Rediscovering The Game

  • Shaun Tolson

The 14th hole at Royal Dornoch (www.royaldornoch​.com), known as Foxy, plays 439 yards from the men’s tees and, according to Harry Vardon, the esteemed British golfer whose career spanned the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it is the most natural hole in golf. Up to this point, my round at the 135-year-old course has undulated as much as the fairway now stretched out before me—a vast expanse of mounds and valleys ready to accept a shot with benevolence or to reject it as strongly as the trade winds that blow off the North Sea. In other areas of the world, a golfer can project the outcome of a well-hit tee shot, but not in the British Isles, and certainly not here in the Highlands. Here, on firm ground amid windswept dunes, the final position of a shot headed toward the fairway is guaranteed only when it comes to rest.

My tee shot on the 14th is perhaps my best of the day—a well-struck fade working its way over the left edge of the fairway—but when it lands as close to the center as I’m ever likely to be, it bounces hard to the right off one of those imposing undulations and rolls out of sight over the slope. Where it has ended up is difficult to surmise from the tee, but when I find my ball it is buried deep in a rough of thick fescue.

The book of Job in the Old Testament speaks of the sometimes puzzling acts of God, professing that the Lord can deprive, but He also can provide. Such a sentiment encapsulates Scottish golf, as well. The links may condemn, as I’ve come to learn on this natural par-4; but they also can forgive, which I discovered a day earlier when, at the first hole at Castle Stuart (www.castlestuartgolf.com) my approach shot to the green—a sculled 9-iron from 120 yards away—rolled to within 20 feet of the cup.

At its core, the game of golf is dictated by two things—faith and feeling. Too often we try to force a shot, to swing so hard we would be lifted out of our shoes were they not tied to our feet. The founding fathers and early champions of the game never played that way, and how could they? Using hickory-shafted clubs and feather-stuffed leather balls, the legends of this game found success in a rhythmic and smooth swing. They tried not to dominate the landscape, but to use the natural contours of the terrain. They were creative, not controlling, in their approach, and they let the course dictate the shots that they would hit.

But in the past 20 years, the game of golf has changed, specifically on American soil. Steady advancements in golf club technology have partnered with a recast model of the professional golfer as an athlete. That marriage has led to a new generation of tour players that subscribe to a style of play dictated by booming drives and sniperlike approach shots with a wedge. Answering the question “how far can you drive the ball?” suddenly is akin to revealing how much you can bench press. “In modern golf architecture, we’re trying to take the unpredictability out of the game of golf, and that’s unfortunate,” says Sam Baker, the founder and CEO of Haversham & Baker (www.haversham.com), a private golf travel company that specializes in trips to the British Isles. “In the beginning, the game was all about crafting shots and living with your bounces.”

Today, the American game is held hostage by a perceived framework of how the game mustbe played, which is what brings me to Scotland. I’ve come not simply to say that I’ve played on the hallowed grounds where golf was born. I’ve come with a penchant for rediscovery, to learn what the birthplace of the game can teach me. And, as I’ve been told, the Scottish Highlands are as good a place as any for such an education.

My own journey through the game began more than 20 years ago, as a young child, when my father taught me the basics of grip and swing. But like most recreational golfers, I’ve spent decades fighting it, struggling for consistency, and often laboring around a course, hitting one good shot for every three poor ones. Forty-five holes under my belt here in Scotland, not much has changed. After an uninspiring front nine at the Nairn Golf Club (www.nairngolfclub.co.uk), a course located about 16 miles northeast of the city of Inverness, I take stock of my game, my swing, and my surroundings. The Nairn Golf Club, as I have come to learn, was established in 1887, and the course, though built at that same time, underwent a significant reconfiguration at the hands of Old Tom Morris shortly thereafter. Less than two decades later, five-time Open champion James Braid fiddled with the course’s tee placements and bunkers before redesigning the greens. These two legendary figures of the game both played it simply and without constraint. I would do well to follow their lead.

Up until now, I’ve been stuck in that all-too-popular “grip it and rip it” American mind-set. But the concept of gripping it and ripping it, I’m gradually learning, is about as familiar to a Scot as wielding a putter 80 yards off the green is to an American. I’ve not come here to conquer the Scottish courses, I remind myself; I’ve come here to learn from them. This back nine will be different.

