Tour and News

Not much has changed at Scotland's quirky links courses, and that's just fine

Photo: David Cannon/Getty Images

The par-4 13th hole at North Berwick, where not much has changed since 1832.

GULLANE, Scotland - A golfing man was walking across the North Berwick links in the evening light, a wee black sack across his back at an angle that brought to mind Eddie Lowery in his 10-year-old prime. He raised a gloveless hand and shouted to his long-lost playing partner through the warm wind.

"Ellow, Jone-howyakeepin'?"

Translated into MAE (Modern American English): Whaddup, John?

Yes, sadly, I was the one doing the shouting, in my full-blown Scotsophile mode, talking to my friend and colleague John Garrity. I don't know why it is, but you can watch young people shoot up in "Trainspotting" over and over, read up on gangster life in Glasgow and immerse yourself in North Sea oil-drilling politics, but there is a class among us who will not let our notion of a golf-centric Scottish life be altered. And you know why? Because it does not change.

I saw Fred Couples hit what looked like a mid-iron on a 430-yard par-4 at Muirfield, in the second round of this 142nd Open Championship. For his tee shot. And the beauty thing is, you could too. Now, isn't that a better form of golf? I was using my long-shafted, Ping Eye2 7-iron as a play club in our evening game. At home, it's my 150-ish club. Hooded, downwind, on the bone-dry North Berwick fairways, it went forever.

Now part of that, of course, is the result of the baking summer Scotland has had. You've probably seen the brownish Muirfield fairways on TV, right alongside the khaki rough. Last year, the very British Lee Westwood, who opened with 72-68 here, was asked why he was moving his family to Florida.

"Because of the English winters," he said. "And the English summers."

Well, the summer here has been a balmy outlier.

It's not like it hasn't happened before. The epic '77 Open at Turnberry will forever be known as the "Duel in Sun." When Ben Curtis won at Sandwich in 2003, kids sledded on their backs on the slick brown grass of the little mountains on the course. In '76, when Johnny Miller was on fire at Birkdale, the course was too. Jack Nicklaus and family were staying at the old Prince of Wales hotel in downtown Southport. No air conditioning, of course. Nicklaus opened the windows and the bedroom door too, standing a tower of empty suitcases at the entrance as a sort of alarm system. God forbid something should happen to his ... MacGregors.

At my digs here - I must withhold the name for fear of legal action - I borrowed a wee Phillips-Head screwdriver and removed the screws that prevented my windows from opening. I got the room down to 84 degrees.

We started around 6 p.m. and found a beautiful 56-degree, satin-finished Vokey wedge on the course, a private club that is essentially open to the public, on certain days, at certain times.

That's how the British do it, even at stuffy Muirfield, and it's way better than our own private-public system. If you think about, there is not one American innovation that has improved the old shepherd's game, except for our - that is, Dr. George Franklin Grant's - invention of the tee.

When we came in from our leisurely game, the pro shop, of course, was closed, but the dining room clubhouse windows were wide open, and a gentleman of a certain age was happy to accept the found wedge and put it in the bin where lost wedges go to die.

"How'd you go?" he asked in the sing-song that turns the local town Kilspindie into kill-SPIN-dee, each syllable getting its own note. We told him how much delight his links gave us.

This most genial of men said he was now only a social member of the club. The pace of play had become unbearable for him.

"We had no problems," I said. "We never waited on a shot."

Our round was over in three hours, but not by that much. We weren't motoring.

"Yes," said the man. He was 80. "We used to play fourballs in two and a half. Foursomes in two hours." Fourball is four players each playing his or her own ball. Foursomes is what we call alternate shot, a game rarely played in the States. It goes faster than a twosome because the second shot is played moments after the tee shot has settled.

I asked him if he had read P.G. Wodehouse.

"Oh, yes," he said. "I am the Oldest Member."

John once described the Oldest Member to me thusly: the white-haired man, with matching eyebrows, sitting in a leather wing chair, holding a younger member hostage as he regales the youth (likely a 50-something) with stories about how things used to be, or how they should be. This man was not the Oldest Member. He had the bushy white eyebrows and the unhurried demeanor, and he may have been the oldest member.

"We didn't think we were playing fast," he said. "It was just how we all played."

Now you may cite this exchange as proof that things do change in Scottish golfing life. I will argue the opposite. The man started giving us the blow-by-blows from some moments in the British Ladies Amateur Championship at North Berwick. He was describing an event now a half-decade old, but the way the shots were etched in the man's mind you could tell one thing above all: Golf was in his blood. It's part of the national bloodline.

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