Back-Roads Scotland: Askernish

Askernish, South Uist, Scotland, May, 2007.

Askernish, South Uist, Scotland, May, 2007.

In 1889, a twenty-one-year-old Englishman named Frederick Rea was offered a job running a small school on South Uist, an island in the Outer Hebrides, more than fifty miles off the west coast of Scotland. He didn’t recall having applied for the position, and when he accepted it his relatives thought he’d lost his mind. South Uist was windswept, treeless, and only intermittently accessible, and it was seldom visited by anyone from the mainland except a few wealthy sportsmen, who came to hunt and fish.

May, 2007.

South Uist, May, 2007.

Rea’s students were the children of crofters, or small tenant farmers, the island’s principal residents. The crofters subsisted mainly by growing potatoes and grain, raising starved-looking cattle and sheep, and gathering seaweed, which they used as fertilizer or sold. Most spoke only Gaelic. The children went barefoot year-round and often walked miles to school, even in snow, and on winter mornings each was expected to bring a chunk of peat for the schoolhouse hearth. The Scottish historian John Lorne Campbell wrote that South Uist in those days was so primitive that “the appearance of a pedal bicycle was sufficient to send the island’s horses and cattle careering in panic.” Yet Rea was captivated. He didn’t return to the mainland permanently until 1913, by which time his students had included two of his own children.

Rea's schoolhouse stood near this old house, South Uist, Scotland, December, 2008.

Rea’s schoolhouse stood near (and resembled) this old house. Garrynamonie, South Uist, December, 2008.

When Rea arrived, South Uist and several neighboring islands were owned by Lady Emily Eliza Steele Gordon Cathcart, a wealthy Scotswoman, who had inherited them from her first husband, who had inherited them from his father. She is said to have visited South Uist only once, but she made business investments, including the construction of hotels and commercial fishing piers. In 1891, probably hoping to make South Uist more attractive to wealthy tourists, she commissioned a golf course near a tiny farming settlement known as Askernish.

The view from my room at the Lochboisdale Hotel, which was commissioned by Lady Cathcart and opened in 1882.

The evening view from one of the guestrooms at the Lochboisdale Hotel, which was commissioned by Lady Cathcart and opened in 1882. Lochboisdale, South Uist, December, 2008.

Rea, the schoolmaster, played the golf course with a friend when it was new, and he described the experience in his memoir, A School in South Uist, which was published in 1927 and is still highly readable. Lady Cathcart’s factor, or estate agent, Rea wrote, “told me that a professional golfer from St. Andrews had been to the island and had specially laid out an eighteen-hole course along the machair near his house, expressing the opinion that this part was a natural golf-link course.” Machair is the Gaelic word for “linksland”; it’s the root of Machrihanish, and it’s pronounced mocker, more or less, but with the two central consonants represented by what sounds like a clearing of the throat.

The machair of Askernish, May, 2007.

The machair of Askernish, May, 2007.

The factor invited Rea and a friend to play the new golf course one Saturday, and they met at his house. “Here we found quite a small party assembled,” Rea wrote; “beside his wife and children were a young lady cousin from Inverness, two or three clergymen and two junior clerks. Introductions over, we selected balls and clubs.” Rea didn’t say so, but the St. Andrews professional who had created the course was the most famous golfer of his day, Tom Morris, Sr., better known as Old Tom Morris.

The house of Lady Cathcart's estate agent, mention by Frederick Rea in "A School in South Uist." Old tom Morris's golf course began not far from its door.

The house of Lady Cathcart’s factor, mentioned by Frederick Rea in “A School in South Uist.” Old Tom Morris’s golf course began not far from its door. Rea’s friend dismissed golf, initially, as “a silly, stupid game,” but both men quickly became hooked.  Askernish, May, 2007.

