It is statute an ordinit that in na place
of the realme be there usit...Golfe or
uther sik unprofitabill sportis.
—JAMES IV to Parliament in Edinburgh May 16, 1491
It was a gray, drizzly day like most in Scotland, and there was I, a lonely shepherd, strolling along a swollen dune by the North Sea looking for a wee stance to hit wi' a bit crook. Clumps of heather were up to my knees and the yellow-tipped whin was up to my chest, and I was up to here with my sheep because the little dumplings had wandered away. I had this crooked stick, that I normally used to keep the dumplings in line, in my hand. You know. Firm left side, eye on the tailbone, slow backswing—and whap. But they were gone and I was just ambling along when I saw this chuckie stane, as it was called, this round pebble. I also saw this rabbit scrape, as it was called, through an opening in the heather and whin. So I said to myself, "Self, why don't you take your bit crook and try to knock this here stane into that there scrape? And stay out of the heather because, boy, it'll make your hand ring." Well, I guess I took it back a little outside, because I cut a low one right into the garbage and almost never did find it, but anyhow, this is how I came to invent the game of golf a few hundred years ago.
There are those, of course, who claim that I did not invent golf in another life, nor did any other Scot. Some say the Romans did it long before me and called it Paganica, which, between you and me, sounds like a joint over on East 56th with a big tab. Some say the Dutch invented golf, or a game called kolven, which was similar. But no way. Kolven has to be a roll of veal stuffed with cheese and chives. Some even say that the French originated golf under the name of jeu de mail, but, as any European traveler knows, this is a game for the big players in Monaco.
The fact of the matter is, golf is a Scottish game. It is naturally Scottish, as natural to our instincts as the seaside links land is natural to the setting. It was the Scots, after all, who took the game and did something with it when everybody else was busy making crossbows. We made the courses and the clubs, the balls and the rules, the trophies and the tournaments. We invented wind and rough, hooks and slices, bunkers and doglegs, and we were just getting ready to invent the overlapping grip when Harry Vardon, an Englishman, beat us to it.
We looked at the seashores, our links-land, and said this is where the glory's at. Let the wet wind blow in from Denmark or wherever it comes from. Let the incursions of the sea make the giant dunes and the tumbling valleys. Let the birds bring in the seeds that will grow our curious rough—the wiry, purple heather, the bulging whin, the fern we'll call bracken and the broom, that does not have thorns to distinguish itself from whin, or gorse.
No, I don't know what the Romans, the Dutch and the French were doing around the 1450s, but we Scots were playing golfe then and had been. At least we were when the kings would permit it, there being, from time to time, this nagging problem of national service. Had to go fight the English. Cancel my starting time.
There was an afternoon, I recall, when the game came close to being banished forever. As it happened, I was out on a moor at St. Andrews trying out a new Auchterlonie driving spoon at the 11th—the short hole, of course—when a king's guard rose up out of the whin and handed me a scroll signed by our monarch.
The scroll said, "It is decreetid and ordained...that the Fute-ball and the Golf be utterly cryit doune, and nocht to be usit."
"Guy never could spell," I said.
The guard pointed his crossbow at me and said that the king, Jimmy the Roman Numeral, meant business.
"The golfe is sik unprofitabill sportis," he said.
"Pal, you got that right," I said. "See that shepherd over there with the cross-handed grip on his bit crook? Well, he's got me out, out, out and one down."
"Don't be abusit," the guard said. "It is statute an ordinit that in na place of the realme be there Golfe in tyme aiming."
"Look," I said. "Smell that air. Gaze over this land. Great, huh? Who would want a guy to be hanging around a drafty castle waiting for an Englishman to scale a wall?"
"Aye," he said. "The aire is guid and the field reasonable feir. But can ya na handle the bow for archerie? Can ya na run or swoom or warstle instead?"
"I don't know, man," I said. "Let me put it your way. Here's the deal. I was drivin' the chuckie stanes wi' a bit stick as sune's I could walk."
He nodded as if he were beginning to understand.
"Here's something else," I said. "I happen to know that a bow-maker in Perth is fixing up a set of clubs for the king right now. Why? Because the king sneaked out the other day to see what this game was all about and the Earl of Bothwell, who plays to a cool 23, brought him to his knees on the back three at Leith. The king's getting a pretty good price, too. Like only 14s's for the set, whatever an s is."
The guard put down his crossbow and said, well, go ahead and play if that was the case. And by the way, he added, did I want to buy "a dussen guid golfe ballis?"
"Hold it," I said. "You got featheries?"
"Aye," he said. "Guid featheries that cum from the Laird of Rosyth. Guid featheries stuffed with flock."
