Most American golfers who go to Scotland travel, I think, with the wrong agenda. They go to collect famous courses. They put themselves on an if-it's-Tuesday-this-must-be-Troon itinerary. They play with friends from home or with other tourists. They rarely encounter a local golfer.
Much as I like playing the great Scottish courses, I like even more meeting Scottish golfers and hearing their stories. There's a simple way to do this. You check on the Web for the fixtures lists at Scottish clubs (see below). You find an open tournament. You enter it, if necessary paying the fee for nonresident membership. You play.
That's how I experienced the Kildalton Cross, a tournament played for more than 100 years on Islay (pronounced EYE-la), off Scotland's western coast. The original cross, carved twelve centuries ago by an unknown Celt, stands in an Islay churchyard. The tournament trophy is a silver replica, which serves as the centerpiece of a week of golf events. Roughly half the field of 140 or so players I encountered lives on Islay. The other half—including about a half-dozen Americans—visits for Cross Week, drawn by the tradition of the event and the beauty of the island.
Islay is a lovely place. From my B&B, I looked out over the slate gray waters of a shallow bay, where a few sailboats and an occasional fishing trawler had their moorings. To the east was the whitewashed village of Port Ellen and to the west crouched a peninsula called the Mull of Oa, painted in muted shades of green broken by streaks of purple heather. The air smelled of burning peat, which local distilleries use as roasting fuel in the malting process. In the morning I awoke to the sounds of ducks and grackles. In the evening I heard the faint click of bowling balls from the green down the road or a practice session of the local marching bagpipers.
The golf course on Islay is called the Machrie, which is Gaelic for links, and it is to modern courses what a Sopwith Camel is to an F-16. It was laid out in 1891 by Willie Campbell, who later emigrated to America and designed the Country Club at Brookline. Campbell was given a fortuitous piece of ground, a seaside links with a couple of swift little burns and dozens of towering dunes. Machrie fairways have enough humps and hollows to hide a flock of sheep. The greens resemble the nearby sea, riffled with waves. Most of the holes have one blind shot and some have two. It's a course that takes experience to play well; you should begin with a local guide.
One of the first Ileachs I met happened to be an illustrious fellow: the secretary-general of NATO, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen. We met on the ferry coming over from the mainland. He was taking a brief holiday from trying to bring peace to the Balkans, accompanied by his brother Nigel, a retired special branch police officer from London. "Call me George," Lord Robertson said. The next day, we met on the Machrie.