Lady Cathcart died in 1932. Her will included a provision for the perpetuation of the golf course. In 1936, a small airstrip was built near its northern end to accommodate wealthy tourists. (The passenger service was commercial but unscheduled; when a pickup was desired, the proprietor of a local hotel would send a homing pigeon to North Uist—the island still lacked telephones and, for that matter, electricity—and Scottish and Northern Airways would dispatch a plane.) Then the war came. The number of golfers dwindled. The course was reduced to twelve holes, then to nine, and the connection to Old Tom Morris devolved to legend. By 2000, what was left of the course was maintained by a small group of local diehards, who mowed the putting greens with a rusting gang mower, which they pulled behind a tractor.

Askernish Golf Course, South Uist, Scotland, May, 2007.

Askernish , May, 2007.

I first visited South Uist on assignment for Golf Digest during the spring of 2007, and I visited it again in December of the following year, on assignment for The New Yorker. My New Yorker article about Askernish, called “The Ghost Course,” was published in 2009. Below are some more photographs I took during those two trips.

Askernish, May, 2007.

South Uist doesn’t have an airport. On my first trip, I flew from Inverness to Benbecula, one island to the north. It’s connected to South Uist by a causeway, as is the island of Eriskay, at the southern end. The only other passengers on my flight were two bank couriers, who were accompanying a load of cash, for ATMs. All the other seats were filled with “Bennetts Seat Converters” containing the day’s newspapers:

South Uist doesn't have an airport. On my first trip, I flew from Inverness to Benbecula, one island to the north, and drove south, across a causeway. The only other passengers were two bank couriers, who were accompanying a load of cash for ATMs. All the other seats were filled with "Bennetts Seat Converters," containing the day's newspapers.

On my second visit, I took the car ferry from Oban. That trip took almost seven hours. We passed islands called Mull, Coll, Muck, Eig, Rum, Sanday, Sundray, Vatersay, Hellisay, Gighay, and Stack, among others. We also passed this lighthouse, on a tiny island called Eilean Musdile. It’s just off the shore of a larger island, called Lismore, which has a population of a hundred and forty-six. The lighthouse was built in 1833:

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Most of the roads on South Uist are a single lane, and you share them with sheep. There are frequent bump-outs for yielding to oncoming traffic. Resident drivers become adept at gauging each other’s speed, and often slip past each other without seeming to slow down:

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During my first visit to South Uist, I stayed at the Borrodale Hotel, about a mile and a half down the road from Askernish. The hotel’s laundry facility was just outside the door:

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My guide to Askernish was Ralph Thompson, who was born on the mainland in 1955 and spent summers on South Uist, where his grandparents lived. One reason he liked those visits, he told me, was that he was allowed to go for weeks without bathing, because his grandparents’ house, like almost all the houses on the island at that time, had no running water.

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His wife, Flora, was born on Barra, two islands to the south. Barra was even more isolated and primitive than South Uist, although today it has a small airport. Takeoffs and landings on Barra are scheduled to coincide with low tide, because the runway is a beach. Here’s one of the planes, which I photographed as it passed over Asknerish:

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At the time of my first visit, Ralph Thompson was working with two links-course experts—Gordon Irvine, who is a turf consultant and a former greenkeeper, and Martin Ebert, who is a golf architect—in an effort to restore Old Tom Morris’s course at Askernish. In the photo below, Irvine is on the left and Ebert is on the right, and the flag in the background marks what they had decided was probably one of the original green locations:

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I played all of the holes I could on that trip, and, with some of Ralph’s friends, helped test a few of the rediscovered ones:

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We often had to play around cows and sheep, which grazed on the same stretch of linksland:

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Even when there were no animals, the shot-making was challenging. This is a friend of Thompson’s:

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When I returned to Askernish in 2008, the golf course had begun to look and play much more like a real golf course. The green in the photo below was puttable, and it had a single-strand barbed-wire fence surrounding it, to keep cattle and sheep from trampling it:

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There isn’t much daylight in northern Scotland in December, but we had time for eighteen holes, and the weather was milder than the weather at home:

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Since then, the golf course has come a very long way—as you’ll see if you visit the Askernish website. Someday, I’ll go back.

