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The Tao of Garth

Learning some of golf’s greatest lessons from one of its worst players

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Tom recording his score. Photo Courtesy of Tom Coyne.
Photo courtesy of Tom Coyne
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Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Tom Coyne’s book A Course Called Scotland.

My name in Scottish Gaelic is Tòmas or Tam, and it means twin. I don’t have a twin, nor did I hear much Gaelic at all in Scotland (supposedly it was still spoken in the Outer Hebrides, where I was headed at trip’s end, but the Scots’ erstwhile language was known by only 1 percent of the population). Plenty of Toms had left their mark on golf—few golfers are more popular in the British Isles than Tom Watson, and the Morrises elevate the Tom brand for sure. It was a fair golf name as far as forenames went, but there were some first names that just sounded like 6 under.

You can’t be called Bubba and hack. Bob, Joe, Frank—they might all cheer for net bogeys, but I never met a Chandler who couldn’t play (I’ve met only one, but he can). Bradley—he probably stripes it, and Alan is a stick; he takes money off Al every time out. Jimbo and Jimmy mash it, while Jim plays in cargo shorts. And then there was Garth. Garth golfed his ball. Garth was a country-club rat who played on scholarship at a Christian college down South and had a cushy sales gig at his dad’s insurance outfit waiting for him, where his job would be to dazzle clients on the golf course and sip transfusions full-time.

I had never actually met a Garth, not until the winter before I left for Scotland and learned that, just as I couldn’t judge the Scots’ playing abilities by swings that sometimes looked like an angry janitor mopping the cafeteria, I shouldn’t judge a player by their moniker. This Garth was not a born linksman. He had the name, the carefully parted hair of a corporate hustler, the starched Brooks Brothers shirts, and the Ivy League education. But he was also raised in Altoona, Pennsylvania, in that red center of my home state where schools closed for the opening of deer season and a trip to Sheetz was reason enough to iron the Dale Earnhardt T-shirt. He was thirty-four but had taken up golf only the previous year after marrying into a golf-mad, mainline Philadelphia family, and was now scrambling to catch up to their handicaps and win himself a spot in the Thanksgiving foursome.

When I threw out a Facebook invitation to friends to join me for a few rounds in Scotland, I was shocked when Garth came back as one of the instant commits. His local handicap was 38.4, and he had just recently achieved his goal of making his posted scores actually count, shaving a few strokes off the default max of 40. We met over coffee to discuss the trip at hand. I needed to make sure Garth knew what he was signing up for in links golf, in wooly-hat golf, in buying-more-balls-at-the-turn golf. And he was in, without a breath of hesitation. He had a line on a gross of golf balls through DrMulligans.com and was eager for the test, as long as, he explained, I didn’t mind playing with a beginner. He knew my golf had earnest ambitions and didn’t want his learning curve to interfere.

Any golfer who busted his ass to shrink his handicap from 40 to 38.6, who counted every single stroke with an almost agonizing veracity, who was ready to take a winter’s worth of lessons and wanted so badly to be a golfer without cutting a single corner or taking a single putt, was as worthy a partner as I could find. I assured him he would be doing me a great favor in making the trip to come find me up in Aberdeen, but I didn’t tell him that it would be a treat to see a links course through the eyes of someone who had never imagined one, and to again see the game from the perspective of someone who was still courting it.

A round of golf is full of silent rhythms and nuances that players take for granted: Where do you position your bag, stand on the green, drop the pin, take a leak? Contact is hard enough, but the etiquette and flow of a game takes years to master, and I wonder how many beginners give up for feeling like outsiders, unwelcome because they don’t know all the secret handshakes. I once heard a Tour pro say that he didn’t golf with members at his club because he didn’t want to play “with a bunch of chops.” But the chops are the future. They’re the most important players on the course, and they need our stewardship. So hug a chop, because we are all chops at least a few times every round.

I wasn’t a benevolent guru inviting a beginner along to marvel at my drives; rather, I was fortunate for a playing partner who loved golf more than I did. He must have, because I wouldn’t have spent the money on a ticket to Scotland for the chance to add up to 124. I was born in the church of golf and had watched my faith lapse, while Garth was freshly converted and chased the game with the fervor of the born-again. He wouldn’t teach me anything about the golf swing, but that was fine, because I suspected he would show me something about golf guts.

And he did, straight off the plane. We might have oriented him on a wee parkland nine-holer or warmed up on a practice range, but the schedule demanded Garth belly flop into the deep end, teeing up his first Scottish ball on a course that had hosted the Scottish Open and the Walker Cup, the sixth-oldest club in the world, where King Edward VII himself added the royal to Royal Aberdeen.

After a kind welcome and a tour of the aged clubhouse that showcased trophies older than Texas and an encased sample of the members’ red coats, I felt nerves myself. I hoped Garth didn’t know enough about the game’s history to be daunted by his surroundings. His goal on this trip was to break 100 in Scotland, and I hoped this course wouldn’t prove that goal a pipe dream on day one. On the opening tee box, Garth turned to me. I expected him to make some excuse about jet lag or his new golf shoes, but instead he smiled and said, “Guess what, Tom? We get to golf today.”

