2014 Ryder Cup: Golf embodies Scots temperament

The 9th hole at Gleneagles, home of the 2014 Ryder Cup. Picture: Getty
The 9th hole at Gleneagles, home of the 2014 Ryder Cup. Picture: Getty
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THE Ryder Cup tees off on Friday and Gleneagles will be ready. The greens have been clipped, a meteorologist has been employed to monitor weather patterns, and – one likes to imagine – a chocolate of the most exquisite sort will have been placed on Rory McIlroy’s pillow.

The grand old resort has been planning to host golf’s great spectacle since 2001 and everything must be just so. The tournament, contested every two years between the best golfers of the US and Europe, is a global event worth more than £80 million to the Scottish economy; it will be watched by a worldwide television audience of 700 million and attract crowds of 45,000 every day. It’s big, ken?

But there is something about the scale and glitz of the Ryder Cup, marvellous as it is, that is not quite true to the spirit of Scottish golf. It feels too corporate, too corporeal, lacking the numinous quality of Scotland’s gowfing soul. To find that, and to understand it properly, we must leave behind the rolling hills of Perthshire and seek enlightenment elsewhere. Of course, the idea of a golf pilgrimage is nothing new. Tourism companies use the word to market trips to St Andrews, Dornoch, Nairn. As Carly Booth, one of Scotland’s best young female golfers puts it: “This is the home of golf. We have a number of the best courses in the world. It’s a place where every golfer wants to come.”

But what about a pilgrimage that sought the spirit in the people who love the game? Those men and women who carry Scottish golf in their hearts and bones? It is, after all, a sport which was not only invented in Scotland (kind of, as we shall see) but which, in a way, embodies aspects of the national character.

Andrew Greig, the poet and novelist, has thought deeply about this and has written about it in an excellent book, Preferred Lies, which describes a journey around Scotland, playing golf, while recovering from a near fatal illness of the brain. He played 18 courses, from North Ronaldsay to Dollar, and grew to understand golf as almost an expression of the Presbyterian mindset. Golf, for Greig, is as Scottish as pessimism and heart disease, alcohol and guilt, and he adores it.

“Golf is, in essence, a solitary pursuit played alone with oneself and an invisible conscience,” he says. “If you cheat, you know, even as an atheist, that your soul is in peril. My father was a very strong atheist, but he got that over to me: to cheat is to sin at a deep level. This is very Scottish, whether you are religious or not; something to do with the conscience and the self.

“But also, golf is extremely social. The etiquette is not an add on, it is absolutely embedded in the game; and part of that etiquette is watching your opponent’s ball and helping them find it. I can think of no other game when this is what is expected of you. You don’t fidget, you don’t cough, you exercise consideration and courtesy. So it’s an individual game that has a strong social and connected element. And I like to think that is a particularly Scottish combination. Also, and this is slightly more flippant but nevertheless I think I mean it, golf is a form of self-tormenting. It causes extraordinary amounts of self-inflicted pain, and unlike other games, you can’t blame anybody else. My father again used to say: ‘Your mistakes are yours alone.’ That’s a very Scottish thing. No excuses. You messed up. It was your failure of nerve. That reflects our temperament.”

Fascinating to think that golf might embody, for good or ill, the culture in which it developed. Certainly, the profound connection between the Scots and the landscape, the idea that our propensity for melancholy and bursts of intense joy may be shaped by the bleakness and beauty around us, is relevant to the game. Golf course construction is a multi-million pound industry, with architects now travelling deep into Asia and the Middle East, commanding huge fees for their expertise in bunkers, water hazards, undulating fairways and how best to grow and maintain greens in the midst of deserts and gleaming supercities. But all of these features, the very look of golf, developed out of the Scottish countryside itself, in particular from the sandy, grassy, hillocky, well-drained grazing land of the East Lothian and Fife coast.

The first bunkers, around which there has grown up a whole specialism of technological know-how, began as simple hollows in which sheep would lie in shelter from the weather, grazing lazily until the sand beneath the grass was exposed, the wind scooping the depression further when the beast moved on. This verdant coastal fringe, this linksland, cropped short by sheep and shorter by rabbits, was found to be an excellent playing surface for a new game, golf.