My most recent round at Askernish, December, 2008.

My most recent round at Askernish, December, 2008.

Back-Roads Scotland: Newburgh-on-Ythan

One of the Daves I played with at Newburgh-on-Ythan, in Scotland. He’s teeing off on the 18th hole, a par-5, which was once said to be the longest golf hole in Scotland. Snow began to fall as we reached the green, although it didn’t fall for very long.

Last April, I played a round at Newburgh-on-Ythan Golf Club, on the east coast of Scotland about halfway between Royal Aberdeen and Cruden Bay. The round was unusual in that all three members of my threesome were named Dave. (One of the Daves was the club’s captain, but I no longer remember which one.) Newburgh was founded in 1888, a year before my golf club at home. Originally, it had nine holes and was only a little over two thousand yards long. (The hole called “Long” was just three hundred and thirty-three yards.) It was laid out like this:

The second nine of the current course occupies the same piece of ground as the original course, although the layout has changed. The new nine is situated on the hill shown in the upper left-hand corner of the map above. One of the new holes incorporates an ancient wall thing, and if your ball ends up inside the enclosure you may have trouble hitting it out, as one of the Daves did:

A rare photo, showing both of the non-me Daves at the same time. No photo of all three Daves is known to exist.

The most famous person ever to take golf lessons at Newburgh is probably Prince Phra Bat Somdet Phra Poramentharamaha Vajiravudh Phra Mongkut Klao Chao Yu Hua (later King Vajiravudh) of Siam (later Thailand), who learned to play there in 1897, the same year the map above was drawn. Here’s what the Prince looked like after he became King:

The future king learned to play golf while staying for a month at the Udny Arms Hotel, across from what was then the first tee and is now (more or less) the thirteenth. The hotel still exists, and from the outside it looks pretty much the same as it did in 1897. I had a nice meal there the day after I played the course.

The wind blows hard on Scotland’s east coast, and one result is the mountain-size pile of sand in the photo below. It’s on the far side of the estuary of the River Ythan, directly across from the golf course:

The Sands of Forvie, across the Ythan estuary from Newburgh-on-Ythan Golf Club.

The mountain of sand is part of Forvie National Nature Reserve. You can enter the reserve from a parking lot a mile north of Newburgh and walk all the way across it to the sea:

I hiked across the reserve along this road.

A large part of the reserve was closed when I was there, to protect nesting terns, but I was able to explore the ruins of the village of Forvie, which was buried by blowing sand in the early 1400s. All that’s left are some piles of stones and part of the village church, which was built on high ground:

What’s left of Forvie Kirk, and of Forvie itself.

Forvie Kirk was built in the 1100s and was dedicated to St. Adamnan, who was born in Ireland in the seventh century. Adamnan visited Scotland in the late 600s and, apparently, made an impression. He didn’t bring luck to the residents of Forvie, however.

I took this picture for my wife, who, for unknown reasons, has become interested in moss and lichen. To make up for the fact that I’d abandoned her for a week, I smuggled home a golf-ball-size chunk of moss from Aberdeen, as a present. (Never bring your wife a golf shirt or golf hat, no matter how much you loved the course.)

Near the path I followed into the reserve were several stations like the one below, which were equipped with tools I could have used to stamp out any fires I happened to have started. Luckily, I didn’t start any.

I’m not sure that I need to play Newburgh-on-Ythan again, but I’m glad I played it once, and I’m glad I met the Daves, and I’m glad I found that old ruined church. And the chunk of moss I brought my wife is now growing near our back door. It didn’t make up for the trip, but it probably helped.

Back-Roads Scotland: Gairloch

In 2007, a Scottish guy told me that I absolutely had to play Gairloch Golf Club, a nine-hole links course in an isolated village on the country’s west coast. Gairloch was a solid hour and a half out of my way, but he insisted. So I went.