The par-5 10th hole plays almost 500 yards in length and is named Cawdor, no doubt after the Earl of Cawdor, whose land was used to extend the course shortly after it was built at the end of the 19th century. After a fairway hit off the tee, a green hit in regulation, and a two-putt, I walk off the green with a par.

“Did I just see a straightforward par?” Neil, my playing partner’s caddie, asks me.

“Believe it or not,” I reply with a smile.

“This young lad takes instruction quite well,” Neil says, directing the comment to my caddie, Tom, a 73-year-old who, like me, took up the game at the age of 8.

“Aye,” Tom retorts, “but he’s a bit of a slow learner.”

The Scots, though welcoming and jovial, clearly show no restraint for telling it like it is. Visitors to the country, especially golfers, long have been warned of Scotland’s brutal weather, but it’s the honesty that can catch you by surprise.

A few holes later, on a spectacular 195-yard, downhill par 3, I take my reinvented swing and, with a 4-hybrid, put my tee shot pin high, about 25 feet from the hole.

“Here,” Tom says, handing me my putter as I leave the tee box. “I’ll let you carry your putter the whole way, just like a professional.”

There’s a new vitality in his tone, one that conveys a hint of pride in my recent turnaround. Tom had fought with me in the trenches on the front nine, and together we had lived and died by my swing, though I admit we died far more than we lived. Now, like mariners who braved the swells through a storm, we revel in the calmer waters that have followed.

A two-putt par sets off a run of well-played shots, and in sharp contrast to the beginning of my round, I play the final five holes of the course at even par.

Though certainly not expeditious, I’ve had my first breakthrough. The game has begun to change. I’m learning.

Sam Baker began his own links golf journey in the early 1980s while working as an academic consultant for the British government. Playing a self-proclaimed “unorthodox style” of golf, Baker fell in love with the game on U.K. soil, particularly because, as he says, “it played to my strengths of creating shots.” By 1988, Baker had advanced his career and was  serving as the vice president of the University of Cincinnati. In an attempt to bond with the university’s biggest donors and to bring them closer to the institution, Baker and the school’s president ushered a trip to Scotland for a week of golf. That was the first private golf trip that Baker led, and it sparked an idea that he was sure could succeed. Three years later, Baker left the university and, from his kitchen table, launched Haversham & Baker, a private golf travel company that would specialize in excursions to the British Isles. From the beginning, the company operated around three governing ideals, each one of equal importance. “The principles were . . . it’s a lot more than just a golf trip; it’s all about personal choice; and it’s all about convenience,” he says.

Baker certainly isn’t the only one offering private golf travel to Scotland and beyond, but he’s carved out a niche for himself all the same. After about a decade in operation, Baker and his team realized that the majority of their clientele were members of private golf clubs in the United States. As someone familiar with that world of private clubs, Baker knew that membership always involved golf, but it also was much more than just golf. Suddenly, the company’s mission statement shifted, albeit subtly. Beyond introducing his clientele to memorable golf courses throughout the United Kingdom, Baker made it his goal to provide the same type of lifestyle that those clients had come to expect through membership in their own clubs back home.

Taking it a step further, Baker now works with many private clubs to arrange trips where members can travel together with their club’s head professional. The hassle of planning a trip, recruiting the travelers, and managing the time in the country is gone. Furthermore, those members often know that they’ll be traveling with like-minded people. “It’s a stress-free way to travel,” Baker says. “All the members do is sign up, show up, kick back, and relax.”

While Baker dedicates plenty of attention to the experiences his clients find away from the course, he still recognizes that above all, the trips must deliver world-class golf. For most Americans, St. Andrews is synonymous with Scottish golf, and Baker understands that, which is why most of his trips (including the one that I’m on) culminate at and around the Old Course. “How many times has a golfer dreamed of standing at the first tee of the Old Course with the R&A Clubhouse behind them?” he asks. “How many times have they dreamed of driving over the railroad sheds on the road hole? It gives them chills. It’s a pilgrimage when it comes to Scotland; and it means different things to different people.”