We got golf from the Dutch, it’s thought. Since the late Middle Ages, Scottish traders had been frequent visitors to Holland, and vice versa. The Dutch had a game called colf which was played with a leather ball and a stick in streets, churchyards, public squares and – during the Little Ice Age of the 16th and 17th centuries – on ice. The Scots, seeing this played, adapted it to suit the landscape. The other great Scottish innovation came in 1848: the gutta-percha, or “guttie”, ball – made from rubber, cheap and quick to manufacture. This allowed the game to spread quickly. In 1850, there were only 15 golf courses in the world, most of them on the east coast of Scotland; by the start of the 20th century there were 3,000 all over the world.

The great historian of the game in Scotland is Archie Baird. He lives in Aberlady and, although he is 90 years old, at least twice each week golfs at Gullane, where he also runs a small private museum dedicated to the sport. Baird owns the greatest private collection of historic golf memorabilia in the world. When I meet him at home, he shows me the treasures of his collection – 50 or so 19th century golf clubs, each of which he considers as delicate and graceful as a Stradivarius violin. What he values in them is not their age and certainly not their financial worth (about £2,000 each), but rather the fact that each ash shaft has been handled and worn by a golfer who found joy in the object and its use. Pleasure, over the decades, has been rubbed into the grain like oil.

Baird is a remarkable man. A retired vet, he served during the Second World War as a fighter pilot, though, like many of his generation, he has no wish to discuss combat missions. He started off flying Hurricanes, but “one day the commanding officer said, ‘Have we any volunteers for gliders?’ And I had got a bit mixed up with a young widow in Harrogate and thought this was the best way out.” He has kept a log of all his flights and continues to maintain a log of his thousands of golf scores. Runways, fairways, it’s all part of life’s rich mix.

His golf mania began by accident, in the early 1950s. “I married the right woman,” he smiles. “I married Sheila Park.” This was the great-granddaughter of Old Willie Park, the Musselburgh caddy who won the very first Open Championship, at Prestwick in 1860; his son, Young Willie Park, another Open champion, became an influential businessman, designing golf courses around the world and manufacturing clubs.

“Sheila and I fell heir to a big basement flat in the middle of Edinburgh and began to try to furnish it with very little money,” Baird recalls. “So we haunted the lane sales and junk shops and bought Victorian furniture for practically nothing. Then, one day, mooching about in the sale down at the bottom of Dundas Street, I spied an old bag of golf clubs…” Baird noticed that these clubs were signed, “W. Park” – Sheila’s grandfather. This was too delicious a coincidence to resist, so he bought them for a few shillings, a life-changing impulse. “Nobody wanted them in those days, so I got plenty of clubs. I began carrying them off in bundles and stuck them in our wine cellar.”

His Heritage of Golf museum, which can be toured by appointment, opened in 1980 and is an interactive affair. Baird especially enjoys being able to say to female visitors: “This is the only museum in the world where you’re allowed to handle the curator’s balls.”

Ah, women. Golf’s reputation as a stuffed-shirt bastion of male privilege continues to be reinforced in the public mind by the refusal of a few clubs, notably Muirfield and Royal Troon, to change their men-only policy.

Lady golfers, to use the rather prim phrase, are by no means a recent phenomenon. Mary Queen of Scots is said to have played the game in Musselburgh in 1567, in the same week her husband Darnley was murdered. In 1811, that town’s Old Course was the scene of the first ever tournament for female golfers, the Musselburgh fishwives, for whom carrying a bag of clubs was, presumably, little effort, being so used to piggy-backing husbands to and from their boats.

Jane Connachan is not a fishwife, but she is a coal-miner’s daughter. Her father Robin, who worked in the pits at Dalkeith and Monktonhall, loved to play golf in his spare time. The Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation owned the course at Royal Musselburgh, making the fees affordable to working men. Connachan is now 50, but she recalls those early days with great clarity.

“I wanted to be with my dad all the time, so he would take me along,” she says. “He would sit me on his trolley and pull me around the course. I actually started playing when I was four. I remember my first golf club was an old cut-down hickory five iron from the local scrap merchant, Sammy Burns. And my first golf bag was a leg out my dad’s jeans that my mum made for me.”