I’m glad I did, in part because the drive—through the desolate mountains of Wester Ross and along the southwestern shore of Loch Maree, on a road that sometimes narrowed to a single lane—was beautiful:

I got a room at a small hotel on Gairloch’s harbor, and was awakened during the night by what sounded like a hundred-year typhoon lashing against my window. In the morning, the BBC said that the weather that day would be pretty good in all of Scotland except the part where I happened to be, for which the forecast was “heavy rain” and “gales.”

I drove through both on my way to the golf course, a short distance down the coast road, and found the parking lot empty and the clubhouse locked. So I zipped up my rain suit, let myself through the gate, and teed off alone.

Gairloch is just nine holes, and six of the nine are par-threes, and you have to go around three times to push your golfometer past six thousand yards, but it’s a wonderful course and I’m not a bit sorry I went to so much trouble to play it, even in driving rain. (How’s that for a recommendation?)

To get to the medal tee on the eighth/seventeenth, the course’s sole par-five, you climb a slippery path up the rocks to a spot from which you can see the course, the clubhouse, the town, the mountains, the harbor, and (I think) the isle of Skye, among other stirring sights.

And the hole’s a corker, too.

A club employee had arrived by the time I finished my first nine. I watched her raise the Gairloch flag in a wind that was almost strong enough to rip it from the pole, then made breakfast of a couple of candy bars from the golf shop. Then I played nine more holes, returned to my hotel, took a hot shower, and checked out.

And here’s a photo of Gairloch’s Honesty Box, which is mentioned in one of the comments below:

Back-Roads Scotland: Forfar Golf Club

Forfar Golf Club, Scotland, May, 2007.

Forfar, Scotland, is a small town about dozen miles northwest of Carnoustie. Its most famous resident may be Bon Scott, the lead singer of the rock band AC/DC, who was born there in 1949 and died, of acute alcohol poisoning, in 1980.

Brian.

Forfar—prounouced FOR-fer—has a golf course, which was designed by James Braid. I pulled in one evening in 2007, to make sure I’d be able to find it the following morning. It was almost time for dinner, and I wasn’t really planning to play, but suddenly I found myself in the golf shop handing my credit card to the wife of the head pro. On the course, I soon caught up to and joined three members: Brian, a local builder, who sounded a little like Sean Connery and carried his golf bag by the handle, like a suitcase; Gavin, a retired local cultural administrator; and Michael, a jeweler. Here’s the sort of golfers they were: all three, despite having played the course regularly for many years, were surprised to learn that the round blue marker in the center of each fairway was 150 yards from the green. Gavin told me that the three of them played together almost every Monday evening because “then there’s no one in front and no one behind.” They took lots and lots and lots of swings, although we still finished in just about exactly three hours.

The next morning (after breakfast and a bucket of balls at the local driving range, on the other side of town), I played a second round at Forfar. A ladies’ medal competition was going on just ahead of me, so I had plenty of time to admire the course, which is well inland and is surrounded by farms but feels very much like a links course, in part because most of the fairways have distinctive undulations, like gentle ocean rollers—remnants of ancient flax furrows, Brian had told me. (You can see the furrows, sort of, in the photo at the top of this post.) And when I finished I still had time to kill, so I went around again. And the following year I came back, with friends from home.

If I were sure I’d return to Forfar as often as I’d like to, I’d accept an email solicitation I received a few days ago:

15 months membership for the price of 12!

New members can join straight away for the 2012 price of £485 (£460 + £25 bar credit) and receive membership of the Club through until 31st December 2013!

To join call now on 01307 463773.

The 2013 subscriptions for the remainder of the year are as follows:

Full Membership: £485*

5 Day: waiting list in operation
Under 25: £260
Family: £970** (2 adults & unlimited children)
Junior: £100 (17 & 18)
            £75 (12-16)
            £50 (8-11)
Country: £310
*includes £25 bar credit
**includes £50 bar credit

You will be assured of a warm welcome so please don’t hesitate to contact us by telephoning or sending an enquiry to our email address.