Unafraid, he stepped up and knocked his ball down the first fairway in a mostly forward and airborne fashion. And suddenly, the trip had changed: I was no longer the lone seeker, and as I walked the opening hole, a par 4 that rolled downward toward an ocean horizon, I felt a lightness in my steps. What a relief to take a break from worrying about myself and my scorecards and cheer for someone else for a while.

It turned out that my cheers weren’t going to be enough—not on this afternoon. Royal Aberdeen flogged Garth with contempt and abandon, but his spirit never wavered, even as his carefully calculated ball budget took a hit that threatened his Dr. Mulligan’s stash. I didn’t have to explain that the five-minute rule for ball searches was invented at this very club (if you don’t play the gorse as a lateral hazard in Scotland, dropping instead of running back to hit again, you’ll have the course backed up in no time); Garth looked, dropped, and got on with it. “I’m not playing Royal Aberdeen,” he explained from the high herbs off the ninth fairway, “I’m exploring it.”

Both refined and bombastic, Royal Aberdeen was a status course with a wild side. It blended the formality of Muirfield with the giddiness of Murcar’s dunes next door, and its nine-out, nine-in routing was a steady meal of thinking shots and hopeful strategies. If Garth never golfed another links, he could say he had played one of the true ones. He hit a surplus of shots that day, but none would top the magic of his approach to the final green. Eighteen was an angry par 4 that played upward to a green set directly beside the clubhouse. As Garth stood over his third shot, 5-iron in hand, I eyed the tall glass windows of the clubhouse. This could be terrible, I thought. And then I realized, This could be awesome. What an extraordinary mark to leave upon the sixth-oldest club in the world. Surely they had insurance.

As his ball rose against the breeze and turned toward the clubhouse and the adjacent practice green where a member was putting, I heard Garth let out the meekest Fore? in the history of golf. We both exhaled as the ball dropped safely without making humanly or window-ly contact. Garth had actually hit the green, albeit the practice one, and we watched as his ball rolled up to the member’s feet and stopped. The man looked down, wondering where this extra ball had come from, perhaps trying to guess who Dr. Mulligan was. He putted on without a word or even a look our way, and we left Royal Aberdeen with a new understanding that in golf, it isn’t always the things you hit but the things you miss that matter.

I had been keeping a number of lists in my evening journal—favorite holes, toughest pars, best par 3s, best short courses—but over the next week, I would start a new list that I enjoyed more than all the others: Shit Garth Hit. The first entry was Practice green at Royal Aberdeen, but it would grow to include various obstacles and conveyances, both natural and man-made. At the short locals’ links of Inverallochy, the list would acquire its most impressive item: flagpole. Not a golf flag, mind you, but a literal flagpole in the parking lot that waved the Scottish standard.

Inverallochy was a cheerful par 66 perched directly atop the cliffs, where Garth greeted me at the first tee with his morning catchphrase: “Hey, Tom, guess what? We get to golf today.” I wondered when I would tire of hearing that, but I reminded myself that Garth was right and I was golf-spoiled, and that I should stop hoping that one morning I might hear, Guess what, Tom? We get to sleep/do crosswords/shuck oysters/juggle fire/scratch our asses today instead.

The layout was a nice break for Garth—shortish and void of the gorse that crowded Royal Aberdeen. The hospitality in the clubhouse, where they were pleasantly surprised to find Americans had arrived to play their wee track, was surpassed only by the kindness on the course, where a greenskeeper hopped out of his tractor to tell Garth he found his drive two fairways over. It was a morning of majestic views where you could let it fly, and we did. I signed for what was becoming my too-common 5 over, and Garth flirted with the hundred barrier. He didn’t break it, but his ball budget was back in the black as he lost nary a pebble, though he did nearly lose all the cash in both of our wallets.

The first two holes played past the clubhouse, but the third came directly back toward it, the green set next to another terrifying amount of glass. A crowded parking lot was far more frightening than the clubhouse from yesterday, and I imagined Garth engaged in a cliffside wrestling match with the owner of that Audi SUV. As Garth reached for his 5-iron, I decided not to say what I knew we were both thinking, but as we watched his ball bullet toward the cars, I wished that I had. The projectile banked hard and locked in on its shiny target; we braced for impact and let out sighs of Shiiiiit. But then came a miraculous DOING! The club’s thin flagpole was the only barrier between Garth’s shot and a sea of windshields, and he somehow managed to hit the sucker dead-on, his ball careening sideways and bouncing through the lot.

Unafraid and unashamed, Garth walked into the parking lot, nodded hello to the family loading into an unblemished Audi, and conspicuously collected his Titleist from beside their tire. My boy had balls, and he left Inverallochy with all of them that morning. And on we went, in search of 99.

