I have an article in the February issue of Golf Digest called The Adventure of a Lifetime, about Royal County Down, in Northern Ireland. In it, I mention that, before teeing off on the eleventh hole one day, my playing partner and I climbed into a jungle of of whins and briars to look for a century-old relic that a caddie had told me about in 2011: the remains of a small stone building, which the maintenance crew had uncovered during an aggressive gorse-removal project. We found it, at some risk to our clothing, although it was so overgrown that we couldn’t see much more than one corner:
The caddie’s theory was that the structure had been the house of the original greenkeeper, but Harry McCaw—a past captain of both Royal County Down and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews—told me this past November that he thought it might once have served as the literal “club house”: the place where early players stored their clubs. When he said this, we were standing in the current R.C.D. clubhouse in front of a glass case that contained, among other mementos, the red coat that was McCaw’s official uniform during his captaincy of the R. & A.
Captains of the R. & A. begin their term by “driving in” from the first tee of the Old Course. That is, they hit a ceremonial tee shot, accompanied by a cannon, in front of a large crowd of club members, townspeople, and miscellaneous onlookers. I asked McCaw whether driving in had made him nervous, and he said that it had and that he’d had plenty of time to brood about it because new captains are tapped roughly nine months before they take office. I don’t have a photograph of McCaw’s driving-in, but here’s a video of the ceremony in 2012:
The playing partner who accompanied me into the jungle to find that old stone building was Johnny Browne, a Belfast physician and a three-time R.C.D. club champion. Johnny played his first round of golf at Ormeau Golf Club, a muny in Belfast, where his father was a regular. He said that, during and after the Second World War, golf balls were so precious that boys at Ormeau would look for them by lying down in the rough and rolling around. Johnny has two brothers, both of whom also play golf. His younger brother, Tim, is a past R.C.D. champion as well, and Johnny said that, of the three, Tim is the most obsessed. “His wife is a Presbyterian minister,” he said. “She gives the same sermon three times every Sunday, and Tim is such a good husband that he sits through all three—although during the second and third he’s probably mentally reviewing golf holes and golf courses.” When Tim and Johnny attend church together, they pass ball markers back and forth. Johnny has a large collection, and Tim has a huge one. (Their older brother, Connor, “has a more balanced view of the game,” Johnny said.) Here’s Johnny during one of our rounds at R.C.D.:
Johnny’s earliest memory is of the 1953 Irish Open, which was held at Belvoir Park Golf Club, in a suburb on Belfast’s south side. (“Belvoir” is pronounced “Beaver.”) “What I remember is Dai Rees getting on his knees to talk to me,” Johnny said. “No wonder I’m a golf nut.” Johnny is a member of Belvoir Park, which was designed by Harry S. Colt, and he once jointly held the course record there (66) with a good local amateur and Peter Alliss. He lives in an apartment overlooking the eighteenth hole. He is the honorary secretary of the club, and he runs the youth group at his church, and he is deeply involved in a non-profit organization called Macmillan Cancer Support, which he began working for when his wife, Linda, was dying of ovarian cancer, two years ago. Here’s Johnny talking about Linda and cancer care in a video he made for Macmillan last year: