Rare is the American golfer who brims with confidence walking onto one of the great links courses of western Scotland. The stiff breeze blowing in from the Firth of Clyde seems grimly allied with the gorse; the low, treeless fairways baffle your depth perception; and beyond the courses themselves there is "Scottish links golf" the concept, which carries a fearsome weight of history. Caddies may take a private satisfaction watching newcomers fight the yips, but they are nice enough to feign reluctance about telling tales. "Well, one guy did shoot 121 on the back nine," says one caddie, "but that doesn't count because he was very drunk. . . . The hardest thing I've had to watch was a very good golfer who was playing so badly here that he was too embarrassed to have a caddie. His partner told me he was a scratch golfer at home. He shot 120 at Troon that day. . . . You see a lot of dribbles off the tee, of course, but the very worst shot I've ever seen was a guy who drove off the ninth tee and had to call 'fore' to the eighth tee. Now in order to do that, you have to hit the ball about two hundred yards very nearly in a circle. . . ."
These stories are meant to be comforting in a way, and sometimes they are (like the triple-bogey six Tiger Woods took on Royal Troon's famous Postage Stamp in last year's Open). Troon, founded in 1878, and the other great links courses of Scotland can be daunting, often maddening, but playing them has a strangely transformative power. "It's very deceptive at first, and frustrating," one convert to Royal Troon remarks, "but by the time you reach the tenth you realize that you are playing one of the great golf courses of the world." A silver-haired American rises from a farewell dinner at the Marine Highland Hotel, which sits beside the Old Course's eighteenth fairway, on the evening before his Scottish tour ends. The piper's tune has faded from the hall, rain lashes the windows. He thanks his hosts, and (casting aside the memory of home, hearth and corporate directorships) he says in a voice heavy with feeling, "This has been the best week of my life."
For Americans the Scottish tour has become a pilgrimage, but too often it's a rather frenetic pilgrimage: Muirfield and Gullane on the day of arrival, the dawn van to St. Andrews, thirty-six holes there before racing over to Troon and Turnberry for another thirty-six the following day, then the sprint north to Royal Dornoch and so forth. That's one approach but it misses something--the leisure to enjoy the game, and a sense of where you are, the temper of the place. The historic links courses of Ayrshire, which stretch along the coast south of Glasgow, provide enough golf to fill a season, more than enough to absorb a visitor for an intense week.
Here, as much as anywhere in Scotland, one has a sense of being in touch with the essential nature of the game. These courses seem not so much imposed on the land as in a state of nature. Seldom has much earth been moved to build them. They all reflect a pastoral history, with little more artifice apparent than there is in a hayfield. People like to point out that the bunkers appear where sheep once took shelter in the lee of hillocks, which helps explain their menacing overhangs. The grasses and the gorse have grown here forever. A caddie remarks about his American clients, "They want to know what kind of grass this is. I tell them it's fouken green grass."
As the courses seem integral to the land, so the game seems wedded to local custom. It ought to. The first recorded reference to golf in Ayrshire dates from 1597. One of the appealing qualities of this long tradition is the sense that golf here belongs to everyone. Scots pride themselves on the democratic nature of their brand of golf, and visiting Americans clearly benefit from the fact that most desirable courses are open to all.
Golf is always more than a game, but it's really more than a game in Scotland. In his classic little book Golf in the Kingdom, Michael Murphy recounts his discovery of this truth (and others) when he plays the hallowed "Burningbush" (a fictive course somewhere in Fife, modeled loosely on St. Andrews). Here he encounters the mythic Shivas Irons, who personifies the ancient game (that is, the Scottish game). For the first few holes they play together, Irons torments his student with a righteous scrupulosity about the score, insisting that he count as a stroke a ball that topples off the tee during his practice swing, forcing him to hack at rough heather until he blasts out a ball he cannot see ("Play it like it lies. . . . It'll come out"). With poor Murphy reduced to helpless, silent rage, Irons, the master of control, begins apparently to lose it himself. Irons, standing in the rough, starts to scream some Celtic clannish howl, "something between a yodel and a cry for the departed dead." It's then that Murphy begins to find his game. "My mind was blasted empty," he writes, and he hits a perfect drive to the green.