At nearby Fraserburgh, the only addition to the Shit Garth Hit list would be a road, which seemed like more of a rite of passage than an error—everybody had hit a road ball and cringed, waiting for the impending smash and tire-screech. Fraserburgh checked in as the seventh-oldest club in the world, yet it held none of the affectations that one might expect at a club of such heritage (Fraserburgh fun fact: It’s the oldest club in the world still operating under its original name). It was a sort of second-tier links that touring golfers might skip, and to do so would be a great shame, as Garth and I both adored this wild seaside climb of a course. Laid out by James Braid, whom I was now convinced neither slept nor ate, the course stretched up, over, down, and around a massive hill set in the heart of the links. The first and last holes from and to the clubhouse were sleepy appetizers, but once we took on the mountain at the course’s middle, the holes were rambling romps of uneven lies and sneaky turns. It was less manicured than the tour-bus courses, with tiny white flowers dotting the fairways and driving both of us dizzy by the end; hunting for balls camouflaged in the fairway was a nuisance, but it was worth the trouble for the chance to play a course that lived up to the oft-abused label of hidden gem.

As we played our way home on eighteen, we passed a member coming up number one for a few evening holes. Our drives had crisscrossed, so we stopped to say hello. We told him how much we enjoyed his course, and he said, “Happy to hear it. As long as you’re having fun, that’s all that matters.”

It was true, and I wondered whether that was the obvious wisdom I had traveled so far to find. Perhaps it was. I was sure to keep having fun as I closed with a bogey and Garth licked his wounds from his 118 swipes. Two rounds completed, but on this evening, there was still more fun to be had.

With Garth’s arrival came the question of shoe-changing etiquette. There was always the debate about whether one could or should change one’s shoes in the parking lot or in the clubhouse, or if the clubhouse was open to visitors, or if there was a separate visitors’ locker room (there often was) and if we knew the entry code for the door (I often didn’t). I avoided such quandaries by wearing golf shoes full-time, but as Garth had some actual sense about driving in spikes, we would pull into a parking lot and have to wonder if bare socks in the car park would be an affront to someone in a red coat. At Rosehearty, a nine-holer just up the coast from Fraserburgh, such concerns were alleviated when we watched a gentleman pull into the parking lot, step to the back of his car, and in a fifty-degree breeze drop his work trousers and change into golf pants, a process during which he proved that it was not just the French or the Italians but all European men who preferred banana hammocks. In this gentleman’s case, the hammock was in fact banana-colored, his bright yellow briefs partly obscured by belly overhang.

I turned to Garth. “I think we’re okay to change our shoes in the parking lot.”

He agreed.

The small building beside the Rosehearty parking lot was locked. It might have been a clubhouse, but it looked like it was rarely inhabited. I noticed a pub across the street, and I recalled Alan back at the Glen telling me of a course where I was going to have to check in at the bar across the road; he warned me that there were downward steps inside the doorway, and coming from the light into the dark bar was blinding—he ended up going down the steps on his ass the first time. We gave it a shot, and sure enough we found the steps and the dark bar, where a lone woman tended an empty room.

“You here for the golf?”

We told her we were. She took our money and handed us scorecards, and off we went to play one of the least-fussy courses in Scotland.

Rosehearty was a punishment-void and judgment-free nightcap to Garth’s first day. The course was essentially a field with nine holes in it, albeit a lovely, lofted field overlooking the ocean. If it were my local golf escape, I would have been happy enough. Garth broke 100 by 48 whole shots, proving what I had always known was the secret to better scoring: playing fewer holes.

Oil rigs come to the deep harbour of the Cromarty firth at Nigg within close reach of the North sea oil fields to be repaired or decommissioned. Photo by Kieran Dodds.
Photo by Kieran Dodds

I could smell it in the air at Moray: the talent. It was hanging around the practice green and playing in foursomes of college golf bags. Next to whisky, Scotland’s greatest export had to be eighteen-year-old golf hopefuls shipped to American universities, and they were all over Moray, playing second balls and putting not to the pins but to the tees they stuck in tomorrow’s hole locations. Practice rounds were under way for the next day’s Scottish Open Stroke Championship. Qualification was based on handicaps, and while mine might have snuck me in off the waiting list, the three days it would have stuck me in Lossiemouth was not part of the plan; I had eight courses to explore in that time. But it was helpful to play a course set for championship golf, and I put my mind to playing this round as if my name were on the board and every shot were posted.

The locals referred to the Moray course by its town name, Lossiemouth, but whatever you called it, it was a formidable, gorse-clogged test. There was a St. Andrews feeling about the start and finish of this Tom Morris course, where the clubhouse sat snugly between the ocean and the town. It was a steep forty paces down to the golf course from the street, giving the finish a sunken-stadium vibe. The course also possessed an immovable obstruction I had yet to see anywhere else in golf: landing lights for the nearby Royal Air Force base. You got relief from the wooden towers that were mostly confined to the rough, but it took us a few holes to figure out what they were for. Were they clues to a shortcut to the green, or some sort of elaborate laundry-drying apparatus? When a landing fighter jet nearly knocked off our hats, their purpose became clear.

They came in by the dozen, close enough that Garth’s hit list had a chance to go from comical to legendary status. We didn’t hit any planes that day, though we got some great pictures of us putting with their landing gear overhead. A plane-strike had apparently happened once, in 1971 when a schoolteacher popped up a drive at Moray that struck a Royal Navy Hawker Hunter jet. I could only imagine the clubhouse deliberations over that ruling. I didn’t recall anything from the Leith rules about Navy jets, but the schoolteacher’s case was pronounced rub of the green—play it where it lies.

