August 17th, 2001, 5:30 AM Greenwich Mean Time, St Andrews, UK.
I’m 5th or 6th in an ever-growing line of “single” golfers hoping to have my name called by the starter (once he arrives) to join a group on the first tee at The Old Course. There was plenty of nervous chatter amongst the group, as the published tee sheet appeared to be full. Tee times would start at 7:00 AM; there appeared to be a single opening in the second group going off, but another wouldn’t occur until after 10:00.
The fellow who was officially first in line tells us that he had been in country for 8 days; a relative had gotten married in Edinburgh and he had cajoled his better half to make the hour or so drive up to St Andrews the night previously so that he could try to get off this morning. Taking no chances, he arrived at 4:00 AM.
I peer out at the wide expanse of rumpled brownish green grass that comprises the broad parallel fairways of the 1st and 18th hole, and ponder how in hell Ian Baker-Finch ever hooked one out of bounds into Tom Morris Way.
It had been quite a trip already. The former Mrs. Golf Nerd and I had arrived in Scotland about 10 days prior; we had worked out an equitable schedule (at least I thought it was) of golf, touring, and site seeing for the trip. I received my baptism into links golf at Prestwick, the original home of the Open Championship. Roger, my caddy, guided me through a maze of dunes and blind shots, and I discovered golf holes named after mountain ranges (Himalayas, The Alps), religious figures (The Cardinal), transportation features (Railway, Tunnel, Bridge), and things found at home (Wall, Clock). I also learned some basics lessons about playing a links course:
- Don’t ever chip when putting will do. Most of the time, the fairways are faster than the greens.
- Don’t take your eye off the ball once you’ve struck it, even if the shot appears to be fine. There are crazy bounces to be had, even (especially) in the fairway.
- If you find a fairway bunker, it’s a shot lost. Accept it and don’t be a hero.
- The 8-iron that traveled 175 yards downwind might not reach triple-digits when hit back into it.
That last point was particularly important. On the outward (downwind) nine, with Roger’s expert guidance I fashioned a rather sporty 2-over par 38 that, with any luck with the putter, could have been even better. Once we hit the inward side, however, my shots began to balloon and I found myself hanging on for dear life. Thankfully, the final two holes at Prestwick are fairly short par-4’s, and making par on both brought me home with a respectable 82, which earned me a “Well done” from both Roger and my playing partner that day, a Canadian named Ian Roberts who had come over to play in the British Senior Amateur.
In any event, the lessons learned at Prestwick stayed with me for the remainder of the trip. I shot a decent round at Turnberry, after which we wound up with their caddy master and a few other folks downing a few drinks at a local pub. Game on.
The starter arrives at around 6:45 and patiently answers our questions as we check in with our handicap cards (24 maximum for men, 36 for women). Yes, we’re pretty busy today. No, don’t get a caddy until you’ve confirmed a game. And finally – please, don’t stray too far, you never know what might happen here.
The 7:00 AM group is called. They fire away amidst nervous laughter; then the next group, a threesome strides to the tee. The tee master asks politely if they would mind having a single golfer join them; the leader of the group responds affirmatively and our early riser, shit-eating grin and all, bounds up to join the group, shakes hands all around, and hits a perfect drive down the first fairway. We all look on with envy.
One of the fellows in front of me mutters, “Well, it looks like we’re going to be here awhile. Who wants to grab some breakfast?” A few other guys grunt yes; he looks at me. The starter’s last words stuck in my head.
“No thanks, I’ll just hang out here.”
From Scotland’s western coast, we made the long, picturesque drive through Stirling NS Perthshire to the Northern Highlands. We lodge in Tain (home of Glenmorangie Whiskey), but my golf destination is Royal Dornoch, a course that but for its remote location would be worthy of hosting an Open Championship. My round there started with much promise; a birdie on #3 backed up by a solid par on #2 and a nifty up-and-down on #3 that had my caddie, a young lad named Garry who was a fortnight away from starting service in the RAF, urging me on excitedly. Unfortunately, the highlight reel largely ended there, as Royal Dornoch showed its fangs and had me on my heels for the remainder of the round.
But Dornoch is a lovely walking town with lively locals, and my spirits were lifted measurably. There was a brief afternoon shower that resulted in a lovely rainbow over the Moray Firth, and all seemed right with the world.
A few days later, we found ourselves in the seaside town of Nairn. We attended their Highlands Games competition (a/k/a “Big Men in Kilts Throwing Strange Objects”) in the morning, followed by an afternoon round at Nairn CC, a course whose first six holes are hard by the sea and a sturdy enough test to host the Walker Cup in 1997 (won by the Great Britain and Ireland side, a fact that my caddie Gordon took great delight in pointing out to me). It also turned out to be the site of my best round of the trip.
I was paired with a club professional from South Africa named Errol Mills, who I later learned was traveling through Europe that summer with his wife and playing various Senior European Tour events – “Not that I expect to win anything,” he noted, but he had numerous friends and acquaintances who played in those events.
In any event, I had my “A” game rolling on the front nine, particularly with the putter. Unlike most links courses whose greens are fescue, Nairn’s are pure bent grass (they are green to the point of appearing artificial from a distance) and have plenty of speed. I rolled in almost everything I looked at, and at the end of the first 9, Gordon whispered to me, “Gary, you’re beating the pro!”
I really wasn’t trying to do anything of the sort, but I did shoot 37 to his 38. If there was pride involved, it kicked in for Errol on the inward 9, as he missed nary a shot for the remainder of the round, and only an uncooperative putter prevented him from finishing lower that the 73 that he eventually carded.
I hit a couple of loose holes to start the back nine, but recovered well enough to fashion a 40 on the back and shot 77, easily the best score that I would shoot on the trip. Errol and I shook hands after the round; I told him, “I admire your work.” He smiled and replied, “I was holding my breath on some of those putts you made. How about a drink?”
The starter calls out the names for the 7:20 and 7:30 times; I’m figuring that it must be a large group of guys who are traveling together. No one is heading for the starter’s shed. The names are called again. Still nothing. A third time . . .
Only this time, I hear my name being called, and there’s a civilized rush to the shed. The 7:20/7:30 groups did not show up. I paid my greens fees, made a quick dash to the caddy shack and drew a sturdy old Scot named Colin, and strode to the first tee to meet the rest of the group. There’s Hugh, a good-natured Canadian, Matt, an Aussie who shakes my hand as he conversed via cell phone, and John, an older Englishman whose wife stands by him; evidently, she’s planning on following him around The Old Course.
Colin asks me my handicap and where I’ve played during the trip. I give him the abridged version of the itinerary. At some point of the conversation, I mention that I hit a right to left ball; his eyes light up and he exclaims, “Aye, you should fare well here then!”
Then the tee-starter calls me, Colin hands me the driver, and while I try to act calm, my hands shake as I address the ball. My tempo is way too quick, and I flare a weak slice that is heading toward the O.B. stakes. I look anxiously at Colin. “Is than out?” I ask.
“Nae, you probably went in the burn. Let’s go.” Colin seems to be pretty blunt.
We walk toward the right hand corner of the fairway where Swilcan Burn and the narrow roadway that borders the first tee meet. There are two surprises awaiting.
First – my ball is neither in the burn or out of bounds; it lays nicely a yard short of both calamities no more that 90 yards from the center of the green.
Second – walking up the roadway, I spot the group of fellows who had left the singles queue. I wave slyly to them as Colin hands me the gap wedge; the look on their faces range from shock to one who has seen his winning lottery ticket get flushed down the toilet.
I should be concentrating on the next shot, but that rainbow I saw in Dornoch is stuck in my mind.