Remarkable Golf Swing: The Bruen Loop

bruen loopWhen I was in Northern Ireland recently, I saw a photograph of a golfer I knew nothing about: Jimmy Bruen, shown above, who was born in Belfast in 1920 and held the course record at Royal County Down for twenty-nine years. He won the British Boys’ Championship, at Royal Birkdale, when he was sixteen.

This, remarkably, is what sixteen-year-olds looked like in the olden days.

This, remarkably, is what sixteen-year-olds looked like in the olden days.

He played in the Walker Cup two years later, and was credited by his teammates with inspiring Britain and Ireland’s first-ever victory over the United States (and their last until 1971). He had qualified for the team by shooting 71-71-68-72 on the Old Course at St. Andrews, a feat that caused Henry Cotton, who had won the Open in 1934 and 1937, to write: “Fancy a 17-year-old doing 282 in four rounds on the Old Lady of St. Andrews. I know what a stern course it is, long, difficult and tricky, but here was a mere boy playing it with a wise head and a technique which left everyone gasping.”

That technique—which came to be known as the Bruen Loop—was highly unconventional, as you can see in the photo at the top of this post and in the video below. The British golf writer Pat Ward-Thomas described it this way:

He drew the club back outside the line of flight and turned his wrists inward, to such an extent that at the top of the swing the clubhead would be pointing in the direction of the teebox. It was then whipped, no other word describes the action, inside and down into the hitting area with a terrible force. There was therefore in his swing a fantastic loop, defying all the canons of orthodoxy, which claims that the back and downswing should, as near as possible, follow the same arc. There must have been a foot or more between Bruen’s arcs of swing.

Henry Cotton, Open Championship, 1937.

Henry Cotton, Open Championship, 1937.

Bruen routinely drove the ball over three hundred yards, and he had a deadly short game. (He won the British Boys’ by chipping in for eagle on the twenty-seventh hole of the final, making him eleven up with nine holes to play.) He lit up Irish golf before the war, and he won the first post-war British Amateur, in 1946. (He was the first Irishman ever to win it.) Cotton called him “the best golfer—professional or amateur—in the world.” He was widely favored to win the 1946 Open, but withdrew because, he said, his business left him insufficient time to practice. (He was an insurance broker.) He severely injured his wrist while working in his garden in 1947, and, following surgery that was only semi-successful, virtually stopped playing competitive golf. His last Walker Cup was 1951. He died in 1972, at the age of fifty-one.

Ward-Thomas wrote: “Bruen was the most fascinating golfer I have ever seen or probably will ever see. There was no limit to what he might have achieved had not the War come and had he so desired.” George F. Crosbie published a biography in 1999. The Golfing Union of Ireland established the Jimmy Bruen Shield in his memory in 1978.

Bruen Shield

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.

Normal Golf Guy Sort of Replicates Famous Road Hole Shot

Mike A. trying to bounce his ball off the boundary wall beyond the first green.

Just six of us showed up this morning. Nobody else was on the course, so we played as a single group. The game was our regular Sunday-morning stuff,  and because we were a sixsome we also played 3-2-1.

Mike A. overshot the first green, and his ball ended up so close to the stone wall that he had to try the shot Miguel Angel Jimenez hit during the 2010 British Open, on the Road Hole at the Old Course at St. Andrews:

Mike, unlike Jimenez, didn’t get his ball onto the green, but he did end up with a better score. (Jimenez made triple-bogey.) I’ve tried Mike’s shot, both successfully and unsuccessfully. It works best if your ball is in front of a stone with a flat side facing the flag.

Even though there were six of us, we got around in a little over three hours. There are several keys to playing quickly in a large group. One is never taking a practice swing. Another is hitting shots when you’re ready, rather than waiting till it’s your turn. Another, on tees, is always having a player “on deck,” in addition to the one actually teeing off, like this:

Gary (left, teeing off) and Mike A. (right, on deck), fifth hole.

 

New Golf Terminology

From “The Rules of Golf [Revised],” edited by Francis Ouimet, 1948.