My 75 would have had me playing from the wrong side of the cut line in tomorrow’s field of Walker Cup players and future mini-tour pros, and Garth’s 110 would have been a sub-100 round at a gentler track. I was tired at Moray and felt frustration setting in; I was too far along to still be losing balls and making thoughtless doubles the way I did on the second hole. My wipey cuts were not going away; they were getting worse, and I worried that eschewing the driving range in favor of actual play had been a flawed strategy from the start. My swing path needed retuning, but the idea of finding a range to do video work nauseated me. The meal was prepared; it was too late to go back to the mixing bowl. I would have to find a change on the fly and go with the miss I had.

I also had to give myself a break. Back in Philadelphia, Dynda had stressed that golfers who demanded consistency were chasing Bigfoot. Even the best players in the world missed fairways and greens—often, actually—and while on TV it looked like they never missed a putt, the data showed that pros holed less than half their putts beyond eight feet. He believed in golf as a bell curve on either end of which there would always be outlying shots—good and bad—and that while practice might tighten up the curve or shift it forward, the golf ball would always disobey us during a round. Such was its design. How we recovered when it did, and how many putts we made inside of eight feet, was where the money was made, and where the pros separated themselves from the guys shooting 75 in a practice round.

Somewhere along the front nine of Royal Tarlair that afternoon, on my way to an opening 40, it occurred to me that it might not be that I was growing tired, but that I was getting weak or strong in the wrong places. I had carried a one-strap bag slung over my right shoulder over some fifty golf courses, and I wondered whether my strengthened right side might have something to do with my expanding misses, grooving me a more over-and-across path that wiped the golf ball and, as I had proven recently, even brought the hosel into play. I understood all of this abstractly, but without drills or a range to rejigger my move, I didn’t know what to do about it. So I did something obvious: On number ten at Royal Tarlair, I set my right shoulder back and weakened my grip, stuff they teach you at the junior clinic when you’re twelve. I felt the club head dropping inside the ball, and my wipe morphed into a cannon. I made three birdies and shot 33 on the closing nine, and wondered if there were any spots left at Lossiemouth from no-shows tomorrow.

Today’s swing fix rarely lasted into tomorrow, and it likely wouldn’t be my answer by trip’s end at Bruntsfield, by which time I would have worshipped and discarded a half dozen remedies. But the key was to keep looking for one. The fixes didn’t last, and the good shots were only as dependable as the bad ones, but if I kept trying to play golf—think, adjust, react—rather than trying to beat it, 33 was not out of the question.

Royal Tarlair was a clifftop course of wild vistas and straightforward holes that might have visitors wondering why they weren’t back at Cruden Bay until they arrived at the thirteenth, a par 3 called Clivet that shot to the top of my list of the most dramatic holes in Scotland. At 152 yards off the edge of a rocky precipice, Clivet required you to loft your ball across a crashing sea and down to a saucer of green planted on a stony ocean outcropping far below. It felt like God’s version of the seventeenth at Sawgrass, worth the visit just for that signature hole. It might have been a one-hit wonder of a golf course, but as far as one-hit wonders go, Clivet was an absolute Chumbawamba.

Garth’s stretch of Scottish golf east of Inverness was crowded with such courses: lots of locals’ tracks that didn’t shine quite brightly enough to stop the busses but were still classy little jewels, places like Spey Bay and Strathlene and Nairn Dunbar and Buckpool and Hopeman. If your friends wanted solid and unbothered golf, you could plan a nice getaway among the lot, for a tidy little price.

Photos: Kieran Dodds
Photo by Kieran Dodds

We pulled up to Spey Bay to find campers setting up tents outside the barn of a clubhouse, raising our suspicions about the golf we might find at what looked like a campground from the parking lot. But behind the clubhouse was a genuine out-and-in links stretching along the ocean that had been laid out by Scottish golf legend Ben Sayers, who, as it was explained to us by the manager inside the one-room clubhouse, came up from North Berwick in the early 1900s and laid out the course in one afternoon, using nothing more than two flags. He marked a tee with one and then waved to a lad in the distance until the flag marking the green was where he wanted it.

The topography of Spey Bay showed why Sayers’s job was such an easy one. The tides had left dunes that were shaped like long gullies, so some of the holes played like you were skiing through a half-pipe. A bit ragged around the edges (as we heard everywhere, the wet spring had been cruel to courses across the country, and maintenance had yet to really begin), Spey Bay won the competition for best scorecard in my growing collection. Rather than another picture of a golf hole, its cover featured a black-and-white photograph of club member James Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour prime minister of Great Britain. Word was that he had been kicked out of nearby Moray for opposing Great Britain’s involvement in World War I, though our friend in the clubhouse said he was barred from Moray for being of illegitimate birth, and for being a member of the Labour Party.

Spey Bay’s tunnels were tight and the wind was blowing out to sea, so it took only a few holes before Garth added ocean to his list of things hit. But his spirits didn’t sag. As we watched his second tee ball chase his first one into the thick gorse on number twelve, he said, “Look at it this way: I’ve just doubled my chances of finding a ball in there.”

It would take all Garth’s optimism to make it around Hopeman that afternoon. I had warned him that we had a tournament in our path, but I didn’t know until we checked in at the pro shop that it was a stroke-play event. No equitable stroke control, and no blobs or surrenders—it was hack until it’s dead.

