Neil had one of those loose, boyish shoulder turns that promised it would not be many years before he was launching long drives. He was delighted to be playing with his father in a real match and still more delighted to win a few holes for the local side. His gleeful laughter was infectious. John alternated between admonishing Neil to replace his divots and beaming when it was suggested that his son would soon be giving him strokes, rather than getting them.
John was a bit of a golf historian. He'd written a monograph about the first winner of the Kildalton Cross, back in 1900, a vicar from Norfolk named James E. Pease. As John spoke of the course records set by Reverend Pease, and as we watched Neil play, I got a sense of the threads that tie one generation of golfers to the next in a seamless fabric.
We finished the match and retired to the bar. The club's captain, Gordon Hyslop, announced that despite the match lost by John and me, the visitors had won, eleven and a half to nine and a half. The trophy for the event is a cut-crystal decanter, full of a local whisky called Bunnahabhain. Slowly, the decanter and a shot glass made their way around the room. Visitors and locals alike had a dram. It tasted sweet.
Local hospitality, however, did not save me from a drubbing on the links. The Cross itself is a five-day event. There are two stroke-play qualifying rounds. The low thirty-two net scores play for the Cross. The next thirty-two play for the Kildalton Plate, and after a pair of bad putting rounds in qualifying, I fell into that group. Once match play begins, an odd, traditional format applies. The player with the higher handicap begins the match up by a number of holes equal to half the handicap differential. Thus, if a six-handicap plays a twelve-handicap, the twelve starts the match three holes up.
I needed more than the half-hole advantage I got in my first-round match against the brewer at the Laphroaig distillery, a laconic young man named John Campbell. Everyone called him "John Tam." I asked why. "I don't know," he said. "My father was called that, so I am, too."
Our match turned at the seventh hole, called Scot's Maiden. I negotiated a blind tee shot and a blind five-iron to the green. John Tam mis-hit his approach and left himself on a dune. But he deftly chipped his ball down to the green, knocking it nearly dead. Lying between me and the hole was a ridge with a faint cleft, known as the Maiden's Blouse by at least one local character. Alas, I misread the Blouse, my ball rolled fifteen feet past the cup, and I three-putted. John Tam sank his par putt to take a lead he never relinquished.