THE road to greatness hugs the Edinburgh-Glasgow railway line, turns off the main drag and dips down through a tunnel before climbing up, across the 18th fairway and on towards the car park. “Welcome to Bathgate Golf Club,” it says on the black, cast-iron sign. “Home of two Ryder Cup captains.”
It used to be a unique claim to fame. Eric Brown and Bernard Gallacher, both Bathgate Bairns, gave the club an honour shared by no other until 2006, when Ian Woosnam led Europe to victory at the K Club. He and Harry Weetman, Great Britain captain in 1965, had both been members of Oswestry.
Still, Bathgate was not to be outdone. Stephen Gallacher isn’t captain – yet – but, when he tees it up at Gleneagles this week, he will become the third graduate of the West Lothian club to play in the Ryder Cup, a remarkable strike rate for any golf course, never mind one at the heart of a former mining community with a population of just 15,000.
In the clubhouse last week, there were no saltires or union flags, only the blue of Europe, with its 12 yellow stars. Between the bunting were the portraits that have hung for years, of Brown and the Gallachers. Then there was the Ryder Cup cabinet, with its photos, memorabilia and a faded team jacket, worn by Brown during the 1969 match at Royal Birkdale.
It is, as Bernard Gallacher admits, quite a history of achievement in golf’s biggest and most exclusive event, one that can be attributed not to something in the Bathgate air, but to the club’s junior section, a little bit of luck and, perhaps more than anything, a man whose flair and fiery temper blazed a trail for Scottish golf in the 1950s.
“I think we can put it mainly down to Eric Brown,” says Gallacher. “He was the person who inspired me and a lot of kids like me. We had a very strong junior section at Bathgate, and still do. They all want to follow in Stephen’s footsteps, just as Stephen wanted to follow in mine. But I wanted to follow in Eric’s, which is really how it all started.”
Born in 1925, Brown grew up in Bathgate, where his father taught technical studies. Their home, in Stuart Terrace, was just across the tracks from the golf club. Before he was old enough to attend school, Eric would take a cut-down hickory club and play a few holes with his mother. In his teens, he was dragged over to the ninth green, where he and his father spent long winter nights practising under the floodlights of the marshalling yards.
As a man, he was the best Scottish golfer of his generation. Like Colin Montgomerie, he never won the Open, but the Ryder Cup was his major. He played in four of them between 1953 and 1959, winning his singles match every time, most famously an ill-tempered, club-throwing affair with Tommy Bolt at Lindrick.
At around the same time, Bernard was growing up in Hamilton Road, a short walk from the golf club. His family could not afford lavish holidays, so he spent most of his summers on the course, squeezing in three rounds a day when light allowed. His biggest influence was Watt Renton, an uncle for whom he caddied on Friday nights, but his idol was Eric Brown.
“Eric was everyone’s hero, not just in Bathgate, but in Scotland,” says Gallacher. “He and John Panton led the way, but Eric was a little better, and certainly more volatile. My father and I used to go and watch him whenever we could, at Royal Burgess or the Open. He was an inspiration to all of us.”
By the time Gallacher had turned professional, Brown was captain of Great Britain at the 1969 Ryder Cup. He made Gallacher, his 20-year-old wild card, the youngest player ever to appear in the match. Not only did the rookie beat Lee Trevino in the singles, he played in seven more Ryder Cups, and was captain in three others, the last of which was a historic win for Europe at Oak Hill in 1995.
All of which served to motivate yet another golfer from the Bathgate production line. Stephen, Bernard’s nephew, used to bunk off PE lessons and head for the course, where he would sneak a go at the fruit machines when no one was looking. A fine amateur player, his professional career was a slow-burner, hampered by fragile putting and maybe the aching need to emulate his uncle.
Now, in his 40th year, it has all come together for Stephen, who fulfilled his lifelong ambition with a campaign so courageous under pressure that Paul McGinley, the European captain, had little option but to pick him. In the first Ryder Cup to be held in Scotland since 1973, just 40 miles from where he grew up, Gallacher will be the team’s only Scot. “The onus was on Stephen to represent Scotland, and he rose to the challenge,” says Bernard. “That was good for Stephen, it was good for Scotland, but it was especially good for Bathgate.”
His club has been revelling in the news. Even before he made the team, there were raffles, dinners and pro-ams, but today, the festivities will culminate in the Eric Brown-Bernard Gallacher Challenge, a Ryder Cup-style match involving a mixture of members and celebrities, including Gallacher, his 1971 team-mate, Harry Bannerman, and Eric’s daughter, Colleen.
Next weekend, a healthy Bathgate contingent is expected to be at Gleneagles, but the many who have not been lucky enough to acquire tickets will be back at the clubhouse. On the Sunday, an early, shotgun start has been arranged so that they can all retire to the lounge and watch Stephen in the singles. It is sure to be a passionate, noisy affair, the kind of day Bathgate was made for.
The club’s surroundings are not quite the eyesore they used to be, with the slag heaps and the coal bings gone, together with the steel foundry and the BMC truck and tractor factory, but its location, plumb in the centre of a working-class area, makes it a people’s club, within walking distance of the town’s population. “There are plenty other clubs available as a status symbol, and that’s entirely up to them,” says Gerry Flannigan, the club secretary. “But here, it’s just guys who want to play golf.”
It also happens to be a pretty good course, a 6,328-yard, par-71 layout, which Sam Torrance once negotiated in 58 strokes. The views are not so great, but Flannigan likes to joke that, if their heathland track was relocated to Perthshire, it would be an acclaimed destination.
“Even though it’s quite small, it tests all your shots,” says Gallacher. “It tests your drives, it tests your iron play and I think that’s why people like myself, Stephen and a lot of other players – we have a lot of scratch players at Bathgate, you know – have been well prepared when they have moved elsewhere.”
Of course, Bathgate has its challenges, like every other golf club in the land. Five-hour rounds are a turn-off for prospective members, and the bar doesn’t make money like it used to. Gallacher jokingly blames the narrow tunnel, which is the course’s only entrance and exit. “It prevents a lot of people from drink-driving,” he says. “It must be a sobering thought, standing at the 19th, wondering if you will make it through there with the car.”
Family names transcend the generations. Stephen’s dad, Jim, is running the Ryder Cup celebrations, and his 13-year-old son, Jack, was in one of their recent junior finals. When Bernard collapsed at a dinner in Aberdeen last year, Flannigan’s sister, a qualified nurse, was among those who fought to keep him alive. A defibrillator has since been installed at the club where it all started. “I’m still around,” says Gallacher. “You could say that Bathgate made me and saved me.”
It is the kind of story that makes you wonder if a Ryder Cup-winning putt by Gallacher will be in the script at Gleneagles next Sunday. Just by making the team, Stephen has already motivated Bathgate’s latest dreamers, lads like Joe Bryce, a 16-year-old who was capped by Scotland in the summer.
“It’s in Bathgate’s DNA,” says Gallacher. “When you go in there and see pictures of me and Eric Brown and all the Ryder Cup memorabilia, it can only inspire the club’s youngsters. Stuart Callan, the club pro, presides over 90 juniors, and they’re all good. I don’t think Stephen will be the end of it. Down the line, I think there will be others.”