“You don’t have to do this,” I told him. “You can just pay and play and say you aren’t going to post a score.”

“Oh, I’m posting a score,” Garth said, unfazed. “I’m in, baby.”

We paid at the scorer’s table, and they asked for our handicaps for the gross prizes.

“Thirty-eight,” Garth proclaimed.

The man looked up from the score sheet, presumably surprised to see a healthy young lad standing before him.

“You’ll be a 28 today. Tournament maximum.”

I winced, while Garth smiled and said, “Fantastic. Twenty-eight it is.”

I couldn’t help but fear for my friend, a real-life tournament virgin. I had tournament scabs on top of tournament scars, so maybe he was better off with this being his first stroke-play competition. Ignorance was bliss, especially when they just about chopped your handicap in half.

Luckily for us, it was pissing rain and freezing cold at Hopeman; perhaps the water would wash the numbers off our scorecards or freeze our fingers to the point where we could no longer write them down. Hopeman wasn’t particularly long at a par of 68, but the place felt like a gorse nursery wherein they’d cleared a few paths for people to attempt to advance a golf ball. Whether it was the weather or the frustration of having to locate every single one of our threesome’s shots, I felt like I was golfing in one giant shrub of thorns, hacking my way through a damp perdition. I jammed a 3-iron to six feet and three-putted. I backhanded a tap-in and missed. I checked out in every possible way. The best shot I hit all day was a chip-in for triple bogey on the fifth after blowing two tee balls into the prickly nevermore, and while Hopeman’s signature twelfth was another cliffside downhill par 3 that recalled the joys of Clivet, I played like a petulant toddler, convinced that if I grew angry enough, they wouldn’t make me post.

My bitterness about shooting 81 had blinded me to the travails of my friend. I knew that Garth was working on a number of genuine heft, but I barely helped him look for his balls on number five, lamenting my triple instead. When he told his marker his score for the hole—“That would be a 15”—I should have stepped in and told him to no-card and just try to enjoy himself. But I think he did, at least partly, because he didn’t hesitate to sign his card at the scorer’s table, and as names rolled down the digital scoreboard in the bar, it was all laughs and smiles as we watched GARTH R—USA flash onto the board beside a final tally of 130 gross, 102 net. A total of 130 wasn’t all that bad with a 15 in the mix. We took a picture in front of the scoreboard with two big thumbs-up and wide, American smiles.

I came to Scotland craving some quirky, and experience had taught that seaside short courses where golf had been squeezed into a tight swath of coastline were the best places to find it. And Scotland did not disappoint when it came to tiny tracks. I hoped Garth had played enough golf to understand that what he was witnessing at Cullen and at Covesea should not be dismissed as too peculiar or diminutive; rather, these two wee treks through the dunes and boulders were condensed genius, veritable golfing muses to fire the imagination of a links golfer for whom all the green and gorse were starting to look the same.

Word around these parts was that the Cullen golfers were nearly invincible in Opens and scooped up trophies by the bushel, because if you could get around Cullen’s tight 4,623 yards in a low number, it meant your short game was aces and your irons were grooved on a par-63 course of ten par 3s. A lot of golfers, myself included, treated their 3-through-6-irons like unteachable pupils, misbehavers that we tolerated having in our bags in case of emergency. We fawned over our drivers, wedges, and putters, but Dynda had explained that his friend Sean Foley, Tiger’s former coach, believed that mid-irons were the real talent separators. On Tour, proficiency from 180 to 230 yards was a huge statistical divider between the goods and the greats; Cullen required such yardages off most of its tees, so its members owned the elusive two-hundred-yard dart. I also suspected that the Cullen members had a toughness to them that might have intimidated their competition—in the men’s locker room, a sign that asked members to remove their trollies from atop their lockers had been edited with a dissenting opinion scrawled across the bottom: FUCK OFF YE BAMS. I didn’t know what a bam was, but I looked forward to referring to most of my friends as such for the foreseeable future.

I finished Cullen at level par, testament to an improved dexterity with my 4-iron, but most likely a result of my not thinking about my score once in my 63 swings. Instead I was thinking about where the pin might be on the handful of blind par 3s or how we were going to get down to those other golf holes two hundred yards below us or if we were really supposed to climb that slope without some sort of lever and pulley system or how these rock formations had come to exist. The lower valley of the course was partitioned by a massive wall of brown stone and was dotted with gigantically phallic stalagmites. At some point this valley had been level with the cliffs, and prehistoric bits of their mass remained, interrupting the fairways with stunning stone sculptures. The same was the case up the road at Covesea, where the turf wasn’t as tidy as Cullen’s but the quirks spun us around a ravine of heroic golf holes.

At both courses, we played up against washed-out cave walls, through gaps between little buttes and mesas, past gorges and over crags. There was something almost Paleolithic about the courses as we golfed through these tiny Scottish grand canyons. If Fred Flintstone had golfed, these would have been his home fairways.

