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Original Issue

Unseen Hands on My Game


How shall I put this? right in front of me, right in front of my disbelieving eyes, on a dark staircase, in an ancient castle, maybe half a dozen fire snorts from the Loch Ness Monster itself, in the remote reaches of Scotland, there was—and I can just tell you're not going to go for this—an apparition...a ghost...a person of the undead persuasion...a ceased-to-be individual AWOL from the grave...a poltergeist on the wrong side of the television set...a soul with a serious case of unrest. I swear on my first communion medal that this is true.

And, right away, do you know what went through my head? What went through my head was, Well, they told me Royal Dornoch is a haunting place, but this is ridiculous.

I suppose this needs some explaining. I mean that the people who told me to come to Dornoch had called it haunting, as in unforgettably beautiful, which it was—and is. But I didn't know they also meant haunting, as in a certain real estate listing in Amityville haunting. Haunting, as in Kathy, the maid on the fourth floor at the Dornoch Castle Hotel, where I was staying and where I was now, once feeling somebody tugging on the back of her sweater and then turning around to find nobody there. Haunting, as in a certain Andrew MacCormack unexpectedly checking in at the hotel one night, which was a mite strange, considering that Andy had been hanged for stealing sheep 150 years before. Not only that, but while playing one day at the Royal Dornoch Golf Club—which was the reason I had gone there in the first place—I five-putted the 4th green, and I'm quite sure mine weren't the only hands on the putter, if you get my drift.

Then again—and this tells you a lot about Dornoch—I thought, for the privilege of playing legendary Dornoch, perhaps some things have to be endured, and sharing my lodgings with a few frequent fliers from the 19th century was one of them.

DAY 1: Our hero breaks 90 on the planet's 12th-best course and discovers the restorative powers of Sandy's favorite spirit

Golf magazine ranks Dornoch as the 12th-best course in the world, though anyone who has played it knows that that's low. But what are the people at Golf supposed to do, seeing as hardly anyone has ever heard of it? It's like W naming Mrs. Eva Dalrymple of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, as the best-dressed woman in the world. She may be the best dressed, but nobody has ever heard of her. So 12th is as good as she's going to get.

To see the legend for myself, I took part in Dornoch's highly unfamous Golf Week: six days of competition and lessons for the world's golfing impaired—or anyone who signs up and pays the $440 fee. There were 48 men and women on hand last year for the week, and each day we got lessons in the morning, and then in the afternoon we played golf on the third-oldest course in the world (St. Andrews and Leith being even older). By day, the pro, the long-suffering Willie Skinner, described my swing as mostly a horror, but it was at night that things got really scary. That is why I decided to take the problem straight to Sandy.

Sandy Matheson is a caddie at Dornoch, although that's like saying Fawn Hall was in the NSC secretarial pool. Sandy is not just a caddie at Dornoch, he's also the historian, philosopher, part-time bartender, mayor, official greeter, greenskeeper, constable and minister to the sick. He's about 5'6", with a windburned face redder than a red herring. You'll usually find him wearing two or three sweaters, with a "lung starter" (as he calls a cigarette) in the right corner of his mouth, something perpetually funny to say coming out of the other corner and eyes three times too small for his head. In sum, my favorite Scot of all time.

Sandy is 55 years old and has been caddying at Dornoch since he was a kid. Caddying is the most wonderful job in the world if you do it at Dornoch, even if you have to do it for me, which he did (though I did shoot 89 the first day, which, for a 15-handicapper with the wind blowing and who, on the flight over, had to listen to the guy next to him describe his slides from his last trip to Badlands National Monument in South Dakota, was pretty darn good). Sandy spent a lot of time combing through the thorny whins in search of my ball.

"Whatta ya' playin', sir?" he would ask.

"A J. Robert Oppenheimer Allstate Insurance," I would answer.

Sandy wanted me to play well, I suppose, on the theory that the better I played, the better I would tip. So he often tried to school me. When I would get to thinking too much about where my elbow or left knee should be, Sandy would pull me aside and say, "Wee wheels in ya head, sir. You've got to forget those bloody wee wheels, sir."

