Experiencing golf in Scotland reminds the game will endure even as championships, tours come and go


Monday afternoon at the Old Course, as the townspeople of St. Andrews regained their property and their sanity, a handful of the luckiest folks in Fife finished up their rounds. With all the Open Championship regalia still intact, a curious scene unfolded at the 1st and 18th. At the top of the buoyantly yellow leaderboards, a handful of workers slowly and quietly began to remove the names and numbers that defined the 150th edition of this event. It was a reminder that even the pomp and circumstance of a historical Open eventually fades away.

This was the same leaderboard Rory McIlroy said he gazed upon from his hotel room at night, hopeful that his name would stay at the top of a structure that now contains nary a name at all.

The Monday after majors is always sobering and maybe even hollow. There is so much anticipation, so much energy, so many years fed into the previous week that the end can leave everyone involved in a staggered state of stupor. It seems unfair that the last two holes of majors take just as much time as the first two, and then it’s suddenly over with 262 days standing between Sunday of The Open and Thursday of the 2023 Masters.

Is anyone is ready for the nine months in between?

Golf in the Kingdom” by Michael Murphy is the type of book in which the title tells you all you need to know. Though the book is great and critically acclaimed, the synopsis can be found in that four-word title. Those words likely evoke either one of the great experiences of your life or the hope of what’s to come. Scotland, yes, but also the Kingdom. There may have never been a grander union between land and man and sport.

That phrase, much like the sport at a professional level, is completely under siege. If the folks running the now-ephemeral LIV Golf have their way, Golf in the Kingdom might mean something different over the next 20 years than it has for the last 200. LIV, of course, snaked its way through last week like the winding burn at the Old Course runs through its two most famous holes. The weekend was a reprieve, but the question overheard at pubs, on the streets, inside the media center and even at the airport was unanimous: What in the world is going to happen to golf?

Nobody knows the answer, at least not on a professional level. There are rumblings of a Very Important Meeting at PGA Tour headquarters this week to discuss … what exactly? How to fight against a sovereign nation with endless wealth that could be on the verge of landing both the Open champ and one of the pieces the PGA Tour can least afford to lose, Hideki Matsuyama? The current presumed future of split tours and a mangled Ryder Cup is maddeningly bleak.

What can be done? There are plenty of ideas — we discussed every iteration of them over pints last week — but no course of action may matter if money keeps getting flung at folks with a flippancy normally reserved for ceded 1-foot putts.

Can we reconcile that future? Can LIV live, and can we be OK with it? I’ve been convinced that it has some good components (the team portion is truly compelling on a secondary level), yet there’s a vapidness to it that’s difficult to shake — a soullessness that could not be more opposed to the Scottish spirituality of the game.

Tuesday and Wednesday before The Open began, a group of friends and colleagues played a pair of courses, Crail and Elie, that stand in the shadows of St. Andrews. To call them “the other courses nearby” is to do neither justice, for one could fly the Atlantic Ocean and have experienced the heart of Scotland in only those two tracks. On both nights, we played until we couldn’t see the golf ball and could barely see each other. Unfortunately, there were no cameras to make it appear lighter than it was.

Crail was a riptide of beauty. Festooned with contrasting golds and greens and blues, ancient roads and stone walls crisscrossed a golf course so compelling it felt as if God built the earth around those 18 holes. We started as the sun set and finished as the moon rose. Golf in the Kingdom.

Elie was a wonder. A seaside town ran us out toward the water, along which we played what James Braid called the best hole in the world, the par-4 13th. At the edge of that hole — and seemingly the world — we encountered a scruffy run of cliffs and a sky so bludgeoned with pink and orange and red that I’m surprised Nike didn’t have somebody wearing it on Sunday afternoon.

Dan Rapaport wrote afterward about the gravitational pull of this sport. Professional golf is compelling for a thousand reasons, but the most compelling of all is that it’s a sport we all can play, even against one another, no matter the difference in skill. Folks can’t take batting practice at Fenway Park the day after the World Series or run routes at Lambeau Field the day after the NFC Championship, but off they went down the first at the Old Course playing the exact same golf course their inconceivably talented heroes had traversed just 24 hours before.

It begs the question: To whom does golf actually belong? Because sometimes pros walk in our footsteps, too.

Friday evening during the Scottish Open, held the week before The Open, Max Homa meandered away from the Renaissance Club — where he was playing for a purse of $8 million — out to North Berwick (another of our stops) where he played because he was so compelled by a No Laying Up YouTube video that he had to see it for himself. Homa pushed a cart and chased the sun as well as a couple of stingers down North Berwick’s tilt-a-while second nine. This was Kevin Durant at Rucker Park, except in golf, it happens all the time.