"Four s's," I said. "And not an s more."
"Eight s's," he said.
"They're hot, man. Six s's and we both eel out clean," I said.
He went for the six—you can always strike a bargain in Europe—and disappeared back into the whin. And now that I had saved golf, I couldn't wait to try out one of the new high-compression featheries. I heeled up a good lie and gave the shot a full body turn. Wow. There is still a hole in the wind where I hit that shot and I thought to myself, what a happy and golden time, indeed.
In a few more years all of royalty would be playing golfe. There were rumors of Mary Queen of Scots shanking around the fields of Seton when some said she should have been mourning the demise of Lord Darnley. Charles I got a very bad press for being in a match at Leith when the Irish Rebellion broke out. A lot of Jameses and Dukes of York were seen swinging at Musselburgh, which still claims to be the oldest layout in the world and now sits inside a racecourse near Edinburgh. There was a Stuart or two spotted in a putting game at Leith, where The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers got started.
All golfers, I think, are indebted to a small group of us that got together in 1744—The Honourable Company, or The Company of Gentleman Golfers as we called ourselves then. What we did was form the first country club. Not only that, we sat down and wrote the first rules of the game, which we called the Articles & Laws in Playing at Golf.
Those first rules have been well-preserved, along with some terribly clever comments I made at the meeting as I spoke keenly above the roar of our first president, Duncan Forbes. Among those rules were:
I You Must Tee your Ball within a Club length of the hole.
(It's going to be uproarious fun, guys, waiting for somebody to drive before you can putt.)
II Your Tee must be upon the Ground.
(Nothing like teeing up the ball in the air for greater distance.)
III You are not to Change the Ball which you Strike off the Tee.
(The caddies will take care of this. When I tried to put down a clean one to putt the other day at St. Andrews, my man, Ginger Johnson, tugged at the sleeve of my cashmere and said, "You'll not do that here, Laddie.")
IV You are not to Remove Stones, Bones or any Break-club for the Sake of playing your Ball Except upon the fair Green, and that only within a Club's Length of your Ball.
(Well, we'll get some pretty tricky breaks over the stones and bones.)
V If your Ball come among Water, or any Watery filth, You are at Liberty to take out Your Ball, & bringing it behind the hazard, and teeing it, You may play it with any Club, and allow your Adversary a Stroke, for so getting out your Ball.
(Unless your Adversary doesn't see you do it.)
VII At holeing, You are to play your Ball honestly for the Hole, and not to play upon your Adversary's Ball, not lying in your way to the Hole.
(I heard about this across the ocean in a place called Easthampton. They call it croquet.)
VIII If you should lose your Ball, by its being taken up, or any other way, You are to go back to the Spot where you Struck last and drop another Ball, and allow your Adversary a Stroke for the Misfortune.
(And if your Adversary has been seen taking up your Ball, you may strike your Adversary wi' a bit crook, teeing him upon the Ground.)
IX No Man at Holeing his Ball, is to be Allowed to Mark his way to the Hole with his Club or anything else.
(And if you do, man, the greens committee will chew you out.)
XII He Whose Ball lyes furthest from the Hole is Obliged to play first.
(This is a good rule, but I'll tell you, the public course players are going to relax it a little.)
XIII Neither Trench, Ditch or Dyke made for the preservation of the Links, Nor the Scholars' Holes or the Soldiers' Lines, shall be Accounted a Hazard, But the Ball is to be taken out, Teed and played with any Iron Club.
(Oh, swell, Duncan. So how come you let me make eight passes at it yesterday in the Soldiers' Lines with no relief?)
Well, you know what happens. You let one private club get started and down the road another pops up. The noblemen and lairds of Fifeshire couldn't stand it that we had The Company of Gentleman Golfers, and some rules, especially, they said, when everybody knew St. Andrews was the cradle of golfe. So in hardly any time at all they formed The Society of St. Andrews Golfers, which later would become known as the Royal and Ancient Golf Club. And you know what happened after that. They had the sport by the old gutta-percha and never would turn loose of it.
A lot of arguments have gone on through the years about the history of the game—where it began, who molded the first cleek and so forth. Over at Muirfield, where The Honourable Company still hangs out, they say that the R&A would still be the Greensboro Jaycees if the Edinburgh code of golf hadn't, been written. And at the same time, over at Prestwick on the West Coast, they like to say that the R&A wouldn't have anything to do but run the St. Andrews city championship if Prestwick's members hadn't decided to invent the Open Championship and stage it the first 12 years of its existence. The Open Championship, of course, is what a lot of crass Americans would call the British Open today.
