The Scottish Game
By Patrick F. Cannon
A Scot invented the steam engine, thus transforming the world. Before Mr. Watt, however, just about the only things the people living in the northern reaches of Great Britain were known for were chilblains and runny noses. Oh, and the game that caused most Scots to have the dour expression they are known for throughout the world – golf.
No less an authority than Mark Twain was heard to say that “golf was a good walk spoiled.” Since there is no record of Mr. Twain ever playing the game, the quote is suspect. What is certain is that he never ventured to Scotland during his many trips to Europe and other parts of the known world. Had he done so and been handed a mashie niblick at the fabled Old Course at St. Andrews, we might never have had Huckleberry Finn. Such are the vagaries of history!
Like many golf courses in Scotland, St. Andrews is laid out along the sea. You would think it would be prime beachfront property, but the combination of high winds, rain and cold make it highly unlikely you would ever see a lass cavorting in a bikini. Since the Scots are known as gluttons for punishment (they eat haggis after all), they saw quite early that this windswept land of dunes, bracken and heather was a perfect place for a bracing walk. Being practical folk, and the ground being a bit on the lumpy side, they always carried a good stout walking stick.
On one typically gruesome day in 1437, McTavish and McCleod were navigating their favorite seaside path when they came upon several dried-up turds left by one of the wandering Highland Cattle that summered at the shore. Not wishing to leave the spiracle poops for later ramblers to step on, one of them – their clans have fought over this distinction for hundreds of years – turned his walking stick upside down and smote one of the spheres with his stick. It rose in a lovely arc before landing neatly on a far dune. Thus was golf invented!
My own introduction to the noble game came at a young age. My family moved to Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood in January of 1947. It was the coldest winter in the history of Chicago, and maybe even the country, but we soon noticed that our apartment building was directly across the street from Jackson Park. When it became warm enough to go outside – I believe it was May – we discovered that the trees along 67th Street actually hid the 7th and 8th holes of a golf course.
Now I’m sure I had a vague notion that such a game existed, but I had never seen actual golfers in action. I could now watch the valiant sportsmen approach and putt on the 7th green, and tee off over water on the 8th, a short par 3. I soon caught on to the way the game was played, and to the often-colorful language that seemed part of its traditions. Now, my parents weren’t prudes and occasionally let slip a mild curse or two, but nothing like the torrent of curses that often followed a missed putt, or tee shot deposited in the water. Later, of course, I came to understand the reasons for this seeming vulgarity (although I attempt to internalize the worst of my own rants).
My descent into madness began when my brother Pete and I were given a starter set of J.C. Higgins golf clubs from Sears. The golfers among you will be interested to know the set consisted of a driver, 3 wood, 2,5,7 & 9 irons and a putter. With them, we would sneak on the course when it wasn’t crowded and play a hole or two. We also had a small business going. We would fish balls out of the lagoon on the 8th hole and seek to sell them to golfers on the tee. Now, in those days a new premium ball would retail for about a buck (they’re three or four times as expensive now). You could sell a perfect one for a quarter, a significant sum in the late 1940s. What we didn’t know was that the course had sold the rights to fish balls out of the water to a contractor, who caught us one day and chased us off.
I reached my highest skill in the game in my late 20s and early 30s, when I played fairly regularly. I was even once a member of the legendary Albert Lea, Minnesota Country Club. Nowadays, I’m delighted to shoot in the 40s for nine holes, which Dick, Skip and I try to do once a week during the Spring and Summer, followed by lunch.
Perhaps my greatest memory of watching golf was the 1986 Masters, when Jack Nicklaus won at age 46. But my best story involved a friend of mine named Jim. Now, Jim was a fanatic golfer, but just as mediocre as most of us are. But he persisted, trying new swings, new clubs and even new shoes in his quest for perfection. Alas, to no avail. His score occasionally dipped into the high 80s, but that was that.
Late one day, Jim was playing alone late in the day, so he could hit more than one ball per hole. On a long par 4, he sliced his ball to the right, and watched it dribble into the woods. He saw where it went in, so was confident he would find it. When he entered the woods, he was startled to find an old, bearded man standing next to his golf ball. He looked much as a showrunner (there’s a new word for you) for Game of Thrones might have imagined a hermit to look.
“Who are you, old man?” says Jim.
“I’m the golf God, here to grant you a wish.”
“Could you make me a great golfer?”
“No problem, but there’s a catch. As you become a better golfer, you will notice a decreased sexual drive.”
Jim thought about this only for a moment before responding “Oh, well, guess you can’t have everything! Make me a great golfer!” Whereupon, the old man disappeared in a puff of smoke.
Jim picked up his ball and dropped it on the fairway. Choosing a 3 wood, he made a mighty swing. The ball soared through air and landed three feet from the hole. Jim made the putt for a par, and never looked back.
As the weeks and months passed, his game kept getting better and better. At the end of the season, he won the club championship; the next year, the state amateur. The following year he qualified for the US Amateur (he loved his job and decided not to turn pro). He was playing a practice round on his home course, when on the same par 4 where he had met the hermit, he again sliced his drive into the woods. He was amazed, as he hadn’t sliced a drive in two years. To his amazement, when he entered the woods, the same old man was standing next to his ball.
“Why are you here?,” asked Jim.
“I thought I would give you one more chance to reconsider your decision. Surely your sex life has dwindled a lot?”
“Well, yes, I’m down to only once a month.”
“Goodness, I can’t believe you’re satisfied with that.”
“Well,” responded Jim with a smile, “it’s not bad for a priest.”
Copyright 2019, Patrick F. Cannon