WHERE ARE THE SHOTS OF YESTERYEAR? (WHATSOY)
April 2014 – A new hope
Glasgow Gailes – Dundonald Links
This is a golfing adventure; a real time journey to try and recover my love for the game, recapture the enthusiasm of earlier years. A pursuit of my golfing identity – a search for lost time. At the core is the attempt to answer two questions. Can I reassemble the game I used to have? Can I find new moments to match the joy I have had from playing for over 50 years.
I first picked up a club in the mid-1950s. My dad didn’t play but years earlier had bought a random set in a jumble sale for my older brother Archie who was keen to try golf. When Archie moved onto a new set, by which I mean a slightly less old, old set, I inherited what were by then the family heirlooms. A mixed bag is a good, literal description. Mostly steel but two hickory shafted clubs with shiny, hard, red leather grips which made them difficult to use. A mashie – equivalent to a modern 4 iron and a mashie niblick, a 7 iron.
I started playing with my left hand down the shaft – it felt much more comfortable – and broke 100 for the first time with that set and that method. I would have switched to the more orthodox grip earlier if it hadn’t been for a family holiday to North Berwick in July 1959 chosen to coincide with the Open Championship at Muirfield. The year Gary Player won for the first time. (The coincidences spilling out from that and my links to him are another part of the story).
We were staying at Nether Abbey, a guest house on the main road into the town from Gullane and Muirfield. When we arrived we found out that a number of the pros who were playing in the Open were also residents. The Miguel brothers – the best players in Spain – and Leopoldo Ruiz an Argentinian who was probably the longest hitter in golf at the time and who had nearly won at Royal Lytham the year before (another chapter) but by far the most interesting golfer in the hotel was Sewsunker Sewgolum, a black South African of Indian origin. A black professional in an era of strict sporting apartheid was extraordinary (not that I was aware of that until later). He carved out a unique career, winning the Dutch Open 3 times including 1959 and the Natal Open in his own country. The picture of him receiving his trophy outside in the rain, through a window, because he wasn’t allowed in the clubhouse was published throughout the world and became one of the defining images of that regime.
There was a small pitching area and putting green at the side of the main building. I had been allowed to put one club in the bag Archie brought and was chipping on to the green after breakfast on our first morning when the pros came out on their way to practice at the course. No courtesy cars. No cars at all. They went on the local bus which stopped just across the road. Impossible to imagine now. SS spotted me. He was a tiny man, not much taller than me, with wild hair. I can remember to this day the huge smile which broke onto his face. He came over, hugged my shoulder and told me he was delighted to find someone gripping the club the same way he did. Gave me a short lesson on the importance of keeping my hands well ahead of the club face when playing a chip and run. Also said don’t rush to alter my method. Keep with it until it felt right to change. Not appreciating that this was his first trip outside South Africa, what mattered to me, was that he played left hand down!! Incredible he achieved that standard using that grip. I was so excited. My first contact with a golf professional. I rushed to tell my dad and Archie; it cemented my love for the game.
That love was constant for the next 40 years, through marriages, divorces, changes of job, moves to England and then back to Scotland. It was there for me and I was there for it. So many great times on golf courses, a large number with my older boys, Jim and John, who both grew into very fine golfers. I played all over the world. In the Highlands where it was £2 in the honesty box, to Disneyland, to finding a course in the jungles of Northern Borneo (yes I took my clubs just in case!!) I always played, to the extent of introducing a number of my friends to the game. But when I came back and settled on the West coast of Scotland with my young family in 2001 some of the drive leaked away. A lot of reasons but the cumulative effect was that although I joined two clubs, my handicap crept up in inverse proportion to the number of times I played until it got to 8. I was at a point when my boys began to tell me that if I got any higher they would have to stop playing with me (ungrateful b…….) and ask on more difficult courses whether I wanted to play from the ladies tees!!!