For more information on the benefits of membership at Forfar Golf Club please see below.

  • Excellent layout for all ability of golfers to enjoy.
  • Comfortable clubhouse with refurbished lounge & dining room
  • Driving Range facilities
  • Competitions every Thursday, Saturday and Sundays
  • Online tee time booking & Members Website
  • Unlimited Members guest tickets
  • Reciprocal arrangements with other Clubs for reduced greenfees and a member of the Association of James Braid Courses
  • Membership categories to meet your needs
  • Monthly Newsletter
  • SKY tv
  • Free WiFi
  • Excellent Catering facilities 7 days a week
  • PGA Pro with fully stocked golf shop
  • Discounted rate for FGC members on the Angus Council ‘Be Active’ scheme

Payment can be made by all the usual methods and the Club offers a Direct Debit scheme through Premium Credit Ltd.

Back-Roads Scotland: Fraserburgh

Fifteenth green, Fraserburgh Golf Club, Scotland. Photo by Ian Stephen.

For the July issue of Golf Digest, which is on sale now, I wrote an article about Donald Trump and his newest golf course, Trump International Golf Links, in Scotland. The course is on the North Sea coast, a two-and-a-half-hour drive north from the Old Course at St. Andrews and about ten miles beyond the port city of Aberdeen. You should definitely play it if you have a chance—it will open July 10—and after you’ve done that you should get back on the A90 and drive another hour north, to the town of Fraserburgh, at the easternmost end of the Moray Firth. It’s the home not only of the Kinnaird Head Lighthouse and the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses, but also of Fraserburgh Golf Club, the seventh oldest in the world.

Fraserburgh foghorn, April, 2012. It was built in 1902. It's not still in use, but the museum keeps it painted.

I played Fraserburgh with two older members: Bill Maitland, who owns a furniture store in town, and Andrew Tait, a member of family of extremely successful fishermen. The morning was cold and the wind was blowing hard, and I wore two pairs of rain gloves, one on top of the other, in the hope of maintaining feeling in my fingers. Tait, in contrast, didn’t wear even one glove, and the explanation was what I guessed: after you’ve spent  a few decades fishing in the North Sea, it takes more than wind to make your hands feel cold on land.

Town of Fraserburgh, viewed from the golf course. April, 2012.

Fraserburgh’s first and eighteenth holes are flat and forgettable, but nearly everything in between is brilliant, beginning with the second, a par 4 that plays up what looks like the surface of the moon, on the flank of a mountainous dune called Corbie Hill:

Second Hole, Fraserburgh Golf Club. Photo by Ian Stephen.

Golf in the region goes back a long way. Local church records show that a parishioner named John Burnett was sent to the “maisters stool” for “playing gouff” on the links of Fraserburgh in 1613. The club was founded a century and a half later, in 1777, and it has the documents to prove it. At lunch after our round, Maitland showed me a copy of the original membership register. “These names are still well known to us,” he said—and by that point they were well known to me, too, because I had seen them on plaques and trophies in clubhouses along the coast:

"These names are still well known to us," Bill Maitland told me.

Fraserburgh’s original members got together for lunch after they played, just as they do nowadays, and they were required to pay their share of the bill whether they showed up or not—an excellent rule that my own gang ought to adopt. After we’d eaten, Tait took me to the wharf to see his family’s three fishing boats. He lives on a farm a few miles down the road and has his own five-hole golf course, which he plays when he’s too busy to get to the club.

Andrew Tait, Fraserburgh wharf, April, 2012. The boat is named for his parents.

Fraserburgh’s eighteenth hole is called Bridge, after a footbridge over some railroad tracks along the western edge of the course. The rail line connected Fraserburgh with Aberdeen and the villages and golf courses in between—a sort of Linksland Express. It closed in 1965, though, and the footbridge was demolished, so Fraserburgh’s eighteenth is now a golf hole with a ghost name. The course is still there, though, and it’s one of many worthy destinations along the coast for links-golf pilgrims who can be persuaded not to turn around after playing Carnoustie.