She had a natural talent. The game came easy to her right from the start. She could see that her ability pleased her father, and that pleased her. She played in her first major competition when she was ten – the British Girls, in Dunbar. People started to use the words “child prodigy” in relation to her game. She first played for Scotland at the age of 15, going on to become Scottish junior champion. She twice played in the Curtis Cup, the female equivalent of the Ryder Cup, and turned professional in 1984, at the age of 20, going on to win five titles on the European tour.

But it was as a pro that things started to go wrong. She’d been under pressure since before her teens, and it began to catch up in the form of stress. Then her father’s death in 1986 was a terrible blow. By the time Connachan was 27, she was burned out. Andrew Greig’s comment about the masochistic pain of golf, about it being a form of “self-tormenting” – she felt that. She could feel her standard of play slipping away, and she couldn’t seem to do anything about it. Getting herself angry no longer worked; at one time, the surge of adrenaline would act as a sort of fuel-injection, raising her game. But now it was just anger to no effect, and it left her wanting to cry. Sometimes, standing on the first tee, she wanted to scream. She would thump the heads of clubs until her hand was black and blue. Once, she raked her nails across her forehead, drawing blood.

“I’d got to a point where I just couldn’t give any more,” she says. “I didn’t have any sports psychologists or anything like they have now. And of course my greatest mentor, my dad, had died. I think I really, really needed him, just to say, ‘Come on, Jane, this is a load of nonsense. Have you hit your hundred balls today? Have you practised?’ It was huge losing him. At the time, you think you’re getting over it, but I think I probably played most of my golf for him as much as I was playing for myself. I had nobody pushing me and no one to play for.”

In 1992, Connachan quit the tour for the sake of her sanity. She trained and qualified to become a coach, but it was getting on for ten years before she started playing golf courses again for fun. She is a club professional at Kingsfield, near Linlithgow, and works with the Stephen Gallacher Foundation, encouraging and developing junior golfers. The past few years have been, for her, a falling back in love with golf. Theirs was only a trial separation.

Now, one of her great joys is to play the nine-hole Old Course at Musselburgh, where she senses the shades of Old Willie Park, Old Tom Morris, and to play it with old hickory clubs, thus reconnecting herself with both her own early days and the early days of the game. Standing there, swinging her wooden clubs on that ancient field of play, she feels a certain purity – the pure idea of Scottish golf, untainted by money or competition – in the moment she makes connection with the sweet spot of the ball. “And oh,” she says, “it’s just the best feeling in the world.”

Musselburgh’s Old Course is thought to be the oldest golf course still in existence. There is evidence of the game being played here in 1672. Golf holes around the world are four-and-a-quarter inches in diameter because that is how they were first cut at Musselburgh. It is testament to the way that these early golf courses simply emerged from the landscape with little human intervention that, just last year, Musselburgh’s head greenkeeper, Alastair Patterson, was enlarging a bunker when he uncovered the Iron Age burial of a teenage girl.

Patterson, 51, has worked at Musselburgh since 1996. Although he is head greenkeeper, a better sense of his role and the way he sees himself can be gained by inverting his title. Patterson is “keeper of the green”, its guardian and sentinel. He sees the Old Course as an unofficial world heritage site and feels a deep duty of care. When, in 2006, there were plans to develop the racecourse which shares land with the course, he led a campaign of opposition.

“It would have been like knocking down the turrets of Edinburgh Castle,” he says. “We need to preserve this for the future. Do you realise what we’ve got here? Some people say it’s just a pitch ’n’ putt. But to me, when the rough’s up, and the fairways are cut short, and the greens are fast, and there’s a west wind, it’s no a pitch ’n’ putt. It is a test of golf how it used to be. You definitely get a sense of going back a hundred years to the true roots.”

Golf courses can be “thin places”, as the Reverend George MacLeod once said of Iona. Playing them, you feel you could stroll between the centuries, and sometimes even between the earthly realm and something more spiritual. Recently, walking the course in Moffat with Vin Harris, the club president and a founder of the Samye Ling Buddhist Monastery at Eskdalemuir, we talked about this. It’s something to do with a mingling of space, beauty, history, art and the devotional attentiveness to one’s surroundings that the game demands.