However, being the member of Royal Dornoch that he is, not to mention a converted “Highlander for life,” Baker yearns to introduce his clientele to the less-frequented areas of Scotland—places like Dornoch and Nairn, where visitors encounter a local culture less influenced by or predicated upon American idiosyncrasies. “The first word that comes to mind is genuine,” Baker says of the Highlands. “It’s all local people; there’s nothing contrived. The caddies all tend to be members of the local club and they all have their own ways of doing things, and I find that incredibly charming.

“You leave home to play golf in a way that you can’t play it at home,” he continues. “We’re enamored with it because it’s different than anything we’ve experienced. Some people fall in love with it, and some people never want to go back.”

Halfway through my trip, I find myself entranced. My golf game continues to change; it feels fluid, inherent. I’ve gained control by choosing to relinquish it. There’s a freedom to be found playing the links of northern Scotland; it’s a realization born from great shots penalized and poor shots rewarded. The land and these ancient courses remind you that, for all the skill and creativity and concentration required throughout the game, there’s still an ever-present element of luck.

If those lessons are taught on the links, they’re reinforced throughout the countryside. Though the Old Course is recognized as the birthplace of the game, modernity has invaded all areas around it. There’s still an authenticity to St. Andrews, and visitors to the city still can connect with it, but such an interaction requires work. It requires a late-night stroll along the city’s streets cloaked in mist. It requires a retrospective saunter down cobblestone alleyways far removed from the pubs and hotels and raucous dormitories of the University of St. Andrews. It can be found, but only with effort.

Amid the hillsides of the Highlands, however, such a spirit finds you. It meanders over the pastures where herds of sheep and cattle graze. It billows forth from the chimneys of antiquated stone farmhouses that dot the landscape. It radiates from the bright yellow fields of oilseed rape and it stands as firm as the ancient stone walls that divide rolling fields of wheat and barley. It’s a simple, uncluttered life throughout this pastoral landscape; and for a golfer seeking illumination, there may truly be no better place to find it.

Thousands of golfers make a pilgrimage to St. Andrews every year, eager to walk the sanctified grounds where the game began. I am no different. “There are tougher courses and more scenic courses or more dramatic courses, but there’s nothing that compares to the Old Course for the experience,” says Mike Woodcock of the St. Andrews Links Trust. “It’s what you sense and feel when you’re here. Every golfer knows the footsteps of every great golfer that they’re following.”

A thick fog has settled over the town and the Old Course the morning that I tee off in front of the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse. Balls hit off the tee disappear no more than 100 yards away, prompting the starter to joke that each player is sure to hit their tee shot out of sight. I describe my typical shot trajectory to my caddie, Nick, who gives me a proper line based off the divots in the tee box a few yards ahead of me. Fighting a few first-swing jitters—this is the Old Course, after all—I take an easy, fluid swing and hit my drive on the perfect line. The round is off, but the fog remains.

On the third hole, after two consecutive pars, I’m faced with an intermediate pitch over a bunker that guards the left front-side of the green. It’s 88 yards to the pin, I’m told, and Nick advises a shot that lands about 20 yards short. The flagstick barely is discernible through the fog, and I’m told to take that line. “Just go right at the pin,” Nick says confidently.

If you were to ask most golfers what a pure shot feels like, most would struggle to describe it. But every golfer knows the feeling of a pure strike the instant that it occurs. I’m blessed with that feeling as I watch my pitch shot sail toward the flagstick, and I breathe a sigh of relief as it lands beyond the bunker. A moment later, I’m met with a far different emotion. “It’s in the hole!” one of my playing partners shouts from the opposite side of the fairway. “It bounced, rolled up, hit the pin, and dropped!”

It’s my first-ever eagle and the first that Nick has seen at this hole in the 20 years that he has caddied here. “I often tell players to just go for the pin because you never know, it might just go in,” he says with a chuckle.

The rest of my round comprises inspired shots, challenging saves, and a few very long putts—the type that only the Old Course can provide. In the end, I card a 78 for the round, my lowest score since I took up the game 23 years ago. As I step off the 18th green and conclude a nine-day journey through Scotland, as a golfer, I can’t help but feel reborn.

I found success on those hallowed grounds of the Old Course, but I discovered the soul of the game in the Scottish Highlands.

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