MACHRIHANISH, Scotland – I was playing here the other day on the ancient and rugged course, with its singsong name that sounds harder to pronounce than it is, in this remote, windswept corner of this remote and blown by the wind. My playing partner was a local, a retired roofer named Tommy Blue, who has lived in these areas all his life and played Machrihanish for most of it. The course includes a thrilling tee shot, in which you haul as many beaches and dunes as you think you can handle (above). The club’s logo is an oystercatcher, a black wading bird with a white belly and a long orange beak. In this case, Tommy’s t-shirt was bright orange and plastic and almost impossible to break or lose. So teenot tees.
“Who’s the most famous golfer you’ve seen here?” I asked.
Don’t lose your haggis: We were in Tommy’s buggy. Yes, an electric cart, here on this strip of old links, my underpopulated little golf bag strapped to his hindquarters by the familiar strap every American golfer knows. You could smell the cow dung fertilizer in the wind coming from the nearby farm fields. There were warning signs telling golfers and swimmers not to touch dead birds that had mysteriously washed up on the shore. Neither condition was typical, I should note. Plus, we were golfing in a nice breeze, bathed in sunshine, with the Irish Sea in full view.
We were having a good time.
Tommy couldn’t think of a single famous golfer who had played the course. Paul McCartney has a farm in Machrihanish and Tommy met him, both as a roofer and a musician. (As a teenager, Tommy played bass drum when McCartney recorded a song on his farm, backed by locals, called “Mull of Kintyre.”) But McCartney was never a golfer. Then an answer came to Tommy, a decidedly appropriate name in these times we live in.
“Yeah, Greg Norman came here once,” Tommy said. We’re both 62, and his music is my music, and his golf icons are my golf icons. “He came by helicopter. My brother watched him play the last three holes. He came, he played, he left.
Greg Norman, your LIV curator! You can’t escape it, even on this remote peninsula, the Mull of Kintyre, in south-west Scotland. At one point in class, the conversation turned to LIV. On the clubhouse TV here, tuned to Sky Sports, there’s a passing reference to LIV. In the newspapers, the same. Ian Poulter this, Henrik Stenson that. Plus Norman, Norman, Norman, the Aussie who won the British Open twice, once in England at the famed RSG, and once on the west coast of Scotland at the course now called Trump Turnberry. Even the folks here have heard what the R&A bosses have been saying behind their heavy brick walls: As long as Trump’s name is on the course, the Open won’t be going back there.
By the way, there is a popular course in Ireland designed by Norman and now called Trump International Doonbeg. Donald Trump also has a course in Aberdeen, Scotland. I visited the land years ago, when the course was being designed, through towering dunes. I told a guy that Trump told me the dunes were called the Great Dunes of Aberdeen. The man was confused. He had never heard that. What, I asked, do you call them? “The dunes,” he replied.
It’s a new sport, to sing Norman’s praises these days, at least in some circles. Trump, Phil Mickelson and Charlie Howell are part of this chorus, along with various members of the House of Saud. Quick question for CH3, one of the most engaging people to play on the PGA Tour in the last 20 years, and I’m borrowing this question from a friend: what circuit is your son dreaming of, the good junior player you’re talking about . to play when he grows up?
Of course, there’s another chorus too, filled with detractors, some quiet (Fred Ridley, Jay Monahan), some not (Brandel Chamblee, Eamon Lynch).
Well, let me say this in Norman’s defense: he has excellent taste for golf courses. Golf Magazine once asked him to rank his 10 favorite courses. He put Machrihanish eighth on his list.
But the point here is that, in this summer of golf discontent, the upheaval of the “rebel golf league” (according to London The telegraph of the day) washed up on the shores here, along with the dead birds. And did not influence anything. Because I have news for all professional golfers: you are a Weight Watchers piece of the global golf pie. The draw is the game. The game! That challenging cross-country game that never was a mainstream sport and never will be. But the game is so big that the course here, extended to 18 holes by senior Tom Morris in 1879, has stood through the hard times and the good, in sickness and in health. Machrihanish – MACH-rah-HON-ish, with a sweet guttural chlike JS Bach’s correct pronunciation – is a splinter in the niche.
It would be too hilly for some visitors. There’s no driving range, no cart culture – Tommy has bad footing – no fancy hotel, no caddy program, no dramatic closing hole. But the land is collapsing and heaving, the wind is changing from day to day, and if you don’t allow it with every stroke, you’re not really playing golf.
I’ve been on a little golf bender here, and if you’ll allow me to share this observation. Bobby Jones said, “You can tell me there are two types of golf. There’s golf – and tournament golf. And it’s not the same thing at all. It’s from Down the fairway. Yes, one of the greatest golfers of all time was also one of the game’s best writers.
The other day I played in a one-turn stroke play event on the road here at Dunaverty, a fabulous and challenging par-66 course that is three feet from 4,800 yards. We played in a strong wind that was approaching. I wore a ski hat most of the day. My goal was to play the trick with a ball, and at 14, still with my first ball, the pressure was starting to build on me. I kept it in play until the bottom of the 18th hole, a 300 yard, into the wind. Hard disk. Iron punch 8. I did a 15 footer for my only 3 of the day.
I can’t imagine doing this for three more days, in the wind, with a 36-hole cup. The mental pressure of real tournament golf, as Cam Smith and Cameron Young and Tiger Woods and Max Homa and Rory McIlroy played it at the Old Course in mid-July, is, assuming you play well enough to get to the weekend, more than we can imagine. But Jones knew everything. A 54-hole, uncut, 48-player event on a soft course is just a different thing for the best players in the world. LIV folks might call it tournament golf, but that sounds like something else to me. Stroke play is not the everyday game in Dunaverty or Machrihanish or anywhere real Scots play the game they invented. Golf is all about winning whatever you get from the game, and I’m not talking about money. The LIV thing is not the Scottish Calvinist game. It seems to me that it is money for nothing. It’s OK if you’re into that sort of thing. To me, that’s not golf. It’s a show. There’s nothing wrong with that, but to me, golf isn’t a show.
All my golf here happens to have been with Scots. You almost wouldn’t play here without having some kind of single game. It’s the match that brings the course to life, with the wind, the devil and the angel in your head, as you stand over a ball, mindful of what you’re doing.
What I want to say to Bob Jones, an honorary citizen of St. Andrews in perpetuity, is this: all golf is a golf tournament when you’re not just in it for the ride, the fresh air or the camaraderie, but also for the game. The game! Not the riches golf can bring to its most elite players, but the deep, deep pleasures it brings to the rest of us. Your game, your match, your plan to hit a 4 iron punch-hook on a small lie suspended in a slice wind and on a left back pin. And now that the ball is out of the face, and what happens next, no commentator could tell. Golf is the unknown and the unknowable. And we always persevere.