 

Golf Holes With Ghost Names

Newburgh-on-Ythan Golf Club, Scotland, April, 2012.

Last week, I played a round at Newburgh-on-Ythan Golf Club, in northeastern Scotland. The twelfth hole is called Home—an odd name for a hole far from the clubhouse. The explanation is that the course, which was first laid out in 1888 and originally had just nine holes, used to end there, across the Ythan estuary from the Udny Arms Hotel. The original clubhouse, which is cottage-size, still exists and stands nearby, although it hasn’t been used in many years. The current tenth hole, which was once the seventh, is a short par 4, just 339 yards. It was the same length in 1888, when it was called Long. (In those days, it was the only hole over 300 yards, and one of just two over 250.)  The fifteenth, near the old third, is called Boat House, because the old hole’s green was next to the hotel’s boat house. And the thirteenth, Majuba, was named after a battle in the Boer War, which was a topic of discussion during the club’s early years.

Newburgh-on-Ythan Golf Club, Scotland, early 1900s.

One of my favorite courses anywhere is the Island, in Donabete, Ireland, a few miles north of Dublin. Its fourteenth hole—which may be the world’s most intimidating short par 4—is called Old Clubhouse, because the old clubhouse used to stand where the tee box does today. In fact, the teeing ground is framed by the old foundation. And the club is called the Island because that’s what it looked like to the original members, who got to it by rowing across the estuary of the River Broadmeadow from Malahide, where golf-playing on Sundays was forbidden.

Choosing Teams in Scotland

Cruden Bay Golf Club, Scotland, 2008. That's the green of the fifth hole, a par 5, in the upper right-hand corner.

At five o’clock yesterday afternoon, I stopped by Cruden Bay Golf Club, in northeastern Scotland, on my way back to my hotel. I had played there the day before, and I thought maybe the pro would let me sneak out for five or six holes before dinner. He said OK–but the course was empty, so why stop? Snow began falling as I teed off on 5, but the sun was out again by the time I reached the green. I ended up playing all 18, in a little over two hours, and then ate dinner in the clubhouse, which has huge windows that overlook most of the course.

Spring snow, Cruden Bay, Scotland, April 2012.

This morning, there was snow on my rental car, which is a kind of MG I’d never seen before, and I had to scrape the windshield with one of my golf shoes. I played at 8:00 at Fraserburgh Golf Club, a wonderful links course up the coast from Cruden Bay. The Sunday-morning regulars at Fraserburgh choose teams the way my friends and I usually do at home, by pulling balls out of someone’s hat. The temperature was in the mid-30s, and the wind was blowing hard. The golfers below fortified themselves with quite a lot of Budweiser, which one of them referred to as coffee.

Choosing teams, Fraserburgh Golf Club, Scotland, April 2012.

In the afternoon, I played at Peterhead Golf Club, which is just a few miles south of Fraserburgh. You park in a public lot on the town side of the Ugie River and cross a footbridge to get to the golf club. They manage tee order slightly differently there:

Peterhead Golf Club, Scotland, April 2012.

I played with Peterhead’s pro, Harry Dougal, who has a crushing handshake and sometimes carries his golf bag like a briefcase. He lost his wife in a car accident eight years ago. He said that swallows nest in the club’s rain shelters–that green shed in the photo is one of them–and return (from South Africa) on the same day every year.

Harry Dougal, Peterhead Golf Club.

Snow fell hard a couple of holes before I took the photograph above, but it didn’t last very long. I brought four pairs of rain gloves on this trip, and I’ve worn them every round, for warmth. I’ve wiped my nose on them so often that they’re all sort of shiny and stiff. At Fraserburgh, I played with a semi-retired furniture-store owner and a semi-retired fisherman. The fisherman didn’t wear gloves of any kind, because a fisherman’s hands, by comparison with fishing, are never cold.