All I know is, every time somebody at Muirfield or Prestwick or Troon or Carnoustie goes out and finds an old track iron which had to have been made over 200 years ago, somebody from the R&A will reach down into Hell Bunker or the Swilken Burn and find a club that is older. One envisions genial Laurie Auchterlonie, the honorary professional of St. Andrews, carving and hammering away these days, making an antique putter dated 1742.
What truly matters, of course, is that the whole scene is old—the gray clubhouses and the rolling land, the minute books and the scrolls, the wind and rain, the heather, dunes and swales—everything that makes Scottish golf what it is. It has been said by many that a golfer hasn't played the game until he has gone back where it all was, and where it all still is.
It is a special feeling, I think, that calls the golfer back to Scotland. "Take me to the grave of Old Tom Morris," a voice says. "Drive me around the Road Hole. Show me where the Wee Icemon chipped it in at Carnoustie. Lead me down the long narrow 11th at Troon where Arnie made the 3s. Let me hear the groan of the Spitfire ghosts at Turnberry. Carry me over the Sleepers at Prestwick. Bend me around the archery field at Muirfield. Drown me in these treasures of time."
The Scots themselves relish all this more than anyone. It is in their faces as deeply as it is in their verse. They are constantly writing poems about their bunkers and burns and braes. "The swallows are high in an empty sky, so let's to the tee once more." That kind of thing. It's enough to have a man packing his clubs, tossing his alligators into his suitcase and....
"So let's to the tee once more," I said to the customs official at Prestwick, having deboarded my Pan Am flight from JFK. "The nature of my visit? Well, I have a meeting scheduled with Heather, Whin, Bracken & Broom, one of your very successful brokerage firms."
There was this tour that Keith Mackenzie, the secretary of the R&A, had worked out for me. Fly to Prestwick, an old WWII air base where everybody played Twelve O'Clock High, and motor down the West Coast to Turnberry, the Pebble Beach of Scotland. Stay at the Turnberry Hotel, which is the only thing there and covers a hillside overlooking the course and the Spitfire runways. From Turnberry, he said, one could reach two other famous Scottish links—Troon and Prestwick—simply by driving over the Electric Brae, a road that goes up when it appears to be going down. Cover the West Coast first, said Mackenzie, then move to The Old Course Hotel at St. Andrews, where you can play the Old Course, right outside your window, and then journey north toward Dundee and Carnoustie or south toward Edinburgh and Muirfield.
"This is the best possible route for an American," said Mackenzie.
"But I'm Scottish," I said. "I'm just retracing my steps from a few hundred years before."
"Of course, dear chap," he said. "We're all Scottish when it comes to golf."
"Aye," I said.
"Simply marvelous tour," he said. "You'll see a bit of it all. Turnberry, for example, pitched right there on the Firth of Clyde. Tees practically hanging on the water like Pebble. And Prestwick with those slender fairways and blind shots, and seven bloody 5 pars. Too outdated for the Open Championship, of course, but mind you, the Pine Valley of Scotland in a way. And wonderful Old Troon. The Postage Stamp green. One of the first sharp-angled doglegs. I say, Arnie argued a good case there, didn't he?"
"Aye," I said.
"Then to the East Coast. That's your story," Keith said. "You'll quarter in The Old Course Hotel, naturally, right where the railway sheds were on the Road Hole. Walk out on your terrace and spit in the Principal's Nose, by Jove. With the new bridge you can reach Carnoustie in an hour now. Good old somber Carnoustie, the Barry Burn and all that. And then, of course, there's Muirfield. Marvelous place, Muirfield. Not a burn on it, you see. Just 165 bunkers. You'll see a bit of sand there, I'd guess."
"Aye, Aye," I said.
"Best of luck," he said. "See you at St. Andrews. We'll have a bit of port. It goes well in the Big Room."
For some evil reason, some death wish that perhaps is concealed within us all, the first thing a touring golfer is captivated by in Scotland is the plant life adjacent to all fairways. The heather, whin, bracken and broom. Turn-berry, my first stop, had all of these other landmarks to dwell upon—holes hanging on the Firth of Clyde, as Mackenzie said, the Spitfire runways now bordered by wild flowers, a bird sanctuary on an island off in the distance, the huge hotel on the hill where God Save the Queen reverberates from the orchestra pit in the ballroom at night through all of the tearooms and the RAF monument at the 12th green commemorating those men from Turn-berry's aerial fighting and gunnery school who died in combat. But I was preoccupied with the rough.
You find yourself having this running commentary with your caddie as if he's a botanist in his checkered James Cagney cap, his coat and tie and scruffy face that hasn't been shaved since the last air raid. His name is Jimmy or Peter or Ginger or Tip or Cecil and chances are he caddied for Hagen at Hoylake in 1924.
