Ramble in the Bramble

I was pleased the other day to receive an invitation from my Uncle Dickie to attend the semi-centennial match between Scrought's Wood and the Tay Club.

Twice every century, for the last 350 years, the two most ancient golf clubs on the planet do battle for golf's oldest trophy, the petrified middle finger of St. Andrew, patron saint of Scotland and the man for whom the famous Auld Grey Toon is named.

For the last 50 years, "The Digit," as it is known, has resided in the McGregor Distillery, which is the final hazard on the McGregor clan's one-hole, par-71 golf course that lies along the coast of the Firth of Tay.

Last week, the clan, along with the trophy and their mascot -- a rather skittish three-legged charcoal ewe -- arrived at The Wood dressed in full battle regalia. I was with the welcoming committee on the verandah.

The fiendish din of the bagpipes finally died and the clan's chieftain, Hamish McGregor, stepped forward. A pair of dark beady eyes along with a nose and mouth were visible from his huge, unruly red beard.

"Gussett," he snapped curtly, while barely nodding his head toward Uncle Dickie.

"Good day to you, McGregor," Uncle Dickie replied. "I see you're still trying to swallow that cat!"

"Aye, whatever," Hamish shot back. "Let's skip the pleasantries, Gussett. Mah daddy hated your daddy and ah hate you, ya toffee-nosed old fart. So, where are we bunkin' up?"

"You can sleep in the hedge behind the first tee, for all I care, though we have prepared the Dormy house, as usual," Uncle Dickie said. "We would appreciate it, however, should you intend to light a fire, if you would use the fireplace this time. Also, your goat must stay outside."

"Ho, bloody ho, Gussett," McGregor said. "Aren't you the funny one? For your information, this sheep sleeps where we sleep."

"In that case," replied Uncle Dickie, looking down his nose, "I rightly imagine it sleeps very lightly."

"Aye," McGregor said. "Anyway, we'll be roasting a wee haggis tonight, if you or any of your members would like to join us."

Uncle Dickie rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Let me see," he said. "Pickled genitalia, minced eyelids, and shredded nostrils all wrapped up in a sheep's bladder and boiled for hours. Sounds yummy, but taking into consideration that none of us here are particularly fond of dysentery, I think we'll pass.

"We'll see you on the tee at 8 o'clock sharp tomorrow morning. And, by the way, old boy, we have a dress code here at Scrought's Wood, so if I were you, I wouldn't wear that skirt."

McGregor scowled at Uncle Dickie and said, "For your information, Gussett, we will all be wearing the McGregor battle kilt with full ratskin sporrans and toories and there's bugger all you can do about it!"

"I see," Uncle Dickie said with a strange smile. "So, I imagine, like a true Scotsman, there will be nothing worn under your kilt?"

"No!" shouted McGregor gleefully. "It's all in perfect working order." The other clan members threw back their heads and roared with laughter.

"As you wish, McGregor," Uncle Dickie said. "We shall see you in the morning." He turned quietly and led the members inside. "As you wish."

Dawn cracked hard the next morning at Scrought's Wood with the ominous rumble of a distant thunderstorm. The air was thick and humid as the first of 19 matches got under way.

Maharajah Poonsavvy watched as Gregor McGregor swished away his tee shot, the pleats of his kilt lilting on the follow through. Uncle Dickie, who was to play Hamish McGregor in the final match, stood close by the Maharajah and whispered, "Poonsavvy, old boy, leggings on at the fourth. Okay?"

The turban-clad Maharajah gave a sly wink, set off down the fairway, and the historic match was under way. I knew Uncle Dickie had something up his sleeve, but I couldn't for the life of me figure out what it could be.

The clansmen were considerably younger and fitter than the members of The Wood and it seemed to me they were obvious favorites. But, as had been the case with all my previous visits to Scrought's Wood, I was to learn a valuable lesson. I should have known.

It was 11:10 a.m. when Uncle Dickie squared off against the McGregor chieftain, who wore an evil smile as he swaggered onto the first tee. "Ahm goin' ta beat you like a big bass drum, Gussett, and ahm goin' ta' enjoy every minute of it."

"Yes, and the next Pope will, no doubt, be a Presbyterian," replied Uncle Dickie. "Hit it and stop slobbering."

McGregor teed up his ball and without a practice swing hit a vicious tee shot about 280 yards straight down the middle.

Uncle Dickie raised an eyebrow at me and smiled once more. "That's a great shot with that method, McGregor," he said. "Now, watch this."

He chose one of his 11 drivers and with a gentle waft, hit an elegant little draw about 175 yards down the left-hand side. McGregor looked at him and said, "Ma God, Gussett. Is that all yiv got? This is goin' ta be like clubbing seals."

As we walked down the first fairway, I thought I heard a plaintive wail far off in the distance. We reached Uncle Dickie's ball and another pitiful shriek floated on the wind.

