It was April last year when my long-time friend Dave Finn asked if I would be interested in joining him for the WHO – World Hickory Open Golf Championship in Gullane. I had no idea what a WHO is let alone where to find Gullane. If someone would have asked, I would’ve guessed Ireland. Well, it’s on the north coast of Scotland, affectionately know as the Scotland’s Golf Coast, the last bastion of soil before the North Sea.
My first thoughts were, I had just gone through some momentous changes in my life and I wasn’t ready for a big trip like this. Too much preparation was in order. I didn’t even have clubs! Where do you start? Playing with hundred-year-old clubs was going to be a challenge but I knew this trip was about more than the golf. It was about the camaraderie and pushing beyond my comfort zone. I knew I had to make this happen!
I recalled playing hickory golf once before, not remarkably well, but by sharing six clubs, including names like brassie, niblick and mashie, was a new experience.
During my previous encounter, I realized that ‘dressing the part’ was equally as important as ‘playing the part’. That’s when Dave and I jumped in headfirst, cobbling together a half-decent 1800’s look that would be up to ‘code.’
I must admit I was awkward, apprehensive, and a little intimidated to say the least. All the symptoms of love at first sight. I was hooked. Now suddenly, I was committing to the world tournament in Scotland playing a game that I have a love-hate relationship with to boot.
Finding my perfect set of hundred-year-old clubs was going to be my first challenge; learning to play with them would be next. The search was on. With the abundance of small towns in Mid-Western Ontario, I figured my chances were fair and that with a few months, I could put a set together. Whenever I passed an antique store in my area, I would go in with fingers crossed but I kept coming up empty-handed. One rainy Saturday afternoon, as I drove through Blyth Ontario, I came upon an out-of-the-way general store. There in a corner, to my surprise was a full set of hickory clubs with a canvas bag that was in good shape. I scooped them up like they were the Holy Grail and, I might add, for a reasonable price.
When I arrived home, to my surprise, there, on the handle hung a tattered 70’s era green fee tag from the Peel Village Golf Course in my hometown of Brampton. The serendipitous nature of this event was that I grew up hitting golf balls from my childhood home across the street onto the 8th green. I took this as another omen that indeed this trip was something I was meant to do.
Our enthusiasm continued to grow, and within a few weeks, we had convinced five more of our friends to join us. The bonus, we all had known each other since grade school. As a team, we acquired clubs and attire, chipped in with ideas, made plans and changed plans as we kibitzed through group emails. No one said it but we all felt this trip was going to be a one of a kind experience that we would cherish for the rest of our lives.
As the date of departure grew closer, our wardrobes and our dreams grew bigger. We were going as a team, and come hell or high water, we were going to look like one. We wanted to dispel the urban myth that Canadians are an easygoing, overly apologetic bunch. Although very respectful of others we did, in our classy Canadian way, let it be known that Canada had arrived in Scotland.
Our first two days were spent exploring Gullane for all it had to offer. The adage bigger is better, again, was inaccurate. For anyone looking for a golf getaway along with all the comforts you want off the golf course, Gullane fills the bill, especially after we discovered one of those comforts.
From the first day, this wave of red and white invaded Gullane’s esteemed pub, we were treated like long-time patrons of the establishment. I must admit that it took the staff a hesitant, yet short time, to see that our barks were worse than our bites. I bravely tried the Haggis, to quickly break the ice, and found it surprisingly delicious. Another urban myth squashed. I must say the myths were dropping faster than my golf balls over the cliffs into the North Sea at Dunbar.
I personally recommend the house specialty – fish and chips – a one-inch piece of battered haddock, bigger than your plate. Gravy with your french fries was not the norm and discussions of Poutine quickly had Brenda, our regular waitress, rolling her baby blues. Considering that the ingredients were readily available, I asked her one evening if she would try Poutine? She answered emphatically, in her strong Scottish brogue, “No! That sounds terrible! Absolutely not!” “I tried your Haggis!” I answered, tongue in cheek. She paused, her face taking on a thoughtful look, and said confidently, “Point taken.” A wry smile was forming as she took our plates.