"What am I in here?" I asked my caddie at Turnberry on the very first hole. "Is this gorse?"
"Not likely," he said. "I think that's a bush."
Your caddie is a warm, friendly man who knows his golf. You swing once and he knows your distances. If he says the shot is "a wee seven," you'd better hit it wee-ly or a dozen of you with machetes won't be able to find the ball behind the green.
Such a hole was the 4th at Turnberry, which bears the name Woe-Be-Tide. It is a 175-yard one-shotter. You practically stand on the firth and hit into a crosswind to a green about as big as your golf bag, with more water on the left and the hounds of the Baskervilles on your right.
"What am I in now?" I asked, having hit a firth-lock safely to the right. "Is this heather?"
"That," he said, "is gorse. You ca'na swing softly, Sir, and be way o' the gorse."
"Gorse is whin, right?"
He said, "Aye, the whins we call it. You ca'na plant the whin and neither will the whin die. The whin is just here where it always was."
I took a forceful swing with a sand iron, moving the ball about one foot, and said, "Don't forget to show me the heather when we find some."
"Aye," he said. "That's heather you're in now."
You can't often find the ball in heather. It is a stubby dwarf plant, all matted and wiry, brown at times, purple at others. You can top a shot with a driver and, whereas in America the ball is likely to run for a hundred or so yards, if in Scotland it finds a cluster of heather only a few yards away, it will go flimp—and either disappear forever or bound straight back to you.
I could see at least half of the ball there in the heather, and I took a full swipe at it with the wedge, so hard that the caddie counted all of the cleats in my shoes and the veins in my legs, and the noise I made sounded like the Luftwaffe had returned to drop another load on the docks at Glasgow.
And the ball didn't move at all.
"When does my hand stop tingling?" I said.
Turnberry has one hole that is more magnificent than all of the others. It is the 9th, 425 yards with a tee sitting back on an island of jagged rock. Water and rock border it on the left where a lighthouse marks the farthest point of the course from the hotel. Off to the right, beyond the plant life, is part of the Spitfire runway. Behind the green is broom and dabs of bracken, which cows won't eat.
One finds in Scotland, however, that if the botany doesn't confuse you, the scorekeeping will. I drove well at the 9th, which means safely onto the close-cropped fescue grass which dominates all Scottish fairways. I reached the small green with one of my rare unshanked four-irons, and I stole a putt of about 20 feet for a 3. Then the trouble began.
"Is this a par-4 hole?" I asked the caddie.
"No, Sir," he said. "It plays to a bogey-5."
"Then I made an eagle," I said.
"It ca'na be an eagle, Sir," he said.
"Well, what's par for the course?"
He said, "Bogey today is about 76."
"But level 4s is 72," I said. "Shouldn't that be what I would call par?"
He thought a minute and said, "I reckon par to be about 74 today."
"What was it yesterday, for instance?" I asked.
"Oh, in that wind, par must have been 77 or so."
I said, "Well, I think I just made an eagle."
"You did na make an eagle, Sir," he said.
"Not exactly a birdie with the helpin' wind, Sir."
"Oh, much better than a par, it was," he said.
"So what the damn hell was it, James Cagney?"
"It was a very good score, Sir. Your first of the round."
There is much to see in the neighborhood of Turnberry and along the route to either Prestwick or Troon, like a castle here and there or a birthplace of Robert Burns, of which there must be a dozen, but never should a visitor miss that hill—that thing—called the Electric Brae. Years ago bicyclists discovered it, one is told. They found themselves forced to pedal sweatily to get uphill when it obviously looked as if the road were going downward into the woods. It is an optical illusion, and you would lose your wallet betting on it. The proof is this: stop the car at a point where you are certain you are headed uphill. Put a golf ball on the road, a shiny new Dunlop 65. It will roll uphill, that's all.
As mysterious as the Electric Brae is, it is no more mysterious than the course at Prestwick, the one where all of those early British Opens were staged beginning in 1860. Your first impression as you gaze out on a wasteland punctuated by a crumbling old stone fence is that this has to be the biggest practical joke in all of golf. "I've got it," you say. You pay your green fee, put down a ball, aim at the world, take four or five steps and are never heard from again.
Consider the 1st hole, only 339 yards. On your right: the stone fence about 10 feet away, separating you from a train that will come chugging by at intervals. On your left: mounds of heather and scrub. Directly in front: wasteland. Absolute wasteland. Small and large clumps of it, sheltered by thin layers of fog. And the caddie hands you a driver. The fairway, presuming one is actually there, can't be more than 20 yards wide but the cadd