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Relationship Makes the Cut in Scotland

June 19, 2005|Scott Kraft | Times Staff Writer

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — My father first put a golf club in my hand when I was 5, and I spent childhood summers on a hot, windy golf course in Kansas, playing with my buddies or carrying clubs for my father. When I started playing in junior tournaments, though, I had some bad news for Dad: If he insisted on watching me play, he was going to have to stay out of sight. And so he dutifully skulked through the rough, peering from behind trees and feeling the pressure of every one of my putts.

As time passed, I left the Plains behind for life in New York, Chicago, Nairobi, Johannesburg, Paris and, finally, Los Angeles. I played less and less while, back home, my father played more and more.

Before I knew it, a few decades had disappeared. This spring, when I turned 50 and my father 75, my wife suggested I invite Dad to play golf in Scotland, the home of the sport, a forbidding land of thick gorse and deep bunkers. If not now, she said, when? So, I asked Dad to take a walk down memory's fairway, to replay one of those father-son tournaments before it was too late. "Let's do it," he said.

To be honest, I wasn't sure how this would work out. We couldn't be more different, my father and I. He grew up on a farm, tending wheat and milking cows. But he raised us in suburbia, a block from a country club. He was the youngest of three kids. I was the oldest of three. He washed dishes to put himself through college, the first person in his family to go. When I went to college, Dad picked up most of the tab. He had spent his career as an oilman and, eventually, a company president. I'd spent mine as a newspaper writer and editor. We didn't agree on politics. We rarely saw eye-to-eye on religion. But we did have one thing going for us: We both liked to play golf.


Two weeks ago, we met at the airport in Glasgow, a twosome with tee times on six of the world's most famous links courses, five nights of hotel reservations and stockpiles of Advil. It was a trip neither of us will soon forget.

As the one with experience driving on the left, I took the wheel of our tiny rental car and sped southwest through the misty countryside. The left-side driving took some getting used to for my passenger. "This scares the heck out of me," Dad said.

Our journey began on the west coast, at Turnberry and Troon, and ended on the east coast, at Carnoustie and St. Andrews, site of the British Open next month.

By afternoon of the first day, we were standing on the first tee of Ailsa, the championship course at Turnberry, population 192, where Tom Watson, Greg Norman and Nick Price had won British Opens. We were prepared for the worst kind of weather, and our bags were loaded with windbreakers, sweaters and full-body rain gear. But the clouds parted and a gentle breeze drifted off the Firth of Clyde.

"Like this all the time?" I asked the starter. "Aye, there's sun here all the time. Sometimes, it just hides behind the clouds." He paused. "That's why our faces look this way," he added, pointing to his puffy, red cheeks. "Rust, you know."

Scotland is renowned for its links courses, situated on the sandy land that provides a bridge, or link, between the cold sea and the rich inland farmland. For the most part, the links are treeless, wind-swept expanses, thinly brushed with grass and edged with spiny gorse. These golf courses could never be called lush. They are pocked with bunkers, from small, deep traps the caddies call "coffins" to fairway-wide behemoths.

But, as everyone who has ever watched a British Open knows, the real hazard is the weather. Rain is always a threat and the wind can blow with gale force, switching directions in mid-swing. With narrow fairways and unplayable rough, even a gentle breeze here is a force to be reckoned with. As the Scots like to say, "If there is nae wind, there is nae golf."

Electric carts are forbidden on most of the top Scottish courses, so we opted for caddies, who saved our fragile knees and, more crucially, serenaded us with a combination of information and entertainment. Watching my father, the plain-spoken oilman, interact with the droll, waggish Scottish caddies was like watching the characters from "Dallas" crash an episode of "Upstairs, Downstairs."

When Dad blamed a short missed putt on the "yips," his Troon caddie nodded in agreement. "There was a wee bit of a tick in the stroke," he said. When another shot landed in a bunker, Dad's caddie wryly observed: "You haven't been in one of those for a few holes."

But the caddies learned a few aphorisms from the Kansan too. When a course marshal asked how he was playing, Dad drew appreciative laughter with one of his favorite expressions from back home: "I know I can play better than this," he said. "I just never have."

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