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Scotland: The Joy of Golf, Revisited

Watching the Open Championship transpire over the Old Course at St. Andrews surely conjures fond memories for anyone who’s ever experienced the peculiar joys of links golf.

Kingsbarns Golf Links: Yeah, it's that good.

But ask any veteran of the layouts that line the shores of the Kingdom of Fife and you might be surprised which of them have made their way into the hearts of the world’s golfers, no matter their abilities, status or station in the game.

“Bad news for some great course: you’ve just been knocked from my personal top five,” ESPN columnist and Twitter fiend Jason Sobel tweeted after a pre-tourney 18-hole sojourn down the road from the Royal and Ancient.

Kingsbarns. Awesomely fantastic. Fantastically awesome.”

Kingsbarns Golf Links was my first introduction to golf in Scotland some years back, a bit of heresy considering it was designed by American architects Mark Parsinens and Kyle Phillips, and has only been around in its current form for about 10 years (facts most people conveniently overlook, considering its proximity to the game’s very cradle).

But lordy, what a place.

Kenneth Imrie, a budding architect in his own right, was working that summer as a looper at Kingsbarns when he shouldered my golf bag and helped steer me through a strong mid-70s round, a remarkable accomplishment since I was fresh off the plane and utterly unfamiliar with the character of links golf.

“Kingsbarns — situated so close to the Old Course — hasn’t been viewed as some American contrived playground,” Kenny, a strong player in his own right with whom I have since experienced Carnoustie and Royal Aberdeen, later told me for a story I wrote some months later.

Linksland-looper-turned-golf-buddy Kenny at Carnoustie, the week (!) before the 2007 Open. They made us hit off little patches of artificial turf in the fairways.

“It has been accepted as a complementary part of the fabric in one of the world’s great golf destinations. That has to be testament to the quality of the design.”

There was something in the salty sea air that day, for sure: one of the Swedish fellows we were paired with made a hole-in-one on the par-3 2nd. But after a nervous start, I, too, soon began to notice something about the way I was hitting the ball off the rock-hard, close-cropped fairways: a crispness and confidence unfamiliar to one more accustomed to hitting it fat from lush, decadent carpets of grass back in overfed North America.

That’s when I first discovered the joys and hardships of true golf, the sort you can only ever experience on a course like the ones that hitting the smaller ball before the big one is learned practically in the womb.

As a result, the ball flight is low and penetrating, making the wind (ever so slightly) less of a factor. Occasionally, the wind dies down, and as Rory McIlroy will tell you, few things are as much fun as golf on a defenceless links.

Heath Slocum, playing in his first Open at St. Andrews, was quoted in the New York Times talking about the joys of lag putting on greens that are roughly the size of a short par-3.

More gratuitous Kingsbarns porn

“You have to try to trust your instincts as much as you can,” Slocum said. “You are throwing everything out of the window. You are breaking wrists on the putter, following through with a big release. It really is just trying to make solid contact and use some of your feel.”

True of putting in Scotland, and true also, perhaps, of the game in general: forget your Golf Digest book of pocket tips, forget positions, forget style. Put your shoulders to the wind and apply the clubface to the back of the ball the best way you know how, with all the force necessary to get it to where you need it to go. Then go get it and do it again.

“What I try to do is to use my eyes and hands as much as possible. I’m not thinking about any kind of mechanics. It’s simply trying to be as athletic as you can with it.”

Said Tom Watson, who failed to make it to the weekend but for many remains the modern-day embodiment of Bobby Jones: “You can’t teach it. Either you’ve got it or you don’t.”

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James McCarten

When James McCarten isn't at the Ottawa offices of The Canadian Press, where he works as parliamentary news editor, he's either on the golf course or putting off his latest freelance golf-writing gig to spend time with wife Lisa and school-age kids Claire and Lucas. With 20 years of experience in Canadian journalism, James also suffers from a financially crippling addiction to all things Scotty Cameron.

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