This time last year my granddaughter Lauren was up to visit with her boyfriend Sam Johnston. Sam is the pro at Fulford Heath, my old course in England and the one where both my boys are members, which is how Lauren met him. He had brought up some new clubs for me to try. I had a short session on the range at Dundonald. Felt fine. Felt good. I bought them. Sam and Lauren are a powerful sales team but the main reason I did is because I thought it might stimulate my interest again. It was a very expensive dose of Viagra but its effects weren’t visible! No noticeable increase in my golfing libido.
A year later my complaint was no better and I had a rethink. Get back into competitive golf. That will do it. I contacted Glasgow Gailes to confirm what my handicap now was to be told it had lapsed. It was no more. It was an ex handicap. If I wanted to take part in competitions I would have to put in cards. I have been single figures for over 50 years. Could I face starting again? What if my true handicap was. ….?
I had an awkward few hours as the cold reality of where I was in the golf world drenched me. I was rescued by a call from Jim telling me he was coming up at Easter to see his mum and me. Was it worth bringing his clubs so we could have a knock? I said yes.
Back to the Future.
It was a good weekend. I had Will and Ellie, my 15 year old twins; it was nice for them to see their big half-brother. We went to the Motherwell Celtic game on the Saturday. Football is my other sporting love. I have never lost affection for it!! We were 2-nil up in the first 25 mins. Celtic pulled one back just before half time then went 3-2 in the second half before we equalised in the 92 minute. Brilliant. Chinese meal topped off a great afternoon. Jim and I crept out early on Sunday morning to hit a few practice balls and play 9 at Dundonald Links before the kids were up. Some of my attempts on the practice range were from a dimension peopled by the golfers who are never allowed on a course but a few were ok. Jim had a new tip. Hands really low in the first part of the takeaway. He was tinkering with that in his own swing. Spends more time messing about with his swing than Padraig Harrington. The idea is that it encourages later wrist cock and therefore a better plane and angle to the ball.
We took on the front 9. Not a match but…. I was steadier than I thought I would be for a first outing on a difficult course. Fewer rank shots than on the range and a good birdie on the 7th where I ran a rescue up the slope in front of the green to 8 ft and actually holed the putt. It was enough for now. More than enough. I had forgotten the pleasure of playing with my son. I had to get back.
I decided to do it by arranging a game with Jim Forsyth, one of my oldest pals. We were at school and Uni together and have played with and against each other for over 50 years. Jim knows the early part of my back golf catalogue as well as anyone. We settled for Gailes on Friday 25. My home course and one of my favourites. Glasgow Golf Club was formed in 1787 and is the 9th oldest club in the world. The links at Gailes was added in 1892 and redesigned to the present lay out in 1912 by Willie Park Jnr. A traditional links course which has stood up well over the last 100 years.
A goldilocks course in terms of length. At least for me now. 6300yds from the yellow tees -6500 from the whites. Not pitch and putt but not a groin twitching monster either. Tight, especially when the wind blows, and it usually does. Most of the acreage is given over to natural contours and flora- whin, heather and rough. The fairways and greens tip toe between all of this. Classic links design. Six holes out, then a mini loop from 7 to 10, then back in. Two par 5s and three par 3s add up to a par and standard scratch of 71 from the yellows. Not too many swales and hollows. Most of the fairways are reasonably flat apart from 2-9-10 but even those are more rumpled than crumpled. A duvet cover slightly creased after a peaceful night’s sleep rather than thrown aside in passion. One of the great debates in links golf revolves round blind shots. I don’t mind that sort of test – in fact enjoy the challenge when I am playing well, but I know a large body of others who think it’s unfair. Gailes comes out well on that score. Only two really blind shots. Both on the par 5s. The third to the 5th which can be anything from a wedge to a 4 iron depending on the wind, and the second to the 14th, one of my favourite shots on the course.