One time I ignored his advice and went for a par 5 in two, thereby trying to separate the inside of the ball from its cover. Instead, I nearly separated my back from a disk, and the ball flopped to the ground 15 yards ahead like a soggy newspaper. Sandy said, " 'Tis a game of inches, sir, the most important of them being between the two ears."

When I started the day badly, he would say, "Nay worry, sir. Ripe early, rotten early, sir." When I started badly and finished badly, he would mutter, "Some game this, sir."

When I was faced with a delicate putt, he would say, "Now ya must just tickle her, sir." And when I would forget and hit it with all the touch of, say, Marvin Hagler, and roll the ball eight feet past the hole, he would say, "Aye, you had a rush of blood to the head there, you did, sir."

And when I did something really stupid, like the day I five-putted the 4th green, which I still contend was not my fault, I would say something like, "Well, Sandy, that was kind of abominable, wasn't it?" And he would look at the grass and say, "Aye, it's too true, sir."

Through it all, Sandy never uttered complaint one. It was a steady loop and at the end of every day we retired to the bar, and I bought him a medicinal, as he called it. A Maclellan malt whisky—"The finest medicinal ever drunk by man or boy," he said—and we toasted our wounds.

You want smooth? Maclellan is smooth. Maclellan is a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow with velvet seats and brand-new shocks. That night, Sandy and I sat there making love to our Maclellan, and I said to Sandy, "Have you drunk Maclellan all your life?"

And Sandy said, "Not yet."

DAY 2: We broach this business of poltergeists in the local hamlet

"Is Dornoch haunted?" I asked Sandy after we had gone around in a tidy 95.

He finished his medicinal and ordered another one from Len, the bartender. After a long pause, Sandy told me that at the end of the week he would show me something, but until then, "donna' let it worry ya, sir."

So, naturally, I let it worry me—but only at night. During the day, I was falling in love with Dornoch, which is, if you will, par for the course. Most everybody who has ever played Dornoch has had an incurable crush on it.

Bing Crosby had one. Whenever he was in London, he would helicopter up on Sundays. There's a picture in the clubhouse of Bing with all the women in town, which is to say maybe 12 people.

Before the 1980 British Open at Muirfield, Ben Crenshaw flew up to play. When he returned, somebody asked him how he had liked Dornoch.

"I almost didn't come back," said Crenshaw.

Greg Norman made a special trip up from St. Andrews three years ago, and Tom Watson played the course on a Saturday before the British Open one year. He had so much fun that after dinner he sneaked back out and played another 18. (This isn't strange, because during the Scottish summer the sun lingers long into the night.) That evening the weather turned unruly. At one point, the rain was pelting Watson's face and the wind was bending back the flag-sticks. Watson turned to Sandy Tatum, his American partner, and said, "This is the most fun I've ever had playing golf." Which is what one says in good weather, too.

He loved it so much that he played another 18 on Sunday. The crowd following him seemed unusually big for such a remote little town. Midway through the round, Watson turned to Sandy, who was caddying for him, and said, "Doesn't anybody go to church around here?"

And Sandy said, "Well, that would be hard t'day, sir. That's the minister third from the left, sir."

In his book Following Through, Herbert Warren Wind of The New Yorker wrote that only four courses in Scotland merited the coveted three-thistles award: St. Andrews, Muirfield, the Ailsa course at Turnberry and Royal Dornoch. The first three everybody has heard of, the fourth nobody has heard of. The problem is that Dornoch is 60 miles north of the Loch Ness Monster and 15 miles south of Dunrobin Castle, and most folks don't believe any of the three exists. Indeed, most people who visit Scotland to play golf never get as far north as Dornoch, which is farther north than Moscow. Yet the course is open for play every day, including Christmas.

The starter used to be a man named Mike Fenelon, who died last spring. You could have gotten a game almost anytime if you brought a piece of chocolate to Sam, Fenelon's dog. The trick was to put the chocolate on Sam's nose, where Sam would just let it balance until Mike snapped his fingers. Then, in a fraction of a second, Sam would flip it into the air and gobble it up. One time, somebody put a chocolate on Sam's nose and Mike got called away and forgot all about the chocolate and it sat on poor Sam's nose so long it melted. And Sam never even took a lick.

