The Walking Game

I think it’s safe to assume that when the Scots first batted rocks around a sheep pasture into rabbit holes, they did not envision how that particular pastime would evolve into what it has become today, particularly in the USA.  We’ve almost made the game into outdoor billiards as we’ve come to expect fast greens, perfectly cut fairways, “consistent” bunkers, and the hefty price that accompanies all.  Our most insidious perversion to the game, ofc ourse, is the motorized golf cart.

The cart was first introduced sometime in the 1930’s, and for the first few decades or so, its use was pretty much confined to those the physically infirm who could still swing a golf club. At some point, an enterprising club pro figured out that there was money to be made by offering carts to the golf populace, which has resulted in a number of ill-fated developments:

1.    The introduction of paved cart paths, which, when poorly thought out, or worse yet, retrofitted to a course that was never designed for them, can be costly to maintain or detract from the beauty of the course.

2.    The design of golf courses that all but eliminate the possibility of walking, due to distance between green to the nexttee, or the traversing of deep canyons, bodies of water, etc.

To be fair, there are times when taking a cart is almost a necessity – it’s August in Dallas, it’s 102 degrees out with no shade, hell,yes, I’m driving – but aside from the obviously physical benefit, walking gives one time between shots to take a breath, appreciate the surroundings, and perhaps shake off that approach shot one just blew twenty yards to the right of the green.

You almost never see a cart in Scotland; most everyone walks, moreover, most courses offer caddies.

At many Scottish clubs, your caddie might be a current or former member of the club who is retired, still an active golfer, and is looking to make a few extra pounds. In places like St Andrews, Turnberry, Royal Troon, and Gullane (the home of Muirfield), the caddies are professionals, generally doing a couple of loops a day, and will definitely move the pace of play along so they can either finish up for another loop or get to the pub before it closes.  In either event, I suggest that anyone traveling to Scotland take a caddie out with them; in fact,if you play the Old Course or any of the other Open Championship venues, you are absolutely insane if you do not take one, if for no other reason than to point you in the right direction.

A lot of people have said to me, “Oh, I’ve never played with a caddie; I’d be nervous.” A few low-handicappers have gone the other way and said, “I can find my way around just fine; I don’t need one.” To the former I’d say, “Don’t worry. It’s very likely that you’re not the worst golfer they’ve seen.” To the latter,  “It’s your funeral.”

With relatively few exceptions, these guys are good. My girlfriend, Sharon, accompanied me on my most recent trip to Scotland, and while she’s an experienced golfer, she admitted that she learned a lot from the different guys (and one gal) on her bag. I will hasten to add that Sharon is also a knockout that would melt the coldest Scottish heart.

For my part, navigating a seaside links can be tricky business, and having someone knowledgeable on the bag is invaluable. This, of course, assumes that the golfer is able to follow the caddie’s instruction.When playing Turnberry’s par 3 15th, my man John, an otherwise affable fellow, handed me a 6-iron and advised me, “Gary, keep it to the left side of the green. Even if you miss the green to the left, that’s not bad.” Implicit in this instruction was the huge drop off to the right of the green, which was riddled with knee-high fescue. Unfortunately, I came off the shot,the ball headed dead right, and John, along with the other three caddies in our group, let out a collective “Oh, f*ck!”

A more clever line came from Paul, a veteran St Andrews caddie who was guiding me very competently around The Old Course; so much so that when we reached the famous 17th hole, where one drives over a shed adjoining the Old Course Hotel, I was on course to break 80 if I could navigate 17 and 18 with two bogeys. Unfortunately, I started the ball well right of the line Paul had picked for me. Almost immediately after striking the ball, Paul shook his head and declared, “Gary, that’s in room three-oh-three.”

But my favorite caddy story, again taking place at The Old Course, involves my friend Grunge, who was already hyperventilating on the first tee (the starter kindly pulled him aside and said, “Son, relax. And remember, the greatest laxative in the world is the first tee at The Old Course.”). It was a cold, grey day in The Auld Toon, but Grunge’s caddie (we’ll call him Angus) wore sunglasses, a consequence of a late night out with the boys. Grunge was really struggling that day, hitting balls hither and yon, sending  a hung-over Angus into heather, gorse, and the occasional pot bunker. We got to the 14th hole, where Grunge once again found the high grass. Angus threw up his hands and exclaimed, “Sir! Hitting the fairway is NOT overrated!”

Twain was wrong. Golf does not spoil a good walk, although it may inspire and expand one’s vocabulary. And beer tastes a helluva lot better after a good walk than riding around in a cart. Try it sometime.

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