American golf can improve by following Scots' lead

South Africa's Louis Oosthuizen played onto the sixth hole during his final round on the Old Course at St. Andrews. While America can't duplicate St. Andrews, it can still learn from Scotland's approach to the game.

 

 

It's been 10 days since I returned from the British Open, and already the desperation of missing the links has set in.

The idea of going out in 100-degree heat to play 18 holes seems ludicrous, even with the assistance of a golf cart. More than four hours of broiling in Bermuda shorts and a collared shirt is hardly enticing.

Weather is not a deterrent in Scotland. It's as much a part of the game over there as deep, sod-walled bunkers and tufts of gorse. Whatever elements present themselves, the true golfers simply pull on their waterproofs and face the task at hand, knowing that at worst you'll be inside a cozy clubhouse or pub within about three-and-half hours enjoying a frothy Belhaven Best.

Having made annual pilgrimages for golf all over Great Britain and Ireland since 2005, each time I return home with a deeper appreciation for the merits of links golf. If granted the choice to live and play golf in only one place in the world for the rest of my life, without hesitation that place would be East Lothian in the shadow of Edinburgh, where the links stretch almost nonstop along 26 miles of the Firth of Forth from historic Musselburgh through Gullane, Muirfield, North Berwick and onto Dunbar.

But it's not just the courses that make the experience so rewarding. It's the way the game is approached and played in its homeland that elevates it. While we can't duplicate the likes of the Old Course or North Berwick's West Links at home, we could certainly import elements that would make golf an even better and more enjoyable game.

TIME

Other than the famous courses that draw massive amounts of American tourists such as St. Andrews, most places expect a foursome to clear the course in less than four hours.

That requires playing "ready" golf and not dawdling by stepping off precise yardages to play a style of game that requires more feel and ingenuity to play along the ground.

A "brown" movement to limit irrigation would help American courses exhibit these kinds of traits and prevent less searching for stray balls in lush rough.

The Scots take seriously their pace of play.

Two-balls have priority over threesomes and foursomes, and any group that falls a "clear hole" behind the one in front is required to let the group behind play through.

SHORT COURSES

Americans get far too caught up with "championship" length courses and the ego-driven concept of attacking everything "from the tips." The Scots have no such compulsions. The courses fit the land, and the challenge is not in the length of it.

Just days after playing the intoxicating new links of Kingsbarns at a brawny 6,700 yards, we tackled the charming Kilspindie Golf Club that measured less than 5,700 to a par of 69. It proved no less of a test as I scored the same on each in relation to par. Kilspindie, however, took an hour less to play. The game and golfers would be better served over here with more par-3 tracts or ingeniously designed "executive" courses that eat up less time, space, expense and resources.

WALKING

I have long believed that the expression "a good walk spoiled" meant taking a golf cart instead. Over there, "buggies" are virtually non-existent, with the universal means of transport your own two feet and the assistance of a "trolley" -- what we call pull carts.

The benefit -- beyond cardiovascular -- is that courses aren't blighted by paved paths everywhere. You also converse more freely with everyone in your foursome instead of just the guy sharing the adjacent seat, and you arrive at your golf ball ready to play the next shot. Unless a player is prevented by a physical handicap, walking is the way the game was meant to be played.

ACCESS

Muirfield is home to the oldest golf club in the world and still requires jackets and ties in the clubhouse. Yet the exclusive private club -- like almost everywhere else in Great Britain and Ireland -- gets inclusive and allows unaccompanied guests to plunk down green fees for a few designated tee times twice a week.

It is a noble attribute for one of the world's greatest courses to share itself with outsiders. How great would it be if Augusta National and Pine Valley and Shinnecock did the same?

INTEGRATION

We missed the plot on this long ago, and it's probably unfixable. But one of the great virtues of golf in the British Isles is just how inseparable it is from its communities. Great links such as the Old Course, North Berwick, Gullane, Moray, Lahinch and countless others are literally on the doorsteps of the towns. The places would not be the same without them, and they attract every rank of citizen to partake at an affordable price. Too often all of our courses are tucked behind gated communities or impenetrable foliage, unsubtle gestures designed (along with outrageous fees) to dissuade rather than invite participation.

It sure would be nice if we could embrace these traits at home to avoid a trans-Atlantic flight just to play the game as it was meant.

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