One thing that has held Dornoch back as a golf mecca is that it has never been host to a British Open, and the reasons for that include the very things that make it so beautiful. Many of the holes border cliffs that plummet to the beach, limiting the size of the galleries. And the rough doesn't allow for many spectators, either, because it's not simply rough. Rather, it's mainly thick, thorny bushes called whins, which, when blooming their bright yellow, are the fairest sight you might ever hope to see. Nonetheless, if you get in that rough, it's the equivalent of sitting on your aunt's sewing basket.

"My favorite spot on the course," says Watson, "is the 3rd tee. You walk up a hill from the 2nd green to the 3rd tee and then, when you turn around, the course reveals itself. You see it, the expanse of it, the ocean, the whins in bloom, and you say to yourself, 'My God, there it is.' "

There it is, indeed. Ahead of you, miles of white beach, blue Dornoch Firth all around, the North Sea beyond and, in front of you, the whins in the wind doing a shimmy-shimmy all over a treasure of a links that has sat mostly undiscovered for 400 years.

The good Bishop Robert Stewart played here in 1542, and the course hasn't changed very much since he last holed out. Dornoch was designed by "God himself," as Sandy says, with a little help from Old Tom Morris, who changed a few holes around in 1886. Other than some slight alterations after World War II, it has remained relatively, and happily, unspoiled.

Dornoch may have influenced American golf more than any course in the world, owing to the fact that the great golf architect Donald Ross grew up there. In 1898 Ross emigrated to America and over the next 50 years designed more than 500 courses, including Pinehurst No. 2, one of the consummate courses in the world.

But even Pinehurst curtsies to Dornoch, whose first hole is "a handshake," as Watson calls it, a straight-ahead par-4. The Dornoch Hotel's rock wall borders the left side, and on the right are the blue sky and the bluer-still Dornoch Firth. The next seven holes play toward the North Sea, with the prevailing wind coming from the west. Everywhere, bordering each tight, crisp fairway, are the yellow-and-green whins, and near the driving areas and bordering the greens are bunkers with layered-sod faces. These bunkers can be so cruel that one day my playing partner, a plump Englishman, took five blows to bat the thing out forward. When he was finally out, he collapsed in a fleshy pile on the edge of the bunker and buried his head in his hands.

When playing Dornoch, it behooves one to bring plenty of dimpled spheroids. Once, Sandy embarked on the day's loop with an American, 24 balls and a fifth of Maclellan. On the sixth hole, he was sent back for more balls and more Maclellan.

The 7th hole is the only one from which the water is not visible—this was the hole I played the best, being undistracted by the beach and surf, perhaps. On the clearest of days as you look north along the coast to the village of Golspie, you can see, magically, Dunrobin Castle, which is surely the most castle-y looking castle in the world.

At the 9th, the course hears Len calling from the bar and heads for home. The 9th tee is one of the most majestic in golf, with the waves crashing against the rocks to your left, and whins on your right, as you try, hopelessly, to drive straight uphill with a right-to-left wind blowing across your nose. Most of the holes coming in tickle a cliff that plunges down to the fine sandy beach and the sea, but not the 14th, perhaps the finest bunkerless par-4 in the world. The hard green on a high plateau absolutely screams for a punch shot, which I never hit. The 18th is thirstily uphill. From the tee you can almost see Len pouring the Maclellan into your glass.

Ross's home track didn't treat Sandy and me so well on this day. I shot 95—including a ghastly 45 putts. This caused Sandy to begin looking askance at my new Dave Pelz putter, the one with three fake balls lined up behind the blade, and caused both of us to retire to more than one Maclellan.

Len was reminded of the time a fellow sat down at the bar and said, "Maclellan, if you please."

"Water?" Len asked.

"Only if there's room," the gentleman said.

