6. Adore Dornoch
At Royal Dornoch, the transcendent Scottish links north of Inverness, a quintet of flags flies in anticipation of your arrival. Stop beneath those banners for a pre-drive snapshot before the Dornoch nameplate, then brace for one of the most stirring moments in golf: the theatrical parting of the gorse in the approach to the third tee. It reveals an unforgettable communion of links-land, hills, beach and sea. Not only did Old Tom Morris put his designer’s imprint on this famous course, the town itself gave the world Donald Ross—the family home on St. Gilbert Street still stands. Dornoch was Ross’s golf schoolroom, and his devotion to it ran deep. “Modesty forbids me saying more than it is the most beautifully situated links in the world,” he wrote, and no sentiment could stop Tom Watson and Ben Crenshaw from agreeing.
7. Read the Classics
Though none of us needs a Darwin to suggest we golfers are a breed apart, the originator of the species whose function is to explore, dissect and explain why we are who we are and do what we do was a Darwin nonetheless. Bernard Darwin (1876–1961), Charles’s grandson, virtually invented the craft of golf writing, then perfected it through a half-century’s worth of insight, observation and survivingly fit prose. You’ll certainly evolve as a golfer just by reading him. Start with the natural selections in Bernard Darwin on Golf (edited by yours truly). Continue on to Darwin’s American protégé, Herbert Warren Wind, well represented in the collection Following Through. Like Darwin, Wind was a fine player who understood golf’s nobilities and its monkeyshines from the inside and mused on both with equal good humor.
8. Lighten Up
We all know how golf got its name: The other four-letter words were taken. Yet as maddening as this enterprise may be, we make it only more so by sacrificing the good spirit inherent in golf’s communal culture to petulant bouts of on-course self-loathing. Walter Hagen identified that propensity and pooh-poohed it. His counsel: “Don’t hurry. Don’t worry. And be sure to smell the flowers along the way.” So when you’re on the golf course, appreciate where you are—even after a flub or foozle. Congratulate yourself for scrambling to save bogey when it could have been much worse. Admire the arc of a well-struck shot. Relish the putt that holds its line. Revel in the camaraderie, and uphold the game’s traditions of etiquette and sportsmanship: Be ready when it’s your turn, never stand in another’s line, replace divots, fix ball marks, and if you do happen to come across a few flowers now and then, stop and whiff one for the Haig.
9. Dig into the Rules
Yes, the rules of golf are daunting, but if we’re not playing by them, we’re not playing golf. Back in the 1950s, Joe Dey, the USGA’s savvy chief, compressed the complexities into three commonsense principles: (1) Play the course as you find it, (2) play the ball as it lies, and (3) if you can’t do that, play fair. That’s a good place to start, but it’s just a start. Unfamiliarity with the essentials of Dey’s third principle leaves the unschooled dangling metaphysically out of bounds. It’s not necessary to know all the fine print, but a confident working knowledge helps keep rounds on the square. Know when to give and take relief. Know when a hazard is lateral and what that means. Know when an obstruction is moveable and when it’s not. Grounding yourself in the rules makes for one less doubt to contend with in a game filled with doubts. Besides, as James Bond showed Goldfinger—check Rule 15-3.a—a healthy knowledge can provide a valuable leg up toward victory.
10. Go Irish Green
Listen as the names dance off the tongue: Lahinch, Ballybunion, Waterville, Dooks, Tralee, Doonbeg and Dingle. Ask where you find a pot of links at the end of the rainbow, and the answer leads to the Emerald Isle’s southwest quadrant. The wild land breeds a wild concentration of wild courses, ideal for essaying in groups of four. This rugged patch of Ireland may well be golf’s greenest destination—and its most welcoming buddy trip.
11. Enter the Sanctums
Pine Valley. Cypress Point. It can be easier to pass a caddie through the eye of a needle than to enter these exclusive, elusive and extraordinary enclaves, but that’s why they’re Pine Valley and Cypress Point. The world’s top-ranked courses are also its most coveted invites. The moment one comes—to either—drop everything, not just for the golf but for the overall assault on the senses. Nothing else in the game is quite like crossing the railroad tracks that separate Pine Valley from the rest of civilization; stopping at the guard gate to find your name on the list; being greeted at the clubhouse by caddie master Lenny Ward (a fixture since the 1950s) as he directs you to the upstairs locker room; picking up a logo ball in the pro shop (cash only, no credit cards); examining the course map painted on the wall in the Big Room; dressing for dinner; sampling the turtle soup; and spending the night on site in one of the guest cottages. All of that makes Pine Valley Pine Valley, as much as Hell’s Half Acre, the Devil’s Asshole and a stratospheric slope rating of 155 from the tips. A bit easier to gain access to is a host of other classic clubs, each occupying its own niche in golf history, each boasting its own traditions and ethos. Think Shinnecock, the National Golf Links, Winged Foot, The Country Club, Newport, Merion, Oakmont, Baltusrol, Oak Hill, Oakland Hills, Seminole, San Francisco Golf Club and Riviera. One good connection to any of these sanctuaries is all you’ll need to make you feel that you’ve arrived as a golfer and that you do, indeed, belong. Even if just for a day.