the itinerary. I played at Turnberry, Gleneagles, St. Andrews, Carnoustie, and Dornoch, and I finished at Tain, an Old Tom Morris course at the inland end of Dornoch Firth. That last round went by so fast that it left me with most of a day to fill, so I asked my playing partners, who were Tain regulars, if they could recommend a course on the long road to the airport—any course at all. They suggested Kingussie, just off the A9, about a third of the way between Dornoch and Glasgow, in what is now Cairngorms National Park. So that’s where I went.
My expectations were neither high nor low; I just wanted one more chance to swing my clubs. But during the decade and a half since then I’ve probably thought about Kingussie as often as Carnoustie. You could never hold a British Open there—among other reasons, the course is almost 2,000 yards too short—and golf-tour operators almost never send American travelers to play it. Nevertheless, it stuck in my mind. The course (which was expanded and redesigned by Harry Vardon in 1908) is set in and around the elevated valley of the River Gynack, in the rocky hills above the village. The first hole is a long, semi-blind par-three, and the sixth is a short par-4 that plays past the ruin of an old shieling, or shepherd’s hut, and the fourteenth, called the Dyke, runs along an old stone wall. It was a memorable finish to a memorable trip.
I returned to Kingussie in 2007 and played with three Scots, two of whom were on holiday from the Orkneys, a cluster of small islands north of the Scottish mainland. When we had finished, we had a drink with a group of regulars sitting at two picnic tables outside the clubhouse. One of them told me, “Kingussie has more left-handed and cross-handed players than any other golf club in the world”—a consequence, he said, of the town’s intense devotion to shinty, a bruising Highlands stick game that is similar to the Irish sport hurling (from which it evolved) and to field hockey, and in which there is apparently a tactical advantage to playing from the wrong side of the ball. No, no, another member insisted: there are more left-handed golfers in Newtonmore, Kingussie’s principal shinty rival, three miles to the west. The conversation then veered into a discussion of Newtonmore’s golf course, which my new friends unanimously dismissed as too flat to bother with.
That evening (after a second eighteen), I drove over to Newtonmore and watched a youth shiny practice, the only form of the game available locally that evening. I stood with a group of shinty moms in a parking lot filled with Scottish minivans, and saw that grade-school shinty players, unlike the adult shinty players in the stories I had heard at the picnic table at Kingussie, wear helmets and still have their teeth.