Alzheimer’s and Golf

I’m in Scotland. Yesterday, I played two courses on the east coast, north of Aberdeen: Inverallochy, which I knew nothing about, and Cruden Bay, which is one of my all-time favorites. The wind blew hard all day–that’s the flag on Inverallochy’s eighteenth green in the video above–but there was hardly any rain, and I was wearing plenty of clothes. Inverallochy isn’t the world’s greatest course, but it has some terrific holes, and you can see (and hear) the North Sea from all of them. I arrived before anyone else and accidentally set off the clubhouse burglar alarm by trying the front door. The club secretary pulled up a few minutes later and turned off the siren, and two young policemen got there a little after that and declined to arrest me, even though I said I’d go quietly. One of the cops was wearing a short-sleeve shirt. I, in contrast, had on two long-sleeve shirts, a sweater, long johns, and my rain jacket–just enough.

At Cruden Bay, I played with the pro, Neil Murray. When we were on the first green, a single golfer played up behind us, and we stepped aside to let him through. Neil explained that he was a longtime member and that he had Alzheimer’s. They try to keep him on the club’s nine-hole course, which is enclosed by the central part of the the big course, because he’s more out of the way there, but he wanders, and plays holes out of order, and, occasionally, plays holes in the wrong direction. His decline had been rapid, Neil said; just two years ago, he was working on the course as a ranger.

He had lost his ball, and looked confused. Neil invited him to play through, and after hesitating a moment he dropped a ball about ten feet from the hole and putted it with a hybrid–and sank it. Then he wandered off toward the second tee and dropped a ball and hit it. He was accompanied by a dog–one of the herding breeds, like a border collie–and it sort of moved him along, and lay down on the green while he putted, and ran in circles around him as he headed into the rough. Neil told me that he thought the dog guided him to and from the course–his house is nearby–and kept him out of serious trouble. The man is sometimes a danger to other players, Neil said, because he will hit into groups ahead of him, but the club was reluctant to do anything because letting him wander on the course gave his wife a break of a couple of hours every day. I saw him again later, wandering up near the clubhouse.

One of the best old players at my club at home died of Alzheimer’s. I saw him playing by himself occasionally when I first joined, and decided that maybe Alzheimer’s wouldn’t be completely terrible if you could keep playing golf–never remembering your bad shots or worrying about your next shot, just as Bob Rotella recommends. I asked my doctor about that, and he said that, unfortunately, the disease affects more than your memory, and eventually destroys your ability to swing. But for a while before he died the old guy at my club looked fairly content, at least from a distance.

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