How Golf Defined My Experience in Scotland

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The bus left our hotel in Edinburgh where we had our orientation bright and early that morning. Within an hour, my new friends and I were pulling into the quaint town of St. Andrews, but it wasn’t the town I had travelled so far to see. Ruth, our lovely Program Director, took us on an impromptu driving tour of the town, and the first stop along Golf Place was a golfer’s dream. The 18th green of the Old Course glittered in beautiful January sunlight, and the famed Swilcan Bridge stood unassuming, the same as it has for centuries. Upon first impression, I knew I was going to have a great semester abroad. Every other IFSA student on the bus knew, too, based off my giddily high-pitched fangirling. I was in St. Andrews, and even then, a part of me could feel I was home.

Some background about me might help explain why I reacted to an empty patch of grass the same way a child might on Christmas morning. I have been playing golf since I was 10. I was immediately taken with it. I’d spend hours on the course playing by myself. I’d watch golf tournaments where every ad catered to middle aged men (which gave me a deep knowledge of cholesterol medications and retirement planning services). The annual Tiger Woods video game was a must, and I had virtually played the Old Course hundreds of times before leaving the U.S. In 2005, the Open Championship was played at the Old Course. As an 11 year old, I remember watching a human-interest piece on Scottish food during the tournament. Needless to say, I was horrified by haggis and blood pudding. The young entrepreneur in me decided I would open a Tex-Mex restaurant in St. Andrews, make enchiladas, and play golf every day. As absurd as it sounds, I started thinking about studying abroad at St. Andrews a decade before I actually would attend.

My experience at St. Andrews was unique from anyone else in my program since I was a golf nut. I played around 4 rounds of golf a week. Almost always, I would play with Matt, a friend I met from Yale. We must have spent weeks of our lives on the course during that semester. However, we would often be paired with others that wanted to play, whether they were locals or tourists, Scots or Germans, men or women, young or old. Golf is uniquely egalitarian in Scotland. While the sport has a reputation as elitist and exclusive in most of the world, Scotland strives to make it accessible to everyone. The Old Course, the Home of Golf, is open to the public. Anyone with a reasonable handicap may play it. The course closes on Sunday for the townspeople to use as a green area, as the course actually belongs to the town of St. Andrews. Anybody is allowed to walk around the course, provided they take care to follow golf etiquette. This combines to create a much different atmosphere around a golf course than I’d become accustomed to in the States…and I loved it. The culture of Scotland as a whole was reflected in the way the locals played and regarded golf.

Golf is a microcosm of life, and golf at St. Andrews showed me the value of being hospitable. I had the pleasure of playing with some wonderful people in Scotland. One local stood out, though. Fraser was a head teacher (read: principal) for years at Carnoustie, another golf destination near St. Andrews. Matt and I were randomly paired with Fraser and one of his friends on a cool May morning. Fraser was everything you could hope for as a playing partner; he was supportive, friendly, conversational, and most of all, funny. After a thoroughly enjoyable round, Fraser exchanged numbers with us and invited my Dad and me to play with him the next week. The gesture was outstanding, but I was unsure whether or not he was just being nice. Fraser actually reached out to me that next week, though. Not only did he allow my Dad to borrow his son’s clubs, but also he used his limited membership points to get my Dad a discounted green fee. After only meeting me once and never meeting my Dad, Fraser was the most generous and helpful person that day. After our round, he invited my parents and me to his private club and treated us to a couple rounds of drinks. Hospitality knew no bounds with Fraser, and my family will always be thankful to him.

The amazing thing about all of this: Fraser is the rule, not the exception in Scotland. Golf is just a game to us, but to Scots, it is a heritage. Inclusivity, friendliness, cordiality, and warmth are expected on the golf course. Either it is a reflection of Scottish culture or the country’s culture has adopted the norms of its traditional sport. In any case, golf was my lens into the Scottish people, and as such, my lens into the rest of the world. So yes, I played a lot of golf while I was in Scotland (my mom was concerned a scorecard would replace my transcript from abroad). Golf was more than a game to me abroad, however; it was my cultural immersion in another country. Upon seeing the Old Course for the first time, I felt like a bit of me could be home. After dozens of rounds, countless hours, and my fair share of bogeys, I know I will always have a home in St. Andrews, Scotland.

Article by Brooks Cain