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.

Why a Golf Course is Not a “Links”

Rosapenna, Ireland, 2011.

Most people think of the word “links” as a synonym for golf course, but it’s actually a geological term. Linksland is a specific type of sandy, wind-sculpted coastal terrain—the word comes from the Old English hlinc, “rising ground”—and in its authentic form it exists in only a few places on earth, the most famous of which are in Great Britain and Ireland. Linksland arose at the end of the most recent ice age, when the retreat of the northern glacial sheet, accompanied by changes in sea level, exposed sand deposits and what had once been coastal shelves. Wind pushed the sand into dunes and rippling plains; ocean storms added more sand; and coarse grasses covered everything. Early Britons used linksland mainly for livestock grazing, since the ground closest to the sea was usually too starved and too exposed for growing crops. When significant numbers of Scotsmen became interested in smacking small balls with curved wooden sticks, as they first did in 1400 or so, the links was where they went (or were sent), perhaps because there they were in no one’s way. In some parts of Scotland, linksland is called machair, a Gaelic word. It’s pronounced “mocker,” more or less, but with the two central consonants represented by what sounds like a clearing of the throat. (Machair is the root of Machrihanish, a legendary links course on the Kintyre Peninsula, in western Scotland.)

Askernish, South Uist, Scotland, 2007.

The major design elements of a modern golf course are the synthetic analogues of various existing features of those early Scottish playing fields, and the fact that golf arose so directly from a particular landscape helps explain why, more than any other mainstream sport, it remains a game with a Jerusalem: it was permanently shaped by the ground on which it was invented. Groomed fairways are the descendants of the well-grazed valleys between the old linksland dunes; bunkers began as sandy depressions worn through thin turf by livestock huddling against coastal gales; the first greens and teeing grounds were flattish, elevated areas whose relatively short grass—closely grazed by rabbits and other animals, and stunted by brutal weather—made them the logical places to begin and end holes. (“A rabbit’s jawbone allows it to graze grass lower than a sheep,” the Scottish links consultant Gordon Irvine told me, “and both those animals can graze grass lower than a cow.”)

Askernish, South Uist, Scotland, 2007.

On the great old courses in the British Isles, the most celebrated holes often owe more to serendipity and to the vicissitudes of animal husbandry than they do to picks and shovels, since in the early years course design was more nearly an act of imagination and discovery than of physical construction. One of Old Tom Morris’s best-known holes, the fifth at Lahinch, in southwestern Ireland, is a short par 3 whose green is concealed behind a tall dune, so that the golfer’s target is invisible from the tee—a feature that almost any modern architect would have eliminated with a bulldozer. The greatest hole on the Old Course is often said to be the seventeenth, a long par 4 called the Road Hole, which violates a long list of modern design rules: the tee shot not only is blind but must be hit over the top of a tall wooden structure that reproduces the silhouette of a cluster of nineteenth-century coal sheds; the green repels approach shots from every direction and is fronted by a vortex-like circular bunker, from which the most prudent escape is often backward; a paved road runs directly alongside the green and is treated as a part of the course, meaning that golfers who play their way onto it must also play their way off.

The Road Hole, 2008.

Over the centuries, every idiosyncratic inch of the Old Course has acquired, for the faithful, an almost numinous aura. Alister MacKenzie once wrote, “I believe the real reason St. Andrews Old Course is infinitely superior to anything else is owing to the fact that it was constructed when no-one knew anything about the subject at all, and since then it has been considered too sacred to be touched.”

Royal Aberdeen, Scotland, 2008.

The Capital of Left-Handed Golf (No, Bubba, It’s Not Augusta, GA)

Clubhouse, Kingussie Golf Club, Scotland.

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.

The Shepherd's Hut, Sixth Hole, Kingussie.

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.

One of my new friends from the Orkneys.

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.

Shinty practice, Newtonmore, Scotland, 2007.