We went to the range at Dundonald before we played. Better practice facilities there and it’s only 3 good drives up the road. It was 330 by the time we teed off. Dull but not raining and freshening wind. Not quite the sun-drenched carnival welcome I had hoped for but the first seemed designed to make up for that. It’s a short, slightly dog leg par four with a raised tee which gives a great view not just of that hole but of the finishing stretch. I pulled a 3 wood into the left hand semi rough. Great lie though and I managed to hit a good 7 iron which finished pin high at the back of the green, about two yds off the putting surface. I was pleased I had taken enough club to get it up to the pin and not fallen into the characteristic failing of amateurs, myself included, and left it short. Jim was short!! But putted up close. I told him I fancied the chip and I wasn’t lying. Perfect 8 iron. Dropped in on the last roll for a 3. Welcome home -welcome.
The rest of the round wasn’t as perfect but I hit it reasonably well and got to 3 up before Jim found his game and I lost my putting (not for the first time in a chequered history on the greens). He pulled back to 1 down. We play level, no handicap as we have done for 50 years. It was really cold and windy. We were tracking a three ball who were playing from the black tees so we were waiting most of the time. The par 3 11th is 177 yds from the front tee but was playing at least 200 back into a strong left to right wind. Hitting to a platform green with a large mound protecting the entrance. Nailed a three wood, slung it right to left into the prevailing wind and held it up. Landed mid green and ran 12ft past. Putt was never anywhere but in. Jim birdied the 15 to get back to 1 down again when it started to rain.
He hit a good drive down the right of 16, a hole which is bounded on that side by the railway line, the line which borders the 1st at Prestwick, the 16th at Western Gailes and the 13th at Dundonald. I love holes with railways running alongside them. Adds that extra special something to a links course. I loved it so much I fired my drive onto it. High, handsome, miles wide. Last seen leaving Gailes to catch the 6.45 to Ayr. I was tired and frozen. Didn’t bother hitting another and resigned myself to all square with two to go. Trudged to Jim’s ball. He hit it almost walking, didn’t take any time or pay attention so consequently it scuttled less than 80yds, and crested a small ridge in the fairway which blocks off the view of the rest of the hole from further back. My ball was sitting in the middle of the fairway, just over it! Must have hit the track at the exact speed and angle which would throw it back, over the OB fence and the trees which screen that part of the line. I could try and play that shot from now until the heat death of the universe and never get the same result. Quantum physics is sometimes summarised as ‘anything that can happen, will happen’. Scientists now have the evidence they have been looking for to validate the statement.
Meanwhile back on planet earth Jim was still trying to come to terms with the full magnificence of my drive and finding it difficult. Gathering his brows like gathering storms and nursing his wrath to keep it warm. I was trying not to laugh too much when I hit my 9 iron approach. Weak. Front bunker. Jim’s wrath was understandably still red hot and he pulled his next and missed the green. I came out well – too well. Over the back. The railway line was symbolic. It was now officially a train crash of a hole. The rain was heavier. I offered a halved match and the option to walk in and Jim accepted. We repaired to the clubhouse through the gloom. The spike bar smelled like so many others in Scotland. An alluring perfume of dampness, beer and fried food. Jim selected macaroni cheese and chips. I went for what was highlighted as the healthy option in the menu. Haggis and chips! Far too cold for pints so we settled for tea for two to wash it down. I had carried my bag all the way. Sore feet, cold, tired but happy, really happy. The first steps and a shot on our last hole to compare with any from the past.
Statistics – All golfers like stats
16 holes played – one ball lost from my drive on the 7th but a good 4 with the second
- another ball lost on the 10th. Couldn’t face walking back so no return
Green in regulation 8/16 =50%
Fairways hit 6/13=42%
Putts 31 – too many especially as I chipped in on first.
2 birdies 5 double bogies or worse
With a seven for the nr on the 10th would have been 13 over after 16 holes.
Really delighted I played. More so than the way I played or scored. However not going to beat myself up. It was reasonable considering how little I have played in the last 4 years.
Need to get fitter. Need to practice – especially my putting and short game.