DAY 3: We come face-to-face with the Mussel Skitter and hear something go bump in the room above

If you must know, Dornoch is 6,577 yards long, par 70, though both numbers mean absolutely nothing, seeing as when the wind blows, which is most of the time, a five-iron can go 250 yards or 60. On this day, the winds were fierce enough to turn Quasimodo into a six-footer, which should convey how good my 91 was, though Sandy didn't seem all that impressed. He was especially grumpy about my 36 putts (including three three-putts) and began leering at my newfangled putter as if he were planning to do it harm, though my own confidence in it remained unshaken.

On the 9th hole, with the wind blowing, I was feeling rather good about my drive until Sandy said, "Two more like tha' an' ya' wonna' be far away, sir." This reminded me of something a famous Scottish caddie once said to Henry Longhurst as they approached a long par-4 on a particularly windy day. "It'll take three good ones to be on in two t'day, sir." Exactly.

So windy is it at Dornoch that when Eric Brown, the fine Scottish pro, was asked what was the toughest shot on the course, he answered, "The second to the 2nd."

The 2nd is a par-3.

To play in such wind, you will find Sandy's Mussel Skitter invaluable. The Mussel Skitter is used on days when it is so windy that a lofted iron shot could prove dangerous to you and your playing entourage. Instead, Sandy advised, employ the Mussel Skitter—top a five-iron in the general direction of the hole and watch that sucker run. Funny, all my life I had been playing the Mussel Skitter and never even knew it.

When I got back to the Dornoch Castle Hotel, which is 800 and some years old, I took to researching the disquieting question of spirits (not the liquid kind) in my very quiet room—no telephone, no TV, no radio, and, hardest of all to believe, no Spectravision. The castle was once a public building, and the room that is now the bar was the town court. Scores of people Were sentenced to death in that room and, legend has it, there are bloodstains behind the dado.

As I was reading, the sheep began bleating in the pasture behind the hotel. Have you ever heard a sheep bleat? It's not the sort of thing you want to hear around midnight while you're reading about death sentences and bloodstains.

Maybe it was my heightened state of paranoia but, suddenly, just as I got to the part about the death sentences, I heard banging on the ceiling. If a person who is supine can be said to leap, I leapt. The next morning I approached the reception-desk attendant.

"I'm in Room 4," I said, "and there was quite a lot of banging in the room above me last night and I was just wondering if maybe you could tell the person that...."

"I'm sorry, sir," she said. "There's nobody in the room above you."

DAY 4: We learn anew why golf at Dornoch bears little resemblance to the member-guest tournament at the Ypsilanti Country Club

The sight of that strange putter in my hand was beginning to give Sandy a facial tic. He thinks it's a dumb American idea that three fake balls behind the blade could help anyone line up putts. And he doesn't see the point of trying to line up four balls when you can't even manage it with one. After the way I had putted—39 more stabs today, including a four-whack and two three-whacks—I was inclined to agree. At one point, I was so mad I was ready to throw my clubs off the cliff and myself after them.

Sandy probably would have approved, because it would have speeded up play. In Scotland, play is very fast. If a round at Dornoch takes more than three hours, the peace-loving locals might be given to rioting. The Scots usually play match golf and generally couldn't give a farthing about their final scores. "What'd ya shoot today?" is as foreign to them as kippered herring for breakfast is to us. Americans are fanatical about finishing every hole, marking every last stroke, even when the hole has already been lost. The final number is everything, too. Scots are just faster, period. There is not a man, woman or child in Scotland who arrives at his ball, sets up, gets his grip juuuuuuust right, waggles 10 or 12 times, takes the club back and then lets go his Gene Littler swing—as practice—the way Americans maddeningly do. The Scots hit it, find it, and hit it again.

They are simple people that way. Stubborn, too. The people in a place as remote and small as Dornoch are unswayed by the decades. The names stay the same, only the faces change. For instance, the current town doctor took his father's place. For 40 years in Dornoch, if you got sick, a Dr. MacLeod has come to your house. Willie Skinner has been the head pro for almost 30 years. His dad was the secretary of the club for 15 years. Dr. John Grant is club captain. His dad was the head pro and greenskeeper for 50 years.