Cullen was clearly the more established of the two—it dated to 1870, and its original nine was another Old Tom layout (he and Braid were veritable Johnny Appleseeds of UK golf courses). Cullen had a cozy clubhouse and a busy course, and while one might be reluctant to play a track where one was required to buy insurance in the pro shop before teeing off—the standing-room-only layout brought plenty of other golfers’ noggins into play—fifty pence was a bargain for the sigh of relief Garth exhaled when he looked down at his Cullen proof of insurance card and said, “Finally.”

An Autumnal squall passes over the sea to Skye viewed from the Applecross estate, owned by the Applecross trust which is a charity thats runs the 26,700 hectares. Photo by Kieran Dodds.
Photo by Kieran Dodds

A half hour west of Cullen, the Covesea course put the hidden back in hidden gem. We drove past the entrance twice before turning onto a long gravel descent that we inched down as if pulling our mules—You sure this is the way?—relieved to at last see golf holes planted between cliffs and beach. Covesea was a recently reborn nine-holer with a modest charm that won me over in every way, from the hand-drawn course map on a homemade scorecard to the sandy greens shaped like skinny amoebas to the fact that on the 238-yard sixth, I hit a tee ball that would sustain my confidence for a good two weeks, rocketing my hybrid through a canyon chute and sticking the ball to two feet (I followed the formality of my playing partner and holed it out properly). But the most charismatic part of Covesea was the welcome from the caretaker of the pro shop, a woman named Angela who was married to the course’s designer. She apologized for her muddy boots and offered us candy bars and scorecards stamped with unpretentious advice for visiting golfers: Don’t forget to stop and smell the roses! We asked about the origins of this links hideout, and she shared with us the story of her husband, Andy Burnett, who was living a golf dream to which this golf dreamer could only aspire.

Andy had built other parkland courses in the region, places I was sorry I hadn’t heard of, but it was his vision to own his own track, so he and Angela put together all their pounds and purchased what used to be twelve holes by the sea. They opened a restaurant beside the first tee, a place called the Tee Shack that was busy with locals and tourists at lunchtime. More people came for coffee with a view than for golf, but after a few years of restaurant success, the Tee Shack burned to the ground in the middle of the night. Andy and Angela were left operating the course out of a trailer without the income from their diners, and Covesea suffered from a steep drop-off in play. They worried that people assumed they were closed after the fire, but let the golfing world know that Covesea is open and is a must-play, not just for the vistas and its exuberant golf holes but for the chance to celebrate a course built by the hands of a man who decided he wanted a golf course, grabbed a shovel, and, over the course of a decade of back-busting labor, built himself a damn good one (Angela said that Andy’s brother chipped in to help, too).

I didn’t meet Andy during our visit, and that was fine, because I wanted to admire him like a kid in awe of an unmet hero. I loved that he risked and toiled and battled the rains and fire for his own slice of links heaven, and in so doing created and sustained a gift for every golfer fortunate enough to stop and smell the roses at Covesea. There were legions of unknown, frontline fighters who risked their finances and their futures to keep a first tee open. I was glad to know the name of one of them now, and I told Angela I would be back someday to meet him. Hopefully the Tee Shack would be back in business by then, and I could raise a cup to Andy Burnett.

“Guess what, Tom? We get to golf today.”

It was with real pleasure that, at Nairn, I got to add a phrase to Garth’s morning refrain, words I’d never heard spoken on a golf course before: “With the World Speedgolf Champion.”

As Garth’s week in Scotland drew to a close, the list in my journal had grown crowded with happy memories of extraordinary feats of golf.

Shit Garth Hit:

  • Flagpole
  • Parking lot
  • Practice green
  • Road
  • Practice facility (Garth knocked the metal siding at Fraserburgh’s driving range with a triumphant GONG!)
  • Beach (At Nairn, Garth outsourced his drive to the beach at low tide, then took my dare and went out and played it from eighty yards off the golf course; the picture I took of him in his follow-through on a vast strand without a golf course in sight captured the spirit of golfer versus nature in its purest form.)
  • Ocean
  • Wrong green (On the eighteenth at Buckpool, Garth confessed to fist-pumping as his ball rolled onto the putting surface from two hundred yards out, only to look up and find me chipping to a green forty paces to the left.)

Human beings was nearly added to the list when a threesome at Inverallochy came close to getting a physical from Dr. Mulligan, but in fairness to Garth, he also found a lot of fairways and hit every single green. Eventually.

You traveled with golf clubs to play shots and bring home stories, and Garth had been something of a genius in his ability to combine the two goals, hitting more story-worthy golf shots than I might hope to in all my Scottish rounds. Add to his list eighteen holes with a petite young blonde who was in all ways the opposite of every golfer I expected to join me in Scotland and Garth’s trip went from memorable to unmatched.

Among my prearranged playing partners, the average age was forty-eight, average weight was Why are you asking?, average ability level was Two sleeves should be enough, and average playing pace was What time is dinner? Gretchen was twenty-something, weighed less than her set of Nike irons, played off near-scratch, and liked to go around eighteen holes in less than an hour.

A friend of a friend put us in touch, knowing she would be golfing her way around the UK that summer, and when the women’s World Speedgolf Champion emails you, you write back. I couldn’t decline golf with a world champion, even if I didn’t know what speedgolf was (it’s hit-and-run golf, where your time and total strokes make a cumulative total). Gretchen compared the test of speedgolf to that of the biathlon, that kid-friendly Olympic sport that combines guns and skiing, where the challenge is combining a breathless pace with a precision skill, sprinting your way to a four-foot putt.

