The tension was unbearable. He’d gone first. He’d easily chipped his ball over the water and now it was my turn. I took a couple of practice swings. Then, I struck the relic that was this particular golf ball. It almost made it. Almost.
The ball wasn’t wet though. The water was imagined. Our Swilcan Burn was the one metre wide path of stones separating my Grandad’s back green from his neighbours. We were in Kirriemuir, not St. Andrews. His face, an expression that said, ‘so close’. He encouraged me to try again. I did. After a few attempts, my ball cleared the burn and rolled up close to the imagined hole. ‘Good shot’. I think I was 8. His approval meant something to me.
‘Want to try a different club?’ He’d ask.
I’d nod and we’d retreat to his workshop. It was technically a shed, but it had all the tools of Grandad’s mechanical trade. He was an engineer. Eventually, he’d engineer some of my own clubs. Cutting down some of his old clubs just for me.
His shed smelled of a mix of sawdust, freshly cut wood and oil. It’s a smell I can still remember. The ‘shed’ housed his motorbike, a workbench, several vices and a huge array of tools. It also had a wireless. One of many he had. It was always his clubs that fascinated me. There were so many of them. Some were complete sets, but the collection was dominated by individual clubs he’d picked up from various car boot sales.
My Grandad was a left-hander. He started playing golf towards the end of World War 2 when he was based in Ceylon ( Now, Sri Lanka). He was forced to play right-handed as those were the only clubs available to him. As a result, his garage had a mix of left and right handed clubs. Grandad made his own clubs as well. He had the mind of a designer and the skills of an engineer to bring his ideas to life. His major talent was his ability to convert right-handed clubs into lefties. He’d twist the head of the club in his vice and forge metal onto what was the reverse of the conventional club to make a new club face.
Then, he’d use them. I never beat him once, but I didn’t care. He was a majestic golfer. Very much of the old school Links style. His ball flight was low and he was a master of the bump-and-run and long pitch. His touch around the greens was incredible, but, it was the consistency of his putting that always amazed me.
I loved watching him play. We started playing at the Kirriemuir Golf Club before the fees became too much of a burden for him. We switched to playing at the Strathmore Golf Club near Alyth. We played the 9-hole course, it was shorter and a lot quieter, which suited both of us. We could play at our own very leisurely pace. We’d talk about golf and football as we walked. I think he was in his late seventies when we played our final 9-holes together.
Those memories are special to me. I played my first round of golf after his death with my friend Simon at the Ballumbie Castle Golf Club in Dundee. I held it together while I was there, but I cried that night when I got home. I didn’t play golf again for years after that. I’d retired from golf.
My passion for watching the sport never left me though. I was satisfied with being an avid armchair fan, watching ever tournament possible. Each time thinking of him. Especially when any left-hander stepped up to hit a shot.
Four years ago I stopped denying myself and bought a 2nd hand set of clubs. To my surprise, my sons were interested and joined me as I struck my first golf ball in years in a field close to our house. The first shot with a nine-iron sailed straight and high. The boys looked at me in the same way I looked at my Grandad. It wasn’t long before Matthew, my eldest son, had bought his own clubs. We started hitting balls at the local driving range. Then, we played our first 9-holes at Strathmore. I cherished that moment. Standing with my son where I’d stood with my Grandad. Talking about the same things.
My memories of golf with Grandad aren’t restricted to playing. My ultimate golfing highlight with him was the 1990 British Open at St. Andrews. It was the first golf tournament I’d been to. Seeing the worlds best golfers vying to get their hands on the Claret Jug was just incredible. When Sir. Nick Faldo putted out on the 18th green to win, I turned to look at Grandad. His eyes were fixed ahead, then he sensed that I was looking at him and turned to me. He smiled and nodded. I did the same.
Last year, I returned to St. Andrews to watch the final day of the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship with Jamie, my youngest son. I thought about Grandad a lot that day. Not with sadness though, with joy. Joy in the memories we shared. And gratitude that I was here in this moment with one of his great-grandchildren. And as Jamie and I walked the course together, with the Swilcan Burn in the background, I looked at him. The happiest kid in the world, lost in this moment. Taking it all in. Then, sensing me, he turns, smiling and nodding.