Dornoch is a club without pretension. Sandy, the caddie, and Dr. Grant, the captain, can sit down and have a Maclellan in the clubhouse without anybody's nose getting out of joint. Golf at Dornoch is also cheap, and Sandy is a member. An international membership costs about $95 a year, which is $30 less than it costs to play one round at Pebble Beach.

But remember, a Scottish caddie is smarter than you are. A buddy of Sandy's was out on a raw, wet day carrying the bag of a particularly thrifty Englishman who kept taking sips of a restorative from his flask without offering any to the caddie. The man played 36 holes that day, and toward the end of the afternoon the greens were starting to get especially soggy.

As he set up for a wedge shot, the Englishman pulled out his flask again for a swig and said, "Say, caddie, what's the driest spot here?"

And the caddie said, "Well, sir, you could try the back of my throat."

DAY 5: The newfangled putter doesn't quite make it all the way to Norway, and we learn more scary things than we had wanted to know

Thirty-six putts today, including three three-putts on the last three holes.

"Holy woollies, sir," Sandy said after the round. "That putter would do ya' betta at the bottom of the sea, if I may say so, sir."

I agreed, so I took the blasted thing to the beach and tried to throw it across the North Sea. "Aye, sir. Let the water kelpies have it, sir," Sandy said.

"Water kelpies?"

"Aye, sir." Water kelpies, it seems, are the spirits of the ocean Scottish kids believe bring about the drowning of wayfarers. "Like your bogeyman, sir."

And I thought, Is Rod Serling on this trip?

In the hotel bar that night, I asked Michael Ketchin, the proprietor—who runs a splendid place, otherwise—the question flat out. "Tell me," I said, "is your hotel haunted?"

"Oh, yes," he said. "Or so people say."

And with that, he took me on a tour of the haunt, as it were. Indeed, he confirmed that there is a bloodstain behind the dado, and took me to an upstairs room in which there had been a recent sighting.

In 1974 a guest apparently saw a transparent man wearing britches (shorts), padding down the hall and into this very room. He called the proprietor, who came with his dog. They went into the room, but found nothing. The dog, however, refused to enter the room. He stayed at the door-sill and whined. "I sleep here now," said Mr. Ketchin, who must be nuts.

This wasn't the only oddity. In 1890 the sheriffs wife saw a ghost walking right down the middle of the main street. Plus, there was the aforementioned incident with Mr. MacCormack. A priest exorcised the whole place in 1922, but it didn't seem to help. There was the incident with Kathy, the maid, and her sweater and, in 1980, the incident of the live-in chef who heard footsteps in the hallway, yet, when he went to look, found nobody.

As much as I preferred not to, I went with Ketchin to the cellar, where a dungeon has been turned into a wine cellar. (Any way you look at it, the room has seen some serious fermenting.) The door was a foot thick, and the keyhole accommodated a missing giant key, not unlike one you might see hung from the belt of Friar Tuck.

"People are always talking about the secret passageways between here and the cathedral [across the street]," Ketchin said, "but I've run the place for years and I've not found any yet."

Secret passageways? Dungeons? Ghosts?

Whatever Sandy was going to show me the next day, I was quite sure I didn't want to see it.

DAY 6: We witness a five-putt and learn Sandy's secret, which, all in all, makes for a very lousy night's sleep.

If I hadn't changed putters, I believe Sandy would have changed players. One of my partners told me that the day before, as I stood over an eight-inch putt, Sandy had turned to him and whispered, "He's got every chance to one-putt from here, sir." But now I had a new putter, purchased at Willie Skinner's shop. Thus I felt rejuvenated for the big final day, when we students were to engage in a medal-play tournament from the very tees Norman and Crenshaw and Watson had played. I immediately went out and birdied the 1st hole, made a 12-footer for bogey on the 2nd and parred the 3rd with a 20-footer. It was clear that Sandy and I and my new putter were going to win this thing, and with it the new graphite driver that was first prize.