More importantly is to think about how to play each hole rather than how to hit the ball. I never had a particularly great swing. My strength was the ability to plot my round a course without having too many disasters. Need to find that again although I realise there will be a period when I am getting back a feel for my swing (or what is left of it)
If I’m not in love again then I am certainly infatuated. Decided to go and play at Dundonald on Tuesday morning. Unheard of. Twice in 5 days!! Got there to find that the course had been given over for a Scottish PGA 3 day event. Took a small bucket to the range and sidled in at the end of the line of the pros who were warming up. Just as well no spectators on the practice area at that time or they would have wondered who the old duffer was. Clearly an imposter.
Switched to playing at Gailes again. It was empty on what was now a gorgeous morning. My decision to risk shorts and a polo shirt was completely vindicated. The course looked fantastic – total contrast from a dull Friday night. The heather still not out but the whin was in full bloom, blazing yellow across the course. Looked like a French Impressionist had located a time machine, set out for April 28th 2014, bought up all the yellow paint in Scotland then hired a helicopter to dive bomb the course. Vibrant -Exciting. Sunny. It really was a morning when the whole of Nature shouted ‘fore’.
I deployed my new strategic thinking on the first tee. Flag was on the left, behind the only bunker on that side. So had to be up the right hand of the fairway to leave the best approach. Visualise the shot. Took out my rescue and tugged it hard left! Refocus. Change the channel! Try again. 3 wood this time – even further left. Only consolation was that I had lies for both and managed to hit the green with them, albeit finished at the back as I couldn’t get any check from the rough. More controlled on the second hole. Lovely straight 3 wood then 9 iron to 6 feet. Misread the putt though! Played the first 3, hopped over to six then to the 12th. Hit it marginally better than Friday but the conditions were much easier. Then the long 506 yd 14th. Long drive, best of the day, 40 yds past the huge right hand bunker and down the left centre. Position A. 240 to the green. Hidden. Protected by large sand dunes rising up 60 yds before it and heavy rough. About a 180 yd carry but needs height and must be directly over the mounds with a bit of hook to find the green. Hit a perfect 3 wood. High, long with just a hint of draw. Some of my more cultured friends have a view that true perfection can only be found in high art. Rubbish. Holland Dozier Holland lyrics, a Willie Pettigrew goal. Both are perfect. So was that shot. One of the most exciting feelings in golf is walking up to see the result of a blind shot which you think you have hit well. Has it worked out as you hoped? Are your instincts correct? I skipped over the turf to the top of the ridge. It was there. Pin high. 15 feet to the right!!!
Amateur golfers like me get very few chances at eagles in a season, in fact over a number of years! So I had a proper look at the putt. Trouble was I couldn’t see the line. First read it right lip. From the other side left centre. Only sensible choice in the circumstances was to hit it straight. I managed that. Thought I had holed it but on the last three roles it moved a ball hair to the left and settled on the front of the left lip. One more ball pace and I would have sunk it. Can’t be too disappointed. I am back in love.
Hit a very good drive down the last but pushed my 5 iron. Not badly but enough to catch the second right hand bunker. Out long, on to the hard track behind the green. No problem. Spent the last 5 minutes at Dundonald range hitting little pop up wedges. Slide one under it and let it release to the hole. Shank. No. Couldn’t be. Dropped another ball. Mistake, big mistake. Deja vu all over again. Another shank. One can be ignored as an aberration. Two is a trend. Funny how love can be.
- The average annual earnings in 1959 was £890. My dad would probably have earned slightly more than that, but not much. First prize in the Open that year was £1,000 – that is what Gary Player won. Fast forward – in 2013 the average income is £27k – 30x more. First place in the Open this year will be £1m – 1,000x more.
- SS missed the cut in the Open but went to Holland the next week and won the Dutch Open.
- The South African Government’s reaction to SS winning the Natal Open in 1965 and the worldwide condemnations the pictures of the trophy ceremony provoked, was typically vindictive. He was banned from playing in all local tournaments and his passport was withdrawn. He died in penury in 1978, not yet 50, from a heart attack (try as I can, I have been unable to find any image of that trophy presentation – I would love to see one if anyone can locate it).