An old golf course has the same relationship with the countryside as a poem or song or prayer has with the sorrowful and chaotic business of life; the structure gives a consoling sense of resolution, of something well put. It feels right, then, that so many named features on Scottish courses use the language of the church, or the blues: the Valley of Sin (St Andrews Old Course); the Monk (Royal Troon); Willie Campbell’s Grave (Prestwick). Standing on the high 18th tee at Moffat, overlooking the douce town, it feels as though one could drive the ball right across the Annandale valley and into the Devil’s Beef Tub. And it was here that Vin Harris chose to quote Old Tom Morris: “The Almighty must have had golf in mind when he made this piece of land.”

Old Tom is the Abrahamic figure of Scottish golf – the white-bearded patriarch from whom the modern game descends. Born in St Andrews in 1821, Morris began as a caddy, won the Open on four occasions, and was a hugely influential greenkeeper and designer of courses. All these roles are separate now, but he combined them all. His son, Young Tom, won four consecutive Open titles, but died at the age of 24 from, people like to say, a broken heart; his wife Meg and infant son having died in childbirth while he and his father played – and won – a grudge match in North Berwick against the Parks of Musselburgh. Tommy’s Honour, a film telling the story of the Morrises, is set to begin filming in Scotland this year.

The old-fashioned Scots caddy of the Tom Morris sort is a dying breed. One hardy survivor is Billy Cowan, known as Buff. He is 70 years old, and although he has barely played golf, he can be said to embody both the national sport and the national character. Buff has caddied at Prestwick for 25 years, before which he was a coalman and farm worker. A youth spent humphing sacks of coal and tatties served as a fine apprenticeship for his later graduation to golf bags. He has walked approximately 100,000 miles in his caddying career. More important than muscle, though, is his knowledge of the course: he knows every hillock and blade of grass; understands the weather and its effects. Buff is a sort of sherpa, a sort of guru, given to Yoda-ish utterances in a thick Ayrshire drawl: “If the grass is lyin’ away fae ye, ye ken it’ll come oot no too bad.”

Walking the course with Buff is quite something. He is proud of the place and feels a certain proprietorship. He stands in the huge bunker at the 17th like Lawrence crossing the Nefud desert. Caddying, one might think, would require deference, but Buff is never intimidated and always maintains his dignity. He calls the golfers who hire them by their first names, excepting Lords. Here’s what happened when he caddied for Bill Clinton: “Oot on the course I telt him just to cry me Buff and I cried him Bill. Then, when I came in he gave me a two hunner dollar tip and I says, ‘Thanks very much, Mr President.’”

“Was this recently?” I ask.

“No, no, that was when he was still President. It was when he was runnin aboot wi that yin, what d’ye cry her? Monica. Oh, aye. I never mentioned her name.”

The truth is that the spirit of Scottish golf is all around us because it comes from us. There is no need to attend the Ryder Cup in order to find it. On a journey north from Glasgow, I passed the PGA Centenary Course, waiting lushly for the world to arrive. It looked gorgeous, but it was not my destination. That was Pirate Island Adventure Golf, part of Codona’s amusement park, by Aberdeen beach. There, I had an appointment to play a round with Scotland’s most accomplished crazy golfer, 19-year-old Freddie Blackburn Shaw and his father Alastair, both of whom hail from Brechin. Freddie hopes, next month, to win the World Crazy Golf Championship in Hastings.

The air smelled of salt and chips, seagulls screeched overhead, and the PA played Chelsea Dagger as we putted past the replica galleon. Tom Morris wouldn’t have recognised it as golf. Rory McIlroy might not either. But it had a certain quality – something in the light, in the last warmth of late summer, which made the whole scene oddly, movingly sublime. “All hands on deck, yer scurvy dogs!” bellowed a huge animatronic skull, and, one felt, Gleneagles had nothing, surely, to rival this.

Twitter: @PeterAlanRoss

The 40th Ryder Cup opens to the public from Tuesday to 28 September at Gleneagles; www.rydercup2014.com