YOU might not think of golf as a sensual sport, but when actor Kyle MacLachlan – whose first venture before the cameras was as the star of David Lynch's movie Blue Velvet – was growing up in Yakima, Washington, it was the smell, the shape and the feel of the game's accoutrements that piqued his curiosity.
"My dad is a golfer, so my brothers and I grew up around it. From an early age, I remember the clubs, the smell of the leather gloves and of the golf bag. I remember the leather grips, which my father used to clean in hot water and then with a wire brush, so that we'd be able to hold the club – all those tactile things. And, of course, when you're little, the objects are very different, those clubs, grips and tees, and you're intrigued by them"
That initial training, from about the age of seven, was fleeting and informal: the odd lesson from his dad, or an occasional session with the local club's pro. MacLachlan admits he developed less than stellar form as a result. "I pretty much grew up emulating what I saw, and therefore my swing has great flaws. I don't think those tendencies ever leave you. I think they're always in there and you just work hard to banish them. I think your best golfers are the guys who have all these natural motions and positions; they're already there and they just improve on them. Mine, unfortunately, were not really good."
Some two decades passed in which he rarely touched a club, but all that changed when he took part in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship and fell in love with golf all over again. And, believe it or not, he owes it all to Jack Nicholson.
"Playing in the first tournament in 2001 started me back on a golf pilgrimage, which I'm trying to write about, to see if it might make a book. It's about the whole learning journey, about coming here and being partnered with Paul McGinley, and that experience for a novice golfer, having never played with a professional before, never been to a professional tournament before, and soaking up that vibe.
"I was only here because I'd played in a tournament Michael Douglas set up to raise money for charity. Jack Nicholson had dropped out and they'd heard that I played golf. Everyone from that tournament was invited to come play in this one. Even though it wasn't long after September 11, I wasn't deterred. My rationale was that it was probably one of the safest times to fly."
MacLachlan, who plays off a nine handicap, says that having learned to play in the 1970s, when equipment was very different, his swing was very old style, influenced by Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller.
"The equipment now is more rotational," he explains. "The old swing was very upright and you sort of leveraged against your back and body. There was a lot of movement in the body to maximise what the clubs could do."
Appalled by seeing a video of his swing for the very first time – it wasn't at all the way he pictured it – MacLachlan took a kind of monkey see, monkey do approach, studying the professionals and what made their swings different from his own. By his own admission, however, his is a constant battle against his "handsy" tendencies.
But being a perpetual student might explain why golf never bores him. "You have to be clever and think about how you're going to approach a hole. Maybe golf's not boring for me because I don't know enough to always be in the right place, so I'm always playing the course from different places."
There's an extra thrill about playing in Scotland, he says. "There's the historical element. You do feel like you're walking on hallowed ground, to a certain degree." That, and he's a great fan of British banter. "You're quick with the one-liners, and everyone seems to have a nickname. Mine might be Slicey, maybe."
MacLachlan turned 50 in February, but apart from a slightly stiff gait on entering the room, I have to say he's looking good on it. He's slender, and his face is relatively unlined. The famous coif remains lustrous and bountiful, and what grey hair he does have manages to look more like blond highlights – though maybe they are highlights, he's a Hollywood star, after all.
In other words, there are none of the dark circles and furrowed-brow creases you might associate with a man whose son, Callum, is just over a year old. Was it traumatic turning 50? And what's it like being a first- time dad at this stage in his life? "Fifty was really… not a big thing, I don't think. Callum is a complete joy. I really miss him. He's at that age when he's walking and saying, 'Da da da da,' barrelling around the corner and reaching up to me, the sorts of things that make your heart melt."
His most famous liaison was six years with supermodel Linda Evangelista in the 1990s, but when he was 42 or 43 (he can't remember, precisely), MacLachlan married Desiree Gruber, a PR professional who's worked with the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Heidi Klum. They waited seven years before starting a family, though in that time they adopted two dogs, Mookie and Sam, who have their own website.
"Becoming a dad was something I'd wanted to do for a while," says MacLachlan. "What I'm surprised about is just how deep the feelings go; it's almost, if you allow it to be, it can be overwhelming, your concern and your worry that they'll be okay. And then, just the sheer pleasure of their company. Nothing that they do or say, certainly at this age, is any problem."
Off the links, MacLachlan divides his time between New York and Los Angeles, where he's part of the all-star cast of Desperate Housewives, now in its sixth season (he joined at the end of season two). "It's like a family, in a way, but what's really great about (this job] is that the quality of writing is very high, and the writing staff so exceptional. Marc Cherry works very hard to keep that level of proficiency. It's not easy in the television world, which demands that writers churn out 23 stories every year."
It was a stroke of genius, I say, moving the action along five years between seasons four and five. He agrees. "It was a really clever idea – for everyone. For the fans, for the actors and for the writers. Not all bets were off, but there was a lot of stuff transformed. We got that same kind of response from a lot of other shows, like 'Damn! Why didn't we think of that?'"
Two films wait in the wings as well. One, the brainchild of brothers Mark and Mike Polish, is called Manure. With a completely straight face, he tells me that it's "a very unusual story about manure companies in the 1960s. It's a great film, visually stunning, because we shot everything indoors."
Really? And is it all, um, brown? He nods and smiles. "All shades of brown. And all done with these beautiful panoramas that look like you're outside, but it's actually painted on the wall, with these amazing perspectives painted to look as though the backdrop goes off into the distance." With co-stars like Tea Leoni and Billy Bob Thornton, this might be the first time he's ever been a contender to be the normal one. MacLachlan laughs again. "Oh, thank you. I've found my wheelhouse."
The other film, directed by Bruce Beresford and also starring Joan Chen, is called Mao's Last Dancer. It sounds like Billy Elliot with chopsticks and is based on the autobiography of Li Cunxin, a boy from rural China who is chosen by one of Madame Mao's cultural delegates to go to ballet school in Beijing. While on a cultural exchange to Texas, Li Xunxin defected, and went on to become a principal dancer for the Houston Ballet and the Australian Ballet.
MacLachlan wants to wind down our interview. The sun's peeking out and he's keen to meet up with his professional partner and start practising. While he's posing for pictures, I teasingly inquire whether he has any silly golfing outfits.
"I have a pair of plaid trousers," he replies. "They may get an airing."
See that they do, I urge. But as one American to another, let me offer this bit of advice: When in Scotland, be sure you call it tartan.
• The Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, at St Andrews from today until Sunday, is played over 72 holes of strokeplay, with one 18-hole round each day. In total, 168 professionals and 168 amateurs take part in the event, which is played in teams of two, comprising one professional and one amateur.
• Two competitions run concurrently: an individual tournament for the professionals and a team competition. Total prize money runs to $5 million.
• Among the celebrities competing this year are Ronan Keating, Greg Kinnear, Hugh Grant, Franz Klammer, Jamie Redknapp and Tim Henman.
• The professionals taking part include Robert Karlsson, Nick Dougherty, Colin Montgomerie and Luke Donald.