"What the hell was that?" I asked.

"Music to my ears," replied the old man as he set up over his second shot. McGregor was already at his ball.

"Hey, Gussett," Hamish shouted. "You look lonely back there. Would ya like ta join me?"

Unfazed, Uncle Dickie sent off a low, raking draw that almost took the tassel off McGregor's toorie and rolled to a stop 12 feet from the cup.

"I'll be with you in a moment, McGregor," yelled Uncle Dickie, as another scream of agony was heard in the distance.

The first hole was halved in four, but things took a wrong turn for Uncle Dickie as he lost the second and third to pars from McGregor, who was gloating horribly as we reached the next tee.

The fourth at Scrought's Wood is a picturesque par three that borders the gardens of Gussett Hall on the right and an abandoned slate quarry on the left.

From tee to green on the left there is a 300-foot vertical drop to the pit floor. On the right are Auntie Myrtle's vegetables (of which Uncle Dickie is her favorite, she says) protected by a 20-foot high stone wall.

The only way to get from tee to green is through a patch of waist-high hawthorn, gorse, and brambles known as "Beelzebub's Beard." The first thing I noticed was that there was no obvious way through.

McGregor chose a 4-iron and hit a high draw, some 20 feet from the hole. "Follow that, Gussett," he roared.

Uncle Dickie found the front edge with one of his drivers. "Follow me, McGregor," he said, with an evil smirk.

Uncle Dickie rummaged in his golf bag and pulled out two pairs of heavy, waxed overtrousers. He handed me a pair and told me to put them on. There was lightness in his step as he set off after McGregor, who was standing at the edge of The Beard, looking puzzled.

"How the devil do we get to the green?" he asked incredulously.

"I have no idea how you're getting there," said Uncle Dickie. "But we're walking through here." He marched purposefully into the thick, thorny scrub. I struggled through in his wake, my arms raised high.

McGregor yelled after us, "Ah canny get through here, Gussett. It'll slash me inta' wee pieces!"

"Sounds like a personal problem to me, McGregor, old boy," Uncle Dickie called back. "Around here we dress accordingly, for in the game of golf, one must take on Mother Nature, both her elements and her terrain."

"Damn you to hell, Gussett!" McGregor roared and charged into the vicious tangle in front of him. He got about five yards into the undergrowth before he stopped stone dead and let out a strangulated, high-pitched wail. It was then I realized where all the screaming and moaning had been coming from.

"Aargh!" he yelled from the brush. "Ooh, me poor wee danglies! Oooh, Lord have mercy!"

It was a horrible few moments to listen to, as McGregor struggled through, but eventually it was over and he stood, ashen faced, on the other side of Beelzebub's Beard.

"You're an evil old man, Gussett," he gasped. His legs were torn and bleeding.

"I tried to warn you, McGregor," said Uncle Dickie. "But I recall you telling me you would dress however you wished. So, let's play, shall we?"

McGregor limped to the green's edge and it was clear that the coarse wool of his kilt was aggravating whatever ghastly wounds lay beneath. He was two up and managed a half at the fourth. But, effectively, the match was over.

Every full swing caused the kilt to swish back and forth and the McGregor chieftain, like all of his clansmen who had played the fourth before him, was soon squealing and flinching on every shot.

Uncle Dickie won every hole from there on and the match was over on the 13th green.

Back at the clubhouse, the full extent of the damage was evident. Scrought's Wood had won the match 181/2 to 1/2 only because, despite being warned, Major Norma Oglesby had chosen to wear a tweed skirt that morning. Apparently, he said, "Trousers make my bottom look big."

The McGregors tended to their wounds in the Dormy house and then assembled underneath the back verandah where the members waited for the presentation of the finger. Uncle Dickie, large brandy in hand, walked down the steps to meet them.

"Before you go, McGregor, I have something for you," he said. He snapped his fingers and Crump, the wine steward, appeared, holding a cloth bag. Uncle Dickie reached into it and pulled out a pair of tartan underpants. "I believe this is the McGregor tartan," he said, putting them back into the bag and handing it to McGregor.

McGregor tossed the bag over his shoulder where it was neatly caught by one of his men. "Never!" he shouted. "Not in my lifetime."

He turned around and barked, "Callum, give Gussett the finger." A huge, bearded clansman walked gingerly forward and, with a painful grimace, gave Uncle Dickie an ancient-looking wooden box.

"Thank you, sir. We shall take good care of it."

"See that you do," said McGregor. "For in 50 years our kinfolk will claim it back."

And, with that, the clan shouldered their pipes, and raising a deafening skirl, they hobbled down the driveway. Once they got around the corner, the din stopped for about 30 seconds and then started again.

Uncle Dickie dipped into his waistcoat pocket, pulled out a small tin, and twisted some wax onto the tips of his luxurious mustache.

He winked at me and said, "I do hope they fit."

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