A Golfer's Education

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Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2001 - Biography & Autobiography - 326 pages
Darren Kilfara's scheme to study abroad at St. Andrews University in Scotland-allegedly, to write a thesis on the history of golf-was foolproof. He would enroll at the school, go to a couple of classes, earn a year's worth of university credit, and become eligible for a year-long student pass to the famed golf courses of St. Andrews, the birthplace of the game, for the low, low price of $150. A perfect plan, so of course it went awry.

A GOLFER'S EDUCATION is the true story of a young man, once a member of Harvard's golf team and a former writer for Golf Digest, who began his year in St. Andrews as an intense, uptight golfer willing to do anything to play a great course and ended it a changed and wiser man and a better golfer in ways immeasurable by a scorecard.

Part golf travelogue and part memoir, this engaging book chronicles Kilfara's year in Scotland playing the finest golf courses in the country, especially the enigmatic Old Course; learning that the Scots see golf as a reflection of their democratic ideals; discovering the subcultures of Scottish golf-drunken bohemian street golf, homeless golf fanatics, betting parlors, and poetic BBC golf commentators; falling in love with a Scottish woman; and finally overcoming his obsession for scores and handicaps and learning to love the simplicity of the game.

Kilfara draws on his substantial knowledge of golf and course architecture to create a perceptive, insightful guide to the great golf coursesof Scotland. But at the same time, he has created a timeless story of an irreverent young man coming of age in the birthplace of the sport.

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The author of this links-obsessed memoir spent his junior year abroad playing golf in Scotland. So much for the rigors of a Harvard education. History major Kilfara received permission to research his ... Read full review



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About the author (2001)

Chapter 1 - Finding My Thrill

I staggered to a halt halfway around Landsdowne Crescent, a block and a half short of my destination, and gasped for breath. How could Edinburgh be this hot in September? It felt like Houston in July-sweat poured down my forehead and arms, and my muscles turned to jelly with astonishing speed. I sank against a black wrought-iron fence, desperate to escape the sun''s glare in the mottled shadow of several overhanging branches. Haymarket Station was close by, but both the street and the enclosed park behind the fence were deserted-not a taxi in sight.

I willed myself back to my feet, thinking only of a shower and sleep. Bending over, I gripped my leather duffel bag with my left hand and my bulky suitcase with my right, heaved them a full six inches off the ground and began to wobble forward. Veins bulging from my temples, I made it three-quarters of the way around the curve of the road before my luggage toppled back to the sidewalk with a muffled thud. Peering around nervously, I slunk back down the road to where I''d left my rucksack and my overstuffed golf bag carrier and winched them over my shoulders, enthralled by the thought of torturing myself again, and again, and again.

In this manner, I huffed and puffed my way to the end of phase one of my Scottish journey. My stinginess bemused me greatly. I could have stuck to the legal luggage allowance for my flight from the States instead of cramming everything I could into four bags and gambling that the lady at the airline desk wouldn''t compute the sum of their cumulative weights. I could have taken a cab from the train station instead of staging my impromptu weight-lifting contest. And I could have chosen a slightly nicer place to spend my first night in Scotland than Eglington Youth Hostel, which, though eminently clean and well kept, wasn''t exactly the Lodge at Pebble Beach. But I was already in hock to Harvard to the tune of five figures, and money was tight. I''d vowed not to touch what little I had before my two-day introduction to Scottish golf: 36 holes at Gullane, and 18 holes at North Berwick.

I''ve been a connoisseur of golf course architecture as long as I can remember. When I was seven years old, my family went to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, during one of my school vacations. My father and I played Harbour Town (I shot 107 from the ladies'' tees, although my mulligan tally is unrecorded), and afterwards in the pro shop I spied a copy of Golf Digest''s 100 Greatest Golf Courses-And Then Some on a bookshelf, which my father bought for me. The round at Hilton Head, so different from any of my golfing experiences to that point, gave me an idea of what special golf courses looked and felt like. The book, filled with pictures and lists and diagrams and scorecards and tales of champions and championships past, made me dream of new worlds full of adventure and wonderment. Best of all, I knew that my fantasies could be made real, and since returning from that first eye-opening vacation I''d tried to live out as many of them as I could. As my tastes became more sophisticated my horizons broadened, and the prospect of a day''s play at Gullane-itself hardly the stuff of my childhood fantasies-induced in me a restless night''s sleep. I''d heard fine things about Gullane, particularly about its No. 1 course, and you can only play in Scotland for the first time once.

The next morning, after what felt like hours spent excavating my golf bag from among the clothing and linens in my carry case, I put most of my worldly possessions behind the front desk of the youth hostel and walked down to the Edinburgh bus station to catch a seat for the 45-minute ride to Gullane. I felt goofy carrying my golf bag through the downtown area of a major city and taking a bus to get to a golf course. I didn''t imagine that many of my fellow passengers were rushing out of town for their tee times.