The best thing about golf in Scotland is its accessibility. It’s a good reminder to those of us whose countries tend to privatize the best of our land that, while that decision is undoubtedly immensely profitable, it might not always be the best for all parties. If that’s not a summary of this summer, I’m not sure what is. You don’t need to possess tremendous money or athleticism or 21 other friends to play golf recreationally in Scotland, and yet, you can access some of the most stirring land on Earth.

Surely you watched Cameron Smith hammer home in 30 as a stunned McIlroy stalled out in his wake with The Open on the line. The last two hours were as tense as I’ve ever felt a venue. But as fans filed out, wondering what could have been, something unfolded that you probably failed to see.

An hour after Smith made the best 4 of his entire life on No. 17 to win the biggest tournament of his career, kids jumped in the Road Hole bunker and patrons walked the course. It was Sunday, after all, when St. Andrews is a park. Golf in the Kingdom.

LIV is a litmus test in that everything else in golf is measured against it right now. The most disruptive entities always take that position, for that is the point of their existence. It has become extraordinarily difficult to experience anything in golf without hearing about LIV as part of the backdrop. The loud, brash, golf-but-actually-fun golf that LIV has touted is diametrically opposed to the idea of Golf in the Kingdom.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s extremely manufactured. Golf in Scotland can be described a lot of different ways. Manufactured is certainly not one of them.

I am far from the first American to have his heart completely swept away by the Kingdom. Kevin Van Valkenburg told me it was going to be the trip of a lifetime. I believed him, but I couldn’t have comprehended the experience or feeling until I sat at the train station just outside of St. Andrews on Monday evening as I returned to Edinburgh for the long journey home. I FaceTimed my kids, who wanted to see the train pull into the station, and then I put the phone away and just sat and felt the Kingdom. Beyond the rails sat fields of purple flowers and a sun that in the summertime never seems to quit. Flags with “150” on them drew tight behind me, and I was smitten with it all.

If we were, as has been said, formed from the dust where we one day will return, then the earth has a more intimate connection with our souls than we probably even realize. Perhaps the best way to describe golf in Scotland is that it’s a dalliance with the dirt. So rarely in 21st century life do we wrestle with the soil. While playing golf isn’t exactly toiling on a farm, it may be as close as some of us get. What a fabulous joy and humbling endeavor it is to tussle with a place you know you’ll never conquer.

As was evidenced by Monday’s scoreboard erasure, even championships come and go. But golf remains, and it endures.

Golf engenders humility for a million reasons, but the most obvious is one we rarely acknowledge. Even when we do, it’s still only subtle, which is perhaps a nod to the way golf is played in this country. What it really means to tag a tournament with an anniversary like the 150th Open Championship is that this sense of place is overwhelming. We don’t number championships in most other sports, but we do it in golf because it’s a nod to the earth and to the reality that the land still stands and that it will roll on.

Sports venues live and then they die, but golf — and specifically golf in the Kingdom — is special because you can’t destroy what you didn’t construct. In other sports, we bend places to our collective will. In golf, place bends us.

In another 150 years — ostensibly at the 300th Open — everyone who was at this year’s edition will be gone (well, except maybe Bryson DeChambeau). Back to dust. This is something I spend a lot of time thinking about, and yet, the earth — as an echo of eternity — will endure and will remain. For as long as that is true, some type of golf will be played on the ground where both Old Tom and Young Tiger (and millions more) have walked.

In a year in which it has felt like golf has become nothing more than a commodity, Scotland was a reminder that while professional golf might be racing down that road, golf itself is not.

Something Homa recently said on the No Laying Up podcast has turned over in my mind a hundred times since: “You can buy a tour, for sure, but you can’t buy my goals and my dreams.”

That’s something you’ve likely heard over the last few weeks: “[Insert entity here] is trying to buy golf.” That’s a fool’s errand, though, for this is not a game that can be purchased.

In 1457, James II issued an Act of Parliament in an attempt to ban the game because it was, get this, “unprofitable” for a Scottish military defense against England. James II preferred archery practice as an alternative for his people. Two more bans were issued by the turn of that century, but there’s no evidence they ever really took hold. His grandson, James IV, tried to reinforce the ban but eventually gave up and took to the game himself. Golf has always been inevitable because the land has been begging us to play it.

Who knows what the next 100 years or 100 days or 100 hours hold regarding the future of professional golf. What’s undoubtedly true is that in 100 hours and 100 days and 100 years, this place — and the mighty force behind it — will continue to capture the imagination and desire of its people. As long as the Kingdom still stands, our temporary pleasure of its goodness marches on.

Golf, it turns out, is not for sale. It belongs to the earth and everyone in it.





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