I should have expected a speedgolfer to beat us to the tee at Nairn, and Gretchen did. She greeted me with a huggy friendliness that affirmed her West Coast roots—born and raised in Oregon, she now worked for Nike in Amsterdam. She spoke to both of us with an ease that suggested any worries we might have had about uptight golf with a champion were misplaced. Garth warned her that he was relatively new to golf, but as Gretchen planted her tee in the first box, she was nothing but reassuring. “Hey, man, it’s all good,” she said. “I’m just trying to hit it where the lawnmowers go.”

The lawnmowers would need trim only a thin strip down the center of the Nairn links that day for Gretchen. I expected her to go running after her first tee shot, but she casually strolled the fairways beside us on what was one of the most classic-feeling links I had played since the Old Course—an authentic beach-tied, nine-out, nine-in routing unprotected from the sea, teeming with Ice Age–crafted kinks, with the ocean haunting every swing. A detour into the woods held two of the toughest holes in the Highlands, Nairn’s thirteenth and fourteenth, a par 4 and a par 3 draped up and down a hillside. It was an unobstructed sort of links where you could see the rest of the course around you and up ahead. I once thought the mark of a great course was being able to see only the hole on which you were playing (an attribute for which golfers commonly praise Pine Valley), but there’s something powerful about a view that gives you a sense of a course’s whole size and shape and your place upon it. You become aware of your movement through its geography as you consider what lies ahead. Nairn didn’t hide from you. It seemed to dare you to fight your way across it, to touch that wall out there on the far end—there literally was an old barn wall at the end of the outward nine—and golf your ball back home.

Gretchen belted it for a golfer of slight stature, a true athlete who annoyingly had taken up golf in her college years and was now considering a run at the turtle’s-pace pro circuit, and I surmised that her easy demeanor and true golf addiction would serve her well in that career path. She hopped planes most weekends from Amsterdam, seeking out cheap airfares to golf in the UK, where she played sunup to sundown, often alone—a genuine golf-chaser. She was fiery on her rare mishits; she expected good shots and nearly always produced them, but was otherwise a laid-back playing partner who taught me a Cali-vibe golf expression that I doubted I would ever reuse but had to appreciate for its novelty. As Garth blasted a drive toward the seals, Gretchen called out, “AMF!”

“AMF?”

She smiled and shouldered her bag. “Adios, motherfucker.”

She joined us for dinner at a bright place called the Classroom, a spot that proved Nairn to be a bit of a gourmet hub. The dishes were all products of the owner’s nearby farm, and my steak and chips was the best steak and chips of the thirty-seven protein-and-potato entrées I had ordered in Scotland to date. Gretchen brought a breath of fresh air to our dining routine, and her energy was a shot of enthusiasm into the trip—she was young and curious, and after a pint of lager, she peppered Garth and me with questions about not just golf but life. What were our best decisions? Our biggest regrets? What did we want to accomplish in life? Be remembered for?

I felt like a worn wanderer speaking to a hopeful wunderkind, my experience meeting her optimism. It was nice to be looked up to for some wisdom, though I had little to offer. I volunteered some hackneyed advice about living without regret and seizing opportunities. Truth was, I learned more from my day with young Gretchen than she probably did from the day with the author whose book she had finished the evening before. On the course, she explained how speedgolf made her regular game sharper. It didn’t allow for doubt and pondering—see it, hit it, get on with it. Target and go; it was golf as a sport, and it sounded brilliant. For all the time I’d spent trying to outthink golf, maybe it was the thinking that had to be un-thought. It was a tall ask for a player who lived between his ears, but I could at least aspire to play more like this athlete, reacting rather than overplanning and hoping.

Cruden Bay Moon. Photo by Kevin Markham
Photo by Kevin Markham

Toward the end of our evening, Gretchen confided that she was coming off a breakup and felt a bit disconnected living abroad. She was happy to have had the brief company. I invited her to come back and join me anywhere along the remainder of my trip; she said she would, and I didn’t doubt it. Garth and I both left that dinner feeling like we had a new little sister who was searching but couldn’t possibly know how fortunate she was for her youth, her talent, and the troubles that, in hindsight, she would come to see as passing breezes.

Gretchen’s weekend drop-in had me recalling the things I was doing at her age, how nothing about my life today matched my plans from that time—thank God—and how life had given me so much of something for which I was almost never grateful: experience. I didn’t care for calling myself forty, but forty years of experience was valuable. Priceless, really; and forty-one and fifty-one would bring more. I wasn’t able to explain to Gretchen that this was why I lived without regret, why I wouldn’t trade in any former days, because the good ones were good and the bad ones made them so. She would see it in time. We all get a transcript full of experience, whether we sign up for the classes or not.

In case I doubted the value of experience or the blessings born of our trials, Garth offered proof of both the next day. Strathlene on Buckie was another solid locals’ course where the holes were not quite as memorable as the views or the wind or the climbs. It wasn’t a long walk at a par of 69, but heading into a wind that felt as though we had found the tippity-top of Scotland, it felt like hard labor.