But a bus has its advantages. As we drove through the eastern suburbs, I was delighted to glimpse the white rails of the racecourse at Musselburgh, which meant I''d also spotted the links at Musselburgh, most of which is enclosed by the horse racing facilities. Now barely more than a museum piece, Musselburgh was one of only three courses to host the Open Championship prior to 1892 (the others were the Old Course and Prestwick). My pulse quickened further when I saw road signs to Aberlady and Longniddry-names into which I read important golfing connotations, even though there were none. (Aberlady has no course, and Longniddry a relatively unknown one.) At a bend in the road we passed an elegant-looking links partially etched into a hillside; thanks to my advance research, I correctly deduced that it belonged to the Luffness club, reputed to be among the few exclusive and snobbish clubs in all of Scotland. Not much farther along, another taller, plateaued hill rose from the ground. It was smothered with golfers, and before I knew it, the panorama encompassed golf holes in every direction. Just short of a smallish-looking village, my bus came to a stop. I was the only person to get off.

I stopped to study the scene, and compared it with my preconceptions of Scottish golf. The size and scale of Gullane Hill notwithstanding, they matched almost perfectly, right down to the weather -gray skies, puffy clouds, a noticeable breeze. Apart from two middle-aged gentlemen who walked past wearing Medinah-logoed sweaters and baseball-style caps, nothing looked like America. Of the vegetation only the odd squat tree rose above ground level. The many fairways I could see were dappled in thin, greenish shades of dun, and the greens were a uniformly brownish shade of green. It was obvious which was the showcase course: unlike the No. 2 and No. 3 courses, which begin on the inland side of the main road, the No. 1 seemed to grow out of the town itself, as if it had sprouted from a seed planted just outside the members'' clubhouse and been allowed to grow in a natural direction toward the sea. And since the Scots as a people don''t believe in practice ranges, there was barely even room for a putting green between the town and the first tee. This wasn''t the same game I played in the States, and it would have been wrong to pretend otherwise. Therefore I found it somehow appropriate that we tourists, fully welcomed but not wholly included, were consigned to the changing rooms, lounge and bar of a visitors'' center on the inland side of the road.

The current members'' clubhouse, a stately white building that dates back to 1928 but looks at least a century older, was merely one of a row of stately buildings running along the road on the right of the No. 1''s first fairway. How many American golf clubhouses sit on public streets, tightly flanked by private houses? I had never been in one, nor seen one, nor even heard of one at any type of golf club in the States, from blue-collar municipal to blue-blooded Brookline. But in Scotland many clubhouses blend in with their surroundings. (In Gullane''s case, the buildings flanking the clubhouse are actually older than the clubhouse itself.) I can think of two reasons why this might be so; both of them appeal to me, for they explain in part why I find Scottish golf is so irresistible.

One of them has to do with the golf course architecture. The ancient Scots first coined the terms "outward nine," "turn" and "inward nine" because their courses were roughly linear: nine holes out to a point, nine holes back from there to the clubhouse (the "back nine"). In such a layout, only the first and 18th holes abut the clubhouse area. In contrast, most of the courses designed in America (and elsewhere) in the last 50 to 100 years form loops that return to the clubhouse twice (after 9 holes and after 18), and that means the real estate around the clubhouse must encompass at least four holes instead of two. Such layouts emphasize the importance of the club and its facilities relative to the golf course itself, and they don''t leave much room for anything else-least of all buildings that aren''t the pro shop, the snack bar or the caddie shack.

The other explanation is rooted more in social history. Golf in America has never been all-inclusive. America''s first golf courses were built in the suburbs, away from the major population centers in areas where the wealthy often had large estates and land holdings. More significantly, the "Golden Age" of American golf course architecture (roughly between 1910 and 1930) coincided with the decline of the railroad and the rise of the automobile, and nowadays the vast majority of Americans get to their golf courses by car. Whether in 1909 or 1999, if you couldn''t afford a car, you probably weren''t high enough on the social ladder to play golf. So American golf clubs have always needed parking lots in the vicinity of their clubhouses, further insulating such clubs from their surroundings with wide moats of concrete. None of these facts are true in Scotland. Links golf predates motorized transport by centuries. Many people still walk from their homes to the first tees, especially at linksland courses near towns and villages like Gullane. You can''t be too low on the social ladder to play golf in Scotland. The smallish parking lot at Gullane Golf Club is over the road by the visitors'' center because the members don''t need one.

Scotland''s democratic approach to golf seduced me quickly. An insignificant student with neither influence nor connections, I was able to arrange tee times at time-honored private clubs like Gullane with only a politely written letter and a little advance notice. It would never occur to me to try this in America. While the golf club is very much a fundamental component of the Scottish community at large, in America it tends to serve as an escape from it. America has physically reclusive and socially exclusive c

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