And that is when I came to the par-4 4th hole, lying three, some 30 feet from the cup. My first putt was a rush of blood to the head and went eight feet by. My second putt went three feet by. My third putt lipped out. Holy woollies, another four-putt, I thought. At that point, a strange feeling came over me and, for some inexplicable reason, I blacked out and backhanded it away from the hole. All those years of buddy golf must have created a tragic habit. On a four-inch putt like that, I was accustomed to batting it away and scooping it up. Now I had a four-footer just to five-putt.

Sandy stood there in horror, looking as though I had just gone through the reception line at Buckingham Palace, taken the Queen's hand and put my used Juicy Fruit in it. We both knew immediately that I could forget the driver and would be lucky to win a bag towel. However, I did sink that fifth putt, which has to go down as one of the best-sunk fifth putts in history.

I finished third and won a bag towel.

Sandy comforted me by buying the Maclellan afterward. Figuring, What could be worse, I finally asked if he was now going to show me what he had promised to show me at the beginning of the week. "Aye," he said, and, as the sun began to clock out, we headed past the graveyard that guards the drive up to the clubhouse and made for the Struie Course, nine holes used for practice and by beginners. On the 8th hole there was a little wooden house. In the backyard was a stone inscribed 1722.

"What does that mean?" I asked.

It meant, Sandy explained, that at that site, in 1722, the last witch in Scotland had been burned. Her name was Janet Home, and she had been accused of turning her daughter into a pony and riding her to the witches' meeting place to have her shod by the devil. The most incriminating evidence against her was that on one of her hands two fingers were joined together. That was more than enough to convict, so they fricasseed her in a barrel of tar right there—a six-iron from the tee.

Next to the ominous stone was a tricycle. "Who lives here now?" I asked.

"The greenskeeper and his family," Sandy said.

And before that? Mr. Grant, the longtime pro, and before that, they say, Donald Ross occupied the house. And where does the greenskeeper's wife work? Dornoch Castle. So there it was. The connection. Golf and goblins were inextricably connected. Dornoch and dungeons. Pars and poltergeists. They were all one. And I was here for both. Maybe the knocking was trying to tell me something.

"Tell me, Sandy," I asked. "Kathy, the maid whose sweater was...."

"She married my cousin," said Sandy.

I didn't like the grin on his face.

That night, returning from the final banquet, my bag towel and I were beat, so we came in the back way and up a staircase I had never used. The hallway lights were out, and I was creeping along, searching for stair rails and doorknobs. I opened the door at the top of the stairs, and that's when I saw her.

She was tall and dark and wore white flowing robes that the wind was pressing up against her legs. In the moonlight, I could see that she was staring at me, blank-eyed. I slammed the door shut. Of all the luck. First I five-putt, and now I get an ex-human for a hall monitor. I opened the door again, a crack. She was still standing there in the same position. I searched for a light switch, but found none. She still hadn't moved.

I opened the door and slunk into the room, reminding myself that I was doing exactly what I had yelled at the main characters not to do in every horror flick I had ever seen. You know, you say to yourself, Unless you want to wear a blood clot for a face, you better not go in there! Run, you imbecile! And then they go right on in there.

Inch by inch, I nudged closer, barely breathing...closer...closer...until I could get a good look at her face and see...that she was...a...mannequin.

A mannequin! I touched her face. My hair was grayed, my life shortened for a factory-formed dummy stashed in a back room.

The next morning, checking out, I inquired none too politely about the mannequin. The proprietor's wife said that they put her there for no particular reason except, "just to show people what the 1800s were like."

Next time, maybe a snapshot would do as well.

On the flight home, I drifted in and out of sleep. I began to half-dream, half-think. Was Dornoch real at all? Could I have been trapped in a strange three-dimensional, par-70 paradise-hell? Were the people real? Was Sandy real? It occurred to me that I never really did see the pupils of his eyes. Was the castle real? Royal Dornoch? After all, how could a place so glorious, so historic, so gorgeous, be so colossally unknown? And how could I make people believe in Dornoch any more than they believed in the Loch Ness Monster? And even if all those questions could be answered, the most important one still lay ahead.

Can we get a miniseries out of it?