A few more Scotch, Guinness and Ales and we were well oiled for the walk back to our Airbnb. Needless to say, the late nights did not help our game, but with the atmosphere and feel of the whole adventure, we didn’t really care.
Monday arrived. Dunbar Golf Club awaited, and we were chomping at the proverbial bit to play in the ‘Archie Baird International Team Championship,’ a warm-up for the World Hickory Open We all piled into the rented Mercedes van and headed out on Scotland’s Golf Coast. Luckily the weather gods were in a generous mood fully cooperating with sunny skies and little wind.
Being born in England, I immigrated to Canada with my parents in 1964. As I walked to the clubhouse to register, I immediately had a feeling of belonging wash over me. When I returned to England for the first time in 2016 and visited Ireland – my father’s birthplace, I had the same feeling. No denying your connections or your heritage it seems.
Time seemed to slow down as I reveled in the moment. Then pride crept into the equation. The emotion of a proudly born Englishman, and an equally proud citizen of Canada, loudly wearing the colours of his adopted country was overwhelming. Slowly walking across the historical ground to sign in and play one of the oldest courses in the world, was a surreal moment, to say the least.
The feeling is hard to describe, but the artist in me will try. It’s like you feel grounded. You suddenly feel energized, and the soles of your feet seem to be sending roots deep into the ground as you walk. Your senses seem to be sharper than they have been in years. Hopefully, that makes sense. The one question I had was, why? I really had no direct, personal connection with Scotland, but the overwhelming feeling of home and family persisted.
For our first match, Dave and I were paired with two ‘blokes’ from England, James and George. Two great guys and two equally good golfers. The course, located on the east end of Scotland’s Golf Coast in East Lothian, offers an incredible yet distracting vista of the North Sea. To experience a round of golf at this beautiful and historic course helped me truly understand what a friend of mine, at the age of sixteen, felt long ago, when he experienced his first snowfall.
So, with hickory clubs in hand and proper attire, that was albeit loud, Dunbar lay before us. I was transported back to another era, a different place in time and the “Fantasy was afoot, Watson!”
My first round was ‘magical,’ but as we made our way to the 16th tee, I felt the telltale signs of an old back injury making itself known. It didn’t take away from my first Scottish experience, but I knew that these symptoms weren’t good. The next day I was in full spasm, sidelined from the next event with no recourse but rest, apply heat, and take pain killers. Sadly, I knew that I had played my one and only round for this trip. Although disappointed, I was determined to make the most of the journey.
While I convalesced, the rest of the ‘Crazy Canucks’ managed to grab the front page of several Scottish newspapers and the sports section of others. You couldn’t help but bask in their excitement. What a thrill! The newspaper racks in town were emptied each day. All the papers were at our place!
After two days, I was able to get around and explored Gullane off the beaten path and interact with the locals. On the last day of the tournament, the weather was gorgeous, and my friend Gary (another of the walking wounded) and I enjoyed a full Scottish breakfast at a local café. After that we walked to the golf course and cheered the lads on as they came in on eighteen from their last round of the tourney.
That night we packed and readied ourselves for the trip home. The rest of the group were flying back the next morning, but I had planned from the beginning to spend a weekend on my own exploring Glasgow before winding my way home. With my back still tender, I was happy to have two more days to relax before boarding a plane for the seven-and-a-half-hour flight.
Taking a page out of my Gullane adventures, I decided to spend my time mixing with the locals and garnered more pleasure from those experiences than I would have at any tourist spot. At the end of the day, I had a wallet full of Facebook tags, email addresses, and Instagram handles, for the new friends I made as opposed to pamphlets from museums and other attractions that would ultimately gather dust in a drawer.
While packing Sunday night, I finally realized how ‘magical’ this trip had been and my question as to ‘why’ I had felt that feeling of belonging was answered.
I had only played one round of golf, but it was on the historical Dunbar course in Scotland’s Golf Coast with a friend who is closer to me than some family members – a ‘brother,’ I have known for close to fifty years. It doesn’t get any better than that.
So, I will close the same way I started by saying, “It’s not just about golf.”
Phil Murphy is one of our dearest friends and a very skilled artist. To see some of his amazing work visit his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/philipvaughnmurphy/
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