Gretchen’s inspiration vanished in the amount of time it took to make a double bogey, which was all of two holes. Not even Strathlene’s resonant club motto posted above its door—Far and Sure—could inspire me to fight for my scorecard. As we slogged along, we were reminded that if you want it to rain in Scotland, simply take off your rain gear. It had yet to fail me, as if I were some sort of weather shaman who could bring water to the crops by zipping off my rain paints. It was a bad morning to be playing the one course in Scotland that perfectly mimicked that moment in a distance race when the half-marathoners finish and split off from the marathoners, crushing the hearts of the latter. Strathlene’s fourteenth played right back down to the clubhouse, telling your mind it was time to shake hands and sign cards, but then it sent you back out across the street for four more up a hill. We played them. I think.

Stinging from a heartless morning 77, I sat in my car in the parking lot at Buckpool, the final course of Garth’s visit to Scotland, and looked up at the skies and demanded sunshine. I wasn’t fucking around—if you want me to keep going, fine, but I’d been wet for a month, and a month was enough. “Enough!” I said aloud to the windshield. Then I stepped out of the car into a rain aimed directly at my earhole. If Garth says, “We get to golf today,” I thought, I’m going to lock him in the trunk and drive us both to the airport.

Jones had been kind enough to send me one of their Sunday golf bags, which I kept rolled up like a snail shell in the backseat. I’d almost left it at home, but was grateful I didn’t on this day when a few ounces off my shoulder might be the lift I needed to reach for another ball. I dropped nine clubs into the bag and headed out onto the Buckpool course, another clifftop links, this one designed by five-time Open champion John Henry Taylor. I couldn’t have cared less if the course had been designed by Spongebob Squarepants; I wanted off the links before my feet had even touched it.

I played on, because the edict of golf’s ebb and flow, of links’ peaks and valleys, was a natural law of the game that I had never seen denied. It worked on its own timetable, and it often broke your spirit as you waited for it to turn, but in my golfing life, the game always found its balance. Front nine 50s followed by back-nine 36s. Bogeys begat birdies begat bogeys. Aces followed doubles, sun followed rain, and by the second hole at Buckpool we were warm in our rain pants but didn’t dare take them off. Nor did we reach for the sunscreen; I would rather risk a future scalpel than tempt that beaming yellow thing above us to disappear again.

I knew that Garth was playing better, but it was a quiet and warm round at Buckpool where we were happy to soak up the weather in silence, so there was no talk of our scores as we went. Garth had Sharpied a large G on all his golf balls as an identifier, and he left plenty around Scotland that week. If you happen to find one, know that what you are holding is not a joke but a trophy. Hold that ball, and recall and revere the 39 handicapper who, after fourteen rounds in six days, through so many soul-testing trials, never quit, and found his number. As he bent down to pluck his final G ball out of the final hole—no putts conceded from beginning to end—he wasn’t yet upright before he said, “That’s 99.”

He texted his wife from the parking lot. A 99 meant more to Garth than most; in some families, the in-laws wanted a suitor to have a career path or a mouth full of teeth, but Garth had married into a family where his father-in-law played 235 rounds a year and his brother-in-law boasted a 2 handicap, so breaking 100 was an initiation beyond the rote stuff of wedding ceremonies. It was a validation for which he had worked hard, so I wasn’t surprised when his wife let the whole family know of the 99 via a group text. His brother-in-law’s replies were insistent as he demanded to know what Garth shot on the back nine.

Tom Coyne Swinging a club. Photo Courtesy of Tom Coyne.


Sometimes numbers don’t tell the full story. For Tom, watching Garth’s 99 gave him inspiration to keep searching for the secret. Photo courtesy of Tom Coyne

On the drive home, sports radio was abuzz with news of Rory’s firing an 80 in the Irish Open at Royal County Down, a tournament he was hosting in his home country and was favored to win. Golf was hard. I never delighted in another golfer’s struggles, but the news did make me feel a little brighter about the 72 I’d shot with nine clubs. It would be no consolation to Rory, but his 80 wasn’t the biggest story in golf that day—99 at Buckpool should have been grabbing the headlines. At the start of Garth’s trip, I would have bet money I didn’t have on his not sniffing 100 on a Scottish links. So 99 was a reminder: Garth’s never quitting, his carding a 130 in competition, his coming on this trip at all—they were all reminders of the idea that had gotten me over here in the first place.

Over the course of the last five weeks, I had become a why man: Why is it raining again? Why aren’t the putts dropping? Why are the numbers adding up wrong again? I needed to get back to the notion that had put me on the plane, the inkling that had sold me and my family and my friends on this adventure. The next morning, Garth would be on his way back to the States and I would be on a tiny plane up to a ferry to a drive to the northernmost golf course on the northernmost island in the United Kingdom, because months before I’d believed I might find the secret to golf there. Why? Because if you’re after something they say doesn’t exist, you have to go to places they haven’t been. Maybe—just maybe—the secret was in Shetland. Why? Because my week with a sub-100 golfer had reminded me: Why not? 

A Course Called Scotland is available at most major book retailers or tomcoyne.com.

Landscape shot. Photo by Kevin Markham.
Photo by Kevin Markham