The word stymie—which means “prevent or hinder the progress of”—was originally just a golf term, having to do with a ball that blocked another ball’s path to the hole. The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1857; it concerns wooden putters, which, apparently, could impart enough sidespin to a nineteenth-century golf ball to cause it “to pass the stimy.” The rule book changed in 1953, the first year a player could require another player to mark and lift an obstructing ball. My Sunday-morning golf buddies and I have kept stymies alive, sort of, by employing them in playoffs.

We also have added several terms of our own to golf’s lexicon. An Underwood, for example, is a shot that appears to be heading into the trees or out of bounds but hits a branch, root, stone, golf cart, squirrel, or low-flying aircraft and ends up in the middle of the fairway. It was named for our current club champion, who has a long, bothersome history of lucky bounces (in addition to being the club’s best putter, chipper, driver, and so forth). The rest of us will often shout “Underwood!” just before a shot of ours reaches whatever trouble it’s heading for; sometimes, that works. About a decade ago, a member named Pickett resigned after deciding he had used up his lifetime’s allotment of Underwoods and therefore had no reason to continue playing. He thus became the first member of our club to be Picketted—in his case, self-Picketted.

Underwood, Royal Birkdale, May, 2010.

A Gillen is the opposite of a skin—it’s a negative skin. It’s what you get, in our version of the game, if you make the unmatched worst score on any hole. (See my previous post, about Perfect Skins.) Gillens were invented by Tim, who had been irritated by Gillen’s habit of playing miserably for nine or ten holes and then scooping up all the carryovers with an improbable net birdie. The most astonishing Gillen ever recorded was earned by Gillen himself, on a day when five of us were playing together. On our seventh hole, a short-par-three, Gillen hit a good tee shot and made an easy par, while all four of the rest of us—after a remarkable succession of long bombs and chip-ins—made birdies. Gillen thus became the first person ever to receive a Gillen for a three.

Tim, inventor of Perfect Skins, Old Course at St. Andrews, May, 2008.

On that same hole on a different Sunday, I played in a group that included Schoon. He had a one-foot par putt, which, for some reason, no one had given him. He made a bad stroke and advanced the ball just four inches. The remaining distance—0.2032 meters—is now treated locally as a unit of golf measurement, called a Schoon. (A two-foot putt is three Schoons long.) Schoons are especially useful in setting the official gimme distance. Before we tee off on Sunday, for example, Hacker (real name) might announce, “Mulligan on the first tee, play everything down, and Schoons are good for everyone but Schoon.”

Schoon, Member-Guest, 2010.

 

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.

 

18 Good Things About Golf: No. 9

Looking at clubhouses counts as sightseeing. Royal & Ancient Golf Club, Old Course, St. Andrews, Scotland, May, 2008.

9. Golf provides an organizing principle for travel. Mere idle globe-trotting doesn’t appeal to me; I like a trip to have a purpose. For that reason, I enjoy traveling with children. Having kids along forces you to do things you really enjoy (buying ice cream, visiting a dungeon museum, taste-testing foreign candy) and to skip things you really don’t (going to plays, touring the wine country, looking at statues). Keeping your kids from slitting each other’s throat compels you to find activities that actually are interesting, as opposed to merely sounding like the kinds of activities that people engage in when they go on vacation. When children are not available, golf can serve a similar function. Rather than tramping aimlessly around Scotland in the hope of being moved by the differences between it and America, you tramp around Scotland checking off names on your life list of Open Rota courses.

On a golf trip, every day has the same unimprovable agenda: wake up, take shower, drink coffee, eat bacon, play eighteen holes, eat lunch, play eighteen holes, drink beer, take shower, eat dinner, go to sleep. The best golf trips, unlike the vacations that wives plan, never leave you wondering what to do next, and there is never an empty three-hour time block in which you might suddenly be expected to look at a cathedral. You don’t have to wait between lunch and golf, or between golf and beer, or between beer and shower, or between shower and dinner. When one agreeable activity ends, another begins. And on the last day, during the long drive back to the airport, you can pass the time by planning the next trip.

I did actually have a look at a Scottish castle in April, but it was on the road between golf courses and I needed to take a whiz.